Editor’s Note: Jennifer Rodgers is a CNN Legal Analyst, a Lecturer-in-Law at Columbia Law School, and a former federal prosecutor in the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own; view more opinion articles at CNN.
On Thursday, we learned that Michael Cohen, President Trump’s former personal lawyer, is scheduled to testify publicly on February 7 before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
While Cohen did not provide any details about the subjects of his testimony, saying only that he wanted to “cooperate and provide the American people with answers” by providing a “full and credible account of the events which have transpired,” there are at least three avenues of inquiry that could be pursued by committee members or volunteered by Cohen that could potentially cause President Trump and his three eldest children a whole heap of trouble.
None of these likely areas relates to topics in the heartland of Mueller’s Russia probe, which will be handled by a different committee, likely in secret session, because of the ongoing nature of that investigation. So we likely won’t be hearing additional details about the Trump Tower Moscow negotiations, the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting, and Cohen’s role and knowledge of negotiations about the so-called “Ukrainian peace plan.”
But we will likely hear a lot more than we now know about the hush-money payments made by Cohen at Trump’s behest to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal to buy their silence in the run-up to the 2016 election.
To date, Cohen has said only that Trump directed him to make the payments and that he made the payments for the principal purpose of influencing the election. I expect that we will hear much more specific testimony about how Trump ordered Cohen to pay off these women in exchange for their silence, and Trump’s comments establishing the reason behind the payoffs. And we also are likely to learn who else was in on the scheme, both at the Trump Organization and in the campaign.
All of this information is important because it provides the evidence behind the accusation that Trump was involved. First, Cohen may identify other witnesses to Trump’s actions in addition to the two we know have already received immunity for their testimony, namely Allen Weisselberg, Trump Organization CFO, and David Pecker, CEO of AMI, the media company involved in the McDougal payoff.
Cohen may also reveal the existence of other corroborating evidence in addition to what we already know, like the tape recording he famously made of his and Trump’s conversations. So, on February 7 we should all have a much fuller picture of the evidence to support the notion that President Trump has committed a felony campaign finance offense. Trump has denied violating the law, though his version of events has changed repeatedly and dramatically since the payoff allegations surfaced.
Second, there is a whole category of evidence that Cohen could provide to Congress regarding possible wrongdoing at the Trump Organization which could spell trouble not only for Trump, but for three of his children who are or have been Trump Organization executives.
Cohen is in the position, having been a high-level Trump Organization executive for 10 years, acting as a lawyer and a fixer, to provide testimony about a whole host of areas, to include tax and accounting matters, issues relating to immigration (note the recent reporting that Trump employees at a New Jersey golf property allegedly provided false documents to illegal workers) and more.
To be clear, there is not currently in the public realm solid proof of misconduct along these lines by Trump Organization officials, but to the extent such misconduct has occurred, Cohen would almost certainly know about it. President Trump’s claims otherwise, for example his statement that Cohen did “very low-level” work at the Trump Organization, are inconsistent with Cohen’s longevity and role in the organization, and with his significant access to Trump.
That said, there are two possible reasons why Cohen may not testify about Trump Organization misdeeds on February 7. It appears that, at least as of the date of his sentencing in December, Cohen refused to cooperate on matters other than the campaign finance crimes with prosecutors in the Southern District of New York, according to SDNY’s sentencing submission. This would presumably include information related to potential criminal conduct at the Trump Organization aside from the campaign finance crime.
If the reason for this is that describing such conduct exposes Cohen to additional criminal liability, he may refuse to answer questions about it. There is also a less likely scenario under which Cohen has since sentencing decided to cooperate with an SDNY investigation into the Trump Organization, and that SDNY has asked him not to discuss this ongoing investigation in a public setting.
A final way in which Cohen’s testimony could be valuable is in adding evidence to civil actions that are ongoing or anticipated. He may provide more public information on the alleged violations of law committed by the Trump Foundation, currently the subject of a civil action by the New York Attorney General as well as the factual basis for numerous suspected conflicts of interest.
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In that regard, good government watchdogs have been concerned since the election about Trump making policy decisions to benefit his company, but there has been very little transparency about the details of deals or prospective deals in places like Russia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Information on what deals the Trump Organization was pursuing in these countries could be very enlightening and helpful to the state attorneys general and good government groups seeking to shine a light on these potential conflicts. Cohen should know; he was still working for Trump, according to Trump, as recently as April 2018.
So, despite President Trump’s claim to the contrary Thursday, there is a lot for him — and his three eldest children who were Trump Organization executives at the relevant times — to be worried about when Cohen testifies on February 7.