Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s one-time personal attorney and fixer, is testifying before the House Oversight Committee Wednesday – likely the only chance the public will have to hear from him before he is sent to jail in May for a series of tax and campaign finance charges.
Cohen’s testimony is one of the biggest moments of Trump’s time in office and among the most high-profile hearings on Capitol Hill in modern political memory.
I watched Cohen’s testimony throughout the day, plucked out key lines from him and added context and analysis. These lines are in the chronological order in which Cohen said them.
1. “I am ashamed because I know what Mr. Trump is. He is a racist. He is a conman. He is a cheat.”
These lines, from Cohen’s opening statement, set the tone for the day. And the tone is this: Cohen is not going to be pulling any punches on Trump. A man who spent a decade at the right hand of the current President of the United States is now saying on the record that that man is a “racist,” a “conman” and a “cheat.” We’ve grown used to the abnormal in Trump’s White House, but even by that standard, this is a “whoa” moment.
2. “He was a presidential candidate who knew that Roger Stone was talking with Julian Assange about a WikiLeaks drop of Democratic National Committee emails.”
And boom goes the dynamite. This is a Very Big Deal. Remember that Trump told The New York Times earlier this year that he had never spoken to Stone – who has been indicted on charges that he lied to Congress about the nature and extent of his dealing with WikiLeaks – about the DNC emails hacked by the Russians and then released to do maximum damage to Hillary Clinton’s campaign. “No, I didn’t. I never did,” Trump said when asked whether he talked to Stone about the stolen emails. The Times also pressed on whether Trump told anyone, including Stone, to get in touch with WikiLeaks to see when they were planning to drop the emails. “Never did,” Trump responded.
3. “A copy of a check Mr. Trump wrote from his personal bank account – after he became president – to reimburse me for the hush money payments I made to cover up his affair with an adult film star and prevent damage to his campaign.”
Cohen has the receipts – literally! The check – for $35,000 – is dated August 1, 2017, and signed in Trump’s very distinctive script. That date is, obviously, after Trump became president. And if Cohen is to be believed, it also directly contradicts Trump’s assertions in April 2018 that he knew nothing about where Cohen got the money to keep porn star Stormy Daniels and Playboy model Karen McDougal – both of whom alleged affairs with Trump – quiet during the 2016 campaign.
Of course, a check signed to Cohen is not proof that the money was a reimbursement for the hush payments – although the check is consistent with Cohen’s version of events and the version of events that prosecutors in the Southern District of New York seem to believe: That Trump played a role in coordinating and orchestrating the payments to Daniels and McDougal in a clear end-run of campaign finance laws.
4. “Mr. Trump did not directly tell me to lie to Congress. That’s not how he operates.”
This from Cohen directly disputes reporting from BuzzFeed News that Cohen was instructed to lie by the President. Special counsel Robert Mueller’s office released a statement that took issue with the BuzzFeed reporting shortly after it published.
5. “There were at least a half-dozen times between the Iowa Caucus in January 2016 and the end of June when he would ask me ‘How’s it going in Russia?’ – referring to the Moscow Tower project.”
This sheds light on the breadth of Trump’s interest in and conversations about Trump Tower Moscow. What we knew prior to today is that Cohen lied to Congress when he told them that all conversations with the Russians about the development had stopped by January 2016. Cohen later admitted that he had lied about that because he was concerned it might hurt Trump’s presidential chances if people knew that the conversations had continued all the way into the summer of 2016.
6. “Trump knew of and directed the Trump Moscow negotiations throughout the campaign and lied about it. He lied about it because he never expected to win the election. He also lied about it because he stood to make hundreds of millions of dollars on the Moscow real estate project.”
A few things here are relevant. First, Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani said in January that Trump was involved in discussions about the possible Trump Tower Moscow project all the way through the election. (Giuliani later said he was speaking only hypothetically about what Trump knew when.) Second, both that admission from Giuliani and Cohen’s claim seem to directly dispute Trump’s repeated insistence during the campaign that “I have nothing to do with Russia. I don’t have any jobs in Russia. I’m all over the world but we’re not involved in Russia.”
7. “Mr. Trump would often say, this campaign was going to be the ‘greatest infomercial in political history.’”
No matter how Trump tries to rewrite history, it is a fact that he never, ever thought he would be the Republican nominee – much less the president. He had walked up to the edge of running a few times before and knew that if he didn’t do it this time then people wouldn’t cover him when he thought about it in the future. You can dispute Cohen’s assertion that Trump’s entire campaign was solely to further brand awareness, but you cannot dispute that the billionaire businessman never thought he would win.
8. “Mr. Stone told Mr. Trump that he had just gotten off the phone with Julian Assange and that Mr. Assange told Mr. Stone that, within a couple of days, there would be a massive dump of emails that would damage Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Mr. Trump responded by stating to the effect of ‘wouldn’t that be great.’”
These lines are probably the most important in all of Cohen’s opening statement – and maybe in his broader daylong testimony. Per No. 2 above, Cohen’s assertion that he was in the room when Trump talked to Stone about WikiLeaks and its plans to release stolen emails runs directly counter to Trump’s public insistence that he had never talked to Stone about WikiLeaks. Directly counter. The timing of all of this is very interesting too. Cohen says in his testimony that the call occurred between Stone and Trump about WikiLeaks in July 2016. Later that month, Trump held a news conference in which he said: “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing, I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.” Either on or right around that day, according to an indictment of a number of Russian officials by Mueller, Russia sent phishing attempts to Clinton staffers. Ahem.
9. “He once asked me if I could name a country run by a black person that wasn’t a ‘shithole.’ This was when Barack Obama was President of the United States.”
Impossible to corroborate what Cohen is saying here – unless there were other people in the room – but this is consistent with reporting from CNN and others in January 2018 that Trump referred to immigrants coming into the US from “shithole” countries.
10. “He told me that black people would never vote for him because they were too stupid.”
Again, virtually impossible to corroborate this. While Trump never said anything like what Cohen alleges in the 2016 campaign, his pitch to black voters was hugely stereotypical – suggesting that they didn’t have much, so why not take a chance on voting for him.
“What do you have to lose by trying something new, like Trump,” Trump would often ask. “What the hell do you have to lose?”
11. “He asked me to pay off an adult film star with whom he had an affair, and to lie to his wife about it, which I did.”
This runs directly counter to Trump’s insistence that he a) knew nothing about the payment to Stormy Daniels and b) never spoke with Cohen about how to handle that situation. It is also runs counter to Trump’s repeated denials that he ever engaged in extramarital acts with Daniels.
12. “This $35,000 check was one of 11 check installments that was paid throughout the year – while he was President. The President of the United States thus wrote a personal check for the payment of hush money as part of a criminal scheme to violate campaign finance laws.”
The check Cohen is referencing – from No. 3 above – could be damning evidence. The problem, of course, is that nowhere on the check does it say that Trump is reimbursing Cohen for the $130,000 hush money payment to Daniels. Which gives Trump plausible deniability. Still, it doesn’t look good. At all.
13. “I’m talking about a man who declares himself brilliant but directed me to threaten his high school, his colleges, and the College Board to never release his grades or SAT scores.”
If you don’t think Cohen is telling the truth here, then you have missed the entirety of Trump’s professional and political life – all of which make Cohen’s claim wholly credible.
14. “He finished the conversation with the following comment. ‘You think I’m stupid, I wasn’t going to Vietnam.’”
Trump received a series of deferments that kept him out of the Vietnam war. He claimed he had a medical condition – bone spurs – that would make him unable to serve. Two daughters of the podiatrist who diagnosed Trump with those bone spurs told The New York Times that their father did so as a “favor” to Trump’s father, Fred.
15. “Questions have been raised about whether I know of direct evidence that Mr. Trump or his campaign colluded with Russia. I do not.”
16. “Don Jr. came into the room and walked behind his father’s desk – which in itself was unusual. People didn’t just walk behind Mr. Trump’s desk to talk to him. I recalled Don Jr. leaning over to his father and speaking in a low voice, which I could clearly hear, and saying: ‘The meeting is all set.’ I remember Mr. Trump saying, ‘OK good…let me know.’”
This conversation, which Cohen said happened in early June 2016, is what he believes is a sign that President Trump knew about the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting between Don Jr, Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort and a group of Russians promising dirt on Clinton. Trump and Trump Jr. have denied that the President ever knew about the meeting. And in their defense, Cohen’s memory is pure conjecture here; Don Jr. could have been talking about any number of meetings and Cohen has no proof that the President’s eldest son was actually looping his father in on the meeting with the Russians.
17. “I have never asked for, nor would I accept, a pardon from President Trump.”
This clears up one question I had coming into this hearing. But Cohen’s statement doesn’t make clear whether a pardon was ever offered – or even floated by Trump or his allies.
18. “I did not want to go to the White House. I was offered jobs.”
Cohen pushed back hard on the idea that Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan put forward that Cohen’s willingness to attack Trump was entirely born of his anger that he had not been asked to serve in the White House. Cohen said that Trump wanted him to work in the White House but that he believed it would invalidate their attorney-client privilege and therefore make it impossible to do his other work on behalf of Trump. Donald Trump Jr. disagreed with Cohen’s version of events, tweeting: “Hahahaha Michael Cohen begged to work at the White House and everyone knows it.”
19. “[Stone] frequently reached out to Mr. Trump and Mr. Trump was very happy to take his calls. It was – free service.”
This is important. Cohen made clear here that Roger Stone was not an operative of the Trump campaign but rather a sort-of friend who flitted in and out of Trump world. There was, according to Cohen, no codified relationship between the two – although Cohen did say Trump was more than happy to take Stone’s call and any information he offered.
20. “Mr. Trump’s desire to win would have him work with anyone.”
This was Cohen’s response to Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s question as to whether the President was capable of working with the Russians to help him win an election. This is entirely speculative, of course, but it is worth noting that Cohen did know Trump better than almost anyone for more than a decade.
21. “Everything was done with the knowledge of, and at the direction of, Mr. Trump.”
Cohen is speaking specifically here about his allegation that he worked on Trump’s behalf to make him look wealthier in order to boost him on Forbes’ list of the richest people in the country. For what it’s worth, Trump dropped 220 slots on Forbes’ list in 2017.
22. “It wasn’t our responsibility to be the fact checker for a news agency.”
Jordan wanted to know why Cohen’s lawyer, Lanny Davis, had not denied the BuzzFeed News story last month which, citing informed sources, said that Cohen had told the special counsel’s office that Trump had asked him to lie to Congress. The special counsel’s office did dispute the story – in broad terms – although BuzzFeed did not retract it. Earlier in his testimony (see No. 5 above) Cohen said under oath that Trump had never directly asked him to lie to Congress.
23. “They want to know what I know about Mr. Trump … and not one question has been asked about Mr. Trump.”
After two hours of questioning and a brief break, Cohen used a question from Jordan to lecture Republicans. Cohen noted that Republicans on the Oversight Committee had spent hours forcing him to confess wrongs he had committed, which he had already admitted, rather than asking questions about his dealings with Trump as it related to either the hush payments to Daniels and McDougal or the President’s involvement in the conversations about the Trump Tower Moscow development.
The two sparred several times on Wednesday. In another key moment of the hearing, Cohen said, “shame on you, Mr. Jordan,” when arguing that the congressman had mischaracterized his testimony.
24. “I have no reason to believe that tape exists.”
Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland kind of, sort of asked Cohen about whether he was aware – or had ever seen – what has been called the “pee tape,” a rumored video of Trump watching prostitutes urinating at a hotel in Russia. (The allegation was made as part of a broader dossier compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele.) According to former FBI Director James Comey, Trump brought up the tape allegation and asked him to dispute it publicly if he could.
25. “He speaks in a code. And I understand the code because I’ve been around him for a decade.”
One of Cohen’s core arguments in his testimony is that Trump never directly told him to, say, lie to Congress because he didn’t have to: Cohen, like others who had spent years with Trump, knew exactly what Trump wanted done. Whether you believe Cohen truly understands the “code” that Trump is speaking in – or whether he is actually speaking in any code at all – depends on how you view Trump (and Cohen). Regardless, it seems clear that Trump did not expressly tell Cohen to break the law, although Cohen has clearly stated in his testimony that Trump sought to end-run campaign finance laws in paying off two women who alleged affairs with Trump in the mid-2000s.
26. “I have never been to Prague.”
Well, that settles that. The Steele dossier alleged that Cohen traveled to Prague to meet with a Russian official during the 2016 campaign. Cohen denied he went to Prague, and said he instead went to Europe in 2016 but was in London to visit his daughter, who was studying abroad.
27. “I don’t believe Mr. Trump ever struck Mrs. Trump, ever.”
Cohen made this comment in response to questioning by Democratic California Rep. Jackie Speier about the possible existence of an elevator tape from Trump Tower in which Donald Trump is allegedly seen hitting his wife, Melania Trump. “Comedian” Tom Arnold has spread the idea that such an elevator tape exists, while offering no proof of that fact. Cohen said he believes no tape like that exists and that Trump was never violent with his wife.
28. “What he didn’t want was to have an entire group of thinks tanks run through his tax return … and then he’ll end up in an audit and eventually have taxable consequences.”
Asked by California Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D) what Trump had told Cohen about why he didn’t want to release his tax returns, Cohen offered up this answer – which is FAR different from the White House’s official line that he cannot release the returns because he is under audit. According to Cohen, Trump was worried about being under audit if his returns were released and picked through. Which would suggest that he is not currently under audit, and that the real reason Trump is afraid of releasing his taxes is because he doesn’t want to pay tax fines.
29. “I fear that if he loses the presidential election in 2020, there will never be a peaceful transition of power.”
In Cohen’s closing statement, he offered this ominous warning about what might happen if Trump loses a bid for a second term in 2020. It’s not an idle threat, either. Remember that Trump has argued – with no evidence – that 3 to 5 million votes had been cast illegally in the 2016 election. And that was an election he won! Imagine what it would be like if he lost.