Members of Congress have some questions this week for Michael Cohen.
President Trump’s former personal lawyer is set to begin a three-day marathon on Tuesday that will take him behind closed doors with the Senate intelligence committee, then before an open session of the House oversight committee on Wednesday and then to a closed House intelligence committee session on Thursday.
The public hearing on Wednesday could become a three-ring spectacle and will be the first big televised show for an oversight committee that has vowed to spend the next two years on intense investigations of Trump.
With Cohen, Democrats want to tease out evidence of wrongdoing by Trump while Republicans want to damage Cohen’s credibility so much that no one can believe anything he says.
The situation is more complicated than simple politics as usual, however: Members are supposed to be bound by guidelines agreed to with the Justice Department about the topics Cohen can discuss.
Oversight committee Chairman Elijah Cummings, D-Md., said that Russia’s interference in the 2016 election will be off limits but members may ask Cohen about “the president’s payoffs, financial disclosures, compliance with campaign finance laws, business practices, and other matters.”
Those “other matters” could include the online polls in 2014 and 2015 that Cohen admitted rigging to help Trump’s presidential aspirations, or the prospect of illicit foreign contributions to Trump’s inauguration committee, or the access to Trump that Cohen sold to big corporate clients in 2017.
Republicans have their own agenda.
Lots to discuss with lawmakers
Cohen has pleaded guilty to a number of crimes, including arranging payments to two women ahead of Election Day in 2016 to buy their silence about alleged sexual relationships with Trump from years before.
Trump has acknowledged a payment to one woman but denies the underlying allegations by both women about sexual relationships.
The president also argues that the actions Cohen admitted in his plea deal, which implicated Trump, weren’t against the law — that he, in effect, pleaded guilty to crimes that aren’t crimes. The judge in his case, however, supervised the plea and sentenced Cohen to three years in prison.
Cohen was scheduled to report to prison early next month but sought an extension, citing his recovery from shoulder surgery and the need to prepare for this week’s extended visit to Capitol Hill.
Cohen also has pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about the negotiations he conducted on behalf of Trump’s business with powerful Russians as part of a potential Trump Tower real estate project in Moscow.
Cohen first told lawmakers those talks wound up in early 2016, when actually they continued well into the campaign — almost to the point at which Trump became the Republican nominee for president.
That meant Trump’s business was continuing to negotiate with Russians even as the Russian government had launched its campaign of “active measures” against the presidential election — and even as Trump was denying, in 2016, that he had any dealings with Russia.
The president has since said that he decided on his own not to go forward with Trump Tower Moscow and that his denials were appropriate because there was no final deal. The building was never built.
A likely minefield
The challenge for Cummings and the other members of the oversight committee may be in navigating which subject matters fall on which side of the line they have drawn with Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller.
Cohen, meanwhile, may offer implicit clues about which areas are connected with alleged collusion in the questions that he agrees to answer and those to which he demurs. The degree to which he addresses Trump Tower Moscow, for example, could offer suggestions about how closely it may be connected with the focus of Mueller’s investigators.
And Republicans on the oversight committee — many of whom are hostile toward Mueller, the Justice Department and Cohen — may not necessarily feel bound by any ground rules.
Ranking member Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, has vowed that Republicans will ask what they want to ask. “I have serious process concerns with this hearing,” Jordan said. “I will not stand by quietly while an admitted liar comes before the committee. Our members intend to question Mr. Cohen about the crimes he pleaded guilty to, other criminal activity he participated in but refused to disclose, his international financial dealings, and a long list of other probative activities.”
The intricate procedural ground on which this battle is to be fought may make the Wednesday session another master class in congressional procedure. Republicans may attempt to use points of order, objections or other roadblocks to try to adjourn or constrain the proceedings.
Democrats can use their majority to keep the show going, but if they must take recorded votes or other procedural steps each time there is an objection, that could mean the Cohen hearing lasts for hours.
Democrats tried to use their own objections, points of order and other procedural obstacles when Republicans controlled the majority in the House, including at a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee with former FBI Special Agent Peter Strzok.
Now the shoe is on the other foot.
A witness — but for whom?
Cohen is a politically problematic witness for both Democrats and Republicans.
His admissions about lying mean there is often scope for one side or the other to discount something he has said. Even prosecutors involved in his plea agreement in New York City complained they believed Cohen had more knowledge about wrongdoing than he admitted.
Exhibit A could be the role described for him in the infamous, partly unverified Russia dossier that appeared in early 2017, earlier in the Russia imbroglio.
NPR has never detailed the document because so much of it remains unproved, but, in general terms, it describes travel by Cohen as part of an alleged conspiracy between Trump’s inner circle and the Russian attack on the 2016 election.
Cohen told Congress on an earlier visit, when he was still loyal to Trump, that he denied that account. He also has said publicly several times since then that he didn’t take part in the travel described in the dossier.
Cohen’s denial helps Republicans who are eager to dismiss the dossier as baseless rumormongering and to undercut the basic premise of the Russia investigation being conducted by Mueller — that people like Cohen, working for Trump, may have colluded with the Russians.
But the degree to which Jordan or other Republican members attempt to reinforce those denials by Cohen complicates attempts to paint him as a liar in other ways — although that may not stop individual members from pursuing their own lines of questioning.
The inverse is true for Democrats and opponents of Trump: Cohen’s denials about his travel were met with deep skepticism among people who believe the evidence is already clear about alleged collusion.
NPR asked Cummings on Monday whether he expected Cohen would be a credible witness.
“We don’t know,” he said.
But the public clearly has an interest in getting his testimony on the record in the open, Cummings said.
“I practiced law for more than 20 years and you have a situation where a man, apparently, wants to bear his soul and talk about his relationship with this president,” he told NPR’s All Things Considered.
“But keep in mind, Michael Cohen is the one person who has accused the president of committing a crime. It’s hard to say what’s going to happen. But the good thing about it is that members of Congress will have an opportunity to observe him. The public will have an opportunity to observe him. And I think that’s a good thing.”