Below is my earlier column on the scheduling of testimony for President Donald Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen. The new Democratic majority is right to call Cohen who, while he will not discuss matters under investigation with the Special Counsel, can supply needed details on his allegations on other alleged crimes. While he may bring new details, he will bring little credibility as a proven serial liar. Nonetheless, he joins a long line of disreputable characters called before Congress. They are a necessary cost of oversight in some scandals, but Cohen’s record demands more than the usual degree of corroboration. Any oath that Cohen takes at this point will be viewed as a moment worthy of its own laugh track.
Here is the column:
There are a lot of questions awaiting President Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, in his scheduled appearance Feb. 7 before the House Oversight and Reform Committee.
However, the most immediate question will be whether Cohen’s taking of the oath to testify will be followed by the usual comedic two drums and a cymbal riff. After a long and documented history as a liar and felon, Cohen’s taking of any oath deserves proper musical accompaniment.
Nevertheless, Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings, D-Md., is right to call Cohen to testify. And to their credit, Republicans in the Senate are also considering calling Cohen before he goes off to prison.
Cohen is not the first thoroughly discredited person to testify before Congress. The list ranges from mobster Frank Costello and quiz show fraud Charles Van Doren in the 1950s to drug gouger Martin Shkreli in 2016.
However, even liars can supply details of criminal conduct. Now that Cohen has accused President Trump of involvement in criminal conduct, the American people deserve to hear Cohen’s claims in greater detail. Moreover, the public has the right to see Cohen examined on those details and his own credibility in making these allegations.
Cohen pleaded guilty in federal court in August to tax fraud, making false statements to a bank and a campaign finance violation. He said the campaign finance violation involved a payment made during Trump’s presidential campaign to adult film actress Stormy Daniels in return for her agreement not to publicize her allegation that she had an extramarital affair with Trump years earlier.
Cohen said he was directed by Trump to make the payment to Daniels. The president has denied he had an affair with Daniels and denied any wrongdoing regarding the payment.
In addition, Cohen pleaded guilty in November to lying to Congress about how long negotiations for a Trump Tower project in Moscow went on in 2016. No deal was reached on building the tower.
Cohen is heading to prison as a result of his guilty pleas – but not for as long as he deserves. U.S. District Judge William H. Pauley III called Cohen’s history a “veritable smorgasbord of fraudulent conduct” and said “each of the crimes involved deception and each appears to have been motivated by personal greed and ambition.”
New York federal prosecutors denounced Cohen as a manipulating liar with a long history of being a legal thug. Yet Pauley gave Cohen an extremely generous deal of just three years in prison. It was not half of what he deserved, but Cohen has lived his life from one scam to another.
Cohen is likely to try to portray himself now as a redemptive sinner – an act that is almost an affront to sin. For those who have long been critics of his infamous career (and the failure of the New York Bar to take action against him), the act will be as infuriating as it is unbelievable.
Cohen made himself rich victimizing more vulnerable people. In 2015, when Harvard Lampoon staffers played a prank on Trump by having him sit in the stolen “president’s chair” from the Harvard Crimson for a photo and an endorsement, Cohen threatened the students with ruin.
Cohen was quoted by a student on the Harvard Lampoon staff as saying: “I’m gonna come up to Harvard. You’re all gonna get expelled. If this photo gets out, you’ll be outta that school faster than you know it. I can be up there tomorrow.”
While some reporters are actively rehabilitating Cohen now that he is a foe to President Trump, Cohen previously lied to and threatened journalists on behalf of Trump. When former Daily Beast reporter Tim Mak wrote about a biography that included allegations from Trump’s first wife, Ivana, that Trump raped her, Cohen did not hesitate to attack.
In a phone call recorded by Mak, Cohen told the reporter: “You’re talking about Donald Trump, you’re talking about the frontrunner for the GOP, a presidential candidate, as well as private individual, who never raped anybody and, of course, understand that by the very definition you can’t rape your spouse.”
As a matter of law, it is a crime to rape anyone – including a spouse.
Cohen added in the recorded call: “Mark my words for it, I will make sure that you and I meet ne day over in the courthouse and I will take you for every penny you still don’t have, and I will come after your Daily Beast and everybody else.”
So why would anyone want to hear anything from a guy who couldn’t lie straight in bed? Because Trump selected Cohen to be his lawyer and employed him from 2006 until last year. Cohen served as a vice president of The Trump Organization and later as Trump’s personal attorney.
More importantly, Cohen’s allegations concerning the payoffs have some independent corroboration. Hush-money payments were made to Daniels and to another woman alleging an affair with Trump. Other people have reportedly supported the account that the payment to Daniels was made to suppress news that could have hurt Trump’s chances of winning the 2016 presidential election.
Trump picked not just Cohen but Paul Manafort – two of the deepest bottom feeders in the New York-Washington corridor. (Manafort served as chairman of the Trump presidential campaign and was convicted in August of eight charges of tax and bank fraud unrelated to his work on the Trump campaign. He also pleaded guilty in September to two conspiracy charges.)
This is the cost of such poor judgment by Trump regarding the people he has hired.
That does not make the payments a clear criminal act. As I have previously stated, there are strong defenses that Trump can raise over his motivations in the payments. Such a violation would ordinarily be handled as a civil matter with a fine rather than with a criminal charge.
However, that does not mean that the allegations are not serious. Last year, I wrote columns saying that the payoffs represented the greatest threat to this White House and that Trump was facing an existential threat by keeping Cohen as his lawyer.
Obviously, anything Cohen says in his congressional testimony will have to be accepted with an asterisk denoting the sources as a serial liar. However, truth can sometimes be mined from a sinkhole of lies.
Will Cohen testify truthfully before Congress? It’s impossible to say but it would be an exercise of hope over experience.
We need to have that truth. The cost is dealing with disreputable individuals like Cohen. In this case, we might want to proceed under President Reagan’s famous pledge to “trust but verify.” With Cohen, however, I recommend dropping the trust part.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro professor of public Iiterest law at George Washington University and a practicing criminal defense attorney.