Below is my column in The Hill on alleged perjury committed by Michael Cohen before the House Oversight Committee after being warned that any repeat of his earlier perjury would trigger an immediate referral for prosecution. This week, a leading Democrat said that she thought a referral was likely given the conflicts in Cohen’s testimony. For Cohen, it could be the greatest miscalculation seen on Capitol Hill since William J. Jefferson thought his freezer was a good repository for bribes. Cohen did what he has always done. He found a way to be useful to people who could do him some good. That is what he did for Trump as a legal thug. He then did it for Mueller as a cooperating witness and now he is trying to do it again as a turncoat for Congress. The problem is that Cohen remains unencumbered by truth or ethics. Cohen viewed his interest in being indispensable in giving Democrats what they wanted the most: Trump. The problem is that he has now put the Democrats, and particularly Chairman Elijah Cummings, in a glaringly hypocritical position if they do not refer the matter for prosecution.
Here is the column:
Crucifixion or freedom? That was the hilarious question asked of prisoners in the movie, “The Life of Brian.” One wise guy replies, “Freedom.” But as soon as he is being released, he laughs and says, “Just pulling your leg. It is crucifixion, really.” It was the quintessential Monty Python joke.
After all, who would choose crucifixion, right? For one, Michael Cohen, but that will depend whether the House Oversight Committee chairman, Elijah Cummings, a Democrat from Maryland, was just pulling our legs in giving him the choice in the first place. Before Cohen testified, Cummings asked if he remembered the choice he was given to testify truthfully or be nailed to the cross. “Didn’t I tell you that?” Cummings asked. “Yes, you did, more than once,” Cohen replied. He proceeded to choose crucifixion by giving testimony that many in the media have described as perjurious.
Cohen claimed he had cared nothing about jobs or pardons from Donald Trump. He did not have to make such a noble claim, given his strikingly ignoble record. His greatest value was that of turncoat who once worked as a legal thug for Trump, threatening journalists, college students, and others who stood in their path. He succeeded in implicating Trump in possible criminal conduct, particularly in relation to campaign finance violations and transactional crimes. Cohen, however, was shooting for a bigger score. He was not just trying to hurt Trump. He was, as always, trying to help himself by claiming to embrace a “life of loyalty, friendship, generosity, and compassion.” He also is seeking millions of dollars behind the scenes, as well as a reduction to his already short prison sentence.
To start with, there was his claim that he was never interested in a job in the administration. A number of news organizations have reported that Cohen was upset lobbying for White House counsel, chief of staff, or other job in the administration. Despite at least a multiple such sources, Cohen has insisted, “I was extremely proud to be the personal attorney for the president of the United States of America. I did not want to go to the White House. I was offered jobs.” There is little ambiguity here. Either multiple witnesses lied or Cohen once again lied to Congress.
Then Cohen stated, “I have never asked for, nor would I accept, a pardon from President Trump.” That also directly contradicts multiple sources who say his lawyer pressed the White House for a pardon, and that Cohen unsuccessfully sought a presidential pardon after FBI raids on his office and residences last year. (Roughly a month later, he decided to cooperate with special counsel Robert Mueller.) Trump himself has also now stated publicly that Cohen previously asked him for a pardon and was rebuffed.
Cohen says that is a lie, and few people trust the veracity of either man. But it all makes sense if you are remotely familiar with Cohen, who has been consistent in only one thing in his career. That is his willingness to do anything to benefit himself. Moreover, Cohen was looking at criminal charges over his alleged business and financial activities that could be easily wiped out with a pardon and he might be able to keep the money.
The accounts of Cohen seeking a pardon also contradict his implausible claim repeated in his testimony that he flipped solely because he had a change of heart after Trump met with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. According to Cohen, he spent years doing unethical or illegal acts for Trump, but the one thing he could not abide was watching Trump kowtow to Putin. He later added the Charlottesville controversy as part of his moral epiphany. It had nothing to do with investigators uncovering his illegal business practices or being refused a White House job or a pardon. No, it was all about his feelings on Russian diplomacy and American race relations.
Any challenge to his testimony could undermine the case against Trump. So some House members have since rushed forth to encourage patience and avoid the need for Cummings to fulfill his promise to crucify Cohen for lying again. Lawyer Lanny Davis offered an almost comical spin by admitting his client Cohen “directed” him to bring up the possibility of a presidential pardon but essentially argued that the testimony of “never” seeking a pardon did not mean “never” but rather not relatively recently.
The hearing has also highlighted how Cohen is still gaming the system. It turns out that he remains quite wealthy, and is trying to get wealthier off his own scandal. Cohen and Davis endlessly pitched for donations to the GoFundMe site for Cohen, reportedly raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars. Yet, this considerable wealth includes his possible retention of his infamous New York taxi medallions and valuable real estate investments. Cohen is suing his former taxi business partners for $6 million in loans.
Cohen is also seeking money from the Trump Organization under a prior alleged indemnity agreement for $1.9 million in legal fees and costs, and $1.9 million that he was ordered to forfeit “as part of his criminal sentence arising” from his from conduct “in furtherance of and at the behest of the Trump Organization and its principals, directors, and officers.” Thus, after duping donors on GoFundMe and retaining much of his wealth, Cohen is seeking payment of his legal fees and even his forfeited assets. Moreover, he is arguing that the Trump Organization was obligated to pay his fees and penalties, even as he worked against it by implicating it in crimes.
In the unlikely event that Cohen prevails in all this, he could emerge with more money than he started with at the time of his plea agreement. On top of that, he is seeking a reduction of the ridiculously short sentence he was given by a federal judge in December. He hopes to make it into the “freedom” line by providing damaging testimony against Trump, his family, and his company. The life of Cohen is far more complex than the “Life of Brian,” but one thing remains the same. The joke is still on us.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. You can follow him on Twitter @JonathanTurley.