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Opinion Four big takeaways from Michael Cohen’s explosive testimony

President Trump's former personal lawyer hit his breaking point. Congress should follow his lead. (Video: Kate Woodsome/The Washington Post)
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The opening testimony that Michael Cohen will offer to Congress on Wednesday has been released. Here’s the short version:

The guy who functioned as President Trump’s personal lawyer and fixer for a decade will allege that Trump committed crimes while in office, spewed disgusting racist comments with abandon, engaged in extensive personal and financial grift, directed subordinates to carry out his dirty work in the language of a mob boss, and was excited to hear that a hostile foreign power was sabotaging our democracy on his behalf.

Let me repeat that all this is coming from Trump’s own former personal lawyer and fixer.

Here are four key takeaways from Cohen’s testimony, which could change when he delivers it:

Cohen says Trump had illicit help getting elected president, in two ways. Cohen alleges that in July of 2016, Trump held a phone call with longtime adviser Roger Stone, in which Stone informed him that a WikiLeaks dump of Hillary Clinton emails was coming, to which Trump said something like: “Wouldn’t that be great.”

Remember, it was known at the time that Russian hackers were behind the WikiLeaks email dumps. Whether all this amounts to a criminal conspiracy with Russian interference (I don’t expect indictments, for whatever that’s worth) will be revealed soon enough by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.

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But this adds more grist to what we already know constitutes the big picture here: A foreign power sabotaged our democracy to help Trump get elected president, and Trump and his top advisers eagerly reaped the gains from this or, worse, actively tried to conspire with it.

Separately, Cohen says he will present evidence that Trump personally reimbursed him for the hush-money payments to Stormy Daniels, which appears to constitute participation in a criminal violation of campaign finance law. Whether Trump will face legal liability for this remains to be seen — he may face indictment after leaving office.

But again, this confirms the big picture: Cohen engaged in criminal activity, allegedly at Trump’s direction, to help Trump defraud the voters en route to the White House, denying them information about large campaign finance expenditures designed to cover up alleged affairs.

Cohen suggests Trump knew Cohen was lying to Congress on his behalf. Cohen originally pleaded guilty to lying to Congress by claiming talks over a Trump project in Moscow ended in January 2016, when in fact they continued until at least June of that year, deep into the GOP primaries. In his opening testimony, Cohen says this:

You need to know that Mr. Trump’s personal lawyers reviewed and edited my statement to Congress about the timing of the Moscow Tower negotiations before I gave it.

We don’t know which lawyers Cohen is talking about, and it’s unclear how much those lawyers might have known about the Moscow project talks. But, crucially, it’s hard to imagine that Trump himself was kept out of this particular loop. Indeed, Cohen addresses this point:

Mr. Trump had made clear to me, through his personal statements to me that we both knew were false and through his lies to the country, that he wanted me to lie. And he made it clear to me because his personal attorneys reviewed my statement before I gave it to Congress.

Cohen, in effect, is saying that he understood Trump to be directing him to lie to Congress, by virtue of the fact that his personal attorneys signed off on the statement doing that. Remember, this happened in August 2017 — that is, while Trump was president.

Cohen reveals how Trump gets his subordinates to do his dirty work. In his opening testimony, Cohen explains the nuances of how Trump got him to do this as follows:

Mr. Trump did not directly tell me to lie to Congress. That’s not how he operates.
In conversations we had during the campaign, at the same time I was actively negotiating in Russia for him, he would look me in the eye and tell me there’s no business in Russia and then go out and lie to the American people by saying the same thing. 
In his way, he was telling me to lie.

What’s being described here is mob-boss-style communication — that is, the mode of communication adopted by someone who knows he’s ordering his subordinates to falsify his conduct, but wants to preserve plausible deniability. After all, Cohen himself was not just engaged in negotiating the project; he also kept Trump apprised of it. Note, importantly, that Cohen claims Trump was more involved than we thought:

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.

Even though they’re discussing the project, Trump is also allegedly looking him in the eye and telling him that this isn’t happening. If so, this was plainly intended as a command, from boss to subordinate, to lie about it.

BuzzFeed’s scoop about Cohen and Trump is partly vindicated. Recently, BuzzFeed reported that Cohen said Trump “directed” him to lie to Congress about the Moscow project, and that Cohen told the special counsel that Trump “personally instructed him to lie” (to whom is not stated at this point in the story) to “obscure Trump’s involvement” in it.

Mueller’s office issued a circumspect response to the BuzzFeed report, saying that its “description of specific statements” and characterization of "testimony obtained by this office” are “not accurate.”

As noted above, Cohen addresses this point by saying Trump did not directly do this, but nonetheless did so through an implicit command that he lie about the project generally, and more specifically to Congress (as Cohen understood it) through his attorneys when they signed off on his statement.

This confirms important aspects of BuzzFeed’s story: Cohen does suggest Trump “directed” him to lie to Congress, via his implicit directive and through his attorneys. And, given that this directive really is basically a command, it’s undeniable that Cohen is saying Trump generally told him to lie about the project. The murkiness of the special counsel’s response leaves plenty of room for this account to be largely correct.

The vagueness of all this, of course, is the whole point: The very reason for adopting the mode of communication Cohen claims Trump employed is precisely to obscure the chain of command-to-conduct.

At bottom, all this adds grist to the big picture here, which is that we already know Trump engaged in extensive wrongdoing and extremely serious misconduct on multiple fronts. We’re just waiting at this point to learn the full details, and whether — or, more optimistically, how — Trump will be held accountable for it.


Update: I edited the section on the Wikileaks dump to more accurately reflect Cohen’s testimony.

Read more:

Greg Sargent: New Michael Cohen testimony may undermine Trump’s spin on Mueller

David Byler: The really scandalous part of Michael Cohen’s poll-fixing efforts

Paul Waldman: Michael Cohen is about to sing, and Trump is in big trouble