Opinion writer

Americans will see Wednesday just why President Trump and his cronies freaked out when the FBI raided his ex-attorney and fixer Michael Cohen’s office and home. In testimony to the House Oversight Committee, Cohen is spilling the proverbial beans and in the process burying his former boss.

Cohen’s written statement set the stage. He described Trump in unsparing terms: “He is a racist. He is a con man. He is a cheat. 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 there was the first blockbuster: Cohen’s direct eyewitness to a telephone conversation between Stone and Trump wherein Stone previewed the WikiLeaks release of stolen emails. “In July 2016, days before the Democratic convention, I was in Mr. Trump’s office when his secretary announced that Roger Stone was on the phone. Mr. Trump put Mr. Stone on the speakerphone,” Cohen said in his written statement. “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.” Stone added, “Mr. Trump responded by stating to the effect of ‘wouldn’t that be great.’” Understand what Cohen is saying: Trump encouraged an associate to keep abreast and feed him information on WikiLeaks and the release of hacked documents. This not only smacks of conspiracy but also reportedly contradicts Trump’s answers to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s written questions.

Cohen’s next blockbuster came with receipts, or more accurately, a check. He told the committee:

I am giving the Committee today a copy of the $130,000 wire transfer from me to Ms. Clifford’s attorney during the closing days of the presidential campaign that was demanded by Ms. Clifford to maintain her silence about her affair with Mr. Trump. This is Exhibit 4 to my testimony.

Mr. Trump directed me to use my own personal funds from a Home Equity Line of Credit to avoid any money being traced back to him that could negatively impact his campaign. I did that, too — without bothering to consider whether that was improper, much less whether it was the right thing to do or how it would impact me, my family, or the public. 

I am going to jail in part because of my decision to help Mr. Trump hide that payment from the American people before they voted a few days later. As Exhibit 5 to my testimony shows, I am providing a copy of a $35,000 check that President Trump personally signed from his personal bank account ...

This evidence directly contradicts Trump’s original denial of any knowledge of the payments. (He has since effectively admitted to knowing about the payments.) This puts some meat on the bones of prosecutors’ allegation that Trump directed Cohen to violate campaign finance laws.

Cohen released a third bombshell: While Trump never said to Cohen, “Please lie,” Cohen paints a damning picture of Trump’s assumption that Cohen would back up his own false statements. (“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.”) Cohen also claims Trump’s lawyers vetted false testimony. If these lawyers knew Trump and Cohen were lying, they were suborning perjury; if they were instructed by Trump simply to make certain there were no contradictions, Trump would have been using unwitting go-betweens to shape false testimony.

And that brings us to a fourth bombshell:

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. 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. To be clear: Mr. 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.

This is the first time we’ve heard details as to how closely Trump was following the Moscow Tower deal. In essence, Trump defrauded voters by concealing his selfish motive to make money, a scheme that would have required the approval of Russian President Vladimir Putin. This explains much of his appalling defense of Putin during the campaign, and may be the reason he and others continued to lie about contacts with Russia. Knowledge of a personal business deal Trump wanted to conceal from voters gave Russia leverage over Trump.

Finally, Cohen suggested Trump engaged in bank fraud. “As previously stated, I’m giving the Committee today three years of President Trump’s financial statements, from 2011-2013, which he gave to Deutsche Bank to inquire about a loan to buy the Buffalo Bills and to Forbes,” Cohen said. “It was my experience that Mr. Trump inflated his total assets when it served his purposes, such as trying to be listed among the wealthiest people in Forbes, and deflated his assets to reduce his real estate taxes. I am sharing with you two newspaper articles, side by side, that are examples of Mr. Trump inflating and deflating his assets, as I said, to suit his financial interests.” Whether these or other materials can demonstrate Trump committed financial crimes is unknown, but they surely must be the subject of ongoing investigation by the prosecutors of the Southern District of New York.

In short, Cohen is providing evidence of lies and sleazy practices, but also of concrete crimes. As a felon, Cohen’s credibility will be assailed, but as in a mob trial, witnesses to a pattern of illegality are not angels. Congress and the voters are getting their first up-close look at the mound of evidence that could be Trump’s undoing.

Read more:

Greg Sargent: Four big takeaways from Michael Cohen’s explosive testimony

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