President Trump’s former attorney/fixer Michael Cohen is testifying before Congress on Feb. 7. That means we may soon get a rare peek behind the curtain of Trump’s hush-money payments and even the Russia investigation.
It’s worth emphasizing that expectations — especially on the latter front — should be tempered, given that the Mueller probe is ongoing. House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) emphasized in a statement, “I want to make clear that we have no interest in inappropriately interfering with any ongoing criminal investigations, and to that end, we are in the process of consulting with Special Counsel [Robert] Mueller’s office.”
But Cummings also said last month that he expected to ask Cohen about Russia. “I’m hoping that Mr. Cohen will come before the Congress, where he can tell the American public exactly what he has been saying to Mueller and others, without interfering with the Mueller investigation,” Cummings told CNN on Dec. 16.
So what might we learn? Below are a few big questions Cohen could answer, in this hearing or another.
1. How exactly did Trump direct the hush-money payments?
We know based upon Cohen’s guilty plea in the Southern District of New York’s investigation that he has implicated Trump in the 2016 election-eve hush-money payments to porn star Stormy Daniels and former Playboy playmate Karen McDougal, both of whom alleged affairs with Trump. SDNY has corroborated this. We also know that these payments are officially on the record, legally, as campaign finance violations.
The question is whether Trump himself has culpability. He could technically have been involved without being in legal jeopardy. Trump’s defense seems to boil down to: I may have told him to do it, but I didn’t tell him to break the law, and I expected that he wouldn’t, because he’s a lawyer and should know better.
Cohen told ABC News last month that “of course” Trump knew the hush-money payments were wrong, but he didn’t really provide any detail as to how he knew that. Expect plenty of drilling down on what Trump said when he directed the payments and as things progressed, and exactly why Cohen believes Trump knew it might have been illegal.
It’s one thing to say Trump knew; it’s another to substantiate it.
2. What did Trump know and when about Trump Tower Moscow?
The latest big development in the Cohen case is his separate guilty plea in the Mueller investigation for lying about Cohen’s pursuit of a Trump Tower in Moscow. Importantly, we learned that effort persisted well into the 2016 campaign, even as Trump was wrapping up the GOP nomination, and included Cohen conversing with aides of Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
“The fact that Cohen continued to work on the project and discuss it with [Trump] well into the campaign was material to the ongoing congressional and [special counsel] investigations, particularly because it occurred at a time of sustained efforts by the Russian government to interfere with the U.S. presidential election,” Mueller’s team wrote last month.
But it’s also not clear how much Trump was involved in this, and specifically in Cohen’s outreach to the Kremlin, which at one point entertained an in-person meeting with Cohen. To the extent that Trump knew Cohen was reaching out to the Kremlin for assistance in this effort, that would be problematic, given Trump’s pro-Russia campaign rhetoric.
3. What is Allen Weisselberg’s role in all this?
The Trump Organization chief financial officer’s name first rose to prominence when Cohen mentioned it twice on that tape of him talking to Trump about the hush money.
“I’ve spoken to Allen Weisselberg about how to set the whole thing up with …” Cohen said before Trump interrupted him. Cohen then invoked Weisselberg again: “So I’m all over that. And I spoke to Allen about it, when it comes time for the financing, which will be …”
Like Trump, the extent of Weisselberg’s legal exposure here is important. He has been enmeshed in Trumpworld for decades longer than Cohen has. And the more tied up he was in all this, the more potential leverage prosecutors have over him. He has cooperated with Mueller, but it was previously reported that his immunity deal was limited in scope.
Weisselberg is one of these characters whom we rarely hear about but who could loom large once this all shakes out. Given that Cohen apparently consulted him on these matters, it will be interesting to hear what he says about Weisselberg’s involvement in this and other potential Trump shenanigans. Whatever Trump was up to, Weisselberg probably knows.
4. Is there anything to these Prague stories?
This one might be cut-and-dry and not take very long, given that Cohen has already addressed it. But its significance could also be huge if we learn something new when he’s pressed.
Basically, McClatchy reported in April that Mueller has evidence that Cohen was in Prague around the time that the Steele dossier claimed he was there and that he was secretly strategizing with a powerful Kremlin figure about the 2016 election. That would be extremely difficult to dismiss as anything but collusion.
But Cohen denied this. Then McClatchy reported recently that Cohen’s cellphone pinged a tower near Prague around the same time. Then Cohen denied it again. Flatly.
Expect members to drill down on exactly what he was doing on those dates — and what these reports might even be based upon.
5. What other Trump shenanigans might he talk about?
As mentioned above, Weisselberg could know about all kinds of wrongs over the years if Trump was engaged in them — up to and including the apparently illegal tax scheme reported by the New York Times. But so could Cohen. While Weisselberg was around for longer, Cohen was Trump’s “fixer,” the guy who handled stuff like this.
Cohen reportedly spoke with investigators for about 70 hours between the SDNY and Mueller’s team, and just because something hasn’t been in the news doesn’t mean it hasn’t been discussed. You can bet, between the two of them, that they were interested in probing many other things.