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Politics

In echoes of Watergate, Trump’s ex-lawyer is expected to tell all to House committee

Michael Cohen
With Democrats controlling the House, Michael Cohen’s testimony could spark numerous congressional investigations into President Trump’s dealings.
(Susan Walsh / Associated Press)

After more than a decade as the keeper of Donald Trump’s secrets, Michael Cohen has been spilling the beans about the president’s private business deals, foreign interests and alleged mistresses to federal prosecutors in Washington and New York.

But apart from brief comments in the courtroom where he was sentenced to three years in prison after he pleaded guilty to several crimes, the president’s former personal lawyer, fixer and attack dog has not spoken publicly about what he now calls Trump’s “dirty deeds.”

That is likely to change Wednesday when Cohen testifies before the House Oversight Committee in a hearing that could be the most damaging for a president since former White House Counsel John Dean helped bring down Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal.

“He has the potential to be a very devastating witness,” said Dean, 80, who completed his own transformation from criminal presidential aide to star witness more than four decades ago.

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The Cohen hearing “may very well be a turning point in our country’s history,” Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), chair of the House Oversight Committee, told reporters.

Cohen was at Trump’s side or working as a senior executive in the Trump Organization during a period under intense scrutiny by both prosecutors and congressional investigators.

Lawmakers plan to ask him about Trump’s campaign finances, still-secret tax returns and the now-closed Donald J. Trump Foundation, which New York’s attorney general recently accused of “a shocking pattern of illegality,” among other issues.

Cohen is expected to bring documents to support his testimony, records that could prove useful if Republicans attack his credibility, which is all but certain.

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Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) suggested on Tuesday that his colleagues on the committee would expose extramarital affairs by Cohen if he testifies. Cohen’s wife, Gaetz tweeted, is “about to learn a lot.” Gaetz later denied that he was trying to intimidate the witness, saying he was “testing” him.

With Democrats controlling the House, Cohen’s testimony is expected to light the fuse on months or years of congressional investigations into Trump’s administration, campaign and businesses.

Like Dean with Nixon, Cohen, 52, has the painful experience of working directly for Trump to squelch dissent, undermine opponents and, according to prosecutors, violate the law. His willingness to cooperate with law enforcement has infuriated Trump, who called him a “rat” in December.

Dean and Cohen even looked back on their misdeeds in similar ways.

Dean, who blew the whistle on White House misconduct to the Senate Watergate Committee and served time in prison, wrote a bestselling memoir called “Blind Ambition.” Cohen told a federal judge that he committed crimes for Trump out of “blind loyalty.”

Cohen’s testimony comes as Washington braces for a final report from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, who has been investigating any ties between Trump’s campaign and Moscow’s covert efforts to interfere in the presidential election by leaking hacked Democratic Party emails and posting disinformation on social media.

JOHN DEAN III
Former White House aide John Dean is sworn in before the Senate Watergate Committee on June 25, 1973.
(Associated Press)

He was deeply involved in an unsuccessful effort to develop a hotel-condominium complex in Moscow intended to produce hundreds of millions of dollars in profits for Trump. Mueller secured a guilty plea from Cohen for lying to Congress about pursuing the deal.

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Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), a member of the House Oversight Committee, said he wanted to dig into business practices at the Trump Organization, a privately held company that the president has fought to shield from scrutiny.

“I assume Michael Cohen has stories to tell,” he said.

Cohen is not expected to delve deeply into the Russia investigation on Wednesday. He likely will answer those questions on Tuesday and Thursday when he testifies behind closed doors to the House and Senate intelligence committees. Senators largely declined to comment after Tuesday’s hearing.

Trump has said he isn’t worried about Cohen’s testimony “at all.” When his former lawyer visits Capitol Hill, the president will be in Hanoi for his second summit with Kim Jong Un, the North Korean dictator.

Still, the White House was concerned enough that Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders issued a statement Tuesday denouncing Cohen’s testimony in advance.

“It’s laughable that anyone would take a convicted liar like Cohen at his word, and pathetic to see him given yet another opportunity to spread his lies,” she said.

Cohen is scheduled to report to prison on May 6. In addition to lying to Congress, he has pleaded guilty to eight other charges — tax evasion, bank fraud and campaign finance violations.

The campaign finance violations are tied to Cohen’s role arranging hush-money payments to two women who said they had affairs with Trump years ago.

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The payments, which prosecutors said were directed by Trump shortly before the election, broke the law because they were intended to influence the election and weren’t properly disclosed.

Cohen paid $130,000 to Stormy Daniels, an adult-film star, using a home equity line of credit, and later was reimbursed by Trump’s company. He also arranged a $150,000 payment to Karen McDougal, a former Playboy playmate, from the National Enquirer, a tabloid run by a Trump ally.

Trump’s allies have spent months bashing Cohen in an attempt to erase whatever credibility he has.

“If his back is up against the wall, he’ll lie like crazy. Because he’s lied all his life,” Rudolph W. Giuliani, one of Trump’s lawyers and a former mayor of New York, said on CNN last year.

Giuliani and the president also suggested that Cohen is concealing crimes committed by his father-in-law.

Cohen cited those allegations when he delayed his congressional testimony, which was originally scheduled for Feb. 8. His lawyer attributed the postponement to “ongoing threats against [Cohen’s] family from President Trump and Mr. Giuliani.”

It’s unclear whether Cohen will share other scandalous episodes from Trump’s past after he is sworn in.

But as Dean learned during the Watergate scandal, hearings can prove unpredictable.

“A lot of the things I testified about, I had no idea the impact they would have,” Dean said. “You just never know where these things are going to go.”

Most importantly, Dean told the Watergate committee that he suspected the president was recording him in the Oval Office. Alexander Butterfield, Nixon’s former deputy assistant, later confirmed to investigators that a secret taping system existed.

“We were all shocked,” said Rufus Edmisten, the deputy counsel on the Senate Watergate Committee.

Nixon fought a subpoena for the tapes but lost in the Supreme Court. The recordings revealed his direct role in covering up the Watergate break-in, and he resigned in August 1974 when it became clear that impeachment was inevitable.

“John Dean was a pivotal character, and the one who set in motion the demise of Richard Nixon’s presidency,” Edmisten said.


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