After two guilty pleas, nine criminal charges and a pile of other court filings, we’ve learned a lot about Michael Cohen and his work for President Trump. But several unanswered questions have remained.
Did Trump tell Cohen to lie to Congress about the Trump Tower Moscow proposal?
In his opening statement, Cohen said Trump “did not directly tell me to lie to Congress. That’s not how he operates.” However, he described a series of winks and nods that led him to mislead lawmakers in August 2017, a crime for which he later pleaded guilty.
Referring to Trump, he said: “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 said the president “wanted me to lie.” He also said Trump’s lawyers reviewed his false testimony before he delivered it to Congress.
The issue: When Cohen testified on Capitol Hill in August 2017, he said that plans for a Trump Tower Moscow were abandoned before the Iowa caucuses in January 2016. In fact, the proposal remained on the table until after Trump secured the Republican presidential nomination. Cohen pleaded guilty to lying to Congress.
BuzzFeed News reported earlier this year that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III has evidence that Trump directed Cohen to lie to Congress. If true, that would be a potentially seismic development because it would implicate the president directly in commissioning a crime while in office. A spokesman for the special counsel, however, disputed the report, and no other news outlets were able to confirm its accuracy.
Cohen’s prepared statement went partway toward clearing up this issue.
Was the Trump Tower Moscow project connected to the campaign?
Cohen said Trump would routinely ask about progress on the Moscow project during the campaign.
“He lied about it because he never expected to win the election,” he said. “He also lied about it because he stood to make hundreds of millions of dollars on the Moscow real estate project.”
Cohen did not address in his opening statement whether the project was connected to Trump’s public praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin during the campaign.
He does not have “direct evidence” that Trump or his campaign “colluded with Russia,” he said.
The issue: While Cohen was working on the proposal for a luxury condominium and hotel complex in Moscow, Trump was publicly praising Putin on the campaign trail. That was an unusual approach for a Republican candidate.
Did Cohen talk with Trump about this, and did the future president see the platform his candidacy provided as a way to improve his company’s chances of landing a lucrative deal? Building a Trump Tower Moscow would have required Russian government approval.
Did Cohen go to Prague during the campaign?
Cohen said he has never been to Prague or the Czech Republic. His statement, made under oath, knocks down an allegation from the infamous dossier prepared by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele.
The issue: When Steele compiled the allegations involving Trump, he wrote that Cohen went to Prague, Czech Republic, during the campaign to meet with Russian agents. Cohen has repeatedly denied making the trip, and no court filings have surfaced to suggest it’s true.
But Cohen had never addressed this issue in public and under oath. The answer could put to rest a story that has circulated for more than two years and damages the credibility of at least that portion of the dossier.
Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s former personal lawyer, is sworn in to testify on Capitol Hill in Washington.(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)
(Olivier Douliery / Abaca Press)
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) questions Michael Cohen as he testifies before the House Oversight Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.(Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)
makes closing remarks after testimony from Michael Cohen.(Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)
Michael Cohen, former attorney to President Donald J. Trump, becomes emotional while listening to the closing remarks of House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings(Michael Reynolds / EPA / Shutterstock)
At one point, Republican critics hung a banner in the hearing room that read, “Liar, liar, pants on fire.”(Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Associated Press)
(Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, (D-N.Y.) questions Michael Cohen as he testifies before the House Oversight and Reform Committee.(Alex Brandon / Associated Press)
An image of a check signed by President Trump, that was allegedly used for hush money, is displayed on a screen as Michael Cohen makes his opening statement before the House Oversight Committee.(JIM LO SCALZO/EPA-EFE/REX / JIM LO SCALZO/EPA-EFE/REX)
A quote about Michael Cohen, attributed to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, is put on display during testimony before the House Oversight Committee on Capitol Hill February 27, 2019 in Washington, DC.(Alex Wong / Getty Images)
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) questions Michael Cohen as he testifies before the House Oversight Committee on Capitol Hill.(Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)
(Jim Lo Scalzo/ EPA / Shutterstock)
Michael Cohen arrives to testify before the House Oversight and Reform Committee on Capitol Hill.(Alex Brandon / Associated Press)
What did Trump tell Cohen about hush-money payments, and did he know the payments were a crime?
Cohen added significant new detail to the hush-money scheme that has already been exposed.
For starters, he said Trump asked him to use his home-equity line of credit to pay porn star Stormy Daniels “to avoid any money being traced back to him that could negatively impact his campaign.”
“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,” he said.
Cohen, however, did not address in his opening statement whether Trump knew the payments would be campaign finance violations, a key legal issue.
The issue: Shortly before the election, Cohen arranged $280,000 in hush-money payments to Karen McDougal and Daniels, two women who said they had affairs with Trump years before. He later pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations.
Prosecutors say Trump directed the scheme himself, but details on his direct involvement have been scarce.
It’s also unclear whether Trump knew the payments would be a crime, a key issue if prosecutors ever wanted to pursue a case against him.
The Justice Department’s position for decades has been that a sitting president can’t be indicted, but the statute of limitations on campaign finance violations would not run out until after the next election, so Trump could still face legal jeopardy if he did know.
How was Cohen reimbursed for the hush-money payments?
Cohen told the committee that one of his reimbursement checks was personally signed by Trump, and he presented a copy to the committee. He said he discussed the payments with Trump when he visited him in the Oval Office for the first time in February 2017, a month after the inauguration.
“He’s showing me around and pointing to different paintings, and he says to me something to the effect of, ‘Don’t worry, Michael, your January and February reimbursement checks are coming,’” Cohen said in his opening statement.
The issue: The $150,000 payment to McDougal, a former Playboy playmate, came from the National Enquirer, which is published by a Trump ally. But Cohen personally paid the $130,000 to Daniels using his home-equity line of credit.
Previous reports have said Cohen was reimbursed with monthly payments and received a bonus for his work. What role did Trump play in the reimbursement? And who else in the Trump Organization was involved?
How did Cohen handle his brief career as a consultant?
Lawmakers did not ask Cohen extensively about his work as a consultant. However, Republicans suggested that some of his required disclosures might have been inaccurate, and they described Cohen as more interested in making money than anything else.
The issue: After Trump was elected, Cohen tried to monetize his relationship with the new president. Big companies such as Novartis AG and AT&T hired him as a consultant, and he earned millions of dollars even though prosecutors later said “his promises of insight and access proved essentially hollow.”
Did Cohen talk to Trump about his clients? And what did the president know about his lawyer’s attempts to make money off their relationship?