Michael Cohen's Record Is His Greatest Asset—And Biggest Liability

The president’s former fixer is a profligate liar, but he is also unusually well positioned to speak about Trump’s history.

J. Scott Applewhite / AP

The only thing that Democrats, Republicans, and Michael Cohen seem to agree on in his appearance before the House Oversight Committee is that Cohen has lied repeatedly in the past.

Cohen kicked off the hearing on Wednesday with an explosive series of claims and revelations in his prepared testimony. But in the hours since Cohen finished reading those remarks, the members of the committee have barely wrung any more new information out of him. Democrats have asked Cohen to speculate about Donald Trump, and Cohen has demurred. Republicans, meanwhile, have mostly stuck to reiterating information already in the public record—in Cohen’s guilty pleas and in sentencing memos—in a frenzied effort to defend Trump, Cohen’s boss turned nemesis. The result has been a series of heated exchanges between Cohen and Republican members, as they try to impeach his credibility and criticize Democrats for inviting him to testify.

The Republicans have a point: Cohen lied to Congress; he lied to banks; and he lied to the FBI. But Cohen, though he has occasionally bristled at questions about his record, doesn’t dispute that. He brought a series of documents to the meeting to back up his claims.

“It is for exactly that reason I spent the last week searching boxes to find the information that I did so you don’t have to take my word for it,” Cohen said. “I don’t want you to. Look at the documents and make your own decision.”

Cohen presents lawmakers with a difficult conundrum. He is a profligate liar, but he is also unusually well positioned to speak to Trump’s history and to the way his company operated. In fact, given the miasma of untruth that surrounded the Trump Organization, finding anyone who could speak to the company’s dealings who doesn’t have some lies on his or her record might be impossible. (“Every day, most of us knew we were going to come in and lie on something,” Cohen said. “That became the norm.”) Cohen has forfeited the automatic presumption of truthfulness, and his claims require close examination, but concluding that a businessman can insulate himself from scrutiny by simply surrounding himself with liars is surely untenable.

As Chris Christie noted on ABC, Republicans have made little effort to defend Trump on substantive grounds or to dispute Cohen’s claims, other than to attack his credibility. Representative Paul Gosar of Arizona told Cohen, “You are a pathological liar. You don’t know truth from falsehood.” Yet this criticism could describe Trump as well as it does Cohen, given the president’s own history of falsehood.

In the most dramatic moment from the early part of the hearing, Cohen turned the questioning around on Republicans and—perhaps showing why he was such an effective enforcer for Trump—offered them a warning.

“I did the same thing you are doing now for 10 years. I protected Mr. Trump for 10 years,” Cohen said. “People who follow Mr. Trump blindly will suffer the same consequences I’m suffering.”

A few interesting morsels of information have emerged in Cohen’s testimony. Cohen suggested that Trump was involved in multiple “catch and kill” agreements in addition to those already known: the hush-money deals with Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal. Under questioning from Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings, Cohen said that Trump paid him out of his personal account to reimburse him for hush money while he was president, and Cohen produced a copy of the check. Cohen also said that he is aware of other misconduct or illegal acts by Trump that are currently under investigation by the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York.

For the most part, Cohen has remained calm, though he’s occasionally snapped back at Republicans. Many GOP members have yielded some of their time for questioning to Ranking Member Jim Jordan, and few have landed punches on Cohen that aren’t already part of his pleadings, for which he’s been sentenced to serve three years in prison. Cohen has declined to speculate in a couple of cases, and he’s rejected claims of a secret Trump love child and the existence of a recording of Trump hitting his wife. But Cohen has occasionally dodged questions from Republicans, seeming to play dumb in implausible ways. For example, he claimed not to understand a question about whether he had spoken with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s office in preparation for the hearing.

The biggest fireworks have come between Democrats and Republicans. Even before Cohen spoke, Jordan and Republican Representative Mark Meadows engaged in a testy exchange with Cummings over Cohen’s written testimony arriving late, with Meadows calling for a delay in the hearing. To Meadows’s and Jordan’s frustration, Cummings refused. They forced a vote, and the Democrats, with the majority on the committee, won. Republicans have repeatedly complained throughout the hearing about the decision to invite Cohen to testify.

But the substance in Cohen’s opening statement, and the documents he’s produced to bolster it, seem to justify the decision to have him appear. The questioning by members of Congress, however, has been less worthwhile.