Updated at 3:15 p.m. ET on February 27
In written testimony ahead of a hearing conducted by the House Oversight Committee on Wednesday, President Donald Trump’s former fixer Michael Cohen delivered a series of bombshells that could transform the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Cohen’s testimony, at less than 4,000 words, doesn’t change the fundamental picture so much as fill in essential gaps. Cohen said that Trump was informed of conversations with WikiLeaks about releasing emails related to Hillary Clinton—something the president has denied. Cohen presented a copy of a check reimbursing him for hush money, dated August 2017. While Cohen has already implicated Trump in a violation of campaign-finance law in court pleadings, that check places the crime during Trump’s presidency. Cohen alleged that he lied to Congress at Trump’s direction, though by his own account the direction was implicit. Finally, Cohen claimed that Trump was aware of a meeting at Trump Tower between campaign officials, including his son and son-in-law, and Russians in June 2016.
And those are only the most legally consequential claims. Cohen also said that Trump has made flagrantly racist comments about black people. He provided documentation backing up reporting in the press that Trump used money from his charitable foundation to purchase an oil painting of himself. Of all the news, the thing that might personally enrage Trump the most is that Cohen produced documents showing that Trump’s net worth a few years ago was much smaller than he said publicly—a topic that infuriates the president.
“He is a racist. He is a conman. He is a cheat,” Cohen said in the testimony.
Yet when it comes to the ultimate subject, the Russia investigation, Cohen’s comments likely cheered Trump’s defenders and disappointed his critics: “Questions have been raised about whether I know of direct evidence that Mr. Trump or his campaign colluded with Russia. I do not. I want to be clear. But, I have my suspicions.”
Even if only some parts of Cohen’s testimony are credible and substantiated, they would meaningfully advance the Russia story and other allegations surrounding Trump. The most readily proved will likely be the hush money, since Cohen has already offered legally binding statements, as part of a guilty plea, that explain the scheme. While Cohen’s description of the arrangement to pay two women who alleged that they’d had sexual affairs with Trump was already public, what is new is Cohen’s claim that Trump reimbursed him after taking office. In April 2018, just months after Cohen says he received the check, Trump denied any knowledge of payments. More recently, the president has claimed they were a personal transaction and unrelated to politics, and thus did not violate the law.
Cohen’s claim about Julian Assange could also be highly consequential. While Trump has said he didn’t know anything about email dumps, Special Counsel Robert Mueller has already produced a detailed indictment alleging a scheme in which former Trump aide Roger Stone reached out to WikiLeaks to inquire about coming releases of emails, which Mueller and the U.S. government say were obtained by Russia and given to WikiLeaks. (Stone denies this.) While Mueller says Stone was in contact with the Trump campaign, no public evidence has directly shown that Trump was aware of the scheme. Yet Cohen wrote in his statement:
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. 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. Mr. Trump responded by stating to the effect of “wouldn’t that be great.”
But Cohen’s claim is based entirely on what he heard. So, too, is his claim that Trump was aware of the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting. In that incident, Donald Trump Jr. was informed that the Kremlin was backing his father’s campaign. He agreed to a meeting where he expected to receive dirt on Clinton from Russians. He, his brother-in-law Jared Kushner, and then–Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort all attended. All parties say no dirt was exchanged. When the meeting was revealed by The New York Times in the summer of 2017, Trump dictated a misleading statement about the meeting, but he has said that this was the first time he’d heard of it.
Months ago, news reports said Cohen would claim that Trump was aware of the meeting. His testimony offered a vague description—too vague to really assess:
I remember being in the room with Mr. Trump, probably in early June 2016, when something peculiar happened. Don Jr. came into the room and walked behind his father’s desk—which in itself was unusual. People didn’t just walk behind Mr. Trump’s desk to talk to him. I recalled Don Jr. leaning over to his father and speaking in a low voice, which I could clearly hear, and saying: “The meeting is all set.” I remember Mr. Trump saying, “Ok good … let me know.”
Cohen’s explanation of his lies to Congress may not satisfy all listeners, either. A blockbuster BuzzFeed report in January said Cohen had told investigators that Trump instructed him to lie. In his testimony, Cohen said that Trump did coerce him into lying, but that he was too savvy an operator to do so in explicit terms.
“Before going further, I want to apologize to each of you and to Congress as a whole,” Cohen wrote. “The last time I appeared before Congress, I came to protect Mr. Trump. Today, I’m here to tell the truth about Mr. Trump.”
But as Cohen acknowledged, “Mr. Trump did not directly tell me to lie to Congress. That’s not how he operates.”
Cohen said that in conversations during the campaign, while he was negotiating in Russia on Trump’s behalf, Trump would ask him for updates yet would also “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.”
As a longtime Trump lieutenant, working for him for a decade at the Trump Organization, Cohen also offered an unusual look into Trump’s private life. He said that Trump asked whether any country run by a black person was not a “shithole” and said that blacks were “too stupid” to vote for him. More broadly, Cohen summed up Trump’s character: “He is capable of behaving kindly, but he is not kind. He is capable of committing acts of generosity, but he is not generous. He is capable of being loyal, but he is fundamentally disloyal.”
Yet as Cohen himself noted, his testimony is suspect. He has pleaded guilty to lying to Congress and to bank fraud and tax evasion. The White House has repeatedly said Cohen is not to be believed, most recently in a statement ahead of this week’s testimony. The president called him a “rat,” a Mafia-inflected term that, intentionally or not, seems to confirm that Cohen knows something damaging about him.
Trump’s allies have also attacked Cohen. In an astonishing tweet, since deleted, Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida said on Tuesday, “Hey @MichaelCohen212—Do your wife & father-in-law know about your girlfriends? Maybe tonight would be a good time for that chat. I wonder if she’ll remain faithful when you’re in prison. She’s about to learn a lot.” Gaetz was quickly accused of witness tampering. Cohen’s testimony had already been postponed after he complained that Trump was threatening him on Twitter.
Trump weighed in again early Wednesday morning from Vietnam, where he is set to meet with Kim Jong Un of North Korea. The president tweeted: “Michael Cohen was one of many lawyers who represented me (unfortunately). He had other clients also. He was just disbarred by the State Supreme Court for lying & fraud. He did bad things unrelated to Trump. He is lying in order to reduce his prison time.”
Cohen attempted to get out in front of the doubts in his testimony. “I recognize that some of you may doubt and attack me on my credibility,” he wrote. “It is for this reason that I have incorporated into this opening statement documents that are irrefutable, and demonstrate that the information you will hear is accurate and truthful.”
In addition to his public testimony Wednesday, Cohen offered closed-door testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday and will also speak behind closed doors to the House Intelligence Committee on Thursday. And he has reportedly given 70 hours of interviews to Special Counsel Robert Mueller. The Capitol Hill appearances are among Cohen’s last big public moments as a free man: On May 6, he is due to report to prison to serve three years for his crimes.