Michael Cohen, Donald Trump’s former lawyer who has implicated the president in campaign finance crimes, will testify publicly to the House Oversight Committee on Feb. 7.
The high-profile hearing, which the panel announced Thursday, is one of the first examples of how Democrats will use their new oversight powers and control of House committees to arrange events that could be embarrassing and distracting for the White House.
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Cohen pleaded guilty last year to various criminal charges, including campaign finance law violations and lying to Congress. He received a three-year sentence. As part of his plea, Cohen claimed that Trump directed him to make improper hush payments to two women claiming to have had affairs with the real estate mogul, a charge the president has denied.
In a statement, Cohen portrayed his testimony — set to take place about a month before Cohen is scheduled to report to prison on March 6 — as part of his “commitment to cooperate and provide the American people with answers.” He vowed to “to give a full and credible account of the events which have transpired.”
Oversight Chairman Elijah Cummings (R-Md.) called the Cohen hearing part of a reinvigorated Democratic effort to probe issues left unexplored by Republican leaders over the last two years. Cummings frequently had his subpoenas squashed by Republicans leaders in the last Congress.
“Last November, the American people voted overwhelmingly for Congress to do two things — address the core issues that affect their daily lives, and fulfill our Constitutional responsibility to serve as an independent check and balance on the Executive Branch by restoring accountability and transparency,” Cummings said in a statement.
But it’s unclear what topics Cohen will be able to address in an open session, given that special counsel Robert Mueller is still conducting an investigation into Trump’s campaign and whether it cooperated with the Russian government. Cummings said in a statement that he was “consulting” with Mueller’s team to ensure lawmakers avoid any verboten subjects.
“There will be limitations,” Cummings later told reporters. “We don’t want to do anything to interfere with the Mueller investigation. Absolutely nothing. Okay? Let’s be real clear on that. All right?”
Cohen may address sensitive questions about Trump campaign contacts with Russians during a potential closed session with the House Intelligence Committee. House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) on Thursday said plans are underway for Cohen to testify privately to the panel about his knowledge of issues related to Russian influence on the 2016 campaign.
“We’re glad that he’s continued to cooperate,” Schiff told reporters Thursday. “We are going to need to have him come before the Intelligence committee to answer questions about the Russia investigation.”
“Those questions still need to be answered,” he added. “So we are in conversations with his counsel, we hope to have him come before our committee soon.”
Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said in a statement that Cohen had a standing invitation to return to the upper chamber’s intelligence panel “for additional closed-door testimony, made all the more necessary by Mr. Cohen’s indictment and guilty plea for making false statements to Committee investigators.”
The top Republican on the House Oversight panel, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-N.C.), struck a different tone, blasting the invitation as political grandstanding.
“The Chairman’s announcement today suggests he will be using the committee as a venue for political theater rather than legitimate oversight,” Jordan said in a statement.
Jordan, who pressed aggressively for disclosure of information about Mueller’s investigation when Republicans were in the majority last year, accused Democrats of abandoning the concerns they previously expressed about the dangers of Congress complicating Mueller’s probe.
“The same standards don’t seem to apply,” Jordan complained. “This makes clear that Chairman Cummings and the Democrats will do whatever it takes to attack this President.”
For his part, during a trip to border areas in Texas Thursday, Trump sounded nonchalant about the planned testimony by his former personal lawyer.
“I’m not worried about it, at all,” the president said in response to a reporter’s question.
Cohen has been cooperating with Mueller’s office and got a glowing report from Mueller’s prosecutors at the time of his sentencing last month. However, federal prosecutors in New York — who investigated Cohen on campaign finance, tax and bank fraud issues — offered a more equivocal review of Cohen’s cooperation with their team.
Cohen has accused Trump of directly participating in two of the campaign finance felonies to which Cohen admitted. One involved arranging a payment to porn star Stormy Daniels on the eve of the 2016 election. The other pertained to a scheme to have the parent company of the National Enquirer pay $150,000 in a bid to silence former Playboy playmate Karen McDougal. The payments to both women were allegedly aimed at persuading them not to go public with stories about past sexual encounters with Trump.
Trump initially denied knowledge of the payment to Daniels, but later shifted his stance, saying that he was aware of the general plan. Trump and his attorneys have leveled several defenses against Cohen’s claims, including branding him as a liar, denying that the payments amounted to campaign donations and insisting that campaign finance law violations are typically resolved through civil penalties, not criminal charges.
Another one of the crimes Cohen admitted to, lying to Congress, potentially implicates Trump or other members of his team.
Cohen said that as he prepared written testimony about his Trump campaign experiences, the ex-Trump lawyer was “in close contact” with the president’s advisers. Specifically, Cohen has admitted that things he told Congress about the status of a Trump Tower Moscow project were not accurate. In his testimony, Cohen sought to make the project sound as if it had been abandoned before the first votes were cast in the 2016 primaries, but he later conceded that the project remained under active consideration until June of that year.