Five things to watch as Michael Cohen testifies

Five things to watch as Michael Cohen testifies
© Greg Nash

Michael Cohen’s appearance before the House Oversight and Reform Committee on Wednesday is an early candidate for hearing of the year.

President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump goes after Cassidy after saying he wouldn't support him for president in 2024 Jan. 6 panel lays out criminal contempt case against Bannon Hillicon Valley — Presented by Xerox — Agencies sound alarm over ransomware targeting agriculture groups MORE’s former longtime personal attorney is poised for an hours-long grilling — all while his former boss watches from Vietnam, where he is meeting North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Here are five things to watch from the big public hearing, which is sandwiched by closed-door sessions by the Senate and House Intelligence committees on Tuesday and Thursday.

How much will Cohen actually say?

Cohen worked as Trump’s attorney for roughly a decade and is a former vice president of the Trump Organization, but it’s unclear if he’ll offer new revelations on Wednesday or if he’ll repeatedly plead the fifth.

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Cohen reportedly plans to tell lawmakers that Trump engaged in criminal conduct while in office, made racist remarks and took steps to inflate or deflate his wealth for business purposes.

How many details he’ll offer and what documentation he’ll provide to support his allegations is the mystery.

Cohen’s attorney, Lanny Davis, has previously said his client is turning a new leaf and is ready to come clean and renounce his prior actions on behalf of Trump.

Cohen previously pleaded guilty to violating campaign finance law by facilitating payments to adult-film star Stormy Daniels and Playboy model Karen McDougal and is set for a three-year prison term. He said he broke the law at Trump’s direction, and federal prosecutors signaled in court filings that they had further evidence Trump directed the payments.

The president, who has shifted his explanation about when he knew of the payments, denies wrongdoing and has insisted the transactions did not violate campaign finance laws.

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Another complication is statements Trump made about Cohen and his family.

Trump lashed out at his former “fixer” in an interview with Fox News, suggesting he had damaging information on Cohen’s father-in-law. Cohen initially postponed his public appearance following Trump’s comments, citing threats from Trump and his attorney Rudy Giuliani.

Will Cohen come off as a credible witness?

Trump has repeatedly cast Cohen as a liar peddling falsities to federal investigators to obtain a lighter prison sentence.

Cohen’s guilty plea to making false statements to Congress about plans to build a Trump property in Moscow are reason not to believe him, the president and his allies say.

“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,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement released Tuesday.

Republicans have picked up on the theme; as Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrDemocratic incumbents bolster fundraising advantage in key Senate races McConnell gets GOP wake-up call Senate approves short-term debt ceiling increase MORE (R-N.C.) entered the room where Cohen was being questioned Tuesday, he described his track record as questionable.

To win trust from lawmakers and the viewing public, Cohen may have to provide additional evidence supporting his testimony.

One tape of a discussion he had with Trump during the 2016 campaign about making a payment to McDougal was obtained and published by CNN last year, which added a layer of credibility to the payment allegations.

How will Cohen fuel other Dem investigations?

House Democrats have already been sharpening their knives to scrutinize Trump’s finances and business, and Cohen’s testimony could offer them new ammunition.

Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah CummingsElijah Eugene CummingsFormer GOP congressional candidate Kimberly Klacik suing Candace Owens for defamation Former Cummings staffer unveils congressional bid McCarthy, GOP face a delicate dance on Jan. 6 committee MORE (D-Md.) has offered broad parameters for the hearing, allowing Democrats to probe a wide range of matters related to Trump.

Lawmakers expect to question Cohen on the payments; Trump’s compliance with financial disclosure requirements, tax and campaign finance law; his conflicts of interests and business practices; the accuracy of Trump’s public statements; potential fraud or inappropriate practices by the Trump Foundation; the Trump International Hotel in Washington; and Trump’s effort to “intimidate” Cohen or others not to testify, according to a memo released by the committee’s minority.

The hearing will be limited, however, in one significant way: It will not cover Russia’s election interference or links, financial or otherwise, between Trump and Russia or other foreign actors.

When asked Tuesday if he believes Democrats will learn anything during Cohen’s hearing that will bolster those investigations, Cummings replied tersely, “We’ll see.”

How will Republicans seek to defend Trump?

Republican lawmakers questioning Cohen on Wednesday are going to attack his credibility.

Reps. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanGOP's embrace of Trump's false claims creates new perils Jan. 6 committee issues latest round of subpoenas for rally organizers House Republican calls on Biden to have plan to counter drug trade in Afghanistan MORE (R-Ohio) and Mark MeadowsMark MeadowsJan. 6 panel lays out criminal contempt case against Bannon This week: Democrats confront gridlock over Biden spending plan Schiff says holding Bannon in criminal contempt 'a way of getting people's attention' MORE (R-N.C.), two of Trump’s closest GOP allies, have already forecast their strategy.

Jordan, the committee’s top Republican, and Meadows sent a letter to Cummings in advance of the hearing asking he invite Deputy Attorney General Rod RosensteinRod RosensteinWashington still needs more transparency House Judiciary to probe DOJ's seizure of data from lawmakers, journalists The Hill's Morning Report - Biden-Putin meeting to dominate the week MORE to testify alongside Cohen so he could address Cohen and his crimes.

“If you intend to proceed with Michael Cohen as the star witness of the Committee’s first big hearing, Members should have an opportunity to assess his credibility,” they wrote.

Jordan has also accused Cummings of scheduling the hearing as “phase one of the Democrats’ coordinated campaign to remove the President from office” and called it “beneath the dignity of the Congress” to give Cohen such a platform.

Meadows on Tuesday doubted whether Cohen would tell the truth.

“That’s what I’m hoping for, that when he raises his right hand and swears to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth — that’s hard to believe, an answer that’s coming from someone who’s a confessed liar,” Meadows said.

How does Trump react?

Cohen’s testimony will begin after Trump will have finished his first round of talks with Kim in Hanoi, which is 12 hours ahead of Washington.

The split-screen coverage could roil the president, who is known to monitor headlines and cable television, but the White House has sought to downplay the possibility that Cohen might serve as a distraction to Trump during his trip to Vietnam.

“I don’t think the president has any concerns whatsoever about Michael Cohen,” Sanders said Friday on Fox News. “I think Michael Cohen may need to be concerned for himself, but that’s certainly something that’s not influencing or bothering us in this building.”

Trump could seek to push back while abroad if Cohen angers him with his testimony, though administration officials have insisted that he will remain focused on his summit.

“Congress has its own authority. They can move how they choose to proceed,” Secretary of State Mike PompeoMike PompeoState Department watchdog probing whether Trump aides took gifts meant for foreign officials Biden shows little progress with Abraham Accords on first anniversary Biden slips further back to failed China policies MORE said Sunday, when asked if the timing of the hearing was inappropriate. “I know what we’ll be focused on. I’m very confident that the president and our team will be focused on the singular objective that we are headed to Hanoi for.”