Michael Cohen gave public testimony under oath that contradicted past statements by President Donald Trump on WikiLeaks, Stormy Daniels and a proposed Moscow real estate deal, as well as Trump’s Vietnam War deferrals and his net worth.
Here we lay out the conflicting accounts of what Trump’s former personal attorney told the House Committee on Oversight and Reform at the Feb. 27 hearing, and what the president has said in the past.
A key unresolved issue in the special counsel’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election is whether there was any coordination between the Trump campaign and WikiLeaks.
Russia intelligence services hacked into the computer network of Democratic Party officials and released the hacked material to WikiLeaks and others “to help President-elect Trump’s election chances,” according to a U.S. intelligence report released in January 2017.
In his opening statement, Cohen said he was in Trump’s office in July 2016 when Roger Stone, Trump’s informal adviser and longtime friend, was on speaker phone talking about WikiLeaks and its plan to publicly release emails damaging to Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
Cohen, Feb. 27: In July of 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 [WikiLeaks founder] 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.”
Cohen’s statement directly contradicts Trump’s claim that he never spoke to Stone about WikiLeaks.
Maggie Haberman, Times reporter, Jan. 31: Did you ever talk to him about WikiLeaks? Because that seemed —
Haberman: You never had conversations with him.
Trump: No, I didn’t. I never did.
We should note that there is no evidence that Stone ever talked to Assange, although that doesn’t mean that Stone didn’t boast that he did. Stone, however, texted news organizations after Cohen’s opening remarks to say: “Mr. Cohen’s statement is not true.”
However, the special counsel’s office alleges that on “multiple occasions” Stone “told senior Trump Campaign officials about materials possessed by Organization 1 and the timing of future releases,” as laid out in the indictment against Stone. The indictment refers to WikiLeaks as “Organization 1.” (See “Timeline of Russia Investigation” for more details on Russia’s influence campaign and WikiLeaks’ role in it.)
The Trump Organization was actively pursuing a real estate project in Moscow during the 2016 presidential campaign, but the public didn’t learn about it until the Washington Post broke the story in August 2017 — about seven months into the Trump presidency.
Trump signed a letter of intent with a Moscow-based developer, I.C. Expert Investment Co., on Oct. 28, 2015. Cohen and Felix Sater, a Trump business associate, led the Trump Organization’s negotiations with Russian officials until at least June 2016 — which was the same month when reports first surfaced that Russia had hacked the Democratic National Committee’s servers. At the time, the Trump campaign dismissed the hack as an inside job, not the work of Russia, and Trump issued numerous statements over the next several months saying he had no business dealings in Russia.
In a July 27, 2016, interview with a CBS affiliate in Miami, Trump said, “I have nothing to do with Russia. I don’t have any jobs in Russia. I’m all over the world but we’re not involved in Russia.” A day earlier, he tweeted he has “ZERO investments in Russia.”
Even after he became president — but before the public learned about the Trump Moscow project — Trump denied having any business dealings in Russia.
“I have had dealings over the years where I sold a house to a very wealthy Russian many years ago. I had the Miss Universe pageant — which I owned for quite a while — I had it in Moscow a long time ago. But other than that, I have nothing to do with Russia,” Trump said in a May 2017 interview with NBC’s Lester Holt.
In the NBC interview, and throughout the campaign, the president omitted any mention of his company’s pursuit of the Moscow project. That was done on purpose, Cohen testified.
Cohen told the House oversight committee that Trump “knew of and directed the Trump Moscow negotiations throughout the campaign and lied about it.”
Cohen, Feb. 27: In conversations we had during the campaign, 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 Russian business and then go on to lie to the American people by saying the same thing. In his way, he was telling me to lie.
Cohen continued to lie even after the Post broke the story about the Moscow project and it became public knowledge.
In November, Cohen pleaded guilty to lying to Congress when he told two congressional committees that the company’s pursuit of the project ended in January 2016 before “the Iowa caucus and … the very first primary.” In fact, he said in his guilty plea, the Trump Organization continued negotiations into June 2016 — a month before Trump was nominated at the Republican National Convention.
After Cohen’s guilty plea in November, Trump falsely claimed that the Moscow project was “a very public deal” that “everybody knew about” and “was written about in newspapers.” Last month, Trump dismissed the Moscow project as a “very unimportant deal,” as he told the New York Times.
“I had no money invested. It was a letter of intent, or option,” Trump told the Times. “It was a free option. It was a nothing. And I wasn’t doing anything. I don’t consider that even business. And frankly, that wasn’t even on my radar.”
Cohen testified that the Moscow project was on Trump’s radar, “because he stood to make hundreds of millions of dollars on the Moscow real estate project.”
“There were at least a half-dozen times between the Iowa Caucus in January of 2016 and the end of June when he would ask me ‘How’s it going in Russia?’ – referring to the Moscow Tower project,” Cohen said at the Feb. 27 House hearing.
Stormy Daniels’ Hush Money
As we have written before, the president has denied that he had an affair with porn star Stormy Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford. He also denied, at least initially, knowing anything about the $130,000 that Cohen paid to Daniels in late October 2016 to prevent her from speaking out about the affair and damaging the campaign.
The Wall Street Journal broke the story about the hush money payment on Jan. 12, 2018. The White House and Cohen denied the affair, without addressing the hush money payments. “These are old, recycled reports, which were published and strongly denied prior to the election,” the White House said in a statement to the Journal. Daniels — in a statement issued by Cohen on behalf of Daniels — said “rumors” about “hush money” payments are “completely false.”
In early April, a reporter asked Trump directly if he knew anything about the payment. He answered, “No. No. What else?” Pressed if he knew where Cohen got the money, Trump said, “I don’t know.”
But that false narrative was exposed on Aug. 21, when Cohen pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations for arranging — “in coordination and at the direction of” Trump — payments of $130,000 to Daniels and $150,000 to Playboy model Karen McDougal. In McDougal’s case, Cohen admitted to “causing” American Media Inc., owner of the National Enquirer, to pay McDougal for exclusive rights to her story of an extramarital affair with Trump with the express purpose of killing McDougal’s story and preventing it from influencing the election, according to the plea agreement.
In his testimony before the House oversight committee, Cohen provided a copy of a $35,000 check that he received from Trump in August 2017 — one of 11 payments Cohen said he received as reimbursement for the $130,000 payment to Daniels. Trump signed that check 10 months before he denied knowing anything about the payment when asked about it in April 2018.
Cohen, Feb. 27: As Exhibit 5A to my testimony shows, I am providing a copy of a $35,000 check that President Trump personally signed from his personal bank account on August 1, 2017 – when he was president of the United States – pursuant to the cover-up, which was the basis of my guilty plea, to reimburse me — the word used by Mr. Trump’s TV lawyer — for the illegal hush money I paid on his behalf.
But Trump has maintained that he “never directed Michael Cohen to break the law,” and he has rejected the government’s contention that it was a campaign finance violation. Trump called it a “simple private transaction,” not an illegal campaign contribution.
Trump’s Net Worth
During the 2016 campaign, Trump boasted that he was worth $10 billion. “The fact is, I built a net worth of more than $10 billion. I have a great, great company. I employ thousands of people. And I’m very proud of the job I did,” he said during an August 2015 debate.
But, as we wrote at the time, outside estimates attested to Trump’s wealth, but placed the amount at between $3 billion and $4 billion.
In his testimony, Cohen said Trump “directed us to inflate his net worth and inflate his assets,” providing the committee with portions of statements of financial condition for 2011 and 2013.
“It was my experience that Mr. Trump inflated his total assets when it served his purposes, such as trying to be listed amongst the wealthiest people in Forbes, and deflated his assets to reduce his real estate taxes,” he said.
Trump got five deferments during the Vietnam War, including one for bone spurs in his heels. But in his opening statement, Cohen challenged the diagnosis of bone spurs — suggesting it was a ruse to avoid going to war.
Cohen, Feb. 27: Mr. Trump tasked me to handle the negative press surrounding his medical deferment from the Vietnam draft. Mr. Trump claimed it was because of a bone spur, but when I asked for medical records, he gave me none and said that there was no surgery. He told me not to answer the specific questions by reporters but rather offer simply the fact that he received a medical deferment. He finished the conversation with the following comment. “You think I’m stupid, I’m not going to Vietnam.”
We have no idea what Trump told Cohen and, even by Cohen’s account, Trump did not directly say that the bone spur diagnosis was a fake. Cohen’s comment does, however, corroborate the account of two daughters of the podiatrist who diagnosed Trump with bone spurs. In December, they told the New York Times that their late father made the diagnosis as a courtesy to Trump’s father, Fred.
“I know it was a favor,” one daughter, Dr. Elysa Braunstein, told the paper. She and “her sister, Sharon Kessel, 53, shared the family’s account for the first time publicly when contacted by The New York Times,” the paper wrote.
In his response to Cohen’s testimony, the president criticized his former lawyer for lying “about so many different things.” But, he said, he was “actually impressed” that Cohen “said he saw no collusion” between the Trump campaign and the Russian government or its agents during the 2016 campaign.
“I mean, he lied about so many different things, and I was actually impressed that he didn’t say, ‘Well, I think there was collusion for this reason or that.’ He didn’t say that. He said, ‘No collusion,'” the president said at a press conference in Vietnam, where he was meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. “And I was, you know, a little impressed by that, frankly.”
Cohen didn’t exactly say there was “no collusion,” but he did say that he didn’t have any evidence of it.
In his opening remarks, Cohen said, “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.”
Later, asked by Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz if he was aware of any instances of Trump lying about colluding with the Russians, Cohen said he couldn’t answer the question — but again expressed his suspicions.
“I’m not really sure that I can answer that question in terms of collusion,” he said. “I was not part of the campaign. I don’t know the other conversations that Mr. Trump had with other individuals. There’s just so many dots that all seem to lead to the same direction.”
The Trump campaign issued a statement in response to Cohen’s testimony that relied heavily on the words of federal prosecutors who described Cohen as a liar. “As noted by the Southern District of New York, Cohen’s wide array of crimes were ‘marked by a pattern of deception that permeated his professional life’ and his ‘instinct to blame others is strong,'” the statement said.
That is true. Those partial quotes come from a sentencing memo filed in December. But it is also true that the sentencing statement said Cohen provided “credible” information to the Southern District of New York.
“With respect to Cohen’s provision of information to this Office, in its two meetings with him, this Office assessed Cohen to be forthright and credible, and the information he provided was largely consistent with other evidence gathered,” the memo stated.
We can’t say whether Cohen’s version of events is correct in cases where it’s his word against Trump’s. In some instances, he provides evidence or his allegations are corroborated by other people or other evidence. But in other cases, Cohen provides no evidence at all. All we can do is lay out the facts and let others draw their own conclusions.