Michael Cohen's testimony just piled more pressure on Trump to win in 2020 — or risk prison
Former Trump fixer's testimony raises president’s criminal exposure, experts say
Michael Cohen may well be a liar, but he's a liar who kept receipts.
That may prove incriminating for his former boss Donald Trump, opening the U.S. president to a level of criminal exposure that will be hard for impeachment-leery lawmakers to ignore, and raising the stakes on Trump's 2020 re-election bid as a must-win contest for him to duck potential jail time.
Cohen testified Wednesday before the House oversight committee in an open hearing on Capitol Hill. The former fixer and personal attorney to President Trump shared documentary evidence with Congress that he said points to alleged criminal wrongdoing by the president.
As part of damning public testimony that characterized Trump as "a cheat," "a conman" and "a racist," Cohen presented copies of Trump's personal financial statements, as well as a copy of the $130,000 US wire transfer to adult-film actress Stormy Daniels' attorney and a signed cheque from Trump's personal bank account for illegal "hush money" payments in 2016 to Daniels to cover up her alleged extra-marital affair with Trump.
Cohen, who said Trump instructed him to lie to the public about the payments after becoming president, implored members of the panel not just to take his word for it.
"I want you to look at the documents. I want you to make your own decision," he said.
Trump's signature on a cheque would appear to support the allegation he was involved in an illegal campaign contribution. The unreported payment to Daniels far exceeded the $2,700 US maximum for an individual in a general election.
With the new evidence pointing to possible campaign finance violations to buy her silence, Trump's re-election in 2020 might be the surest way to make his deepening criminal exposure go away.
"Of course it's a consideration. I'm sure it's crossed his mind," said Steven Billet, director of the Masters in Legislative Affairs at George Washington University. "The president is a very calculating man, and he understands the legal jeopardy he faces."
The calculus is based on U.S. Department of Justice guidelines that a sitting president cannot be indicted. The statute of limitations on most federal offences, including the campaign finance violation, is five years. Without an indictment within that timeframe, it washes away.
That means Trump can likely preserve his liberty as long as he wins another term. But if Trump is voted out of the Oval Office next year, "there's nothing that would protect him," said Brian Klaas, a political scientist at the University College London and author of The Despot's Apprentice: Donald Trump's Attack on Democracy.
Republican members on the panel noted correctly— and repeatedly — during Cohen's public testimony on Wednesday that he's facing a three-year sentence for making knowingly false statements to Congress in 2017. What doesn't lie is a hard paper record such as a hush-money reimbursement cheque signed by Trump, Klaas said.
"The Republican strategy of discrediting [Cohen] as a liar does not make that cheque disappear. The cheque, to me, is the big story here because it corroborates."
Klaas said Cohen's Wednesday testimony will intensify calls for Trump's impeachment and pressure House Democrats still hesitant about that idea.
"What is impeachment for, if not to remove a president who committed crimes while in office?" he asked.
A corroborated federal crime would be difficult for lawmakers to disregard, even if it appears unlikely a Republican-dominated Senate would vote to convict and expel Trump.
If maintaining Trump's innocence is crucial, Republican lawmakers on Wednesday appeared preoccupied instead with picking apart Cohen's credibility. Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, a Trump ally, was among those who found the Republican members' questions lacking.
"There hasn't been one Republican yet who's tried to defend the president on the substance," Christie remarked on ABC News. "That should be concerning to the White House."
Meanwhile, Cohen's testimony has potentially opened Trump to more criminal exposure on multiple new fronts. Cohen testified Trump "knew about the release of the hacked Democratic National Committee emails ahead of time," suggesting that Trump was aware of Russia's alleged involvement in the scheme.
"If Trump encouraged or provided advice about the timing of the release, then he could be added as a co-conspirator," said former federal prosecutor Barbara McQuade.
If it's true that Trump's lawyers reviewed and edited his prior false testimony to Congress in 2017, as Cohen also alleged on Wednesday, that presents a risk of charges that Trump was involved in conspiracy to suborn perjury.
McQuade is interested in seeing how Trump's written answers to U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller for the probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election "match up" with Cohen's testimony.
"If Mueller concludes that Trump lied, he could face impeachment articles for obstruction of justice," she said.
The impeachment question now looks thornier for Republicans than it did before Cohen's testimony, said Michael Gerhardt, an expert on impeachment at the University of North Carolina. It was the Republicans, after all, who went after former president Bill Clinton for lying under oath about an affair with Monica Lewinsky.
"One question will be whether any of the charges Cohen makes against Trump rise to a similar level of impeachable conduct," Gerhardy said.
Determining whether a signed cheque could be used as evidence of an impeachable offence rests on two things: Whether Trump acted in bad faith, and whether this violation of the law caused "serious injury" to the republic, he said.
What Republicans will be scrambling to minimize, he said, is allegations Trump may have acted in bad faith or deliberately flouted the law. That's a question that Cohen seemed to answer during questioning by Democratic lawmaker Eleanor Holmes Norton.
Asked by the congresswoman if the hush-money payments were made to influence the 2016 election's outcome, Cohen sounded resolute.
Cohen returns to Capitol Hill on Thursday for another round of testimony, the last of three back-to-back hearings. It will be a closed-door meeting with the House intelligence committee.
He is scheduled to report to prison in May.