‘Goodfellas’ on the Potomac

Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump's former personal lawyer, arrives to testify before the House Oversight and Reform Committee on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019, in Washington. (Alex Brandon/AP Photo)

Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump's former personal lawyer, arrives to testify before the House Oversight and Reform Committee on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019, in Washington. (Alex Brandon/AP Photo)

First, a pop quiz: Which of these statements was made by Michael Cohen?

1. “Blind ambition … Slowly, steadily, I would climb toward the moral abyss of the president’s inner circle until I finally fell into it, thinking I had made it to the top just as I began to realize I had actually touched bottom.”

2. “Time and time again I felt it was my duty to cover up (the president’s) dirty deeds rather than listen to my own inner voice and my moral compass.”

If you chose #2, you’re a winner. That was Cohen, when he pleaded guilty to criminal acts that he’d committed to protect Donald Trump. Statement #1 comes from John Dean, who went to jail for criminal acts that he’d committed to protect Richard Nixon. Dean became a hero when his congressional testimony against Nixon was subsequently buttressed by the White House tapes. Cohen may be similarly vindicated by history — we’ll have to wait on that — but he’s off to a good start, by snitching today on his crime boss.

Actually, equating Cohen with Dean is probably imprecise. Trump’s ex-lawyer/fixer is more in the spirit of Henry Hill, the thug who snitched in federal court on a New York crime family — as famously dramatized in “Goodfellas.” It often takes a crook to nail a crook. Ask any prosecutor.

Some of Cohen’s remarks, delivered today to the House Oversight Committee, told us nothing new. He stated under oath, “Mr. Trump is a racist.” We already knew that. “Mr. Trump is a cheat.” We already knew that. “Mr. Trump is a con man.” We already knew that. “Lying for Mr. Trump was normalized, and no one around him questioned it … no one around him today questions it, either.” Only Trump’s cultists are deaf and dumb about that.

But Cohen has detonated some bombshells. How sweet it is.

He said today, in his prepared sworn testimony, that Trump knew first-hand from lackey Roger Stone that Julian Assange — acting as a front man for Russian military intelligence — was using stolen Democratic emails to meddle on his behalf in the presidential election. Also, Cohen submitted the copy of a $35,000 check — signed by Trump — which proves that Trump, as president, personally and secretly reimbursed the hush money that Cohen had spent to muzzle Stormy Daniels on election eve for the purpose of hiding an extramarital sex scandal from voters — “as part of a criminal scheme to violate campaign finance laws.”

Also, Cohen said that Trump spent the first half of the ’16 campaign, through the month of June, trying to launch the Moscow Trump Tower project (thus giving Russia more leverage over the candidate), despite having falsely claimed that he had no business with Moscow. In Cohen’s words, “Mr. Trump knew of and directed the Trump Moscow negotiations throughout the campaign and lied about it … And so I lied about it, too — because Mr. Trump had made clear to me, through his personal statements to me that we both knew were false and through his lies to the country, that he wanted me to lie.”

Cohen was referring to his previous lies, when he told Congress under oath that the Moscow negotiations had ended in January ’16, on the eve of the primaries. He said today that he lied not only because he knew what Trump wanted, but “because his personal attorneys reviewed my statement before I gave it to Congress.” Buzzfeed recently reported that Trump had personally directed Cohen to lie under oath — if so, an apparent subordination of perjury — but Cohen essentially said that he already knew, with a final nudge from Trump’s attorneys, what he should do.

On a lighter note, but no less contemptible, Cohen recounted this incident: “Mr. Trump directed me to find a straw bidder to purchase a portrait of him that was being auctioned at an Art Hamptons Event. The objective was to ensure that his portrait, which was going to be auctioned last, would go for the highest price of any portrait that afternoon. The portrait was purchased by the fake bidder for $60,000. Mr. Trump directed the Trump Foundation, which is supposed to be a charitable organization, to repay the fake bidder, despite keeping the art for himself.” It is illegal for a non-profit charitable foundation to spend its money for such purposes; Trump’s foundation is now defunct, and its assets have been placed under court supervision in New York.

Less provable is Cohen’s belief that Trump knew in advance that Donald Jr. was planning to meet with Russian representatives in June ’16 to get dirt on Hillary Clinton. He says that he witnessed Junior, “probably in early June,” telling Trump that “the meeting is all set.” Cohen remembers Trump saying, “OK good … let me know.” Cohen said today that “Don Jr. would never set up any meeting of any significance alone — and certainly not without checking with his father … nothing went on in Trump World, especially the campaign, without Mr. Trump’s knowledge and approval.” Is Cohen correct that Trump knew in advance about the Trump Tower meeting, and its true purpose? Cohen has no exhibits to support his belief. Perhaps Robert Mueller will settle that issue.

Predictably, the Republicans on the House Oversight panel could not abide Cohen’s evidence-based depiction of Trump as a law-breaking con artist. Their basic argument, in the words of ranking member Jim Jordan, was that “convicted perjurer” should not be believed, because Cohen has “a history of lying over and over and over again.” The Republicans, in their servility to the con artist, refused to connect the two obvious dots: Cohen repeatedly lied for, on behalf of, and at the direction of, Donald Trump. And in their lust to attack Cohen, they never addressed Cohen’s exhibits – including Trump’s illegal hush money check; as George Conway, Kellyanne’s husband, tweeted this morning, “Is the check lying?”

And lest we forget, we would not have heard from Cohen today, in a public session, if the midterm electorate had not thrown the House Republicans out of power. As House Oversight chairman Elijah Cummings said today, “The American people voted for accountability in November.” Today’s hearing — “Goodfellas” on the Potomac — is welcome proof that our democracy is still alive.

 

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.