The Bomb Drops Right from the Start

The Russia affair, which until now has been exclusively in the hands of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, has risen to the congressional stage. Cohen and his legal advisers have a flare for the dramatic.

The chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform knew what he was facing on Wednesday. Seconds after Elijah Cummings opened the session, Republicans moved to postpone the hearing. At that point, Michael Cohen, Trump’s long-time attorney, was set to testify and correct earlier testimony against the president. Yet, his opening statement on Wednesday had already been made public, which the Republicans viewed as evidence of the witness’ contempt for Congress.

There was excitement in the hall, and the matter was put to a vote. Democrats rejected their counterparts’ motion to postpone. Democrats are in the House majority now. Finally, the Russia affair, which until now has been exclusively in the hands of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, has risen to the congressional stage.

Cohen and his legal advisers have a flare for the dramatic. Witness Cohen drops a bomb at the beginning of his testimony. He presents a summary of his opening statement about Trump, a triad: “He is a racist. He is a con man. He is a cheat.” Then comes a header that makes the audience’s mouth water: The presidential candidate knew that Roger Stone, his long-time confidant, had spoken with Julian Assange, founder of the whistleblower platform, Wikileaks, about the imminent release of Democratic emails – emails that had been hacked by Russian authorities, according to American intelligence agencies. Cohen states he’ll explain that momentarily, as if he is announcing a short commercial break.

The statement is a media event. Bars in Washington opened earlier, just to give people working in the federal district the opportunity to leave their offices for a break and follow the TV event with beer and snacks.

The statement on the Wikileaks scandal is weighing heavily on the president. It has since led to an indictment for Stone, who temporarily worked as a consultant for Trump in the 2016 election campaign. Trump has repeatedly and publicly stated that he knew nothing about the contacts between Assange and Stone – contacts that indirectly represent cooperation with Russian authorities. It has always been thought that Stone informed a high-ranking member of Trump’s circle. Steve Bannon has been mentioned repeatedly in this context; he replaced Paul Manafort as campaign chairman in August 2016.

Now Cohen says that he was in Trump’s office in July of that year, a few days before the Democratic National Convention, when Hillary Clinton was formally nominated as the party’s presidential candidate. His secretary said Stone was on the phone. Stone told Trump, who had put the call on speaker phone, that he had just spoken to Assange. He told him that there would be a “massive dump” of emails from the Clinton team in the next few days. Trump replied, “Wouldn’t that be great?”

This is not the smoking gun that could convict Trump of collusion with Moscow. But for the Democrats, it is at least proof that President Trump was “dishonest,” as House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff cautiously put it. On the other hand, House Oversight Committee Chairman Cummings’s voice shook when he referred to Cohen’s accusation.

The witness statement, written to meet legal requirements, was still able to be made public. Since the summer of last year, Cohen has had a legal adviser who masters both his public and legal issues: Lanny J. Davis.

He’s a well-known lawyer and public relations consultant in Washington. Most importantly, he was the former legal adviser for Bill Clinton when Clinton was in the White House. That, of course, makes him the protagonist of a completely different conspiracy for the Republicans. Jim Jordan, the party’s highest-ranking member on the committee, is pointing the finger at the man behind Cohen. Davis, the man from the depths of the Clinton operations, convinced Cohen to testify in order to remove President Trump from office.

Davis, himself, knows that his client has a credibility problem because Cohen lied during his first testimony before Congress. He did this before he decided to cooperate with Mueller and consequently break with Trump. Cohen must report to prison in May. He openly addressed his credibility problem and presented documents to show that his his statements were incontrovertible.

Among these documents is a check signed by Trump used to reimburse hush money that Cohen, his lawyer and intermediary, paid to a porn star during the election campaign to ensure that a short affair between Trump and the woman did not become a burden to the election campaign. A second woman was also paid hush money.

’How’s It Going in Russia?’

Trump has publicly denied knowing about the payments, even though there are recordings of related conversations. Chairman Cummings didn’t forget to mention that. Trump’s caprices have nothing to do with the Russia affair, the focus of Mueller’s investigation. But they are suitable as a basis for further questioning Trump’s integrity and revealing the mafia-style methods he uses.

Cohen also did something else to underpin his credibility. He bowed to Congress, apologizing for his prior false testimony to Congress and “to the nation.” “I lied, but I’m not a liar,” he said, visibly moved. He was ashamed of his weakness and of his misunderstood loyalty to Trump. He regretted the day 12 years ago when he accepted the real estate mogul’s job offer. The man “hypnotized” him, he says.

Specifically, he lied to Congress when he testified to the date on which Trump’s negotiations for a high-rise project in Moscow ended in January 2016, i.e., before the start of the Republican primaries.

In fact, according to Cohen, they continued for months. During the election campaign and repeatedly since then, Trump claims that he has no business interests in Russia. But Trump’s staff contacted the Kremlin to speed up potential business, and to offer Vladimir Putin a penthouse in the Moscow high-rise as a marketing strategy. Cohen pointed out that Trump “did not directly” instruct him to lie before Congress. “He doesn’t work that way.”

Trump looked him in the eye at the time he was still negotiating with Russia, and said there was no business in Russia. Then Trump went public himself and said exactly that. In this way, Trump intimated to his lawyer how to go about this business. Trump asked him half a dozen times between the Iowa primary in February and the end of June 2016: “How’s it going in Russia?”

At that time, the presidential candidate announced that there would be “great relations” between Washington and Moscow if he won the election. And in reference to Russian intervention in Ukraine, he said that the people of Crimea wanted to belong to Russia. Cohen now has told the congressional committee that Trump did not expect to win the Republican primaries – and certainly did not expect to become president of the United States. His aim was to promote the Trump brand. He repeatedly described the campaign as the largest “infomercial” in political history. Political communication as brand advertising – the idea of the man whose business concept revolves around the sale of his name.

“Does Your Wife Know about Your Girlfriends?”

Trump followed the spectacle in Congress from Vietnam, where he was engaged in global politics. Before his second meeting with North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, he tweeted what he had already said any number of times in his defense: Cohen was just one of his many legal advisers, that Cohen has since been disbarred and was spreading lies to reduce his sentence.

At least this time, Trump did not seek to intimidate a witness. He had used this method before when he tweeted grim suggestions concerning Cohen’s father-in-law. This time he let Matt Gaetz, a Florida representative, get his hands dirty. “Hey,” the Trump disciple tweeted to Cohen, “Do your wife & father-in-law know about your girlfriends? Maybe tonight would be a good time for that chat. I wonder if she’ll remain faithful when you’re in prison. She’s about to learn a lot …”

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