WASHINGTON — Congressional investigators poring over the transcripts from Michael Cohen's testimony say President Trump appears to have engaged in crimes — and they now have an astonishing number of leads to follow.
By the time Cohen’s televised session before Congress wrapped up Wednesday, he’d provided testimony and evidence suggesting Trump may have been involved in at least 11 different felonies, according to a VICE News review of the testimony and conversations with former prosecutors.
Now the question will be how many of Cohen’s claims can be backed up by documentary evidence or by testimony from other witnesses, like Trump’s former business partner Felix Sater, and Allen Weisselberg, CFO of the Trump Organization, both of whom are expected to appear before the House soon. Neither the White House nor the Trump Organization immediately responded to requests to comment.
“We have unambiguous evidence that the president has committed a crime at this point, I think,” Rep Jerrold Nadler, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, told the New York Times. “Do we have unambiguous evidence he has done impeachable offenses? We’ve got a ways to go yet.”
From potential involvement in a grand Russia conspiracy to pilfering money from his own charitable foundation, here’s an incomplete list of the criminal activity Trump’s former personal attorney dropped at the feet of the president.
Potential evidence in a Russia conspiracy case
Cohen introduced new information linking Trump and his campaign to a possible criminal conspiracy relating to the hacked Democratic emails that were stolen by Russian spies and released by WikiLeaks before the 2016 election. Some legal experts believe that Mueller’s investigation may result in a sweeping conspiracy charge that echoes the past presidential scandals of Watergate and Iran Contra.
Cohen said Trump was told in advance of the WikiLeaks dump by Trump’s longtime confidant Roger Stone, and that Trump responded: “Wouldn’t that be great?”
Russian agents have already been charged with a conspiracy to hack into Democratic computers by special counsel Robert Mueller. If anyone from the Trump campaign can be shown to have helped out with that operation, or to have coordinated the release of the emails, they could be added to Mueller’s existing list of defendants as co-conspirators.
Cohen’s assertion supplies new evidence that Trump knew about, and made encouraging statements about, the release of the pilfered documents.
“Trump’s knowledge alone isn’t criminal, but it’s significant,” Mimi Rocah, a former federal prosecutor for the Southern District of New York, wrote in an email to VICE News. “If it is corroborated by other evidence that Mueller has, [that] could squarely put him in the hacking or Russian fraud conspiracy.”
Stone denied Cohen’s assertion in an email to VICE News while Cohen was still testifying, writing: “Mr. Cohen's testimony is entirely untrue.”
Trump, likewise, has repeatedly said there was no collusion. Yet neither men’s denials are likely to persuade Mueller’s investigators from attempting to confirm Cohen’s bombshell assertion.
Lying to Mueller
Cohen’s story about Trump’s conversation with Stone also contradicts what Trump reportedly told Mueller in writing. Trump’s legal team reportedly rejected Mueller’s request for an interview with the president, and instead responded to the Special Counsel’s questions in a letter.
Trump told Mueller’s team in written answers that Stone did not tell him about WikiLeaks, CNN has reported, citing two sources “familiar with the matter.”
That stark contrast should concern Trump, because lying to a federal investigator is a crime.
Cohen said Wednesday that Trump implicitly told him to lie to Congress under oath about attempts to develop a Trump Tower in Moscow in the midst of the 2016 presidential campaign — a move that could potentially constitute the crime of suborning perjury.
Proving that would be tricky, however, thanks to what Cohen called Trump’s speaking in “code.”
“Mr. Trump did not directly tell me to lie to Congress,” Cohen testified Wednesday. “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.”
Prosecutors would typically want to see evidence that was more blatant, according Charles Tiefer, a professor at University of Baltimore School of Law who was solicitor and deputy general counsel of the House of Representatives for 11 years.
“I think it’s hard to make the case that this, in itself, could be proven beyond a reasonable doubt as a felony,” Tiefer said. “It would require that he said stronger things, or gave stronger instructions, to other people…. Perjury is traditionally viewed by the law as a crime that has to be proven explicitly.”
Cohen said Trump’s personal lawyers “reviewed and edited” his statement to Congress in advance, including about the “length of time that the Trump Tower Moscow project stayed and remained alive.”
Trump’s lawyer, Jay Sekulow, issued a statement calling that assertion “completely false.”
Campaign finance violations
Cohen said his former boss directed him to organize hush-money payments during the campaign to women who claimed that they’d slept with Trump.
This accusation isn’t new, and has been backed up by prosecutors from the Southern District of New York, which wrote in a sentencing memo that Cohen committed crimes “in coordination with and at the direction of” Trump.
Cohen added fresh evidence on Wednesday in the form of a check signed by Trump that reimbursed Cohen for the payout to adult film star Stormy Daniels, who has said she had a brief affair with Trump in 2006.
Many legal experts have already argued that Trump appears to be implicated in this one, including Lawrence Noble, former general counsel for the Federal Election Commission, who told The Washington Post: “There is little question Cohen, the campaign and the candidate are liable for the campaign finance violations.”
Cohen said Trump knew exactly what he was giving Cohen money for: to silence the women and keep voters from finding out about Trump’s affairs.
If so, then aside from the campaign finance violation, Trump may have also entered into a conspiracy to defraud the U.S. — by thwarting the administration of a fair election.
“That charge can apply anytime a person conspires with others to frustrate or impede the lawful functions of a government agency,” Seth Waxman, a former prosecutor based in Washington D.C., wrote in an email to VICE News.
“So if Trump’s actions were designed to frustrate or impede the Federal Election Commission’s ability to disclose campaign expenditures (defined essentially as “anything of value”) to the American people, then, yes, he could be charged with conspiracy to defraud the United States,” Waxman wrote.
Cohen also alleged that Trump made false claims to insurance companies by inflating the size of his assets, a move that Cohen said would have allowed him to reduce his premiums.
“To your knowledge, did the president ever provide inflated assets to an insurance company?,” asked Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat from New York.
“Yes,” Cohen answered.
“Insurance fraud is submitting a written statement that contains materially false information or conceals information in order to get something of value, and that’s exactly that Cohen is alleging happened here,” said Duncan Levin a former federal prosecutor who specializes in financial crime.
“What he’s laying out is the basis of a bread-and-butter criminal case, the kind that’s prosecuted every single day in state courts and federal courts,” Levin said.
Cohen and Democrats in Congress have accused Trump of attempting to intimidate him out of testifying against Trump by making threats against Cohen’s family.
Trump has said that Cohen’s father-in-law ought to be investigated, and accused Cohen of making up things about Trump in an attempt to shield his own family.
In response, top House Democrats issued a “warning” to Trump, saying that “our nation’s laws prohibit efforts to discourage, intimidate, or otherwise pressure a witness not to provide testimony to Congress.”
Trump has denied threatening Cohen, saying: “He’s only been threatened by the truth.”
Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, was thrown in jail last June after his bail was revoked over allegations of witness tampering in his own criminal trial, following his texts and phone calls to people who might have testified against him.
Cohen said Trump inflated his wealth while seeking to borrow money from Deutsche Bank in a failed attempt to buy the Buffalo Bills in 2014.
Lying to a financial institution to get a loan would be bank fraud, which carries a maximum 30 year sentence.
Cohen provided documents suggesting this creative claim allowed Trump to pump up his net worth from $4.6 billion in 2012 to $8.7 billion a year later.
Trump’s attempt to buy the Bills didn’t succeed, and the loan was never made.
“On its face, this certainly sounds like the contours of a bank fraud charge,” Levin said. “The Devil’s in the details, and there would have to be a lot of follow-up questions, but he’s certainly laying out the basis for further investigation.”
Cohen also said Trump “deflated his assets to reduce his real estate taxes.”
Ocasio-Cortez asked Cohen about a 2016 Washington Post article which noted that Trump’s financial disclosure forms valued his National Golf Club Jupiter in Florida at more than $50 million — even though his attorneys had gone to court the previous year to argue that, for tax purposes, the property was worth “no more than $5 million.”
Explaining how the practice generally went down, Cohen said: “You deflate the value of the asset and then you put in a request to the tax department for a deduction.”
A blockbuster investigation by The New York Times last October concluded that “President Trump participated in dubious tax schemes during the 1990s, including instances of outright fraud,” although the statute of limitations for criminal penalties for those decades-old incidents had expired.
Cohen’s new claims cover more recent events.
“He’s laying out the basis for several tax fraud violations, including filing a false statement, supplying false information to the tax authorities and possibly tax evasion,” Levin said.
Lying about your assets to reduce your payments to the IRS would be tax evasion, which can carry up to five years in severe cases.
Alan Garten, the Trump Organization’s general counsel, told the Post that Trump’s legal disputes with tax officials over the valuation of his assets were a legal and prudent way for Trump to run his business and save cash.
Trump may have broken the law by failing to disclose the money he owed Cohen for making the hush-money payment to Stormy Daniels.
Cohen testified he was repaid in installments that began in early 2017. But Trump’s June 2017 financial disclosure, required under government ethics rules, didn’t list that outstanding debt.
Instead, in the next year’s disclosure, he wrote in a footnote that he’d recently made a repayment to Cohen of an amount between $100,001 and $250,000.
Cohen accused Trump of not listing the debt in order to intentionally hide the reimbursement.
He added that Trump knew exactly what those payments were for — and that Trump even mentioned them while giving Cohen a tour of the Oval Office.
“There could be a conspiracy to cause false entries in the accounting of the Trump Organization by disguising hush-money payments as legal fees, and that could be the basis for separate charges in New York State,” Levin said.
Misusing charitable funds
Cohen said Trump used his charity’s money to buy a painting of himself — a potentially improper misuse of charitable funds.
Trump wanted to bid up the price of a portrait of himself an auction, so he had Cohen organize a fake bidder to drive up the value to $60,000, Cohen said. Cohen said he was then repaid out of the charity money — and Trump kept the painting.
“This one might fall into the civil category under the New York AG’s office,” Levin said. “But if it can be determined that money was funneled into, or out of, the foundation in order to evade taxes, it could also be the basis of tax crimes.”
More mystery crimes….
Cohen also said he’s aware of even more criminal allegations that he’s not at liberty to talk about yet.
Cohen said he’s in regular communication with prosecutors for the Southern District of New York about additional lines of investigation.
Asked Wednesday by Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, a Democrat from Illinois, whether there’s “any other wrongdoing or illegal act” regarding Trump that hasn’t been discussed yet, Cohen responded in the affirmative, and said it has something to do with the last conversation Cohen had with Trump a few months ago.
"Yes, and again, those are part of the investigation that’s currently being looked at,” Cohen said.
Although Department of Justice policy holds that a sitting president can’t be indicted, the long list of claims Cohen has made provide plenty of leads for investigators to work with, former prosecutors said.
“These allegations are specific, supported by at least some physical evidence, and should be enough for prosecutors to run with,” Levin said. “The fact that he’s president and shielded by his job right now may be the only measure of comfort that he gets.”
Cover image: President Donald J. Trump returns to the White House on February 28, 2019 in Washington, DC. Trump is returning from a meeting in Vietnam with North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un. (Photo by Chris Kleponis-Pool/Getty Images)