Washington: Michael Cohen raised a litany of allegations against his former boss, Donald Trump, in explosive testimony before Congress this week, implicating the president and his inner circle in potential criminal wrongdoing on multiple accounts.
Now House Democrats plan to use Cohen’s revelations as a blueprint to summon key witnesses and pursue investigative avenues they say their Republican counterparts have ignored. That is likely to trigger a steady flow of public hearings involving those closest to the president as Democrats hunt for more damaging revelations.
No one is off limits, including Trump’s adult children Donald Jr and Ivanka or the gatekeeper to his finances, the Trump Organisation executive Allen Weisselberg.
“All you have to do is follow the transcript,” Elijah Cummings, the chairman of the House oversight and reform committee, before which Cohen testified on Wednesday, told reporters on Capitol Hill. “If there were names that were mentioned, or records that were mentioned during the hearing, we want to take a look at all of that.”
If Mr Cohen’s allegations are correct, it means the president, while in office, literally while in the Oval Office, was engaged in criminal activity, and that is furthering this campaign fraud scheme
The issues raised by Cohen, who for nearly a decade worked as Trump’s personal attorney and fixer, were myriad and spanned several of the continuing investigations being overseen by special counsel Robert Mueller and federal prosecutors in the southern district of New York.
Democrats have expressed caution not to interfere with the work of those inquiries, particularly as they await the results of the special counsel investigation in the imminent future. But Cohen’s testimony, they said, provided several strands of new evidence that laid the groundwork to further investigate Trump’s business dealings, tax returns, ties to Russia and possible obstruction of justice.
“If Mr Cohen’s allegations are correct, it means the president, while in office, literally while in the Oval Office, was engaged in criminal activity, and that is furthering this campaign fraud scheme,” Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House intelligence committee, told CNN.
In the aftermath of Cohen’s testimony, House Democrats zeroed in on at least three major lines of inquiry: negotiations over the construction of a Trump Tower in Moscow during the 2016 campaign; hush money payments to women and attempts by the president and his team to engage in an alleged cover-up; and claims by Cohen that Trump knowingly engaged in insurance fraud.
Cohen also testified before the House intelligence committee on Thursday for nearly eight hours behind closed doors, which Democrats said reinforced the need to more aggressively follow some of the leads that have come to light thus far.
Following the closed-door session, Schiff announced that Cohen would appear before the House intelligence panel once more on March 6 for further questioning in private. Schiff also said Felix Sater, a former Trump associate with past ties to the Russian mob, would testify publicly before the committee on March 14.
Sater was allegedly involved in the discussions around the Trump Tower Moscow project and suggested that it include a $50m penthouse for Russian president Vladimir Putin. While the proposal eventually fell apart, the conversations have been a central focus for investigators as they examine whether the Trump campaign colluded with Moscow.
Also caught in the midst of those discussions are Donald Jr and Ivanka, two of Trump’s children, who Cohen testified were briefed “approximately 10 times” about the project. Donald Jr had previously told the Senate intelligence committee under oath that he was only “peripherally aware” of it, while Ivanka Trump claimed ignorance about the plan as recently as last month, stating in an interview she knew “literally almost nothing” about it.
Cummings said the House oversight committee would seek interviews with both Donald Jr and Ivanka.
Donald Jr and Weisselberg are also of interest for their role in hush money payments to the adult film actor Stormy Daniels, who was paid $130,000 by Cohen to prevent her from speaking out ahead of the 2016 election about her alleged affair with Trump a decade prior.
“Don Jr and Allan Weisselberg are both in deep trouble,” said Lawrence Tribe, a professor of constitutional law at Harvard Law School. “Cohen’s testimony opened the door to a plethora of questions.”
In his testimony on Wednesday, Cohen submitted as evidence checks from Trump’s personal bank account that he said were reimbursements for the hush money. One was signed by Trump himself, and another was signed by Donald Trump Jr and Weisselberg.
Federal prosecutors have said those payments were a violation of US campaign finance law.
Donald Jr has separately been a source of scrutiny stemming from the infamous June 2016 Trump Tower meeting in New York, in which he and other senior members of the Trump campaign met with a Russian lawyer after being promised dirt on Hillary Clinton.
Cohen alleged on Wednesday that the then candidate Trump was aware of the meeting and told him Donald Jr would never have signed off on it without first seeking his approval.
Legal experts said Cohen’s testimony could prove problematic for Donald Jr, especially if the president’s son is found to have perjured himself before Congress — precisely one of the crimes for which Cohen is heading to prison.
Among the key questions for investigators, Tribe said, would be whether there was “extrinsic evidence to corroborate or deny Cohen’s account of the conversation between Trump and Don Jr”.
In addition to Trump’s children, House Democrats said they would call on Weisselberg to testify before Congress.
Weisselberg’s relationship with the Trump family dates back to the president’s late father, Fred Trump, and spans four decades.
Receipts to other wrongdoing
According to Cohen, Weisselberg presided over several hush money payments involving Trump — some of which are not publicly known. Cohen also said Weisselberg would have the receipts to other wrongdoing on the part of the Trump Organisation, and claimed he had first-hand knowledge of Trump allegedly committing tax and insurance fraud by inflating his assets.
If Trump was, in fact, guilty of finance and insurance fraud for lying about his net worth, Tribe said, some such offences typically carried a 10-year statute of limitations.
Last year, Weisselberg was given immunity by federal prosecutors to testify in relation to the southern district of New York’s investigation into the hush money payments.
Democrats vowed to leave no stone unturned, setting the stage for a 2020 election that will see Trump and his family ensnared by multiple investigations as he seeks re-election.
“I’m going to follow the facts and then whatever comes out of it, fine,” Cummings said.
“What we’re about is just making sure that government is accountable, and this administration, this branch is accountable.”