Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez questioned Michael Cohen about President Trump’s shady tax dealings at Wednesday’s hearing, presenting a roadmap for investigators to look further into Trump’s crimes. We speak with independent journalist Marcy Wheeler, who says, “In five minutes, this freshman congresswoman just laid out a whole investigative plan for three more topics into Donald Trump’s potentially criminal activities.” Wheeler covers national security and civil liberties on her website EmptyWheel.net.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we go now to New York Democratic Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez questioning Michael Cohen at yesterday’s House hearing.
REP. ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: My colleague from Vermont had asked you several questions about AMI, the parent company of the National Enquirer. And in that, you mentioned a treasure trove—a, quote, “treasure trove” of documents in David Pecker’s office relating to information assembled from all these catch-and-kill operations against people who potentially had damaging information on the president. You also mentioned that the president was very concerned about the whereabouts of these documents and who possessed them. Does that treasure trove of documents still exist?
MICHAEL COHEN: I don’t know. I had asked David Pecker for them.
REP. ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: So, you would say the person who knows the whereabouts of these documents would be David Pecker?
MICHAEL COHEN: David Pecker, Barry Levine or Dylan Howard.
REP. ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: OK. Thank you. Secondly, I want to ask a little bit about your conversation with my colleague from Missouri about asset inflation. To your knowledge, did the president ever provide inflated assets to an insurance company?
MICHAEL COHEN: Yes.
REP. ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: Who else knows that the president did this?
MICHAEL COHEN: Allen Weisselberg, Ron Lieberman and Matthew Calamari.
REP. ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: And where would the committee find more information on this? Do you think we need to review his financial statements and his tax returns in order to compare them?
MICHAEL COHEN: Yes, and you’d find it at the Trump Org.
REP. ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: Mr. Cohen, I want to ask you about your assertion that the president may have improperly devalued his assets to avoid paying taxes. According to an August 24th—August 21st, 2016, report by The Washington Post, while the president claimed in financial disclosure forms that Trump National Golf Club in Jupiter, Florida, was worth more than $50 million, he had reported otherwise to local tax authorities, that the course was worth, quote, “no more than $5 million.” Mr. Cohen, do you know whether this specific report is accurate?
MICHAEL COHEN: It’s identical to what he did at Trump National Golf Club at Briarcliff Manor.
REP. ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: Do you know—to your knowledge, was the president interested in reducing his local real estate bills, tax bills?
MICHAEL COHEN: Yes.
REP. ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: And how did he do that?
MICHAEL COHEN: What you do is you deflate the value of the asset, and then you put in a request to the tax department for a deduction.
REP. ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: Thank you. Now, in October 2018, The New York Times revealed that, quote, “President Trump participated in dubious tax schemes during the 1990s, including instances of outright fraud, that greatly increased the fortune he received from his parents.” It further stated, for Mr. Trump, “He also helped formulate a strategy to undervalue his parents’ real estate holdings by hundreds of millions of dollars on tax returns, sharply reducing [his] tax bill when those properties were transferred to him and his siblings.” Mr. Cohen, do you know whether that specific report is accurate?
MICHAEL COHEN: I don’t. I wasn’t there in 1990s.
REP. ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: Who would know the answer to those questions?
MICHAEL COHEN: Allen Weisselberg.
REP. ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: And would it help for the committee to obtain federal and state tax returns from the president and his company to address that discrepancy?
MICHAEL COHEN: I believe so.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s New York Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez questioning Michael Cohen. The significance of what she was asking, Marcy Wheeler?
MARCY WHEELER: Well, it’s one of those examples that I talked about where there’s evidence of other kinds of criminal activity that didn’t make the headline, didn’t make Michael Cohen’s opening statement. And in this case, AOC kind of laid the groundwork for this committee or any other congressional committees to get his tax returns, to get the tax records from these golf courses, to get—you know, to pull in AMI, National Enquirer, to ask whether there’s compromising information that they have held out over Donald Trump. And so, in five minutes, this freshman congresswoman just laid out a whole investigative plan for three more topics into Donald Trump’s potentially criminal activities.
AMY GOODMAN: And this issue of the treasure trove in the safe over at National Enquirer, at AMI, the parent company, what is in this, and David Pecker’s knowledge about what exactly Trump was concerned about, and who has this treasure trove right now?
MARCY WHEELER: Right. The term is “catch and kill.” So, for years, anytime some embarrassing or scandalous story would sort of float out there about Donald Trump’s conduct, National Enquirer would hear about it, or often get offered the story, and then they would get the person’s story rights, pay for them, and basically kill the story. And they had done that with a couple of the accusations of affairs. But we would assume that the stories are similar kinds of things, accusations of affairs. You know, there was the love child story, that was one of those. And—
AMY GOODMAN: That he said was false.
MARCY WHEELER: —those stories would—of Trump potentially fathering a child with one of the staffers in his building.
AMY GOODMAN: Right, that Michael Cohen said they said was false.
MARCY WHEELER: Right. He said he never found that story. Those are the kinds of stories, though, that National Enquirer would—
AMY GOODMAN: But they paid $15,000 to kill it anyway.
MARCY WHEELER: Right, sure. It was the election season. And a lot of people have noted that one wasn’t named in his charging documents as one of the hush money stories. But nevertheless, there’s all these stories. National Enquirer has been doing this for years. And it is a legitimate story about where those stories currently are, where they legally are, and whether National Enquirer has any kind of leverage over the president because they’ve got all his secrets.
AMY GOODMAN: You know, race was an undercurrent of this whole hearing. You had, of course, Michael Cohen starting off by calling President Trump a racist. I want to turn to North Carolina Republican Congressmember Mark Meadows, who heads up the Freedom Caucus, who introduced Department of Housing and Urban Development appointee Lynne Patton, an African-American woman, in an attempt to disprove Cohen’s claims that Donald Trump is a racist.
REP. MARK MEADOWS: Mr. Cohen, do you know Lynne Patton? I’m right here.
MICHAEL COHEN: Oh, yes, sir.
REP. MARK MEADOWS: Do you know Lynne Patton?
MICHAEL COHEN: Yes, I do.
REP. MARK MEADOWS: I asked Lynne to come today, in her personal capacity, to actually shed some light. How long have you known Ms. Patton?
MICHAEL COHEN: I’m responsible for Lynne Patton joining the Trump Organization and the job that she currently holds.
REP. MARK MEADOWS: Well, that’s—I’m glad you acknowledge that, because you made some very demeaning comments about the president that Ms. Patton doesn’t agree with. In fact, it has to do with your claim of racism. She says that as a daughter of a man born in Birmingham, Alabama, that there is no way that she would work for an individual who is racist. How do you reconcile the two of those?
MICHAEL COHEN: As neither should I, as the son of a Holocaust survivor.
REP. MARK MEADOWS: But, Mr. Cohen, I guess what I’m saying is, is I’ve talked to the president over 300 times. I’ve not heard one time a racist comment out of—out of his mouth, in private. So how do you reconcile it? Do you have proof of those conversations?
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib of Michigan later responded to Congressman Meadows.
REP. RASHIDA TLAIB: Just to make a note, Mr. Chairman, just because someone has a person of color, a black person, working for them does not mean they aren’t racist. And it is insensitive that some would even say it’s—the fact that someone would actually use a prop—a black woman—in this chamber, in this committee, is, alone, racist in itself.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, since yesterday’s hearing, a video has resurfaced of North Carolina Republican Congressmember Mark Meadows making a racist joke about President Obama in 2012.
REP. MARK MEADOWS: It’s good to be here with you today. I thank you so much for allowing me just a few minutes to talk with you and share a few things. But, you know, it’s interesting, when the more we find out, the more we realize how wrong the direction we’re going. And so, what we’re going to do is take back our country. 2012 is the time that we’re going to send Mr. Obama home, to Kenya or wherever it is. We’re going to do it.
AMY GOODMAN: “Send Obama home, to Kenya or wherever it is.” Marcy Wheeler?
MARCY WHEELER: Right. And there was a big to-do at the end of the hearing about whether or not Congresswoman Tlaib had stepped over bounds, over congressional rules on insulting a colleague. But, right, I mean, Mark Meadows—
AMY GOODMAN: And Elijah Cummings said something very interesting, who is the chair of the House Oversight Committee. He said, “People may not know, but Mark Meadows is”—I mean, he said, actually, “my best friend.”
MARCY WHEELER: That was one of the craziest pieces of news out of the entire hearing. I think people are puzzling through that. And another thing that Meadows did at the end of the hearing was—Cummings had said, “Hold off on submitting all these articles until we’re done.” There were just a few members of Congress left. One was AOC, one was Congresswoman Pressley, and one was Congresswoman Tlaib. And so, you had three women of color waiting for their turns, having waited all day, and Mark Meadows didn’t follow Cummings’s request and basically tried to stall Tlaib, just minutes before she said that was a racist act, and then he, you know, threw his tissy fit. So, yes, that, I think—
AMY GOODMAN: And it was amazing. I mean, Ayanna Pressley called out the racism, the freshman congresswoman, first African-American congresswoman to represent Massachusetts. You had Brenda Lawrence also, of Detroit, in Michigan, talking about the racism of President Trump.
MARCY WHEELER: Right. And Cohen said one of the reasons he started thinking differently about Trump was Charlottesville. So, and I think his response was right on. I think Meadows didn’t—that was an example where Meadows and the president’s defenders really didn’t expect Cohen to be as sharp as he was. But yeah, I mean, he is the child of a Holocaust survivor, and that, too, should make it beyond the pale, beyond common rationality, to work for Trump for so many years while he coddled these racists.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to—
MARCY WHEELER: I don’t think any—go ahead.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to Representative Ro Khanna of California questioning Michael Cohen about a check payment he received from the Trump Revocable Trust.
REP. RO KHANNA: As federal prosecutors laid out in their criminal charges, payments like this check resulted in numerous false statements in the books and records of the Trump Organization. And it’s important for the American public to understand this. Nothing to do with collusion. This is financial fraud, garden-variety financial fraud. It was disguised as a payment for legal services to you. But this was not a payment for legal services, was it, Mr. Cohen?
MICHAEL COHEN: No, sir.
REP. RO KHANNA: You told Representative Kelly that the president was aware of this scheme. Is that correct?
MICHAEL COHEN: That’s correct.
REP. RO KHANNA: I just want the American public to understand the explosive nature of your testimony and this document. Are you telling us, Mr. Cohen, that the president directed transactions, in conspiracy with Allen Weisselberg and his son, Donald Trump Jr., as part of a civil criminal—as part of a criminal conspiracy of financial fraud? Is that your testimony today?
MICHAEL COHEN: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: I also want to go to an exchange between Michael Cohen and California Democrat Harley Rouda.
HARLEY ROUDA: Over the years, President Trump was asked how many times he interacted with convicted Russian mobster Felix Sater. In 2013, President Trump testified that, quote, “Not many. If he were sitting in the room right now, I really wouldn’t know what he looked like,” unquote. Mr. Cohen, as you previously testified, isn’t it true that President Trump knew convicted Russian mobster Felix Sater in 2013 when he made that statement?
MICHAEL COHEN: Yes.
HARLEY ROUDA: Isn’t it true that because of Mr. Sater’s relationship to the Trump Organization, that he had an office in the Trump Tower?
MICHAEL COHEN: And on the 26th floor, Mr. Trump’s floor.
HARLEY ROUDA: And the 26th floor is important, why?
MICHAEL COHEN: Because it’s Mr. Trump’s floor.
HARLEY ROUDA: So he had an office on the same floor as President Trump?
MICHAEL COHEN: In fact, his office, when he left, became my office.
HARLEY ROUDA: And isn’t it also true that convicted Russian mobster Sater even had business cards indicating that he was a senior adviser to Donald Trump, as reported by The Washington Post?
MICHAEL COHEN: Yes.
HARLEY ROUDA: Did convicted Russian mobster Sater pay rent for his office?
MICHAEL COHEN: No, he did not.
HARLEY ROUDA: So, based on those facts, isn’t it true that President Trump misled, at best, or, worse, lied under oath?
MICHAEL COHEN: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Harley Rouda questioning Michael Cohen. Ten seconds, Marcy Wheeler. The significance of this?
MARCY WHEELER: Sater was the guy who was brokering the Trump Tower deal all through the election, and Trump made similar comments during the election about not knowing Felix Sater, when, in fact, he was negotiating a $300 million real estate deal through Sater to Russians.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Elijah Cummings at the end of the hearing.
REPORTER: Do you believe that the president committed a crime while in office?
REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGS: Based on what—looking at the checks and listening to Mr. Cohen, it appears that he did.
AMY GOODMAN: “It appears that he [committed a crime],” said the House committee chair, Elijah Cummings. That does it for our coverage today. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.