Dems warn Trump on Cohen comments
WASHINGTON – Three newly empowered Democratic House committee chairmen, alarmed by statements over the weekend by President Trump about his former lawyer’s planned testimony before Congress, cautioned Sunday that any effort to discourage or influence a witness’ testimony could be construed as a crime.
The warning, a stark and unusual message from some of Congress’ most influential Democrats, underscores the increasing legal and political peril facing Trump. Democrats are beginning their own investigations of him as special counsel Robert Mueller appears to move toward a conclusion in his investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia and potential obstruction of justice by Trump.
In a Fox News interview Saturday night, Trump accused the former lawyer, Michael Cohen, of lying about him to win leniency from federal prosecutors and spoke cryptically of the existence of damaging information against Cohen’s father-in-law. Cohen, who has been sentenced to three years in prison, has accused Trump of directing him to make illegal hush payments during the campaign.
“Our nation’s laws prohibit efforts to discourage, intimidate or otherwise pressure a witness not to provide testimony to Congress,” the chairmen wrote. “The president should make no statement or take any action to obstruct Congress’s independent oversight and investigative efforts, including by seeking to discourage any witness from testifying in response to a duly authorized request from Congress.”
The message seemed to imply that if Democrats in the House were to ever try to build an impeachment case against Trump, attempts to interfere with their work could be used as evidence. One of the chairmen who signed the letter, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., who leads the Oversight and Reform Committee, announced last week that Cohen would testify publicly for the first time next month about his work on behalf of Trump. The hearing promises to be a blockbuster session that could further erode Trump’s public image and clarify the extent of his legal exposure.
In August, Cohen pleaded guilty in federal court in Manhattan to tax fraud, making false statements to a bank and a campaign finance violation. He later pleaded guilty to an additional charge of lying to Congress about how long negotiations for a Trump Tower project in Moscow went on in 2016. He acknowledged that Trump’s associates pursued the project well into 2016, as the Kremlin was escalating its efforts to interfere in the U.S. election on his behalf. In court, he said Trump had directed him to arrange payments to two women during the 2016 campaign to stop them from speaking publicly about affairs they said they had with him. He worked closely alongside Trump during his time as a businessman and candidate, and has spent more than 70 hours with federal prosecutors in Manhattan as well as with Mueller’s team.
Trump’s comments about Cohen on Saturday, made during a friendly interview with Jeanine Pirro of Fox News, were his first extended remarks on the matter since Cohen’s congressional testimony was announced. Asked by Pirro if he was “worried” about the testimony, Trump called Cohen “weak” and asserted – in contradiction to filings by federal prosecutors in Manhattan – that Cohen had “no information” on him.
“He’s in trouble on some loans and fraud and taxicabs and stuff that I know nothing about,” Trump said. “And in order to get his sentence reduced, he says, I have an idea, I’ll tell – I’ll give you some information on the president.” Trump then implied that Cohen ought to be sharing information instead on his father-in-law, whose name he said he did not know.
“But he should give information maybe on his father-in-law, because that’s the one that people want to look at,” he said, adding, “That’s the money in the family.” Pressed by Pirro for more details, Trump said, “I don’t know, but you’ll find out, and you’ll look into it because nobody knows what’s going on over there.”