By Howard Kurtz
Published January 12, 2019
Some journalists are already touting Michael Cohen as the next John Dean, casting his upcoming congressional testimony as nothing short of historic.
But they are probably jacking up expectations too high.
While President Trump’s former personal lawyer turning on him before a House committee will be a television spectacle, Cohen’s allies say he will testify under great constraints.
The larger story, they say, is how this man who tied himself so closely to Trump has been utterly devastated—and is, in a sense, seeking redemption.
Cohen is flat broke. His wife and family are under enormous emotional strain. He is getting surgery a week before his testimony for a bone spur in his shoulder that has left him unable to lift his arm.
And a month after his Feb. 7 Hill appearance, Cohen reports to prison for three years.
In short, these sources say, Cohen will offer compelling testimony, but those who expect him to be able to fire a silver bullet that would bring down the president are going to be sorely disappointed. Cohen may have important new information that he has disclosed to Robert Mueller in 70 hours of interviews with prosecutors, but if so, he won’t be able to reveal it.
The major limitation, as Cohen has said, is that he can’t discuss anything still under investigation by the special counsel. That means Cohen, who is still hoping for a reduction in his sentence, can’t answer questions about Russian collusion or the proposed real estate project in Moscow. It also means he can’t address the 2016 Trump Tower meeting between Paul Manafort, Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner and a Russian lawyer (who was recently indicted on money-laundering charges).
“I expect Michael’s testimony will be personal, not partisan, and compelling,” Lanny Davis, again acting as Cohen’s attorney, told me. “He will describe what he did for Mr. Trump for 10 years that he now looks back on, as stated in court, with shame and regret. And he will explain what caused him, on July 2, 2018, to turn and put his family and country first; recognizing the dangers to the country in Mr. Trump’s misconduct and reckless behavior.”
In the interview, Davis implied a further reason for Cohen’s desire to testify.
Given the fraud and lying charges in the two Cohen guilty pleas, Davis said he “and many others believe the length of incarceration time, compared to others who committed far worse offenses, is disproportionately excessive and unjust. I hope someone in the Justice Department focuses on the word ‘justice’ when assessing the fairness of Michael’s three-year prison term. What they need to ask themselves is, would he have received this time if he had been someone who didn’t work for Donald Trump?”
The contours of the testimony are likely to frustrate Republican members of the oversight committee, now chaired by Democrat Elijah Cummings. Some may ask why Cohen is there if he is unable to answer questions on such vital topics.
What’s more, they will point out that Cohen is an acknowledged liar and ask why he should still be viewed as credible.
The New York lawyer wants to explain why he went to work for Trump, why he is ashamed of having worked for Trump, and how he made the decision last July to turn on his longtime benefactor, who has called him a “weak person” and a “rat.”
Part of that explanation will focus on Cohen’s view that while certain behavior might be tolerable in a private businessman, the standards are very different when that person becomes president.
Cohen will offer personal anecdotes about his service to Trump and what he has termed his complicity in “dirty deeds,” the sources say. These would likely be unflattering blasts from the past but could have little to do with his record as president.
The one area in which Cohen may shed some light, since it’s part of the public record, is on the hush money payments to former porn star Stormy Daniels and ex-Playboy model Karen McDougal. Cohen has already said he was doing Trump’s bidding in both cases—the lawyer paid Daniels $130,000 and was reimbursed by the boss—but could fill in key details under questioning.
Dean, who was Richard Nixon’s White House counsel, broke open the Watergate coverup with his Senate testimony and wound up spending four months in jail. But he knew that conspiracy from the inside because he was a willing participant before turning against Nixon.
Cohen is not in a similar position, no matter how much media hype surrounds his testimony. But like John Dean, he appears to view the appearance as a final chance to vindicate his reputation before heading off to prison.
“My heart goes out to Michael and his family,” Davis told me. “They are under great duress and strain.”