8 min read

Wake Up To Politics - February 28, 2019

I'm Gabe Fleisher, reporting live from WUTP World HQ in my bedroom. It’s Thursday, February 28, 2019. 340 days until the 2020 Iowa caucuses. 614 days until Election Day 2020. Have comments, questions, suggestions, or tips? Email me at gabe@wakeuptopolitics.com.

Two major stories today: Michael Cohen's dramatic testimony before the House Oversight Committee, and the collapse of negotiations between President Trump and Kim Jong Un. Read on for more...

Cohen testimony hints at growing legal exposure for Trump

President Trump's former longtime personal attorney and "fixer," Michael Cohen, testified before the House Oversight Committee for about five hours on Wednesday, telling lawmakers about his experiences serving a man he now calls a "racist," "conman," and a "cheat" who committed "illicit acts." Here are the key allegations Cohen made against Trump at Wednesday's hearing:

  • Cohen asserted that Trump had advance knowledge of WikiLeaks' plans to release emails damaging to Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign, describing a phone call he overheard between the future president and his longtime adviser Roger Stone. In Cohen's telling, Stone told Trump that he had just spoken to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who told him that a dump of damaging emails would be coming soon, to which Trump responded "to the effect of 'wouldn't that be great.'" Stone has denied Cohen's account; both Trump and Stone have said they had no advance knowledge of WikiLeaks' plans.
  • Cohen testified that Trump directed him to pay off pornographic film actress Stormy Daniels as part of a hush agreement in the closing days of the campaign. "He asked me to pay off an adult film star with whom he had an affair, and to lie to his wife about it, which I did," Cohen said. The payment has since been deemed an illegal campaign contribution by federal prosecutors.
  • Cohen also submitted documents to the panel corroborating his claims, including copies of some of the monthly $35,000 checks from Trump or members of his inner circle to reimburse Cohen for the Daniels payment. One of the provided checks is signed by President Trump (after he had already taken office); the other is signed by Donald Trump Jr. and Trump Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg. Cohen said Trump Jr. and Weisselberg also played key roles in coordinating the illegal payment, raising the possibility that Oversight Committee Democrats will subpoena one or both of them.
  • Cohen also accused President Trump of lying about negotiations over the potential Trump Tower Moscow project, claiming to have briefed Trump about the deal's progress, even as the future president claimed publicly to have no knowledge of the discussions. "Mr. Trump knew of and directed the Trump Moscow negotiations throughout the campaign and lied about it," he said.
  • However, Cohen said Trump did not explicitly direct him to lie to Congress about how long Trump Tower Moscow negotiations continued, although Cohen said he "made clear to me" through a kind of "code" that "he wanted me to lie," repeatedly telling him: "Michael, there's no Russia, there's no collusion, there's no involvement, there's no interference." Cohen was indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller for lying to Congress about the negotiations. He claimed Wednesday that his testimony about "the length of time that the Trump Tower Moscow project stayed and remained alive" was edited by Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow, a claim Sekulow denies.
  • Without offering evidence, Cohen also insinuated that Trump was aware of the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting between Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort, and a group of visiting Russians who promised "dirt" on Hillary Clinton. Cohen said that he was in Trump's office in early June 2016 when Trump Jr. whispered to his father, "The meeting is all set," and the candidate responded: "OK, good... let me know." Trump has denied any knowledge of the meeting.
  • Other documents Cohen submitted to the committee included records showing Trump "inflated his total assets when it served his purposes... and deflated his assets to reduce his real estate taxes," potential evidence of tax or bank fraud committed by the president, which could be used by Democrats as they seek his tax returns.

And that's not all, Cohen said. Asked by Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL) if there were "any other wrongdoing or illegal act that you are aware of regarding Donald Trump that we haven't yet discussed today," Cohen responded: "Yes and again, those are part of the investigation that's currently being looked at by [federal prosecutors in] the Southern District of New York," a tantalizing hint of the growing legal exposure President Trump faces from various inquiries into his campaign, business, charity, inaugural committee, and administration.

In his testimony, Cohen described what it was like to serve in Trump's inner circle for over a decade, operating in an environment where he said lying and criminal behavior were the norms. "Being around Mr. Trump was intoxicating," Cohen said. The "fixer" turned "rat" (in Trump's words) also framed his experiences as a warning to the nation, testifying: "My loyalty to Mr. Trump has cost me everything. I will not sit back, say nothing, and allow him to do the same to the country." At one point, he addressed the Republican lawmakers in the room directly: "The more people that follow Mr. Trump as I did blindly are going to suffer the same consequences that I'm suffering."

And perhaps most ominously of all, he later references fears of his that "there will never be a peaceful transition of power" if Trump loses re-election in 2020 or is otherwise forced out of office.

But is Cohen to be believed? Republican committee members spent much of their time questioning Cohen attempting to diminish his credibility, pointing to the past falsehoods and lies under oath that have led him to the three-year prison sentence he is about to serve. "You're a pathological liar. You don't know truth from falsehood," Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) said. Cohen, expressing remorse for lying to Congress in the past but indignantly insisting he was now telling the truth, shot back: "Sir, I'm sorry, are you referring to me or the president?"

At one point, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) brought a Trump administration official, Lynne Patton, who is black, to the hearing in an attempt to rebut Cohen's accusations of racism against the president. The incident led to an intracommittee squabble among Democratic and Republican members, after Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) said Meadows' use of Patton as a "prop" was also "racist." Cohen sat quietly at the witness stand, watching the spectacle unfold.

After a life of committing crimes and falsehoods (some, but not all, at Trump's behest), Cohen declared Wednesday that he had turned over a new leaf and exited the president's inner circle for good — "I am not protecting Mr. Trump anymore" — and at times, explicitly urged Trump's Republican defenders and the nation at large to do the same, warning of the "consequences" that could follow if his words were ignored.

--- Happening today: Cohen will finish off his three-day tour of Capitol Hill, testifying before a closed meeting of the House Intelligence Committee, a session that is expected to focus more on topics directly related to the Russia investigation.

Trump-Kim summit ends abruptly with no deal reached

President Trump's highly-anticipated second summit meeting in Hanoi, Vietnam with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ended abruptly this morning, as the two leaders failed to agree on any steps towards dismantling Pyongyang's nuclear program.

"Sometimes you have to walk, and this was just one of those times," Trump said, repeating a core dealmaking philosophy of his, at a news conference after the talks were cut short. The president said the collapse in negotiations were due to Kim's demand that all U.S. sanctions on North Korea be lifted in exchange for closure of a single nuclear facility. "It was about the sanctions," Trump explained. "Basically they wanted the sanctions lifted in their entirety, but we couldn't do that."

The breakdown came after Trump flew 20 hours to meet face-to-face once again with the longtime U.S. adversary. Going into the summit, both Trump and Kim had expressed optimism that a deal could be reached, with the president speaking about his chemistry with his North Korean counterpart, who he repeatedly called a "friend." Even after the talks fell apart, Trump said he remained on positive terms with Kim. "This was very friendly... There's a warm that we have, and I hope that stays. I think it will. But we're positioned to do something very special."

According to Trump, the North Korean leader did promise to continue a moratorium on nuclear and ballistic missile tests, although Kim is not bound to a formal agreement to do so.

The Rundown

--- Former Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-TX) "has decided to run for U.S. Senate next year against Texas Republican incumbent John Cornyn and likely will announce a campaign for president soon," the Dallas Morning News reports. O'Rourke, who challenged Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) in the 2018 Senate race, said in a statement: "Amy and I have made a decision about how we can best serve our country. We are excited to share it with everyone soon."

--- The attorney general for the District of Columbia has subpoenaed documents from President Trump's inaugural committee, per the New York Times, joining federal prosecutors in Manhattan and New Jersey's attorney general in probing the fund's $107 million haul, an amount that far outpaced its predecessors.

--- Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) is now under investigation by the Florida Bar after his Tuesday tweet appearing to threaten Michael Cohen ahead of his testimony before Congress. "Hey @MichaelCohen212 — Do your wife & father-in-law know about your girlfriends? Maybe tonight would be a good time for that chat," the congressman tweeted. Gaetz, a member of the bar, has since apologized and deleted the tweet.

--- North Carolina political operative Leslie McCrae Dowless, who is at the center of allegations of absentee ballot fraud in an as-yet-uncertified North Carolina congressional race, was arrested on Wednesday and charged with three counts of obstruction of justice, two counts of conspiracy to commit obstruction of justice, and two counts of possession of absentee ballots. Dowless worked for Republican candidate Mark Harris in the 9th District race, a do-over of which will be held later this year; Harris has already said he will not run in the new election.

Do you like Wake Up To Politics? Share it with your colleagues, friends, and family! Please forward this newsletter to them and tell them to sign up at wakeuptopolitics.com/subscribe!

White House schedule

POTUS: As of this writing, President Trump is in the air, flying from Hanoi back to Washington. He is scheduled to return to the White House at 1:30 a.m. Friday morning. Late last night, President Trump participated in a one-on-one meeting and expanded bilateral with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Early this morning, he participated in a press conference before departing Hanoi at 6:05 a.m.

VP: At 1:30 p.m., Vice President Mike Pence and Second Lady Karen Pence visit the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site.

Congress schedule

Senate: The Senate convenes at 10 a.m. today. At 12:30 p.m., the chamber will vote on confirmation of Andrew Wheeler to be Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Wheeler currently serves as the agency's Deputy Administrator and has also been Acting Administrator since Scott Pruitt's resignation in July 2018. His nomination was advanced on Wednesday in a 52-46 vote, along party lines.

At 1:45 p.m., the Senate will vote on confirmation of John L. Ryder, a Tennessee Republican attorney and the former general counsel of the Republican National Committee (RNC), to be a Member of the Board of Directors of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA).

House: The House convenes at 9 a.m. today. The chamber will vote on H.R. 1112, the Enhanced Background Checks Act of 2019, which would extend the amount of time the FBI has to complete background checks on individuals attempting to purchase firearms from three days to 10 days. The measure would close the "Charleston loophole," so named because the gunman in the 2015 Charleston shooting was able to buy a gun despite a past drug arrest due to the FBI failing to complete its background check within the required three days.

This is the second gun control measure the House will take up in as many days; on Wednesday, the chamber passed the Bipartisan Background Checks Act, which would require background checks for all firearm sales, including those sold a gun shows and online, in a 240-190 vote. Eight Republicans voted for the bill, while two Democrats voted against it. Together, the two background checks bills are seen as the most significant gun control legislation passed by either chamber of Congress in the past 25 years.

Supreme Court schedule

The justices have no oral arguments or conference scheduled today.

*All times Eastern