Cohen Testimony Raises Questions About Trump’s Financial Disclosure
WASHINGTON — Michael D. Cohen’s congressional testimony on Wednesday revived questions about whether President Trump broke the law by failing to disclose that he footed the bill for a hush payment to a pornographic film actress.
Members of the House Oversight and Reform Committee grilled Mr. Cohen, who served for a decade as the president’s so-called fixer, about a $130,000 payment he made just before the 2016 presidential election to the actress to keep her quiet about her claim that she had an affair with Mr. Trump.
Mr. Cohen testified that he was reimbursed in installments by Mr. Trump and his company, the Trump Organization, starting in early 2017 for the payment to the actress, Stormy Daniels.
But Mr. Trump failed to list the arrangement or the outstanding debt owed to Mr. Cohen on a financial disclosure statement submitted in June 2017 under government ethics laws requiring top federal officials to divulge detailed information about their finances. On his 2018 form, he included a footnote listing a repayment of $100,001 to $250,000 to Mr. Cohen, raising questions about whether the 2017 filing had improperly omitted the debt. Democrats pounced on that omission on Wednesday.
[Donald Trump “inflated” the value of his assets in documents given to Deutsche Bank, Michael Cohen testified.]
“Why do you think the president did not provide the accurate information in his 2017 financial disclosure form?” Representative Carolyn B. Maloney, Democrat of New York, asked Mr. Cohen. “What was he trying to hide?”
Mr. Cohen responded that Mr. Trump was trying to avoid publicly revealing “the payments on the reimbursement of the funds that I extended on his behalf.”
Mr. Cohen asserted later that Mr. Trump’s goal in providing the reimbursements in installments “was in order to hide what the payment was.”
The hush payment has become an increasing problem for Mr. Trump, who initially said in 2018 that he was unaware of the payment to Ms. Daniels. He later acknowledged the existence of the payment in a series of Twitter posts, but asserted that the payment had nothing to do with the election, and as such could not be considered an undisclosed campaign contribution.
Last year, Mr. Cohen contradicted that, pleading guilty to a litany of charges, including violating campaign finance laws in connection with the hush payment.
In his congressional testimony on Wednesday, Mr. Cohen elaborated on the payment scheme and the motivation. “It was either somebody wire the funds and purchase the life rights to the story from Ms. Clifford, or it was going to end up being sold to television, and that would have embarrassed the president and it would have interfered with the election,” Mr. Cohen said, referring to Ms. Daniels, whose legal name is Stephanie Clifford.
He produced financial records showing that he fronted the $130,000 from his home equity line, as well as two $35,000 checks — one from Mr. Trump and one from an account linked to his business — that he said were among 11 payments to reimburse him for the hush payment.
Ultimately, he said he was paid $420,000 over a year in connection with the hush payments, which he explained included funds to allow him to pay taxes on the payment and a $60,000 bonus.
All of this was done at the express direction of Mr. Trump, Mr. Cohen testified. “We discussed it,” he said. “Everything had to go through Mr. Trump and it had to be approved by Mr. Trump.”
The testimony seemed to buttress claims by Democrats and government watchdog groups that Mr. Trump knowingly made a false statement to the United States government by omitting the debts owed to Mr. Cohen from his 2017 personal financial disclosure statement.
“This was congressional oversight actually yielding new evidence of wrongdoing at the highest level of government and that’s something congress is supposed to do in our system of checks and balances,” said Noah Bookbinder, the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
His group filed a complaint last year with the Justice Department and the Office of Government Ethics asking for an investigation into whether Mr. Trump failed to disclose the debt. And on Wednesday, he said “while it can look like a technical paperwork violation, it really goes to the issue of keeping the voters from knowing what they need to know to make educated decisions.”