Why Michael Cohen — who lied to Congress before — gave such effective testimony this time

The president's former lawyer appeared with a mountain of damning evidence and no incentive to lie.

Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump's former personal attorney, testifies before the House Oversight and Reform Committee in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 27, 2019. CREDIT: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump's former personal attorney, testifies before the House Oversight and Reform Committee in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 27, 2019. CREDIT: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Republicans on the House Oversight Committee repeatedly accused President Donald Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, of lying Wednesday during his marathon testimony before the committee, but there was no evidence he was.

Cohen pleaded guilty to lying the last time he testified before Congress, but the story of redemption Cohen tried to tell Wednesday — of a man who lost his way working for a uniquely corrupt, and corrupting, president — had its own appeal.

“The last time I appeared before Congress, I came to protect Mr. Trump,” Cohen said in his opening remarks. “Today, I am here to tell the truth about Mr. Trump.”

Cohen had strong incentives to refrain from lying, and had little to gain from making this appearance: his testimony Wednesday wouldn’t reduce his already lengthy sentence (he’ll serve three years starting this May for his guilty plea), but if he’s caught lying again, he stands to face even more jail time.


Cohen’s testimony was, at times, self-deprecating, vulnerable, and evenhanded. He did not confirm the most inflammatory allegations published by BuzzFeed News earlier this year, for example, that Trump personally directed him to lie in his previous Senate testimony, saying “that’s not how he operates.” Instead of explicitly directing him to lie, Cohen said, Trump spoke in a way that lead him to believe Trump would also want Cohen to lie on his behalf.

He did say, however, that Trump’s lawyers coached his false testimony. “Mr. Trump’s personal lawyers reviewed and edited my statement to Congress about the timing of the Moscow Tower negotiations before I gave it,” he said.

In addition to sworn testimony, Cohen also brought physical evidence to support many of his claims about the president, his actions, and his character — including financial records Cohen used to corroborate claims Trump misstated the value of his assets to banks; checks Cohen said show the president, his son, and a Trump organization executive reimbursing him for hush-money payments to women who allegedly had affairs with Trump; and a letter threatening legal action against Fordham University if it revealed Trump’s academic records.

In one case, a third party has already confirmed Cohen’s evidence. Fordham University confirmed that it received the letter Cohen handed over to the Oversight Committee.

There were other instances during Cohen’s testimony where he gave the names of specific people or documents who could corroborate his claims, such as when Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) pressed him on Trump’s finances.

Republicans on the committee seemed reluctant to defend Trump on the merits, seeking instead to impugn Cohen’s character or imply that he had ulterior motives.


“The interesting thing is that there hasn’t been one Republican yet who has tried to defend the president on the substance, and I think that’s something that should be concerning to the White House,” former New Jersey Governor and Trump campaign surrogate Chris Christie said on ABC News Wednesday.

Some of Cohen’s testimony Wednesday may still land him in hot water — including his statements about his consulting work for foreign companies, which could run him afoul of the same Foreign Agents Registration Act that has already ensnared many in Trump’s orbit.

But Cohen seemed, to many, genuine, and his testimony authentic. As committee Chair Elijah Cummings (D-MD) spoke about the impact Cohen’s crimes have had on his family, Cohen visibly struggled to contain his emotions — putting his hand over his reddening face, picking up his pen and tapping it anxiously, taking a drink of water, and shifting uncomfortably.

Asked by Rep. Jim Cooper (D-TN) what made him have a change of heart after defending the president for a decade, Cohen pointed at a sign Republican committee members had printed with his face next to the words “Liar liar pants on fire.”

“It’s that sort of behavior that I’m responsible for,” Cohen said. “I’m responsible for your silliness because I did the same thing that you’re doing now for ten years.”

“The more people that follow Mr. Trump, as I did, blindly, are going to suffer the same consequences that I’m suffering,” he added.