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By Ken Dilanian
If Wednesday’s extraordinary House oversight committee hearing made anything crystal clear, it was this: No matter what Robert Mueller concludes from his investigation of Russian election interference, federal prosecutors in New York pose their own separate danger to the president and his business associates.
Even if those watching didn’t believe anything else he said, Donald Trump’s former lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen, left no doubt that he is working closely with prosecutors in Manhattan’s Southern District in criminal investigations that could end up roiling the Trump presidency. Unlike the special counsel, those prosecutors have no specific mandate — they can investigate any crime that comes to their attention.
“Is there any other wrongdoing or illegal act that you are aware of regarding Donald Trump that we haven’t yet discussed today?” Democrat Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois asked Cohen, in the middle of the seven-and-and-a-half hour hearing full of stunning, ugly allegations.
Cohen replied: “Yes and again those are a part of the investigation that’s currently being looked at by the Southern District of New York.”
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It wasn’t even the day’s biggest headline. Cohen, who once said he would take a bullet for Trump, attacked his former boss in deeply personal terms, painting a picture of racism, deceit and immorality. He spoke about hush money payments, lies about a real estate project in Russia, an overheard phone call between Trump and Roger Stone, and potential tax and bank fraud.
But Cohen’s comments about the Southern District investigations may be what figure as the most important of the hearing a year from now.
In an answer sure to be seized on by the president and his allies, Cohen said he knew of no evidence that Trump or anyone around him colluded with the Russian election interference effort. He also testified he had never been to Prague or met with Russians in Europe, refuting a key allegation by a former British intelligence officer whose dossier sketched out a Trump-Russian conspiracy.
But even as Cohen poured water on the Russia collusion narrative, he fueled the idea that Trump’s biggest legal problems have to do with his real estate business, his taxes, his bank statements, and the secret payments he made to women.
The disbarred lawyer, scheduled to report for a three-year prison sentence in May, came to the hearing with a $35,000 check written to him by Trump, dated Aug. 2017, seven months into the Trump presidency. That was part of the payback, Cohen said, for the illegal campaign contribution he made by paying $130,000 to the porn star known as Stormy Daniels.
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Cohen had already testified Trump ordered him to commit a felony; now he was showing that Trump participated in the alleged scheme while occupying the Oval Office.
Asked after the hearing if he believed Cohen established that the president had committed a crime while in office, House oversight chairman Elijah Cummings answered, “It appears that he did.”
In another exchange with Krishnamoorthi, Cohen suggested that New York prosecutors had an interest in his conversations with the president or his top people.
Cohen said the last time he spoke to the president or his representative was “within two months” of the April 2018 FBI raid on Cohen’s home and office.
“What did he or his agent communicate to you?” Krishnamoorthi asked.
“Unfortunately, this topic is actually something that’s being investigated right now by the Southern District of New York and I’ve been asked by them not to discuss and not to talk about these issues,” Cohen replied.
The White House did not respond specifically to Cohen’s comments, other than to note that he had pleaded guilty to lying and therefore, should not be trusted.
NBC News has reported that Cohen met with Southern District prosecutors recently and provided them information regarding their investigations into the Trump Organization and the Trump inaugural committee.
But Cohen made allegations that also raised questions of bank, tax, charity and insurance fraud by the Trump Organization, which did not respond to an NBC News request for comment. He said Trump provided inflated financial statements to get a bank loan, fibbed to reduce his tax bills, and concocted a fake auction in which his foundation purchased a portrait of him.
“To your knowledge, did the president ever provide inflated assets to an insurance company?” asked Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a freshman Democrat.
“Yes,” Cohen responded.
Repeatedly, when asked who might be able to corroborate these allegations, Cohen mentioned two key figures in the Trump Organization: Allen Weisselberg, Trump’s longtime accountant, and Alan Garten, executive vice president and chief legal officer.
Weisselberg was given limited immunity to testify about his role in the hush money payments, but he is not cooperating, three people with knowledge of the situation told NBC News. Garten’s status is unclear.
“Sitting here today, it seems unbelievable that I was so mesmerized by Donald Trump that I was willing to do things for him that I knew were absolutely wrong,” Cohen told the lawmakers.
“I may not be able to change the past, but I can do right by the American people here today.”
Ken Dilanian is a national security reporter for the NBC News Investigative Unit.