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What We Learned About President Trump From The Michael Cohen Hearing

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to begin the program today with a closer look at a moment from the past week that may go down as a pivotal moment in the Trump era. I'm talking about the televised testimony of Michael Cohen, President Trump's former personal attorney and self-described fixer who appeared before the House Oversight Committee. Cohen gave the American people a vivid take on working for Donald Trump and of the ethical and financial controversies that have swirled around Trump since long before he became president.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHAEL COHEN: I know what Mr. Trump is. He is a racist, he is a con man, and he is a cheat.

MARTIN: Our next guest also knows Donald Trump. He is Trump biographer Timothy O'Brien. And we've invited him back to the program for his perspective on what we learned from Michael Cohen about the president, about his business and his associates.

Tim O'Brien, thanks so much for talking to us once again.

TIMOTHY O'BRIEN: It's always great to be here, Michel. Thanks.

MARTIN: So we should say at the start that after you published your biography, "TrumpNation," Donald Trump sued you for writing that he is not actually a billionaire. The courts dismissed that lawsuit. So you've spent years studying Donald Trump and his organization, so the first thing I wondered was whether you encountered Michael Cohen when you were reporting your book. And what were your impressions of him if you did?

O'BRIEN: Michael Cohen came in right at the time that Trump sued me in 2006. You know, I think I had some interaction with him through the court work that we were doing, but I never had extensive personal interaction with him. I knew a lot about what Donald Trump thought of Michael Cohen. Trump disparaged Michael Cohen quite a bit behind his back, more so than he did other people in The Trump Organization. And the Trump Organization is a very tiny boutique operation. And Michael Cohen was never someone who was authentically in the inner circle there.

MARTIN: So to that end, though, you said that Donald Trump disparaged Michael Cohen. The Republicans certainly did this week as well. And they made much of the fact that he is an admitted liar, that he's been convicted of crimes related to lying, such as bank fraud and tax fraud. But he did work for Donald Trump for a long time.

So, you know, the president's response has been that he had a lot of lawyers working for him, and anything Mr. Cohen did he did on his own and for his own reasons. So I'm going to ask you, what was your response to his testimony this past week? What struck you about it?

O'BRIEN: Well, I think there's a couple of things that are important. First and foremost is, yes, Michael Cohen is a completely imperfect messenger. When he got his - when his sentencing memo came in in late December from the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District, they pointed out that they wanted a higher - a heavier sentence for him because they didn't feel that his conversion to a person of remorse and conscience was authentic. And he was a very rabid, thuggish enforcer for Trump.

Having said that, Michael Cohen has tapes of conversations. Michael Cohen has canceled checks. He has letters. He has email. He has proof of what he's saying. So regardless of whether or not he's a perfect messenger, there's a lot of substance behind what he's saying. I don't think the federal government, who relied on him as a witness, would be using him solo to build a case against the Trump organization. They also, I think, probably have much deeper information than Michael Cohen.

I think, secondly, what's the signature moment here about his testimony is it was televised, and it was televised at length. It brought the Trump saga into people's homes in a way that the print media and law enforcement indictments had not to - up to that point.

MARTIN: To your point about the substance, Cohen testified that Donald Trump inflated his assets when it advanced his interests and understated their value when it suited his interests, especially for tax purposes. You know, reporters like yourself have documented years' worth of behavior like this. Do you have any sense of why authorities, either in New York or other states where he has properties, or the federal government has not acted on this conduct previously? I mean, if indeed it rises to the level of criminality, shouldn't somebody have known this before now?

O'BRIEN: Well, certainly the banks knew it, Michel. And they knew it in the early 1990s when he left them on the hook for more than $3 billion, and he almost went personally bankrupt. And he had guaranteed about $900 million of that that he couldn't repay, and his businesses could not repay the rest. I think the banks did not go after him legally because it would've been so embarrassing to them to go to court and to say, we got suckered. As a group, we're the biggest banks in the United States, and this guy took us for a ride. And we shouldn't have loaned him that much money, but we didn't do our due diligence. That's the reason I think that event never got him in trouble.

He inflated his net worth a lot in a kind of tragic-comic way because he's so deeply insecure. It was very important to him to measure himself by his net worth. He always cared about his wealth much more than anyone else in the media did. But he used it as this thing of fascination to keep himself in play in the public eye and to get press as one of the richest people in America when he wasn't. And so it served two purposes. It served a business purpose to get him loans he might not otherwise have got - received.

And the reason I think he didn't get to - go to court with that is because some of the people who were damaged by it didn't refer him to the law enforcement authorities. And then it served him on the other hand to make him an object of media fascination.

MARTIN: So what then is the relevance of Michael Cohen's testimony?

O'BRIEN: I think the significance of the Michael Cohen testimony is that it lands in people's living room because of the power of television. But I also think there were other things that were raised in that testimony that came up earlier that are going to be far more of an issue than Donald Trump's wealth. I think one of them is the fact that he conspired with Michael Cohen to make a payment to Stormy Daniels while he was president in order to silence her. And he engaged in a conspiracy and a fraud to keep her quiet. That's one.

The second thing is Michael Cohen added to our knowledge of a project to build a Trump Tower in Moscow that lasted almost up until Trump was elected president. And that raises issues about whether or not the president could have been compromised by a foreign power financially on his way into the White House and whether the decisions he makes around national security or foreign policy issues are compromised by his wallet. And I think those are actually the two - two of the biggest things to come out of the hearing.

I think there was a moment during the hearing when Congressman Khanna of California got into a dialogue with Cohen, and he said to him, are you telling me that Donald Trump Jr. and Allen Weisselberg and President Trump jointly engaged in a criminal fraud? And Michael Cohen said, yes. That's going to be something law enforcement people are going to probe further.

MARTIN: That is journalist Tim O'Brien. He's the author of "TrumpNation: The Art Of Being The Donald." He's now executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion.

Tim O'Brien, thanks so much for talking to us.

O'BRIEN: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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