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What to Watch: Cohen’s testimony could deal damage to Trump

February 27, 2019
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Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump's former lawyer, speaks to the media as he departs after testifying before a closed door hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
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Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump's former lawyer, speaks to the media as he departs after testifying before a closed door hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

WASHINGTON (AP) — There’ll be much talk of a “rat,” hush money for onetime paramours and the 2016 presidential campaign.

But did President Donald Trump break the law?

That’s the key question Michael Cohen will be expected to answer with documents on Wednesday during a Capitol Hill drama that sounds more like a mobster movie every day. Trump’s formal personal lawyer and “fixer” is set to go public before a Democrat-led House panel and talk about the decade in which he would “take a bullet” for his boss.

“I am no longer your ‘fixer,’ Mr. Trump,” Cohen is to say in prepared remarks .

Cohen, who reports to prison in May under a plea deal, could do damage to Trump’s cherished reputation and brand. He’s expected to talk in detail about what he says is evidence of Trump’s misconduct — perhaps even criminal behavior. Republicans say Cohen can’t be believed; after all, he’s lied to Congress before.

What’s undisputable: Cohen has Trump’s attention half a world away at a summit in Vietnam.

The drama unfolds at 10 a.m. EST on broadcast networks and livestreams. What to watch:

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THE WITNESS, SINGING

Cohen, 52, is scheduled to raise his right hand and swear to tell the truth before the House Oversight and Reform Committee, chaired by Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md. Ahead of his appearance, copies of his prepared statement reached The Associated Press and other news media Tuesday night and offered a preview of scathing remarks directed at Trump.

Trump knew ahead of time that WikiLeaks had emails damaging to his rival Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, Cohen says in the prepared testimony. Cohen also suggests that Trump implicitly told him to lie about a Moscow real estate project, the one Cohen has pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about.

In the prepared remarks, Cohen brands the president a “racist,” a “conman” and a “cheat.” He says that Trump made racist comments about African-Americans and mused that black people would never vote for him because they were too stupid.

Other topics: Cohen claims Trump inflated assets to make a list of the richest Americans and deflated assets to pay lower taxes on his golf courses. Trump managed a hush money payment to adult-film actress Stormy Daniels and former Playboy Playmate Karen McDougal just before the 2016 election, Cohen claims. A key point is whether Cohen has evidence that Trump knew the payments might have violated campaign finance laws.

Telling the truth is a big issue for Cohen, and much about the path forward for Democrats rides on his credibility. Cohen is set to serve prison time for lying to the House and Senate intelligence committees in 2017. Leaving a closed hearing Tuesday, Cohen said he wants to “clear the record and tell the truth.”

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THE FORMER CLIENT, WATCHING

From the moment the FBI raided Cohen’s office last April 9, Trump has made clear he cares very much about what federal law enforcement, including special counsel Robert Mueller, might now know.

The president immediately raged about the “disgrace” of the raid and attacked the impartiality of Mueller’s probe.

After Cohen struck his plea deals, Trump on Dec. 16 called Cohen a “rat,” underworld lingo for someone who secretly helps law enforcement investigations. In the same tweet, the president falsely repeated that the FBI broke into Cohen’s office.

Trump denies the allegations and says Cohen lied to get a lighter sentence.

On Tuesday as Cohen testified in the Senate, Trump spokeswoman Sarah Sanders beamed in a distinctly Trump-like statement from Vietnam. She called the week’s events “laughable that anyone would take a convicted liar like Cohen at his word.”

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REPUBLICANS, NOT LAUGHING

They’re aiming alternately to discredit Cohen and suggest they don’t give a care about his testimony.

“I don’t have any desire to go listen to a lying lawyer,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.

But there’s plenty of evidence Republicans see Cohen as enough of a threat to go after him. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., set the tone Tuesday with a tweet that taunted Cohen and suggested that the public appearance will expose damaging personal information. Gaetz tweeted, without offering any evidence, that the world is “about to learn a lot” about Cohen and urged him to talk to his wife ahead of his testimony.

Gaetz, a Trump ally, is not a member of the committee questioning Cohen. Still, the tweet was extraordinary because his remarks appeared to be threatening or intimidating a witness on the eve of a highly anticipated public hearing.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi issued a statement that did not name Gaetz but suggested that the ethics committee “vigilantly” monitor statements that don’t “reflect creditably on the House.” That standard can be a trigger for ethics complaints.

In response, Gaetz apologized and said he was deleting the tweet and should have chosen better words to show his intent.

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THE COMMITTEE, QUESTIONING

Look for whether the panel stays within its agreed-upon topics.

What’s OK to ask about, according to Cummings’ memo: Trump’s finances and his compliance with campaign finance laws. That’s a reference to an unanswered question: Whether anyone else involved in arranging the payments to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal could face charges, including Trump Organization executives who prosecutors say reimbursed Cohen for the payoffs. Trump maintains the payments were a private matter, not a campaign expense.

The committee also can ask about “public efforts by the president and his attorney to intimidate Mr. Cohen or others not to testify.”

What’s not OK: Asking about the multiple probes into whether Russia tried to influence the U.S. election and what role, if any, Trump and his associates may have played. Members also are not to ask about “any financial or other compromise or leverage foreign actors may pose over Donald Trump, his family, his business interests or his associates.”

Cohen will be answering those types of questions about Russia this week, but only in closed-door interviews with the two intelligence committees.

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THE DEMOCRATS, LISTENING

“Oversight responsibilities” is the phrasing House Democrats tend to use when they talk about investigating the Trump administration. They’re not likely to use the word “impeachment,” but Cohen’s testimony could be part of their decision making on any such proceedings. At issue for them is whether the president broke campaign finance laws or obstructed the investigations.

“When we get him, we’re going to ask him whether President Trump, you know, asked him to lie, directly asked him,” said Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas.

Look for how famous Democratic freshmen on the panel comport themselves when, toward the end of what promises to be a long day, they question Cohen. One newcomer on the panel already has blown through the leaders’ words of caution regarding the “i-word.” Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., told supporters last month that the House is going to “impeach the mother----r.”

And this week, she signed a pledge to impeach Trump.

No such effort is underway.

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Associated Press writers Eric Tucker and Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.

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Follow Kellman on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/APLaurieKellman

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