U.S. President Donald Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, will testify publicly before a House committee next month in a hearing that could serve as the opening salvo of a promised Democratic effort to scrutinize Mr. Trump, his conflicts of interest and his ties to Russia.
The House oversight and reform committee announced Thursday that Mr. Cohen will appear before that panel Feb. 7, a little more than a month after the Democrats took the House majority.
The hearing marks the latest step in Mr. Cohen’s transformation from a trusted legal adviser to the President to a public antagonist who has co-operated extensively against him. Although Democrats say the questioning will be limited to avoid interfering with open investigations, the hearing is still likely to pull back the curtain on key episodes involving Mr. Trump’s personal life and business dealings, including hush-money payments to women and a proposed Moscow real estate deal, that federal prosecutors have been dissecting for months.
Mr. Cohen is a pivotal figure in investigations by special counsel Robert Mueller into potential co-ordination between Russia and the Trump campaign as well as by federal prosecutors in New York into campaign-finance violations related to payments to buy the silence of a porn actor and a former Playboy Playmate who say they had sex with Mr. Trump. Federal prosecutors have said Mr. Trump directed those payments during the campaign.
Mr. Trump has denied having the extramarital affairs.
Mr. Cohen has pleaded guilty in both investigations and was sentenced last month to three years in prison. An adviser to Mr. Cohen, Lanny Davis, said shortly after he was sentenced that the former political fixer wanted to testify and “state publicly all he knows.”
In a statement released on Thursday, Mr. Cohen said he had accepted the invitation “in furtherance of my commitment to co-operate and provide the American people with answers.” He added: “I look forward to having the privilege of being afforded a platform with which to give a full and credible account of the events which have transpired.”
Mr. Trump has denied wrongdoing and sought to minimize Mr. Cohen’s statements by painting him as a liar. Asked by reporters in Texas on Thursday about Mr. Cohen’s appearance, Mr. Trump said he’s “not worried about it at all.”
Mr. Cohen acknowledged in the Mueller investigation that he lied to Congress by saying negotiations over a Trump Tower in Moscow had ended in January, 2016, when he actually pursued the project into that June, well into Mr. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. In New York, he acknowledged his involvement in payments to porn actor Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal.
The chairman of the oversight panel, Democratic Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland, said the committee is consulting with Mr. Mueller’s office about the testimony. He told reporters Thursday that “there will be limitations” on the topics covered in Mr. Cohen’s testimony.
“We don’t want to do anything to interfere with the Mueller investigation – absolutely nothing,” Mr. Cummings said.
The panel’s top Republican, Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, said Mr. Cohen’s appearance shows that Mr. Cummings is using the “committee as a venue for political theatre rather than legitimate oversight,” noting how Mr. Cohen has admitted knowingly lying to Congress and is a witness in ongoing investigations.
“This makes clear that Chairman Cummings and the Democrats will do whatever it takes to attack this President,” Jordan said in a statement.
A spokesman for Mr. Mueller declined to comment.
Mr. Cummings has signalled that his committee is more interested in investigating the President’s involvement in the campaign violations to which Mr. Cohen pleaded guilty last year.
Mr. Cummings has sent document requests to the White House and the Trump Organization that seek to determine why Mr. Trump, who reimbursed Mr. Cohen for the hush-money payments, omitted that debt on his public financial disclosure form. Mr. Cummings is also requesting a raft of potentially revealing communications about the payments and other legal services Mr. Cohen provided for the President and his company.
The oversight hearing may not be Mr. Cohen’s only appearance. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, a Democrat from California, said he welcomes Mr. Cohen’s testimony before the oversight panel, but “it will be necessary, however, for Mr. Cohen to answer questions pertaining to the Russia investigation, and we hope to schedule a closed session before our committee in the near future.”
Mr. Cohen testified before the House intelligence panel in a closed-door hearing in 2017, before his role in the federal investigations was fully known and when Republicans controlled the committee. The GOP-led committee later ended its investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, saying there was no evidence of collusion or conspiracy between Mr. Trump’s campaign and Russia.
Mr. Schiff wants to restart parts of that probe.