Rep. Elijah Cummings On Upcoming Cohen Testimony
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Michael Cohen, the president's longtime lawyer and fixer, is headed to prison. He's been sentenced to three years, having pleaded guilty to campaign finance and other crimes. But first, Cohen says he wants to give, quote, "a full and credible account of the events which have transpired."
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The venue for that - three congressional hearings this week. Two will be behind closed doors, but Cohen's testimony before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform will unfold in full public view.
KELLY: The man who'll gavel that hearing to order 10:00 o'clock Wednesday morning is Elijah Cummings. He's a Democrat from Maryland. He chairs the House Oversight Committee. And he joins me now from his home in Baltimore. Congressman, welcome.
ELIJAH CUMMINGS: It's good to be with you.
KELLY: So Michael Cohen, as you know, has pleaded guilty to lying to Congress. What makes you think he will be a credible witness now?
CUMMINGS: Well, we don't know. I have practiced law for more than 20 years. And you have a situation where a man apparently wants to bare his soul and talk about his relationship with this president. Keep in mind that Michael Cohen is the one person who has accused the president of committing a crime. So it's hard to say what's going to happen.
But the good thing about it is that members of Congress will have an opportunity to observe him. The public will have an opportunity to observe him. And I think that's a good thing.
KELLY: But did it give you pause to give him such a prominent platform, given his history of lying to Congress?
CUMMINGS: Of course. But at the same time, we have a situation where it's quite possible we may never see the light of day what Mr. Mueller does because there's a lot of discretion that the attorney general has with regard to releasing anything that comes out of the Mueller investigation. And so the - it's quite possible that the public never would have an opportunity to hear directly or see him.
On the other hand, we have the president. The president, you know, almost on a daily basis has talked about how he has not committed any crimes and has basically called Michael Cohen a liar. So I think it's only fair to Michael Cohen and to the president that representatives of the people - that is Republicans and Democrats in the Congress - have an opportunity to ask questions.
KELLY: What's your top question for Michael Cohen? What are you going to ask?
CUMMINGS: We'll be looking at subjects such as the president's debt and payments relating to efforts to influence the 2016 election, the president's compliance with financial disclosure laws, the president's potential and actual conflicts of interests, the president's business practices and the Trump International Hotel in Washington. And it's - and accuracy with regard to reporting data to the Congress.
KELLY: You've got a couple of firsts going on here. This is Cohen's first major public appearance since he turned on the president. This is also the first big marquee hearing for the Democratic-controlled House. And I wonder why Michael Cohen, who, A, we've talked about, has a history of lying to Congress - B, the questions you're describing don't seem to have anything to do with Trump's conduct as president or his administration's policies.
CUMMINGS: No, that's not accurate. First of all, you got to understand, our jurisdiction...
KELLY: You're talking about stuff from 2016, from the campaign, which is important, but...
CUMMINGS: Yeah, I got that. But our jurisdiction - and the main thing that my committee is for is making sure that government functions properly.
KELLY: But is there a risk of it looking like Democrats are determined to just keep digging through the tawdry chapters of the president's life - testimony about a porn star and a Playboy model - instead of exercising serious oversight over his administration?
CUMMINGS: Well, that's interesting that you said that because you're inaccurate. The first thing we did was a drug hearing. We had a hearing on drugs - prescription drug. That was our first major marquee hearing. Our second major marquee hearing was one where we talked about HR1, which deals with voting rights and corruption in government.
KELLY: Safe to say HR1 didn't quite have the TV networks buzzing in the way that Michael Cohen is going to be, but go on.
CUMMINGS: Yeah. But my point is, what are we supposed to do, sit back on our hands when we see that there may be problems in the executive branch, when the Constitution clearly states that it is our job? We have sworn to be a check and balance on the executive branch, and that's exactly what we're doing, period.
KELLY: Quickly, and before I let you go, the House, as you know, is set to vote tomorrow to block President Trump from using a national emergency to build a border wall, which is - this is expected to pass in the House. Not so clear what's going to happen in the Republican-controlled Senate. Do you believe Congress will be able to block the president?
CUMMINGS: That's not the question. The question is whether, when the president vetoes it, we will have enough votes in the Senate to override it. And I must say that I doubt it. Basically...
KELLY: So you're saying you think in the Senate they will vote to block him from using emergency powers. That would go to the president. He will try to veto it. And then it's a question of what happens when it comes back to Congress.
CUMMINGS: That is accurate.
KELLY: So, I mean, again, we're gaming out predictions here. And who knows how this may unfold in the coming days. But what is the point of this exercise if, ultimately, the president may be able to veto?
CUMMINGS: Well, then it ends up in the courts. You can't just sit around and not do anything. We're talking about accountability. That's why we have courts. And you have a number of senators who'll be running in 2020, and they're going to have to be answerable to the people when the people ask, why did you allow the president to take away your power? When we give the president the opportunity to go around the Congress, that is basically taking away the power of the Congress, and it also is taking away the power of the people.
KELLY: That is Maryland Democrat Elijah Cummings. He chairs the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, and he'll be leading the questions for Michael Cohen come Wednesday morning. Thanks so much for your time, Congressman.
CUMMINGS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.