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Why the answers Michael Cohen gave to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s questions mattered

AOC got Cohen to name names — and help build a case for getting Trump’s tax returns.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez questions former Trump attorney Michael Cohen in February 2019.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez questions former Trump attorney Michael Cohen in February 2019.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Emily Stewart covers business and economics for Vox and writes the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (D-NY) questioning of Michael Cohen during his congressional testimony before the House Oversight Committee on Wednesday, February 27, didn’t produce the type of fireworks the first-term Democrat is sometimes known for. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t significant: Ocasio-Cortez got President Donald Trump’s former lawyer to name names for future lines of inquiry, and she also made progress on furthering the Democrats’ case for seeking out Trump’s tax returns.

The New York Democrat followed up on questions asked by her House colleagues and asked Cohen to identify specific individuals who might have more information.

She asked who might know about the “treasure trove” of documents in the office of David Pecker, chairman and CEO of National Enquirer parent company American Media Inc. and a Trump ally who has been involved in “catch and kill” schemes tied to the president in the past. Cohen’s response: Pecker, former Enquirer executive editor Barry Levine, and Enquirer chief content officer Dylan Howard.

Ocasio-Cortez also asked about Cohen’s assertion that Trump inflated the value of certain assets to insurance companies and who else might know about that. Again, he provided a list of names: Trump Organization executives Allen Weisselberg, Ron Lieberman, and Matthew Calamari.

While not the most exciting lines of questioning, in getting Cohen to name names, Ocasio-Cortez got more potential witnesses to add to a list of figures to testify before Congress as it probes into Trump’s past.

Of course, Weisselberg, the Trump Organization CFO, came up a lot on Wednesday. His signature appeared on one of the partial reimbursement checks paid to Cohen for his hush money payment to porn actress Stormy Daniels, along with the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr. As the Daily Beast pointed out, Weisselberg was mentioned at least 35 times during Cohen’s testimony, and House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-MD) said he “probably will” bring Weisselberg and Trump Jr. in to testify.

AOC also helped build a case for getting Trump’s tax returns

Beyond getting Cohen to list who else might have pertinent information on Trump, Ocasio-Cortez also zoomed in on a major white whale for Democrats: Trump’s tax returns.

She got Cohen to say that getting a look at Trump’s tax returns and financial statements would be helpful in finding out if Trump inflated the value of his assets to insurance companies or, conversely, deflated the value of assets — such as his golf courses — in order to keep his tax bill low. Ocasio-Cortez pointed to a pair of Washington Post stories about how Trump kept his tax bills down on his golf courses in Florida and New York. She asked Cohen how Trump did it.

“What you do is you deflate the value of the asset and then you put in a request to the tax department for a deduction,” Cohen said.

Ocasio-Cortez also mentioned the bombshell New York Times report from 2018 that laid out how Trump and his family “participated in dubious tax schemes” over the years. Cohen said he didn’t know whether the specifics of the report were accurate, though Weisselberg would.

“Would it help for the committee to obtain federal and state tax returns from the president and his company to address that discrepancy?” Ocasio-Cortez asked.

“I believe so,” Cohen replied.

Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-CA) also pressed Cohen on Trump’s tax returns and Trump’s assertion that he’s under audit by the IRS, which is why he won’t release them. Cohen told Gomez he had asked for a copy of the audit “so that I could use it in terms of my statements to the press” and never got one, which led him to believe Trump wasn’t under audit. He also said that Trump wanted to keep his returns under wraps because he didn’t want “an entire group of think tanks that are tax experts running through his tax return and start ripping it into pieces.”

Getting Trump’s tax returns is complicated

In asking about these specific examples where Trump’s tax returns would be useful — and pointing out that the audit excuse doesn’t add up — Ocasio-Cortez and Gomez added to the Democrats’ growing case for seeking out Trump’s tax returns. But the process is going to be a long one, so don’t expect the subpoenas to start flying anytime soon.

Democrats have largely focused on an obscure 1924 law that would allow them to request Trump’s tax returns from the Treasury Department. But the person who would need to put in the request, specifically, is House Ways & Means Committee Chair Richard Neal (D-MA), and thus far, Neal has been proceeding with caution. He recognizes a court battle would likely ensue, and the stronger the Democrats’ case is that they need Trump’s tax return for oversight and potential legislation, the likelier they are to win in court. (I have a full explainer on the Democratic plan to get Trump’s tax returns, if you’re interested.)

Steve Rosenthal, a senior fellow at the Tax Policy Center, explained that House committees beyond Ways & Means can request tax information from the IRS, but that would require a resolution from the House of Representatives, whereas Neal, as Ways & Means chair, could just do it on his own. “The House Oversight Committee could request Trump’s tax returns, but the Ways & Means Committee would have an easier time,” he said.

But questions like Ocasio-Cortez’s and Gomez’s help lay the groundwork for if and when Democrats decide to make the move on Trump’s taxes. It’s unlikely Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin will just hand over the information if, for example, Neal asks for it, or the House Oversight Committee makes a request. And the more evidence Democrats have that they have a legitimate reason to ask questions, the better.

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