Sunday March 3, 2019
By Matt Zapotosky ,Tom Hamburger and Karoun Demirjian
Michael Cohen, President Trump's former personal lawyer, testifies before the House Oversight Committee in Washington on Feb. 27, 2019. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
Lawmakers are investigating whether President Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen was involved in any discussions about possible pardons — which they view as a potentially ripe area of inquiry into whether anyone sought to obstruct justice, people familiar with the matter said.
Cohen has said publicly he never asked for — and would not accept — a pardon from Trump. But people familiar with the matter said his knowledge on the topic seems to extend beyond that statement.
Privately, lawmakers on the House and Senate intelligence committees pressed Cohen this week on whether he had had any discussions about a possible pardon, and if so, when and with whom those conversations took place, the people said. The people spoke on the condition of anonymity because the testimony was not public.
It was not immediately clear what, if anything, Cohen told lawmakers to pique their interest. Depending on the details, such pardon talks could be incendiary, suggesting an effort to dissuade Cohen from cooperating with law enforcement. Cohen is to return to the House Intelligence Committee on Wednesday.
Cohen’s lawyer, Lanny Davis, declined to comment on the closed-door testimony, though he said on MSBNC on Thursday night that “new information was developed that could be game changing,” and it was about “lying and obstruction evidence.”
“It’s pretty explosive,” he said.
Cohen — who pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations, bank and tax fraud and lying to Congress and was sentenced to three years in prison — is not a completely reliable narrator, and he and his allies have been known to exaggerate. Reps. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) wrote Thursday to Attorney General William P. Barr asking him to investigate whether Cohen had perjured himself when he insisted to the House Oversight Committee he had not wanted a job in the Trump administration and was content to serve as Trump’s personal lawyer.
That assertion has been called into question by Cohen’s own public statements and White House officials. Trump tweeted after the hearing that Cohen “committed perjury on a scale not seen before.”
Cohen described in testimony this week how he lied over and over for the president — even if it put himself in legal jeopardy because he sought to cover up crimes, or relayed falsehoods to Congress. But he asserted he was no longer under the spell of the commander in chief and was ready to come clean.
“I am no longer your fixer, Mr. Trump,” Cohen declared.
As part of a broader inquiry into whether the president’s campaign conspired with the Kremlin to win the election, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III has been investigating whether Trump sought to obstruct justice. Mueller’s obstruction probe has focused on the firing of James B. Comey as FBI director — which Trump has said publicly he did while thinking about the Russia investigation — as well as Trump’s repeated attacks on the Justice Department and then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from overseeing what would become Mueller’s inquiry.
Mueller is widely expected to be nearing the end of his investigation, and Congress has been pressing to make sure the Justice Department will turn over his findings in full.
Legal analysts said Cohen’s testimony, while noteworthy, probably offered more new details to lawmakers and the public than it did to law enforcement. Cohen has said he would continue to cooperate with the special counsel and federal prosecutors, and he revealed during his testimony that he was in “constant” contact with the U.S. attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York.
“I can’t imagine he was saying things that suddenly comprised new information for the Southern District of New York or for Mueller to consider,” said James M. Trusty, a former federal prosecutor and Justice Department organized-crime chief now in private practice at Ifrah Law.
Cohen said notably before the House Oversight Committee on Wednesday that he knew of no “direct evidence” that Trump and his campaign colluded with Russia. But he alleged that the president knew in advance of a July 2016 email dump by the anti-secrecy organization WikiLeaks, which obtained Democrats’ emails that Mueller has alleged were hacked by Russian operatives. And Cohen said the president vigorously urged his advisers to send the message that there had been no dealings with Russia — which could inform Mueller’s obstruction case.
Cohen asserted that the president and his supporters even threatened him as he prepared to testify before Congress. On the eve of his public appearance Wednesday, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) tweeted, without evidence, an allegation that Cohen had extramarital affairs. Gaetz soon deleted the message and apologized.
Cohen also hinted at an investigation involving the president, asserting that federal prosecutors in Manhattan had asked him not to discuss his communication with Trump after the FBI raided his home and office in April.
Asked whether there was “any other wrongdoing or illegal act that you are aware of regarding Donald Trump” that had not been discussed at the hearing, Cohen responded, “Yes, and again, those are part of the investigation that’s currently being looked at by the Southern District of New York.” A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York declined to comment.
Perhaps most notable in the area of obstruction, Cohen said that in May 2017, he met with Trump and Jay Sekulow, one of Trump’s lawyers, to discuss testimony Cohen was to give to the House Intelligence Committee. Trump, Cohen said, “wanted me to cooperate.” But he said Trump also repeated a refrain that is now familiar to those on Twitter.
“He goes, ‘It’s all a witch hunt,’ and he goes, ‘This stuff has to end,’ ” Cohen said.
“Did you take those comments to be suggestive of what might flavor your testimony?” Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) asked.
“Sir, he’s been saying that to me for many, many months, and at the end of the day, I knew exactly what he wanted me to say,” Cohen responded.
Ultimately, Cohen would testify to Congress that discussions about a possible Trump Tower project in Moscow ended in January 2016 — when in fact they continued for months after that, into the heart of the presidential campaign. Cohen would later plead guilty to the lie.
The topic remains of keen interest to lawmakers. Cohen conceded that Trump had not asked him to lie, though he noted that Sekulow, as well as attorney Abbe Lowell — who represents Ivanka Trump, Trump’s daughter, and her husband, Jared Kushner — reviewed his written testimony before it was submitted.
At one point, Cohen suggested that Sekulow was involved in a change about “the length of time that the Trump Tower Moscow project stayed and remained alive.” And Davis, Cohen’s lawyer, said of the statement on MSBNC on Thursday night, “Everybody knew it was a lie” — effectively accusing Sekulow or others of knowingly passing on Cohen’s false statement.
But Davis corrected the statement and apologized Friday, saying, he had meant to say “the president and many of his advisers must have known” Cohen’s statement was false.
“I should not have used the words that ‘everyone knew’ the statement was false,” Davis said. “My only excuse for the error is sleep deprivation. Apologies.”
A person familiar with Cohen’s account said he cannot say with certainty whether Sekulow, Lowell or other White House advisers knew the discussions about the Trump Tower project extended well into 2016, and thus knew Cohen’s statement was false. Sekulow said in a statement that Cohen’s assertion that “attorneys for the President edited or changed his statement to Congress to alter the duration of the Trump Tower Moscow negotiations is completely false.”
A person familiar with the matter said Lowell did not edit Cohen’s statement but did voice a concern about the accuracy of some mention of Ivanka Trump’s dealings with Russian athlete Dmitry Klokov. Cohen ultimately did not address Klokov in the statement. Lowell declined to comment.
Cohen’s team is working to find drafts of Cohen’s statement that would reflect who edited what, and turn them over to lawmakers, people familiar with the matter said. Even that, though, might not implicate lawyers in knowingly passing along a lie — if their clients had not been truthful with them.
“The greatest fear of the best lawyers is clients who do not come entirely clean with them,” said Jacob Frenkel, a former federal prosecutor now in private practice at Dickinson Wright.
While Cohen said Trump often talked in “code,” he suggested that the president was not always subtle in directing a coverup. For example, Cohen said that at Trump’s direction he paid $130,000 to adult-film actress Stormy Daniels in October 2016 so that she would stay quiet about an alleged affair with Trump, and that Trump reimbursed him for it the following year. Cohen has admitted that the payment violated campaign finance laws.
Cohen said that Trump asked him to lie about the Stormy Daniels matter to Melania Trump, and that he did, and that in 2018, when news of the payments broke, Cohen said Trump called him while he was meeting with a reporter and suggested he say the president “was not knowledgeable of these reimbursements and he wasn’t knowledgeable of my actions.”
Cohen said that in a meeting in the Oval Office, he and the president had discussed Cohen’s being repaid, and he said also that during his presidency, Trump personally signed a check to reimburse him.