Michael Cohen told lawmakers earlier this year that one of President Donald Trump’s personal attorneys asked him to falsely testify to Congress and told him the president was considering granting him a pardon to “shut down” the Russia investigation, according to transcripts released Monday of Cohen’s two private interviews with the House Intelligence Committee.
Cohen said the lawyer, Jay Sekulow, requested he falsely tell Congress that negotiations to build a Trump Tower in Moscow ended on January 31, 2016, nearly six months before they actually fizzled.
Trump’s former fixer also testified during one of those closed-door sessions in February that the president was considering pardons for him and others to "shut down, you know, this investigation.”
Cohen — a former Trump lawyer who is serving a three-year prison sentence for perjury, campaign-finance violations, and tax and bank fraud crimes — answered questions from committee members for more than 16 hours over a two-day period earlier this year. On a party-line vote, the Democrat-led committee released those transcripts Monday evening.
The revelations gleaned from Cohen’s testimony, revealed in more than 600 pages of lawmaker questions and answers with the one-time Trump loyalist, offer Democrats a chance to rekindle public attention on a Russia investigation that has been stymied in recent weeks by a White House eager to turn the page after special counsel Robert Mueller completed his probe.
While Trump’s lawyers quickly downplayed the latest details from Cohen as old news that Mueller had declined to use for any prosecutions, the information nonetheless offers intriguing new lines of inquiry as House Democratic leaders address their own internal clamoring to launch impeachment proceedings against the president.
One of those potential avenues dangling in Cohen’s testimony: He believes Trump knew in advance about the June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower between his campaign’s senior staffers – Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort – and a Russian lawyer who promised the Republican presidential candidate dirt on his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton.
To bolster his claim, Cohen described overhearing Trump Jr. tell his father about the meeting before it took place.
“I do,” Cohen said. “I believe Mr. Trump had prior knowledge of that meeting.”
Cohen also provided documents to the House committee showing that Sekulow edited Cohen’s false 2017 testimony about the Trump Tower Moscow project. And when asked by Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) in March whether Sekulow knew that Cohen’s “statement about the Trump Tower negotiations ending in January that was part of your original draft was false,” Cohen replied: “Yes, sir.”
The Trump Tower Moscow negotiations that Cohen testified about actually continued through June 2016, and the president’s former lawyer said he briefed Trump and his family members — including Trump Jr. — several times on the status of those negotiations. According to Cohen, Sekulow had urged him to use January 2016 in his original testimony to “stay on message,” and Cohen said he believed the Trump legal team wanted to use that date because it came before the Iowa caucuses that officially kickstarted the Republican nomination fight Trump would go on to win later in the summer.
Asked by Schiff during the March closed-door hearing whether it would be inaccurate for Trump Jr. to say that he merely had a “vague” or “passing” familiarity with the project, Cohen replied that it would be “inaccurate.”
In a prepared statement, Sekulow’s attorneys took issue with Cohen’s interpretation of events.
“Michael Cohen’s alleged statements are more of the same from him and confirm the observations of prosecutors in the Southern District of New York that Cohen’s ‘instinct to blame others is strong,’” said the attorneys, Jane Raskin and Patrick Strawbridge.
“That this or any committee would rely on the word of Michael Cohen for any purpose – much less to try and pierce the attorney-client privilege and discover confidential communications of four respected lawyers – defies logic, well-established law and common sense,” Sekulow’s lawyers added.
Rudy Giuliani, another member of the Trump legal team, came to Sekulow’s defense on Twitter, where he wrote that his colleague was “one of the very most ethical lawyers and honest men I have ever known.”
“Michael Cohen is a serial liar. Cohen should be prosecuted for his blatant perjury before the House committee. Jay should receive the most effective and ethical lawyer of the year award,” added Giuliani, the former New York mayor.
Schiff recently asked Sekulow and other Trump attorneys to hand over documents as part of the committee’s investigation into Cohen’s allegations surrounding the Trump Tower Moscow project. Cohen admitted that he lied to congressional committees about when the Trump Tower Moscow effort “fizzled.”
Sekulow notably declined to share his side of the story with Mueller, who revealed his efforts to probe the matter in an extensive redacted 448-page report released last month.
But Sekulow’s role didn’t end with Cohen’s congressional testimony. The two lawyers also had conversations about pardons until July 2018, Cohen testified, which is when Cohen withdrew from his joint defense agreement with Trump’s legal team. The FBI had raided Cohen’s home, office and a hotel room a few months earlier, in April.
Cohen said Trump and his legal team dangled pardons because they wanted to keep people in the joint defense agreement. He withdrew from that agreement, he told lawmakers, because “there was so much that was going on, that I had just decided it was time to stop with the lying, stop protecting the President.”
At one point, though, Cohen was exchanging emails with a lawyer named Robert Costello who touted his “backchannel” to the White House—Trump’s other personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. “I spoke with Rudy,” Costello wrote Cohen in April 2018. “Very Very Positive. You are ‘loved.’”
According to emails Cohen shared with the panel, Costello wrote that Giuliani saw the “communication channel” as crucial, and told Cohen to “sleep well tonight, you have friends in high places.” Cohen told Congress he believed Costello was referring to Trump.
Cohen also went further in his private testimony than he did in public when speaking about Trump’s oldest son. In his public testimony, Cohen implied to lawmakers that Trump Jr. was keeping his father in the loop about the June 2016 meeting that involved the Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, who through intermediaries approached the campaign offering dirt on Clinton.
“Don Jr. would never set up any meeting of significance alone and certainly not without checking with his father,” Cohen told the House Oversight panel.
In his closed-door testimony later that month Cohen offered up additional details about how he came to that conclusion, explaining that prior to the meeting he overheard Trump Jr. tell his father that the meeting “had been set up.”
Cohen said the interaction between father and son was “odd” because normally Trump Jr. “would shout it from the door or he would call his father from the phone.”
According to Cohen, two of the other attendees at the Trump Tower meeting — Manafort and Kushner — served as a reflection of Trump’s knowledge of the Russian offer for dirt on Clinton. “This is my opinion,” Cohen explained. “The reason why Jared and Manafort were in the room at the time was because he would never let Don do that by himself.”
“This is, again, my speculation from 10 years of being around both of them,” Cohen added. “He would turn around and say, ‘Dad, I got a, I’m taking this meeting.’ Okay. He doesn’t trust him. ‘Make sure Jared,’ who is the secretary of everything, along with Manafort, who was the campaign chairman at the time, ‘make sure that they’re in the room with you. Make sure they join.’”
Schiff’s Intelligence Committee isn’t the only congressional panel seeking to corroborate Cohen’s allegations.
The House Oversight Committee issued a subpoena for Trump’s financial records from an accounting firm, stemming from Cohen’s claim that Trump artificially inflated and deflated the values of his assets to suit his financial benefit. On Monday a federal judge ruled in House Democrats’ favor and broadly upheld Congress’ authority to investigate Trump’s conduct.
Republicans have argued that Cohen’s admitted lies discredit his testimony about Trump Tower Moscow and other transgressions of which he has accused the president.
Cohen’s deception materialized last year in a GOP-led Intelligence Committee report on Russian interference in the 2016 election. In that report, which Democrats dismissed as a partisan effort to protect Trump, they cited Cohen extensively for his knowledge of the Trump Tower Moscow Deal.
“It appears the Trump Tower Moscow project failed in January 2016,” according to the report. “The Committee determined that the Trump Tower Moscow project did not progress beyond an early developmental phase, and that this potential licensing dear was not related to the Trump campaign.”
Notably, though, there were at least three separate and simultaneous efforts between 2015-2016 to develop a Trump-branded property in Moscow, according to Cohen’s testimony and Mueller’s final report: the Trump Tower Moscow project involving Sater, a residential property involving a Georgian businessman Giorgi Rtskhiladze, and an unidentified project involving Dmitry Klokov, the director of a large Russian electricity transmission company who’d previously been employed as an aide to Russia’s energy minister.
Cohen also testified that Sater had “come up with a strategy” of giving a Trump Tower penthouse to Vladimir Putin to curry his favor to curry his favor. Cohen said he told Sater he wanted “to buy the apartment directly underneath.”
“I want to own that so I can sell it to one of the oligarchs for like a billion dollars,” Cohen said, “which was part of the joke.”
Kyle Cheney contributed to this report.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine