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Michael Cohen’s lawyer has done real damage to the case against Trump

Michael Cohen’s lawyer Lanny Davis is now backing off earlier assertions of President Trump's knowledge of the 2016 Trump Tower meeting with a Russian lawyer. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post, Photo: Dayna Smith/The Washington Post)

This post has been updated with Davis’s latest comments to BuzzFeed.

One of the most bizarre aspects of the investigations engulfing the Trump administration is the lawyers involved. Here we have a presidency on the line, and this is Trump’s team? The top legal spokesmen for each side are … Rudolph W. Giuliani and Lanny Davis!?

Up until this point, though, Giuliani was the Great Contradictor and Davis was merely a colorful character. Now that has changed in a big way.

In a pair of new interviews with The Washington Post and BuzzFeed, Davis has backed off two massive claims he made in recent weeks, including that former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen had told people he witnessed President Trump being informed of Donald Trump Jr.'s 2016 Trump Tower meeting with a Russian lawyer before it happened. He has also admitted he was the source for the initial report on that claim -- despite denying it last week.

“I should have been more clear — including with you — that I could not independently confirm what happened,” Davis told The Post of the claim, adding: “I regret my error.”

Davis also backed off his claim, this time made on the record, that Cohen has information suggesting that Trump knew in advance about Russian hacking of Democrats’ emails in 2016. “I am not sure,” Davis said. “There’s a possibility that is the case. But I am not sure.”

And in the BuzzFeed interview, Davis acknowledged he was a source for the anonymously sourced CNN story that first reported on the Trump Tower claim -- despite having denied it last week by saying on CNN’s airwaves. "I made a mistake,” he said of his denial, adding: "I did not mean to be cute.” He claimed he didn’t lie but rather “unintentionally misspoke.”

So what on earth is going on here? Davis, for his part, suggests that he was just speculating. Witness this amazing pair of paragraphs at the end of The Post’s story, from Tom Hamburger and Rosalind S. Helderman:

Davis said that in discussing the hacking allegations last week, he should have emphasized his lack of certainty. He said he raised the idea that Cohen might have information about Trump’s knowledge because he had a strong feeling that might be the case.
“I was giving an instinct that he might have something to say of interest to the special counsel” about hacking, Davis said. In retrospect, he said, “I am just not sure.”

“A strong feeling.” That just doesn’t make much sense. Davis is a lawyer for his client, not a pundit. He can speak to Cohen about sensitive matters. His job is literally to speak publicly for Cohen, and getting their story straight is Job No. 1. The idea that Davis was simply freelancing with a narrative he hadn’t run by his client just doesn’t ring true. And if he was, how has Cohen not fired him for so clearly botching his defense?

It’s also pretty remarkable that, despite the first of these claims having been in the public domain for several weeks now — CNN’s story broke a full month ago, on July 27 — Davis began reining it in only last week. Why wait that long if it was erroneous? Did Cohen not notice he was being put forward as the guy who might be able to prove Trump’s collusion with Russia — a claim that, if true, could end an American presidency? That’s a massive claim to leave unchecked for four weeks.

Former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to crimes in August and November. On Dec. 12, a federal judge sentenced him to three years in prison. (Video: Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

The most obvious answer would seem to be that Cohen may be the one contradicting himself. Ever since the CNN story broke, the question has been whether Cohen told congressional investigators the same story when he testified behind closed doors at a time when he was more loyal to Trump. There were indications that this new version of events wasn’t exactly compatible with that testimony, which could open Cohen up to more legal problems.

When Cohen reached a plea deal last week, the Senate Intelligence Committee’s top Republican and Democrat made a rare joint, public statement saying they wanted Cohen to continue cooperating with their Russia investigation. They also said they had contacted Cohen’s lawyers after the CNN story broke and asked whether he wanted to amend his testimony. Cohen has declined to do so.

But you also have to think that possible contradiction would be something Davis and Cohen (who is also a lawyer by trade) would have sorted out before Davis went public with these claims.

However this came about, though, it’s damaging to Cohen’s credibility. Davis is his lawyer and spokesman, after all, which means these claims effectively came from Cohen himself. Davis is now trying to take ownership of them and take the blame himself, but the explanations he offers are really difficult to accept, especially given the gravity of the claims.

And that has bearing on both the Russia investigation and whatever problems Trump may encounter from the Southern District of New York’s plea deal with Cohen on a campaign-finance violation (in which Cohen also implicated Trump). Cohen was supposed to be the guy flipping on Trump and telling investigators everything he knows about the skeletons in Trump’s closet. This episode has to make everyone involved wonder whether his claims are all they’re made out to be -- up to and including his claim that Trump knew about the hush-money payments beforehand. Regardless of how you want all of this to shake out, it’s best to base a case around people who won’t undermine it. Cohen wasn’t a fantastic witness before; he’s a worse one now.

It’s been true from the start that these investigations attract a certain grade and style of lawyer, and those lawyers often find themselves struggling with their public statements on behalf of an untrustworthy client. Nobody leaves this situation without being at least a little Trump-ified.

And as the latest from Cohen and Davis shows, that’s not just the case with Trump and his legal team.