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The question of Michael Cohen’s lie to Congress gets more complex: He blames Trump’s attorneys

President Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen described his work over the past decade as Trump’s “fixer” at a hearing on Feb. 27. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post, Photo: Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
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According to documents associated with a plea agreement reached with the office of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, it was on Aug. 28, 2017, that Michael Cohen sent a letter to the House and Senate Intelligence committees about his interactions with his former legal client President Trump.

Among the claims in that letter, Cohen asserted that conversations about a prospective real estate development in Moscow ended in January 2016, before the Republican primaries began. “By the end of January 2016, I determined that the proposal was not feasible for a variety of business reasons,” his statement read, “and should not be pursued further.”

This was a lie. As Cohen later admitted, conversations continued until June of that year. Presented with this conflict by Mueller, Cohen agreed to plead guilty to a charge of filing a false statement.

Last month, BuzzFeed News reported that Cohen’s lie about when the Moscow project ended was directed by Trump himself and that Cohen had informed Mueller’s team about that direction. The special counsel’s office, in an unprecedented step, denied that report.

Cohen’s arrival on Capitol Hill this week promised to offer more insight on how his incorrect statement was formulated. And so it did Wednesday.

In his prepared remarks, Cohen said that Trump never told him specifically to lie about the proposed Moscow deal but that Trump “in his way” indicated that he wanted Cohen to be dishonest about it. But in the statement, he also offered a more tantalizing explanation: “Mr. Trump’s personal lawyers reviewed and edited my statement to Congress about the timing of the Moscow Tower negotiations before I gave it.”

In questions posed by Democratic members of the House Oversight Committee, Cohen offered more details. Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.) was the first to broach the issue.

“You said you lied to Congress about Trump’s negotiations to build his Moscow tower because he’d made it clear to you that he wanted you to lie,” Raskin said.

He noted Cohen’s statement about the role of Trump’s lawyers.

“So this is a pretty breathtaking claim, and I just want to get to the facts here,” Raskin continued. “Which specific lawyers reviewed and edited your statement to Congress on the Moscow tower negotiations, and did they make any changes to your statement?”

"There were changes made, additions,” Cohen said. “Jay Sekulow for one” — referring to Trump’s personal attorney handling the investigations into Russian interference.

"Were there questions about the timing?” Raskin asked.

“There were several changes that were made, including how we were going to handle that message,” Cohen replied. “Which was — the message, of course, being the length of time that the Trump Tower Moscow project stayed and remained alive.”

"That was one of the changes?” Raskin said.

"Yes,” Cohen replied.

Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) returned to the subject a bit later.

"Who at the White House reviewed your testimony?” Sarbanes asked.

“I don’t know the answer to that,” Cohen replied. “The document was originally created by myself along with my attorney at the time. … There was a joint defense agreement, so the document circulated around. I believe it was also reviewed by Abbe Lowell, who represents Ivanka [Trump] and Jared Kushner.”

"Why did you provide the testimony to the White House?” Sarbanes asked.

"It was pursuant to the joint defense agreement that we were all operating under,” Cohen said.

This is an important point. Many of Trump’s allies in the investigations into his campaign and possible coordination with Russia have at some point been involved in a joint defense agreement. Normally, interactions between a client and an attorney are kept private. Upon entering into a joint defense agreement, that pool essentially expands outward, with information shared among the pool of attorneys and clients.

In other words, Cohen, before submitting his testimony, sent it to that pool for review. When he got it back, changes had been made.

“What were the edits that came back substantively?” Sarbanes then asked.

“I don’t know, sir,” Cohen replied. “I’d have to take a look at the document.” In response to a later question, Cohen suggested he would be happy to provide his original statement.

"Did you have a reaction to why there might not have been, in a sense, a protest to what was going to be false testimony that was going to be provided to the Intelligence Committee?” Sarbanes asked.

“No, sir, because the goal was to stay on message,” Cohen replied. “It’s just limit the relationship whatsoever with Russia. It was short. There’s no Russian contacts. There’s no Russian collusion. There’s no Russian deals. That’s the message. That’s the message that existed well before my need to come and testify.”

“I toed the party line,” Cohen later added, “and I’m now suffering, and I’m going to continue to suffer for a while along with my family, so, yes.”

A bit later, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) put a fine point on the question. Who were the attorneys who edited the document?

“Jay Sekulow,” Cohen replied. “I believe Abbe Lowell, as well.”

Update: In a statement provided to The Post, Sekulow denied having changed Cohen’s statement.

“Today’s testimony by Michael Cohen 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,” Sekulow wrote.

The implication of this is significant. First, it distances Cohen from culpability — though, of course, he’s still responsible for submitting a statement he knew to be untrue. More broadly, it gets to the question posed by BuzzFeed’s initial report. Changing that bit of information could suggest a deliberate effort to mislead Congress, which could be seen as obstruction of justice.

How Sekulow or Lowell decided to make that change — assuming Cohen’s presentation is accurate — is important. Perhaps it was a function of a misunderstanding about when the project ended, a misunderstanding that Cohen believed was intentional. Or perhaps it was an intentional effort to downplay the significance of the deal. If that was the case, it’s important to know why Sekulow or Lowell would have made that change. If Sekulow made it — and it was at the direction of Trump — the president is again implicated in questions about obstruction.

It’s worth noting another comment from Cohen later in the testimony.

Rep. Mark DeSaulnier (D-Calif.) asked why pursuit of the Moscow tower ended.

“Because he won the presidency,” Cohen replied.

Trump hadn’t won the presidency in June 2016, the point at which we currently understand the deal to have fallen apart. Another Trump attorney, former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, has on two occasions suggested that the conversations about the Moscow tower may have extended to November.

Put another way, the full story is still unclear.