Michael Cohen’s credibility was all Republicans wanted to talk about at Wednesday’s hearing of the House Oversight Committee. And on one count, he ran himself into some trouble.
Cohen repeatedly shrugged off GOP suggestions that he had an ax to grind with President Trump because he was denied a White House job. And in doing so, he flatly denied having wanted to work there.
Even at the time, it seemed like a problematic answer. Multiple reports from 2018 — including from The Washington Post and the New York Times — indicated that Cohen had wanted a job and had been frustrated that it hadn’t materialized. Federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York, meanwhile, have said in court documents that Cohen “privately told friends and colleagues, including in seized text messages, that he expected to be given a prominent role and title in the new administration.”
And now a CNN clip has surfaced from Nov. 10, 2016 — shortly after Trump won the election — in which Cohen said he hoped Trump would offer him a job and that he would “100 percent” take it if offered.
CUOMO: If you were asked, you’d be on the political side, not the governmental side, right?
COHEN: It would depend on the role that they’re asking me to play. It has to be a role that I feel comfortable with.
CUOMO: Is there a chance?
COHEN: That’s he’ll ask me to go to Washington?
CUOMO: Oh, there’s absolutely a chance he’s going to ask you to go.
COHEN: Oh, I certainly hope so.
CUOMO: Would you go?
COHEN: Hundred percent.
Cohen’s denials at Wednesday’s hearing were pretty unequivocal. When Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) said, “You wanted to work in the White House,” Cohen cut in and said, “No, sir,” and, “I did not want to go to the White House.” When Rep. Michael Cloud (R-Tex.) revisited the topic later, Cohen again said, “I did not want to go to the White House.”
Trump attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani argued Friday that it was about the most “provable perjury I’d ever seen.”
Now, for the first time, Cohen’s attorney is addressing the apparent discrepancy publicly.
Lanny Davis told me that, “early on, Michael speculated about a possible position in the administration. But he consulted with his family and friends and decided he preferred to stay at home in New York City and be ‘personal attorney to the president.’ ”
Davis added: “If this is what Trump and his supporters are focusing on — and not a single rebuttal of any fact asserted by Mr. Cohen in his long day of testimony under oath before the Oversight Committee — that says a lot. This is the classic Trump tactic we have seen for a long time: divert and disparage rather than confront facts and tell the truth."
To Davis’s point, it’s important to note that, in the CNN clip, Cohen doesn’t explicitly say that he wanted to go work in Washington. It seems implied, certainly, but instead of saying he hoped to work in the White House, he said he hoped Trump would offer him a job and that he would take it if asked. Were this to ever turn into a legal proceeding, Cohen could say he simply felt that he deserved such an offer, given his loyalty to Trump, and he could say he would have taken the job out of a sense of duty or loyalty. Again, this is a very generous parse, but the bar for perjury is high.
(And if we’re parsing, the CNN conversation was about taking a job somewhere in the administration, not necessarily the White House.)
Also, if you look closely at Cohen’s testimony, he did make clear that his potential employment in the White House is something that was run up the flagpole — so much so that lawyers reviewed it. He said that after that process, he decided not to work for Trump.
“I can tell you a story of Mr. Trump reaming out [then-chief of staff] Reince Priebus because I had not taken a job where Mr. Trump wanted to, which was working with Don McGahn at the White House general counsel’s office,” Cohen said to Jordan. “What I said at the time — and I brought a lawyer in who produced a memo as to why I should not go in, because there would be no attorney-client privilege — and in order to handle some of the [personal legal] matters that I talked about in my opening [statement] that it would be best suited for me not to go in.”
Cohen later offered a similar explanation to Cloud.
So Cohen’s argument is that whatever he may have explored, he eventually decided he didn’t want the job. Whether that’s the case, we don’t know. Prosecutors in the Southern District of New York say they have text messages about all this, so it’s possible they could disprove his testimony. (For what it’s worth, they say Cohen “expected to be given” a job, which isn’t quite the same as him wanting to work there. But it also suggests he was frustrated by not getting one: “When that did not materialize, Cohen found a way to monetize his relationship with and access to the President.”)
At the very least, Cohen’s responses deserved more nuance. If he aspired to work in the White House at one point and then changed his mind, he should have said that. The reports have been out there for a long time. This was part of the Southern District sentencing memo. The stakes are high, and the margin for error is low.