This post has been updated with a statement from Cohen’s lawyer.
Michael Cohen’s testimony before the House Oversight Committee last week has again come into question — this time for his comment about a potential pardon from President Trump.
The Washington Post has confirmed that Cohen instructed his then-lawyer, Stephen Ryan, to ask Trump lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani about the issue of a pardon back when Cohen was still allied with Trump. The news was first reported by the Wall Street Journal.
Cohen, Trump’s former personal lawyer, addressed the issue of pardons briefly in his testimony on Feb. 27. But he played down the idea that it was something he sought. He said, “I have never asked for it, nor would I accept a pardon from President Trump.”
The comment came in his opening statement, which suggests a careful and planned parsing. Cohen didn’t quite say there were never any discussions about a pardon; he instead said he never asked for one. His comment about whether he would accept one is also notably in the present tense and doesn’t specifically address whether it’s something he would have accepted before he flipped on Trump.
Cohen’s legal team has defended the comment by arguing that it was actually Trump’s legal team that had been dangling the idea of pardons. Cohen merely instructed his lawyers to have conversations, they say, about something the Trump team was already publicly entertaining.
“Prior to Michael Cohen’s decision to leave the ‘Joint Defense Group’ and tell the truth on July 2, 2018, Michael was open to the ongoing ‘dangling’ of a possible pardon by Trump representatives privately and in the media,” Cohen’s lawyer, Lanny Davis, said in a statement. “During that time period, he directed his attorney to explore possibilities of a pardon at one point with Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani as well as other lawyers advising President Trump.”
And it’s true that there were some public comments about the possibility of a Cohen pardon. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders was asked about the subject on April 23 on the White House’s North Lawn and said, “I don’t think that we are going to talk about hypotheticals that don’t exist right now."
She was asked later that day in a news briefing about the possibility, and again she declined to dismiss it:
Q: Wanted to ask you a question, sort of following up on what you were asked this morning about Michael Cohen. It was noticed by some that you didn’t close the door one way or the other on the president pardoning Michael Cohen. What is your read on that right now?
SANDERS: It’s hard to close a door on something that hasn’t taken place. I don’t like to discuss or comment on hypothetical situations that may or may not ever happen. I would refer you to personal attorneys to comment on anything specific regarding that case, but we don’t have anything at this point.
The next day, Trump was asked about the possibility. He called it a “stupid question” but did not dispute that it was a possibility.
It’s also worth emphasizing that Cohen, who wasn’t asked further questions about pardons in his public testimony, has reportedly not hidden these pardon discussions during his closed-door testimony over the past nine days:
According to people familiar with Cohen’s closed-door testimony to Congress, Giuliani is not the only lawyer with whom Cohen said he discussed pardons. Cohen told lawmakers on the House Intelligence Committee that he also spoke about a pardon with Trump’s attorney Jay Sekulow, according to four people familiar with his statements, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter.
In a terse statement to The Washington Post earlier Wednesday, Sekulow flatly denied Cohen’s allegation, calling it “not true” — and declining to elaborate further.
But if those discussions existed, why not just say that publicly, instead of focusing on how you never technically asked for a pardon?
What’s more, Davis’s comment seems to suggest Cohen was only referring to not asking for a pardon after July 2, 2018. But “never” is a period that covers an infinite period of time. And that was the point at which Cohen turned on Trump, meaning the idea that he would seek a pardon after that point wouldn’t make much sense.
As with Cohen’s other problematic claim in his testimony -- that he didn’t want to work in the White House -- there is also previous reporting here. CNN reported in December, citing anonymous sources, that Cohen had been under the impression in spring 2018 that Trump would pardon him if he remained loyal.
And as with the White House claim, there is a difference between Cohen’s testimony being technically accurate and potentially misleading. He clearly wanted to leave the impression that he wasn’t spurned by not getting a desired job in the White House, and he clearly wanted to leave the impression that he wasn’t bitter about not getting a pardon.
To this point, there is no reporting to suggest that there was an explicit request for a pardon. If there were, it would directly contradict Cohen’s testimony. But telling his lawyers to ask about the possibility certainly suggests a degree of interest that Cohen sought to dismiss in his public testimony.