We now have more detail on the alleged origins of the lie Michael Cohen told to Congress about President Trump’s pursuit of a Trump Tower in Moscow during the 2016 election.
But while Cohen’s newly reported closed-door testimony is more suggestive than previously known that the Trump team asked him to lie, there remain significant questions about just how direct the request was.
Here’s what we know: According to a new Washington Post report, Cohen said Trump personal attorney Jay Sekulow encouraged him to say that the Trump Tower Moscow effort concluded in January 2016, when, in fact, that wasn’t true. According to Cohen’s private testimony to the House Intelligence Committee, Sekulow said it was important to state that the effort ended before voting began in the 2016 Republican presidential primary, which kicked off Feb. 1, 2016, in Iowa.
As Cohen’s guilty plea to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III detailed, Cohen actually continued to pursue the project until at least June 2016, after Trump was the presumptive GOP nominee. BuzzFeed News previously reported that Trump directed Cohen to lie about the date, but Cohen’s own testimony indicated that Trump didn’t make such an explicit request.
It’s important to note that Sekulow has said that Cohen’s allegation that Sekulow even made changes to Cohen’s statement to Congress is “completely false.” It’s also important to note that Cohen has been convicted of lying to Congress, so his claims should be viewed with a certain amount of skepticism.
But newly empowered House Democrats are taking them seriously, as is Sen. Mark R. Warner (Va.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
There are a few important points here.
1. Did Sekulow know it was false?
Even if Sekulow did, in fact, tell Cohen to state that the pursuit of the Trump Tower Moscow project ended in January 2016, it’s not clear that he knew it was false.
Sekulow joined Trump’s legal team after Trump was elected and wasn’t involved during the 2016 campaign. It’s entirely possible, if he did tell Cohen to testify to that date, that he wasn’t that familiar with the timeline and was simply passing along the company line.
2. The alternative might be worse
But if Sekulow did tell Cohen to use the false date, and he didn’t know it to be false himself, it leads to the question: Who was dictating the company line?
As mentioned above, Cohen has said Trump was not explicit about telling him to give the false timeline in his testimony, but it seems possible that the false timeline was passed down through his attorneys. The false date came from somewhere, and it’s hard to believe that Trump’s attorneys didn’t inquire with the boss about when the project ended.
It’s not clear, though, that that’s true. Nor is it evident how involved Trump was in the Trump Tower Moscow process. And if this was mostly Cohen’s initiative, it also seems plausible that he was given the company line and didn’t question it or raise the fact that it was false.
3. Mueller wasn’t able to interview Trump’s personal attorneys
Critics of this allegation will note that nobody has been charged with suborning Cohen’s perjury. But it’s also important to note that Trump’s personal attorneys were not interviewed by Mueller.
So if Sekulow did actually play a role in Cohen’s false testimony, it’s not something Mueller would have asked Sekulow about or necessarily gotten to the bottom of. House Democrats are trying to rectify that, but Trump’s attorneys are declining to cooperate.
4. Why didn’t Cohen just say this in his public testimony?
As with all things Cohen, skepticism is appropriate. And here’s one big reason: Even in his public testimony after the newly reported private testimony, Cohen didn’t draw such an explicit line between Sekulow and his false testimony.
Here’s one exchange with Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.):
RASKIN: You said you lied to Congress about Trump's negotiations to build his Moscow tower because he made it clear to you that he wanted you to lie. One of the reasons you knew this is because, quote, "Mr. Trump's personal lawyers reviewed and edited my statement in the Congress about the timing of the Moscow tower negotiations before I gave it." So this is a pretty breathtaking claim and I just want to get to the facts here.
Which specific lawyers reviewed and edited your statement to Congress on the Moscow tower negotiations and did they make any changes to your statement?
COHEN: There were changes made, additions. Jay Sekulow for one.
RASKIN: Were there changes about the timing the question...
CHAIRMAN ELIJAH CUMMINGS (D-MD.): Gentleman’s time has expired. You may answer that question.
COHEN: There were several changes that were made including how we were going to handle that message...
COHEN: ... which was...
CUMMINGS: Will you finish?
COHEN: Yes, the message, of course, being the length of time that the Trump Tower Moscow project stayed and remained alive.
RASKIN: That was one of the changes?
There was only one follow-up on this exchange, with Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.):
SPEIER: On Page 5 of your statement, you said, and I quote, “You need to know that Mr. Trump’s personal lawyers reviewed and edited my statement to Congress about the timing of the Moscow Tower negotiations.” Who were those attorneys?
COHEN: Jay - from the White House?
COHEN: Jay Sekulow, I believe Abbe Lowell as well.
SPEIER: And you have a copy of your original statement that you can provide to the Committee?
COHEN: I can try to get that for you.
SPEIER: All right, if you would do that. The letter of intent for the Moscow Tower was in the fall of 2015, correct?
These exchanges were too fleeting to get into too much detail, but why wouldn’t Cohen have just come out and said what he apparently said behind closed doors to the House Intelligence Committee — that Sekulow was directly responsible for the false date?
There are plenty of unanswered questions here.