In his public testimony before Congress in February, Michael Cohen, President Trump’s former attorney, was explicit during his opening statement about what Trump didn’t do.
“Mr. Trump did not directly tell me to lie to Congress,” Cohen said, referring to his untrue assertion in a statement offered to congressional investigators in 2017 that discussions about a possible Trump-branded real estate project in Moscow had ended in January 2017. For this falsehood, Cohen reached a plea agreement with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III last year.
But Cohen continued:
“That is not how he operates,” he said. He added later: “Mr. Trump’s personal lawyers reviewed and edited my statement to Congress about the timing of the Moscow Tower negotiations before I gave it.” That Trump had repeatedly lied about the time frame of the possible deal, Cohen said, inspired him to give his own false testimony.
“I lied about it too because Mr. Trump had made clear to me, through his personal statements to me that we both knew to be false and through his lies to the country, that he wanted me to lie,” Cohen said. “And he made it clear to me because his personal attorneys reviewed my statement before I gave it to Congress.”
On Monday afternoon, The Washington Post reported that Cohen offered an important additional detail in later testimony before investigators. Tom Hamburger, Ellen Nakashima and Karoun Demirjian write that Cohen directly implicated Trump’s then-outside counsel Jay Sekulow.
“In subsequent closed-door appearances before the House Intelligence Committee in February and March, Cohen was more specific, saying Sekulow told him it would be important to use Jan. 31, 2016, as the date when discussions about the Moscow project ended, according to the people familiar with his testimony, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the panel’s ongoing investigation.”
“Sekulow told Cohen the date was significant because it came before the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses, the opening contest of the White House race, Cohen said to the committee.”
Again, this wasn’t true. The deal continued to be discussed until June 2016, shortly after the meeting in Trump Tower between representatives of the Trump campaign and a Russian lawyer linked to that country’s government.
The timeline here is important. Shortly after Trump took office in January 2017, committees in the Senate and the House announced plans to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election, probes that included analysis of possible connections to Trump’s campaign. Cohen was asked to offer testimony for those investigations in May of that year.
During his public testimony in February, Cohen was asked about a meeting that month between Trump, Sekulow and himself that had been indicated in an email turned over to investigators.
“Do you recall being asked to come to the White House on or around that time with Mr. Sekulow?” Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) asked Cohen at that point.
“Off the top of my head, sir, I don’t,” Cohen replied. “I recall being in the White House with Jay Sekulow and it was in regard to the documents — the document production as well as my appearance before the House Select Intel.” The report released by Mueller indicates that the meeting did occur on May 18.
While the president didn’t tell him to lie about the scope of the Moscow deal, Cohen said, the meeting did cover his impending testimony.
“He wanted me to cooperate. He also wanted just to ensure, I’m making the statement and I said it in my testimony, there is no Russia, there is no collusion, there is no — there is no deal,” Cohen said. “He goes, it’s all a witch hunt and it’s — he goes, this stuff has to end.”
Connolly asked if Trump was coaching him on what to say.
“Again, it’s a difficult answer, because he doesn’t tell you what he wants,” Cohen replied. “What he does is, again, Michael, there’s no Russia, there’s no collusion, there’s no involvement, there’s no interference.”
Cohen’s false assertions about the duration of the Trump Tower Moscow conversation came in a written statement that he submitted in August. Before submitting it to Congress, Cohen sent the statement to the members of a joint defense agreement, a group of attorneys representing various clients with shared legal interests. In this case, it included Sekulow, attorneys for the Trump Organization and others.
During his public testimony in February, Cohen twice suggested that Sekulow had been involved in editing his statement.
Mueller’s report places significant emphasis on the joint defense agreement, or JDA. In Volume II, p. 139, it reads:
“In the months leading up to his congressional testimony, Cohen frequently spoke with the President’s personal counsel. Cohen said that in those conversations the President’s personal counsel would sometimes say that he had just been with the President. Cohen recalled that the President’s personal counsel told him the JDA was working well together and assured him that there was nothing there and if they stayed on message the investigations would come to an end soon. At that time, Cohen’s legal bills were being paid by the Trump Organization, and Cohen was told not to worry because the investigations would be over by summer or fall of 2017. ...”
“Cohen’s statement was circulated in advance to, and edited by, members of the JDA. Before the statement was finalized, early drafts contained a sentence stating, “The building project led me to make limited contacts with Russian government officials.” In the final version of the statement, that line was deleted. Cohen thought he was told that it was a decision of the JDA to take out that sentence, and he did not push back on the deletion. Cohen recalled that he told the President’s personal counsel that he would not contest a decision of the JDA.”
Shortly after The Post’s report came out on Monday, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) released the actual testimony from Cohen. In it, Cohen testifies that, after Trump was inaugurated, he spoke to Sekulow 20 times, about half of which were in the month before his congressional testimony.
Mueller’s report reinforces this frequency.
“Between August 18, 2017, when the statement was in an initial draft stage, and August 28, 2017, when the statement was submitted to Congress, phone records reflect that Cohen spoke with the President’s personal counsel almost daily. On August 27, 2017, the day before Cohen submitted the statement to Congress, Cohen and the President’s personal counsel had numerous contacts by phone, including calls lasting three, four, six, eleven, and eighteen minutes.”
He also told investigators in private that Sekulow had personally agreed to say that the discussions about the Moscow project had ended in January.
“But the reason it stops in January of 2016 is because the documents that we had . . . there were text messages between Felix and myself,” Cohen said during private testimony in February, referring to the developer Felix Sater, who was a partner in the project. “And there’s one in January where I said to him: ‘l’m done. We’re finished.’ . . . That’s why we used January as the date.”
In other words, Cohen appears to have believed that point could mark a demonstrable moment of closure on the effort. He said as much during his March testimony to the House Intelligence Committee, saying that the text message “corroborated that date and gave it credibility.”
“Did you discuss that with Jay Sekulow?” Cohen was asked after he mentioned the date during his February testimony.
“Yes,” he replied.
“And what did he say about using January as the date?” he was asked.
“Good. Good,” Cohen said. “Let’s just stay on message. Keep this thing short.”
“Did Jay Sekulow know that the deal was discussed until June of 2016?” he was asked a bit later.
“I believe so,” Cohen replied.
During his testimony in March, Cohen was more direct.
“I want to ask you again. Who suggested January 2016 as the date for you to include as the end of the Trump Tower Moscow project?” Cohen was asked.
“To the best of my recollection, it was Jay Sekulow,” Cohen said.
“Did you discuss that date with anyone else?”
“My counsel,” Cohen said, adding that he didn’t recall any other discussions.
“[U]ltimately is it your understanding that all of the lawyers in the JDA signed off on this statement?” he was asked.
“To the best of my knowledge, yes,” Cohen replied. Not all of the lawyers knew that the statement included false statements, he said, but “some knew.”
To Mueller, Cohen suggested that he’d warned Sekulow about the lack of detail in the statement.
“Cohen recalled telling the President’s personal counsel, who did not have first-hand knowledge of the project, that there was more detail on Trump Tower Moscow that was not in the statement, including that there were more communications with Russia and more communications with candidate Trump than the statement reflected. Cohen stated that the President’s personal counsel responded that it was not necessary to elaborate or include those details because the project did not progress and that Cohen should keep his statement short and ‘tight’ and the matter would soon come to an end.”
Mueller also notes that “[p]hone records show that Cohen spoke with the President’s personal counsel immediately after his testimony on both days.”
In a statement to The Post on Monday, attorneys for Sekulow said that relying on Cohen’s testimony “defies logic, well-established law and common sense.” In his March testimony, Cohen was asked about another denial from Sekulow.
“Mr. Sekulow’s statement of last week only denies that the edits or changes to the statement were designed to alter the duration of the Moscow Trump Tower negotiations,” Schiff asked Cohen. “He says nothing about whether he was aware that it was false to begin with. Was that correct?”
It was, Cohen said.
“ln your view, was this an effort to make a non-denial denial?” Schiff asked.
“That’s one way to put it,” Cohen replied.