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Did President Trump and his attorneys 'coach' Michael Cohen's false testimony to Congress?

·White House Correspondent
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WASHINGTON — One of the major lines of questioning during Michael Cohen’s six hours of testimony Wednesday before the House Oversight Committee focused on his assertion that President Trump’s “personal lawyers reviewed and edited” a false statement he gave to Congress in 2017. Jay Sekulow, who serves as counsel to the president, responded to the testimony with a statement saying Cohen’s claim was not true.

“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 said.

Cohen, Trump’s former attorney and “fixer,” was sentenced to three years in prison in December after pleading guilty to what a federal judge described as “a veritable smorgasbord of fraudulent conduct,” including lying to Congress about Trump’s efforts to build a skyscraper in Russia. Prosecutors and congressional investigators had obtained extensive documentation showing Cohen pursued the Trump Tower Moscow project through the middle of 2016 and had likely lied to Congress, Yahoo News revealed last May.

In August 2017, Cohen delivered a written statement to the House Intelligence Committee in which he said he gave up on the project in late January 2016, when they determined the “proposal was not feasible for a variety of business reasons and should not be pursued further.” During his opening remarks on Wednesday, Cohen apologized and said he was “ashamed” for initially lying to Congress about the skyscraper project. Cohen also provided details about the president’s alleged role in crafting his false statement.

According to Cohen, Trump “did not directly” tell him to lie to Congress. Rather, Cohen said he knew Trump wanted him to downplay the deal because of the president’s repeated false statements in private meetings and on the campaign trail throughout the first half of 2016, when Trump claimed that he did not have business interests in Russia. Cohen also said Trump’s lawyers signed off on the false statement that the Moscow skyscraper project ended in January 2016, which sent a clear signal.

“In conversations we had during the campaign, at the same time I was actively negotiating in Russia for him, he would look me in the eye and tell me there was no Russian business and then go on to lie to the American people by saying the same thing. In his way, he was telling me to lie,” Cohen said in his opening remarks on Wednesday.

“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 before I gave it,” added Cohen.

Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., questioned Cohen about whether Trump played a role in crafting the statement. Specifically, Connolly noted an email from May 16, 2017, from a special assistant to the president to the deputy White House counsel indicating there was a meeting that week between Trump, Sekulow and Cohen. Connolly read the message, which he said had not been previously made public and was provided to House members by the White House.

“POTUS … requested a meeting on Thursday with Michael Cohen and Jay Sekulow any idea what this might be about?” the special assistant asked in the message.

Connolly asked Cohen if he recalled meeting with Sekulow and Trump at the White House “on or around that time.” While Cohen suggested he couldn’t necessarily remember the date, he confirmed that he was in the White House with Sekulow. Connolly pressed him on whether that meeting was “just before” Cohen testified before the House Intelligence Committee.

“I believe so, yes,” Cohen said.

Connolly then asked Cohen to describe the “nature” of his discussion with Sekulow and Trump.

Cohen said Trump made the kind of statements that made clear the president wanted him to deny dealings in Moscow. “At the end of the day, I knew exactly what he wanted me to say,” Cohen said of the meeting.

Cohen also told Connolly that Sekulow was present because “he was going to be representing Mr. Trump going forward.”

Connolly asked Cohen if Trump attempted to “coach” his congressional testimony during the meeting. While Cohen stressed that Trump doesn’t generally explicitly “tell you what he wants,” he said the president made it abundantly clear he wanted Cohen to downplay the Moscow skyscraper project by making comments like “there’s no Russia, there’s no collusion, there’s no involvement.”

“I know what he means because I’ve been around him for so long,” Cohen said, adding, “That’s the message that he wanted to reinforce.”

Later in Wednesday’s hearing, Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., questioned Cohen about what he described as the “breathtaking” claim that Trump’s lawyers reviewed the false statement to Congress. Raskin asked Cohen “which specific lawyers reviewed and edited” the statement and whether they altered the initial draft.

Michael Cohen talks to the news media after his testimony. (Photo: Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
Michael Cohen talks to the news media after his testimony. (Photo: Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

“There were changes made, additions. Jay Sekulow, for one,” Cohen said.

Raskin followed up, asking whether the changes related to the “timing” of the Trump Tower Moscow negotiations.

In response later questioning by Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., Cohen identified another attorney involved in the process, Abbe Lowell, who represents Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, and her husband, Jared Kushner, both top White House advisers.

“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,” Cohen said.

A spokesperson for Lowell declined to comment on the record.

Sarbanes also asked Cohen why the attorneys who reviewed the statement wouldn’t have objected to the false description of the Moscow project.

“The goal was to stay on message, which is 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 same message that existed well before my need to come and testify,” Cohen said.

Members of Trump’s legal team changed their responses to Cohen’s claims as Wednesday’s testimony progressed. Sekulow initially declined to comment beyond pointing to Cohen’s exchanges with Sarbanes where Cohen initially suggested he couldn’t recall everyone at the White House who was involved in reviewing his statement.

“Michael’s answer to Sarbanes clarified it,” Sekulow told Yahoo News.

But Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., came back to the topic after Sarbanes questioned Cohen. Cohen offered a much more direct answer when she asked him which White House attorneys reviewed and edited the document.

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

Asked about Cohen’s answer to Speier, Sekulow responded to Yahoo News with his comment that Cohen’s claims were “completely false.”

Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, another of Trump’s personal attorneys, also offered up a pair of different responses to Cohen’s testimony.

Earlier in the day, Giuliani, who joined Trump’s legal team last April, said he wasn’t around when Cohen made the initial statement to Congress. However, he said it would not have been unusual for Trump’s lawyers to work with Cohen given the joint defense agreement between the two. Giuliani also suggested Trump’s attorneys could not have known Cohen was lying about the scope of the Trump Tower Moscow project.

Toward the end of the day, when asked about Cohen’s more detailed claims about the White House meeting and whether the president or his lawyers played “any role” in pushing Cohen to lie to Congress, Giuliani offered a terse and total denial.

“No,” he wrote.


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