Former Federal Prosecutor Dissects Trump Lawyer, Michael Cohen’s Statement to Senate

Unlike the statements from Kushner and Trump Jr., which I’ve previously dissected, the statement of Michael Cohen is awkwardly written and does not appear to have any clear strategy. Large portions of it read more like a political speech than a document written by lawyers in response to a request for testimony.  I get the sense from this statement and his bizarre Vanity Fair interview that Cohen is not completely listening to his counsel. He may have crafted much of this statement himself.  Nonetheless, some portions of this statement are carefully worded and the things that Cohen fails to deny are more important than what he does deny.

STATEMENT OF MICHAEL D. COHEN, ESQ. TO THE SENATE SELECT COMMITTEE ON INTELLIGENCE
September 19, 2017

Thank you for inviting me to speak with you today.

As part of this statement, I would like to accomplish two things.

First, I want to comment briefly but clearly on the presumed subject of this morning’s interview. Second, I want to address what I believe are the implications of it.

Let me be totally clear that I am innocent of the allegations raised against me in the public square[1], which are based upon misinformation and unnamed or unverifiable sources.

[1] It’s unclear what allegations he’s denying, which makes this blanket denial meaningless.  If evidence is later uncovered proving that Cohen committed a crime, he could claim that he was denying a different allegation in this sentence.

I have never engaged with, been paid by, paid for, or conversed with any member of the Russian Federation or anyone else to hack[2] anyone or any organization.

[2]  It’s unclear whether Cohen was ever accused of hacking anyone, which suggests that he is listing things that he can deny while carefully excluding certain things that he can’t deny, at least completely.  Also, it’s unclear what he means by “member of the Russian Federation.” Technically speaking, the “members” of the Russian Federation would be the subunits of the Federation, like our U.S. states. Does he mean he did not speak with any Russian citizen?  Or just with Russian officials?  Also, what does it mean to “engage with” someone to hack?  “Engage” is an ambiguous word.  Does that mean he wasn’t involved at all with hacking, or does that just mean that he didn’t hire someone to do it?

I have never engaged with, been paid by, paid for, or conversed with any member of the Russian Federation or anyone else to hack or interfere[3] with the election.

[3] What does it mean to converse with someone to hack or interfere with the election?  It’s very oddly worded.  That unusual wording means it is hard to know what he is actually denying, and easier for him to later claim he meant something else. Note that in this denial and the denials above he uses the term “engaged with, been paid by, paid for, or conversed with”–does that exclude actions that he took that didn’t involve speaking or payment?  What if he just encouraged the interference?

I have never engaged with, been paid by, paid for, or conversed with any member of the Russian Federation or anyone else to hack Democratic Party computers; and I have never engaged with, been paid by, paid for, or conversed with any member of the Russian Federation or anyone else to create fake news stories[4] to assist the Trump campaign or to damage the Clinton campaign.

[4] He has essentially never been accused of creating fake news stories or at least that has never been an issue raised in any mainstream media or prominent commentary. So why is he denying it? His denial here is odd and suggests that there may be other things that he is deliberately not denying. For instance, he denies helping to “create” fake news, but he does not deny helping to target fake news stories at particular groups of voters. More broadly, did he ever ask or encourage a Russian or other foreign national to aid the Trump campaign?  Did he ever suggest that Trump would reduce sanctions or undertake any other official act that would benefit Russia?  There’s a lot he does not deny in this statement.

Given my own proximity to the President of the United States as a candidate, let me also say that I never saw anything – not a hint of anything – that demonstrated his involvement in Russian interference in our election or any form of Russian collusion[5].

[5] The word “saw” is a commonly used term, but it’s not a legal one. Does he mean he was never aware and never had any knowledge of these activities?  Or just that he did not personally see Trump doing anything with his eyes? Note that he only states that Trump was not “involved” in “interference” or “collusion.” The word “involved” is also more of a common term than a legal one. Does he mean only that Trump never directly participated?  Does he deny that Trump had knowledge?  Moreover, it’s unclear what “collusion” means—it has no legal meaning whatsoever. So it is unclear what he is denying. Did Trump ever seek aid from Russia?  Did Trump know about the Russian operation?  This statement leaves open the possibility that he did. The blanket denial of even “a hint” is not consistent with the public record. For instance, when Trump was a candidate, he openly called for Russia to hack and release Clinton’s emails. It raises questions about what he is actually denying, and how other words like “demonstrated” may weaken the scope of what he is denying here. Finally, it is remarkable what he omits by focusing here (and below) on President Trump: whether he saw anything that indicated the possible involvement of associates of Trump and the Trump campaign in the Russian election interference.

I emphatically state that I had nothing to do with any Russian involvement in our electoral process.[6]

[6] This sort of blanket denial actually means something, although it doesn’t exclude the possibility that he knew about the Russian operation. Also, why not make a similar blanket denial on other topics?  Why not say that he never asked a Russian to help the campaign? Also, his claim that he had nothing to do with any Russian involvement will be called into question given that he received emails from Felix Sater promising to get Putin’s assistance to help Trump get elected and then he pursued the business deal that Sater proposed in that exchange.

In fact, I find the activities attributed to the Russian Federation, if found to be true, to be an offense to our democracy.[7]

[7] Note that he does not admit that Russia tried to undermine our election, which our intelligence community and many independent studies have confirmed. If anything, “if found to be true” suggests that he claims he does not currently believe the reports of Russian interference to be true. This is potentially very important. As with the president himself, Cohen’s denial of the evidence that the Russians interfered in the campaign is consistent with a defense that forces a prosecutor to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the interference happened and that Russia was responsible. It is notable that Cohen, Trump, and Carter Page are in the rare category of informed public figures who still do not accept the fact of Russian interference in the election.

As an attorney, I believe justice ought not to be politicized in the United States of America – neither in this Senate office nor in the courts. I’m certain that the evidence at the conclusion of this investigation will reinforce the fact that there was no collusion between Russia, President Trump or me.[8]

[8] This doesn’t mean anything, given that the meaning of “collusion” is unclear.  This is also a statement of belief in the outcome of the investigation rather than an assertion of fact.  It’s like saying that the jury won’t convict you rather than saying you didn’t commit the crime. Finally, it is remarkable what he omits: whether the investigation will find evidence of collusion between Russians and Trump associates.

I’m also certain that there are some in this country who do not care about the facts, but simply want to politicize this issue, choosing to presume guilt – rather than presuming innocence – so as to discredit our lawfully elected President in the public eye and shame his supporters in the public square … this is un-American.

I am here today to reiterate my own innocence regarding the false allegations raised against me. What I seek is the Committee making a public conclusion about the truth or falsity of the allegations that follow.

My reputation was damaged in December 2016 when BuzzFeed published an unverified dossier prepared by a retired British spy – Christopher Steele – that was riddled with total falsehoods and intentionally salacious accusations.[9]

[9] He does not exclude the possibility that some of the most important information was accurate.

In my opinion[10], the hired spy didn’t find anything factual, so he threw together a shoddily written and totally fabricated report filled with lies and rumors.  The New York Post recently noted that much of the information in the dossier appeared at points to be copied from the internet; with typographical errors included.[11]

[10] The use of the word “opinion” could be an attempt to shield himself from a libel claim, because true opinion cannot be libel. (Merely labeling something as opinion does not make it so, however.)

[11] Note that this sentence does not assert that the factual assertions in the dossier are incorrect.

My name is mentioned more than a dozen times in the lie-filled-dossier and so within moments of BuzzFeed’s publication, false allegations about me were plastered all over the national and international press. The accusations are entirely and totally false.[12]

[12] The last sentence appears to be a denial of everything he is accused of in the dossier, although it could also be read to just deny allegations reported in the press.

A core accusation was that I had traveled to Prague to meet with Russians regarding interfering with the election.

I have never in my life been to Prague or to anywhere in the Czech Republic.[13] I might also add that I only have one passport (a United States Passport). I have to say that to you today – that I only have one passport – because another media outlet suggested that – as a Jew – I must also have an Israeli passport!

[13] Cohen is denying a factual claim in the Steele dossier that he met with Russians in Prague. This is an unusual way to deny meeting with Russians regarding interfering with the election.  Instead of saying that he never met with Russians, he said that he was never in Prague.  Did he meet with Russians anywhere else?

Aside from such an allegation being incredibly offensive, it is also totally wrong.

Let me tell you where I was on the day the dossier said I was in Prague.

I was in Los Angeles with my son who dreams of playing division 1 baseball next year at a prestigious university like USC. We were visiting the campus, meeting with various coaches, and discussing his future. Media sources have been able to confirm these facts and I can provide you with proof.

My wife and I have been married for 23 years, and are now entering into the season of our lives when we get to watch our children become adults themselves. My daughter, who is at an Ivy League school, and my wife, who is of Ukrainian descent, have especially been subjected to harassment, insults and threats … some so severe I cannot share them in mixed company.

You might say that the experiences I am living through are the cost of being in the public eye, but they shouldn’t be as I am not a government official. Many Trump supporting Americans are also paying this cost, like the twelve year old child in Missouri who was beaten up for wearing a Make America Great Again hat.

You can oppose the President’s points of view and his policies, but not raise false issues about the validity of his victory.

I assume we will discuss the rejected proposal to build a Trump property in Moscow that was terminated in January of 2016; which occurred before the Iowa caucus and months before the very first primary. This was solely a real estate deal and nothing more. I was doing my job.[14] I would ask that the two-page statement about the Moscow proposal that I sent to the Committee in August be incorporated into and attached to this transcript.

[14] It’s worth noting that he doesn’t address the much-discussed email with Felix Sater where Sater bragged that he could get “Putin’s team” to help them “engineer” a Trump victory.  Was that part of “doing his job”? Also, Cohen does not address the fact that as part of the real estate deal, Cohen reached out to Russia for assistance.  Was part of his “job” reaching out to the Russian government for help with a real estate deal in the midst of the Presidential campaign? Was it his job to do so after Sater told him that Putin would then help Trump get elected? Cohen will be asked to tough questions about his claim that the suspension or termination of the deal had nothing to do with the campaign, given Sater’s statements to the contrary. Finally note that he does not address his other reported dealings with Sater, which involved a back-channel dossier on Ukraine. As discussed in Just Security, there is reason to believe those dealings, also involving Cohen and Sater, were supported by Russia and began during the primary season.

I’m very proud to have served Donald J. Trump for all these years, and I’ll continue to support him.

If we really are concerned about a Russian attempt to divide our country and discredit our political system then the best thing we can do is put aside our infighting, stop presuming guilt rather than innocence of American citizens, and address this national security threat as a united people at its source.

Otherwise, the priorities of the American people will continue to be neglected, and the Russians will use our distraction to continue to harm us from the shadows while we harm each other in front of the camera lights.

I look forward to answering all of your questions today.

[Editor’s Note: You may also want to read Renato Mariotti’s “Former Federal Prosecutor Dissects Donald Trump Jr.’s Statement to Congress,” Sept. 8, 2017 and Mariotti’s “A Former Federal Prosecutor Dissects Kushner’s Statement,” July 25, 2017]

Photo credit: Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s personal attorney, stands with his attorney Stephen M. Ryan after finding out the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing at which they were to appear was canceled, on September 19, 2017 – Mark Wilson/Getty Images 

About the Author(s)

Renato Mariotti

Formerly a Federal Prosecutor in the Securities and Commodities Fraud Section of the United States Attorney's Office for the Northern District of Illinois Follow him on Twitter (@renato_mariotti).