Trump Told Cohen to Lie to Congress About “Collusion” in General—Not just the Moscow Tower deal

Analysts are still picking through all the crimes in which Michael Cohen directly implicated his former boss, President Donald Trump. Among the most significant crimes are those offences that were part of the articles of impeachment written for prior presidents. That historically notorious list includes acts of suborning perjury and obstructing justice, which can arise from either directing or encouraging a person to lie to federal authorities. It is for this reason that Cohen is apparently now searching through different electronic versions of his draft congressional testimony from 2017 to show that Trump’s other personal lawyers at the time edited Cohen’s written testimony to mislead Congress.

If and when those drafts are presented to Congress, it will be important to scan not only for what they said about the Moscow Tower deal, but also the passages on “collusion” more broadly. That’s because Cohen also testified last week that the President told Cohen, who was also one of Trump’s personal lawyers at the time, to lie to Congress in 2017 about his knowledge or beliefs about collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.

In the first wave of commentary following Cohen’s hearing last week, many rightly focused on Cohen’s testifying that the President Trump told Cohen to lie to Congress about the Moscow Tower deal. What has largely escaped notice is that Cohen directly implicated the President in an instruction to lie about collusion more generally. Cohen’s about face on the question of collusion has also been missed—that is, seeing what Cohen told Congress in late 2017 compared to what Cohen told Congress on Wednesday.

“‘There’s no collusion’ … that’s the message that he wanted to reinforce.”

One of the jaw-dropping moments last Wednesday was the revelation of a White House meeting on Thursday, May 18, 2017 between President Trump, Cohen, and another of Trump’s personal lawyers, Jay Sekulow. The purpose of the May 2017 meeting, according to apparently independent information in the possession of Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) and confirmed by Cohen, included Cohen’s upcoming testimony before the House. What did President Trump tell Cohen to do in his testimony? Cohen testified, “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” (my emphasis added).

Connolly followed up by asking Cohen if the President coached him in how to testify. Cohen replied that Trump does not make these messages directly but the message was clear. Cohen said, “I know what he means because I’ve been around him for so long. So, if you’re asking me whether or not that’s the message, that’s staying on point, that’s the party line that he created that so many others are now touting, yes, that’s the message that he wanted to reinforce.” Cohen repeated the line that Trump told Cohen to maintain, “What he does is, again, ‘Michael, there’s no Russia, there’s no collusion, there’s no involvement, there’s no interference’” (emphasis added).

CONNOLLY: In any way, final question, did the president, in any way from your point of view, coach you, in terms of how to respond to questions or the content of your testimony before a House Committee?

COHEN: Again, it’s a difficult answer, because he doesn’t tell you what he wants. What he does is, again, ‘Michael, there’s no Russia, there’s no collusion, there’s no involvement, there’s no interference.’

I know what he means because I’ve been around him for so long. So, if you’re asking me whether or not that’s the message, that’s staying on point, that’s the party line that he created that so many others are now touting, yes, that’s the message that he wanted to reinforce.

Cohen elaborated how Trump gives subordinates directions in response to a question by Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mi). “He doesn’t give you orders. He speaks in a code and I understand the code, because I’ve been around him for a decade,” Cohen said.

AMASH: All right, but you suggested that the president sometimes communicates his wished indirectly. For example you said, quote, “Mr. Trump did not directly tell me to lie to Congress, that’s not how he operates.” End quote. Can you explain how he does this?

COHEN: Sure. It would be no different if I said, that’s the nicest looking tie I’ve ever seen, isn’t it? What are you going do? Are you going fight with him? The answer is no. So, you say, yes, it’s the nicest looking tie I’ve ever seen. That’s how he speaks. He doesn’t give you questions. He doesn’t give you orders. He speaks in a code and I understand the code, because I’ve been around him for a decade.

Cohen’s sentencing memorandum, which he submitted to the federal court, flatly states that Cohen’s conduct involving false statements to Congress on the Moscow Tower deal “was intended to benefit Client-1, in accordance with Client-1’s directives.” The term “directives” also fits Cohen’s description of how Trump told Cohen, during the May 2017 meeting, to testify about collusion.

Let’s then compare what Cohen told Congress about “collusion” in his written testimony in Sept. 2017 with what Cohen told Congress last week.

“I never saw anything – not a hint of anything” — Cohen, Sept. 2017

In his written testimony in 2017, Cohen categorically ruled out any knowledge or belief in the possibility of collusion between Trump and Russia. Cohen prepared his written testimony in collaboration with Trump’s other personal attorneys allegedly including Sekulow. Cohen told Congress:

“I never saw anything – not a hint of anything – that demonstrated his [Trump’s] involvement in Russian interference in our election or any form of Russian collusion.”

Cohen also stated:

“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.”

It would be valuable to know what Cohen told Congress during his oral testimony in Sept. 2017. His written statements, however, are clear. On the question of collusion, Cohen’s written statement in 2017 is flatly contradicted by what Cohen told Congress last week, after he apparently decided to come clean.

“So many dots that all seem to lead to the same direction” — Cohen, Feb. 2019

In his testimony last week, Cohen told Congress the very things that Trump had allegedly told him not to say in 2017 on the issue of collusion. Cohen no longer ruled out having any knowledge or belief in the possibility of collusion between Trump and Russia. Rather he went much further in implicating Trump and the campaign.

Cohen’s February testimony on the Moscow Tower deal is itself a potentially key element in any understanding of coordination or cooperation between the Trump team and the Kremlin. Cohen also implicated Trump directly in Roger Stone’s scheme with Wikileaks, which was conducting its election interference efforts in collaboration with the Kremlin. Even putting to the side Cohen’s testimony on the Moscow Tower deal and the Stone-Wikileaks scheme, Cohen made several other statements about direct collusion with Russia. It is those other statements that are the focus of my attention here.

In his written testimony last week, Cohen said he did not know of “direct evidence” of “collusion” but he pointed to circumstantial evidence instead. Based on that evidence, Cohen said he concluded Donald Trump Jr. informed his father in advance of the June 9 Trump meeting with the Russian delegation–and that Trump approved. “Ok good…let me know,” Trump told his son in Cohen’s presence.  The evidence was fairly weak, because Cohen does not recall the precise date and Don Jr. did not make any statement about the content or participants in the meeting. But Cohen testified that he “concluded that Don Jr.  was referring to that June 2016 Trump Tower meeting.”

This sort of circumstantial evidence would by no means stand on its own in court as evidence that candidate Trump knew or approved of the June 9 meeting. Nevertheless, it was valuable information and, on its own, could have provided congressional investigators with significant leads back in 2017.

Also, in support of his conclusion, Cohen testified that based on his inside knowledge of the Trump organization, “Don Jr. would never set up any meeting of any significance alone – and certainly not without checking with his father. I also knew that nothing went on in Trump world, especially the campaign, without Mr. Trump’s knowledge and approval.” Those statements contradict what President Trump has told reporters about whether he was informed of the June 9 meeting.

Cohen also made broader statements about his belief that the Russia investigation might end with findings of conclusion. After saying he had no direct evidence, Cohen wrote, “But, I have my suspicions.” In response to Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fl), Cohen said that Trump had the will to collude with Russia in Trump’s effort to do whatever is necessary to win. “Mr. Trump’s desire to win would have him work with anyone,” he also said. Even more importantly, Cohen added on the question whether Trump colluded with Russia, “There’s just so many dots that all seem to lead to the same direction.” Cohen appeared eager to continue to discuss what he meant by those dots, but Wasserman Schultz cut him off moving to her final questions.

WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: Knowing how Mr. Trump operates with his winning-at- all-costs mentality, do you believe that he would cooperate or collude with a foreign power to win the presidency? Is he capable of that?

COHEN: It calls on so much speculation. It would be unfair for me to answer that.

WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: I understand, but you have a tremendous amount of experience even when you testified…

(CROSSTALK)

COHEN: Mr. Trump is all about winning.

WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: And in your…

(CROSSTALK)

COHEN: He will do what is necessary to (inaudible) to win.

WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: … and in your opinion and experience, would he have the potential to cooperate or collude with a foreign power to win the presidency at all costs.

COHEN: Yes.

WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: Based on what you know, would Mr. Trump, or did he, lie about colluding and coordinating with the Russians at any point during the campaign?

COHEN: So as I’ve stated in my testimony, I wouldn’t use the word “colluding.” Was there something odd about the back and forth praise with President Putin? Yes. But I’m not really sure I can answer that question in terms of collusion. I was not part of the campaign. I don’t know the other conversations that Mr. Trump had with other individuals. There’s just so many dots that all seem to lead to the same direction.

In short, Cohen’s testimony was significantly different from his written testimony in 2017. He’d previously said he was “certain that the evidence at the conclusion of this investigation will reinforce the fact that there was no collusion.” That testimony in 2017 closely tracked what Cohen said President Trump told him to say in the May 2017 meeting with Sekulow. By February 2019, Cohen had turned and so had his testimony. In effect, Cohen testified against the President on the question of collusion last week, after he had covered for Trump in 2017.

* * *

If Trump directed or encouraged Cohen to lie to Congress, it could be a criminal offense and impeachable — whether or not a grand conspiracy with Russia occurred in 2016. Trump apparently wanted Cohen to deny any knowledge or belief of collusion, including any evidence that might point in that direction or provide investigators with leads. If Cohen, for example, had reason to conclude that Trump knew and approved of the June 9 meeting, Cohen understood that the President did not want him to reveal any such information to Congress. And that is part of what Cohen, indeed, kept hidden.   

It is important to take a step back to reflect on what’s happened here. Just imagine if Cohen had stated his true knowledge and belief about about “collusion” with Russia in his written testimony in Sept. 2017, which he released to the public at that time. It would have been extremely damaging to the President and other members of the campaign in the course of the Russia investigation, and that was exactly what President Trump apparently wanted to prevent.

The question is now whether President Trump told or encouraged Cohen to lie to Congress. If there is additional evidence to corroborate Cohen’s claims, it may help spell the fate of his presidency.

 

Image credit: US President Donald Trump’s former personal attorney, is sworn in to testify before the House Oversight and Reform Committee in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on February 27, 2019. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

 

About the Author(s)

Ryan Goodman

Co-Editor-in-Chief of Just Security, Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Professor of Law at New York University School of Law, former Special Counsel to the General Counsel of the Department of Defense (2015-2016). You can follow him on Twitter @rgoodlaw.