WASHINGTON - Michael Cohen’s former legal team reached out to President Donald Trump’s lawyers seeking a pardon, Cohen’s current attorney said late Wednesday, largely settling speculation about who initiated conversations about the matter but raising new questions about whether Cohen was honest in his public testimony to Congress last week.
Cohen's lawyer Lanny Davis said in an interview that Cohen directed his former attorney, Stephen Ryan, to contact Trump's representatives after they "dangled" the possibility of pardons "in their public statements." Davis did not specify which public statements swayed Cohen, saying only that the outreach took place before federal law enforcement raided Cohen's home and office in April 2018.
"They had been dangling it for a while, and it was a constant refrain," Davis said, referring to Trump representatives' comments on pardons. "So Michael had his attorney reach out to Rudolph W. Giuliani."
The Post was unable to reach Ryan late Wednesday.
Giuliani said this week that "I can't confirm or deny whether I had a conversation with any of the attorneys because it's attorney-client privilege, but what I can say is that I've said the same thing to everyone, privately and publicly, which is that the president is not considering pardons at this time."
Reached late Wednesday, Giuliani said, "If Michael Cohen waives attorney-client privilege on this question, I'd be happy to say more, but he may not want to do that and have me do that."
According to people familiar with Cohen's closed-door testimony to Congress, Giuliani is not the only lawyer with whom Cohen said he discussed pardons. Cohen told lawmakers on the House Intelligence Committee that he also spoke about a pardon with Trump's attorney Jay Sekulow, according to four people familiar with his statements, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter.
In a terse statement to The Washington Post earlier Wednesday, Sekulow flatly denied Cohen's allegation, calling it "not true" - and declining to elaborate further.
To date, the topic of Cohen and pardons has been mired in a finger-pointing, much of it playing out in private. Cohen has privately claimed that Trump's representatives dangled the notion of a pardon, according to people familiar with the discussions, while others say it was Cohen's former representatives who broached the subject with Trump's legal team.
This latest revelation from Davis raises questions about whether Cohen was honest in his public testimony last week before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. During that hearing, Cohen told lawmakers that he "never asked for, nor would I accept a pardon from President Trump." Davis's explanation suggests that, through counsel, Cohen did inquire about a pardon.
Cohen made other statements during the public Oversight hearing that have since been challenged. For instance, in his testimony, Cohen accused Sekulow of making changes to the statements he was preparing to make before the House and Senate Intelligence committees in 2017 concerning when during the presidential campaign Trump abandoned a major real estate deal in Moscow. Cohen pleaded guilty last year to lying to lawmakers about the project's timeline, and he is scheduled to begin a three-year prison sentence in May for that and other financial crimes.
The timeline reflected in Cohen's testimony was significant because if Trump continued to pursue his Moscow tower project until at least June of 2016 instead of January of that year, as Cohen originally - and falsely - told lawmakers, it means he did so after it was clear Trump had won enough delegates to secure the Republican nomination for the presidency.
But Sekulow denied making any changes to Cohen's planned testimony about the timing of the Trump Tower Moscow project, calling Cohen's allegation "completely false."
On Wednesday, Cohen gave the House Intelligence Committee documents that purportedly illustrate how the president's lawyers edited his 2017 statements to Congress, according to people familiar with the matter. The committee has not made those documents public.
According to people familiar with what's contained in the documents, the changes were plentiful - indicating Trump's legal team had been apprised of what Cohen planned to tell lawmakers in 2017. But one of these people said that the changes were not substantive and that there had been no direct changes made to Cohen's original claims about the timeline along which Trump pursued the real estate project in Russia.
Disputes about the veracity of Cohen's claims are fueling a political fight over whether lawmakers should take Cohen at his word. While Democrats have questioned what incentive that Cohen, who is heading to prison, would have to lie to Congress now, Republicans have pointed to Cohen's guilty plea as proof he can't be trusted to deliver honest testimony.
And yet, as Cohen's lawyers have not publicized specific details or dates of his pardon conversations with Trump's team, many lawmakers remain uncertain about how talks progressed. It is still unclear, for example, what Cohen discussed with Trump's lawyers during what he said was their last conversation, about two months after the raid of his home and office. In his public testimony, Cohen declined to answer more questions about those talks, saying it was a matter of interest to an ongoing investigation.
The stakes are high for both sides. If Trump's representatives sought a bargain with Cohen to gain assurances not to cooperate with prosecutors, it would raise questions about whether the intent was to obstruct justice. Were Cohen to intentionally mislead Congress, a crime to which he has already pleaded guilty, it could open him to additional prosecution and the prospect of a longer prison sentence.
As lawmakers split along political lines over Cohen, they are turning on each other. In recent days, Republican leaders have questioned not only Cohen's integrity but also that of House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif.
This week, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., suggested on Fox News that Schiff had coached Cohen through his testimony, asking whether he had tried to "tamper" or "direct" Cohen to answer certain questions in a certain way and urging Schiff to recuse himself from the investigation.
On Wednesday, intelligence panel member Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio, sent a letter to Cohen, asking him to disclose the number and nature of his contacts with Schiff, and saying that those contacts raised questions about "witness tampering, obstruction of justice, or collusion."
Schiff has called McCarthy's suggestions "frivolous."
In response to Turner's letter, a spokesman for Schiff also characterized the committee staff's pre-interview contacts with Cohen as "proffer sessions," deeming them "completely appropriate."
A congressional aide also noted that Turner had not attended the intelligence panel's first closed-door session with Cohen last week. Turner vehemently denied that claim, saying he was present. A spokeswoman for Turner also said that by making the letter to Cohen public, the congressman expects a public answer from him.
Over the past nine days, the House Intelligence Committee spoke with Cohen behind closed doors in two separate day-long sessions, following another private interview with the Senate Intelligence Committee and a public hearing with the House Committee on Oversight and Reform.
Together, these sessions have opened several avenues of inquiry for the six House panels looking into allegations of wrongdoing in Trump's campaign and presidency. Those investigations are picking up steam as lawmakers brace for an expected report from special counsel Robert Mueller, who has spent nearly two years investigating Russia's interference in the 2016 election and whether anyone associated with Trump's campaign conspired with those efforts.
- - -
The Washington Post’s Tom Hamburger, Philip Rucker and Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.