May 20 at 5:07 PM
Michael Cohen, President Trump’s former longtime personal attorney, told a House panel during closed-door hearings earlier this year that he had been instructed by Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow to falsely claim in a 2017 statement to Congress that negotiations to build a Trump Tower in Moscow ended in January 2016, according to people familiar with his testimony.
In fact, Cohen later admitted, discussions on the Moscow tower continued into June of the presidential election year, after it was clear Trump would be the GOP nominee. Cohen isservingthree years in prison for lying to Congress, financial crimes and campaign finance violations.
House Democrats are now scrutinizing whether Sekulow or other Trump attorneys played a role in shaping Cohen’s 2017 testimony to Congress. Cohen has said he made the false statement to help hide the fact that Trump had potentially hundreds of millions of dollars at stake in apossible Russian projectwhile he was running for president.
“We’re trying to find out whether anyone participated in the false testimony that Cohen gave to this committee,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) said in an interview. He did not comment on who, if anyone, might have instructed Cohen to lie.
Jane Serene Raskin and Patrick Strawbridge, attorneys for Sekulow, said in a statement that “Cohen’s alleged statements are more of the same from him and confirm the observations of prosecutors in the Southern District of New York that Cohen’s ‘instinct to blame others is strong.’ ”
“That this or any Committee would rely on the word of Michael Cohen for any purpose — much less to try and pierce the attorney-client privilege and discover confidential communications of four respected lawyers — defies logic, well-established law and common sense,” they added.
It is unclear how much detailed knowledge Sekulow had about the timeline of Trump’s most recent effort to build a branded tower in Moscow, which Cohen began in September 2015 and ended in June 2016, according to court documents. Sekulow joined Trump’s legal team after he was elected.
Cohen’s claims about Sekulow are laid out in transcripts of his February and March appearances before the House intelligence panel that could be released as soon as Monday.
Cohen’s closed-door testimony before the committee led congressional Democrats this month to press Sekulow and other Trump family lawyers who were involved in a joint defense agreement for more information about work they did preparing Cohen’s 2017 statement. Schiff hasaskedfour attorneys to turn over documents and schedule interviews with the panel, a request they have so far rebuffed, calling it a threat to the long-standing protection of communications between lawyers and their clients.
In his public testimony before the House Oversight Committee in January, Cohen said 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.”
Jay Sekulow, a personal attorney to the president, has called Cohen’s allegations “completely false.” (Steve Helber/AP)
He accused Sekulow of making changes to the 2017 statement.
“There were changes made, additions, Jay Sekulow, for one,” Cohen told the panel.
Sekulowdeniedthe claim by Cohen at the time, calling such assertions “completely false.”
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.
When asked about the account of Cohen’s closed-door testimony, Lanny Davis, an attorney for Cohen, said, “I cannot disagree with that.”
Despite Cohen’s history of lying to Congress, senior Democrats on the House and Senate intelligence committees indicated that they are taking his allegations seriously.
“If it is accurate that one of the President’s personal attorneys encouraged him or edited his testimony to give Congress a false date, it’s further evidence that the President had some reason for not wanting the American people, or the Senate Intelligence Committee, to know the truth about his dealings with Russia as a candidate,” Sen. Mark R. Warner of Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement.
Cohen’s claims were reviewed by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, who sought to question — but did not succeed — one of Trump’s personal attorneys about interactions he had with Cohen about the 2017 testimony.
According to Mueller’s report, Cohen spoke to a counsel for Trump frequently in the days before he submitted his statement to Congress on Aug. 28, 2017. The Trump lawyer was not named in the report.
Cohen told investigators that he recalled telling the president’s lawyer that the statement did not reflect the extent of communications with Russia and Trump about the Moscow project.
The Trump attorney told Cohen that it was not necessary to include other details in the statement, which he advised should be kept “tight.” Cohen told investigators he also recalled that the lawyer told him “his client” appreciated Cohen and he should stay on message and not contradict the president, according to the report.
Mueller’s team sought to speak to the Trump lawyer about the conversations with Cohen, “but counsel declined, citing potential privilege concerns,” according to the report.
Cohen’s claims led Schiff to demand information from Sekulow and three other lawyers who played a role reviewing Cohen’s 2017 testimony: Abbe Lowell, an attorney for Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump; Alan Futerfas, an attorney for Donald Trump Jr.; and Alan Garten, an attorney for the Trump Organization.
The four lawyers have said they cannot answer Schiff’s requests because of attorney-client privilege, which bars them from discussing confidential conversations.
Schiff has promised to push ahead, threatening to issue a subpoena for the lawyers’ cooperation if necessary, noting that they had an incentive to encourage Cohen’s initial testimony.
“Cohen himself stood little to gain by lying to our committee,” Schiff told The Washington Post. “Donald Trump and others around him stood far more to gain from that being concealed from our investigation. So it obviously begs the question of whether this was something he did on his own . . . or were there others who participated in the falsehood before our committee.”
Schiff also warned that the privilege claim may not allow the attorneys to avoid testifying before his committee.
“The privilege doesn’t apply if it’s being used to conceal a crime or a fraud,” he said. “And if the attorneys were conferring amongst themselves and Mr. Cohen about a false statement they were going to make to our committee, there’s no privilege that protects that kind of conduct.”
In a letter to Schiffon Friday, attorneys for the four Trump lawyers expressed dismay at his effort to compel their testimony.
“We find the Committee’s outright, blanket refusal to recognize the attorney-client privilege — a bedrock principle of common law dating back centuries — to be stunning, unwise, and unwarranted,” they wrote.
They called the inquiry “an attempt to pursue a law-enforcement investigation which is outside the constitutional authority of the legislative branch.”
Schiff has also expressed interest in hearing from Felix Sater, a Trump business partner who was working the Russian side of the Trump Tower Moscow proposal in 2016.
Lawyers for Cohen said it appears that Sater and his attorney Robert Wolf reviewed Cohen’s testimony before it was submitted to Congress in 2017, according to documents they reviewed. Sater’s involvement negates any privilege claim, Cohen’s attorneys said.
“Because it appears that the draft statement was shared with two non-privileged individuals — Mr. Sater and his lawyer — the joint defense privilege was in our professional opinion waived,” said Davis, one of two criminal defense attorneys representing Cohen.
Sater and Cohen had discussions about the Moscow project into June 2016, but Sater did not correct Cohen’s original assertion to Congress that the project ended that January.
Sater declined to comment on questions about Cohen’s testimony, but he said he stands ready to cooperate with Schiff’s inquiries.
“I have always cooperated with the U.S. government and look forward to continued cooperation,” Sater said. “I will make myself available to Congressman Schiff’s committee or any other committee as they deem necessary.”
Alice Crites and Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.