President Donald Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen lied to Congress about issues central to the Russia investigation out of “blind loyalty” to his longtime boss. But now the man who once said he would take a bullet for Trump plans to correct the record before the House and Senate Intelligence Committees—perhaps giving lawmakers more insight than they’ve ever had into the president’s dealings with Russia before and during the election.
Cohen’s much-hyped public testimony before a separate panel, the House Oversight Committee, was expected to be highly restricted to avoid interfering with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe, with which Cohen has been cooperating for several months. (Cohen postponed that hearing following attacks from the president and the president’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, on his wife and father-in-law.) But the intelligence-committee hearings will be conducted behind closed doors, giving Cohen the opportunity to have a freer exchange with the members.
Cohen is willing to answer questions about what he’s told Mueller and other issues related to the ongoing investigation, according to two people familiar with his plans. (They, like other people I spoke with, requested anonymity to discuss the private deliberations.) However, his legal team is also in talks with Mueller’s office to determine whether there are any parameters for his testimony. The House Intelligence Committee is also “in consultation with the special counsel’s office to ascertain any concerns that they might have and to deconflict,” according to a committee aide.
“The reason that he agreed to testify privately for the intelligence committees is, first and foremost, because he owes them,” one of the people familiar with Cohen’s plans said. “He pleaded guilty to lying to them and owes them an apology.” Cohen admitted in court late last year that he lied to Congress when he told them that negotiations to build a Trump Tower Moscow ended in January 2016, and that he hadn’t discussed it much with Trump. In fact, Cohen testified, he agreed to travel to Russia in connection with the Moscow project and took steps to prepare for Trump’s possible trip there after he clinched the Republican nomination.
Cohen is “more open to answering questions” about these and other Russia-related issues than he would have been in a public setting, according to this source, as long as he remains “secure in the knowledge that both committees will protect his testimony and prevent leaks.”
The Senate panel, which subpoenaed Cohen earlier this month, and its House counterpart declined to preview what questions they intend to ask. But the central purpose of the interviews is for Cohen to correct the record on his previous false statements to the committees about the timing of the Trump Tower Moscow negotiations—and, crucially, whether Trump or anyone in the White House directed him to lie in the first place. BuzzFeed News reported earlier this month that Mueller had evidence that Trump had asked Cohen to lie about the timing of the real-estate deal, prompting the special counsel’s office to release a rare statement contradicting aspects of the story. But House Democrats made it clear that, if it were confirmed that the president had tried to obstruct justice in order to hide his involvement in business negotiations with the Kremlin during the election—while Russia waged a hacking and disinformation campaign to undermine Trump’s opponent—it would be cause for impeachment.
Democratic Representative Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told MSNBC on Wednesday morning that the panel expects Cohen to address the Moscow real-estate deal, which was also a potential source of leverage for Russia throughout 2016 as Trump—and his family—kept the negotiations a secret from voters. Cohen admitted late last year to discussing the Moscow deal with Trump’s family members “within” the Trump Organization.
Donald Trump Jr., an executive vice president of the Trump Organization, told the Senate Judiciary Committee that he was only “peripherally aware” of the Moscow deal in 2016. It is not clear what he told the House Intelligence Committee, which has not yet released the transcripts of the closed-door interview. But Cohen’s corrected testimony could illuminate whether other witnesses have been honest during congressional testimony about their role in, or knowledge of, the Trump Tower Moscow negotiations in 2016, and Russia’s interference more broadly.
“I think this common thread of lying to Congress and particularly to congressional committees may ensnare a number of other potential targets in the special counsel’s investigation,” Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said on Monday. “And it could become a matter of criminal action.” On Friday, the longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone was indicted by Mueller for lying to the House Intelligence Committee about WikiLeaks, prompting Schiff to reiterate that the Intelligence Committee’s “first order of business” once it is constituted—which has been delayed by Republicans—will be a vote to send the official witness transcripts to Mueller. “We will continue to follow the facts wherever they lead,” he said.