Cohen, the hotel magnate’s close aide at Trump Tower for a decade, is now in the Russian investigation spotlight. Liberal pundits say he may well bring down President Trump after his guilty pleas. Mr. Trump says his former attorney is lying to obtain light punishment.
Cohen’s assertions of collusion innocence would indicate that whatever incriminating information he shared in hours of interviews with special counsel Robert Mueller and the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan isn’t about Russian interference. The alternative is that Cohen has secretly performed a historic flip-flop.
“He’s got nothing on the president,” a Trump associate said.
Cohen pleaded guilty last week to one count of providing false testimony to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. He testified that discussions on a hotel deal with Moscow ended in January 2016, though talks, which included a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, didn’t end until well into the campaign in June.
The hotel proposal was principally the brainchild of Russian-born land developer Felix Sater, a longtime Cohen friend, according to emails and public statements.
Cohen wasn’t charged with misleading Congress when he denied knowing of Russian intelligence hacking Democratic Party computers.
As late as June 28 on Twitter, as he prepared to appear on ABC News and announce his split with Mr. Trump and subsequently plead guilty to tax charges in August, Cohen rejected knowledge of Russia-Trump collusion.
“My family & I are owed an apology,” he tweeted. “After 2 years, 15 hours of testimony before House & Senate under oath & producing more than 1000 documents, dossier misreports 15 allegations about me. My entire statement must be quoted- I had nothing to do with Russian collusion or meddling!”
The dossier is a Democratic Party-financed opposition research document by former British spy Christopher Steele that fueled the Obama Justice Department’s election-year investigation into the Trump campaign.
In August, Cohen told the Senate intelligence committee that he saw no need to amend his testimony on the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with a Russian lawyer. Cohen had testified he had no knowledge that Mr. Trump was aware of the meeting, which included his son Donald Trump Jr. and campaign chairman Paul Manafort.
The previous April, he denied for the umpteenth time that he had ever traveled to Prague to pay cover-up money to Mr. Putin’s staff. The provocative allegation by Mr. Steele was revived by an article in McClatchy news that remains unconfirmed publicly.
“Bad reporting, bad information and bad story by same reporter Peter Stone (@McClatchy),” Cohen tweeted. “No matter how many times or ways they write it, I have never been to Prague. I was in LA with my son. Proven!”
In an interview with The Washington Times that month, Cohen said: “I believe the entire dossier to be inaccurate and, worse, completely fabricated. I applaud Aleksej Gubarev in bringing legal action against both Christopher Steele and BuzzFeed for creating and disseminating this fake dossier/information without a scintilla of fact-checking. I am currently in discussions with foreign and domestic counsel to file similar actions.”
Mr. Gubarev is a Cyprus-based Russian entrepreneur whom Mr. Steele accused of carrying out the hacking of Democratic Party computers. Stunned, Mr. Gubarev sued BuzzFeed and Mr. Steele for defamation. BuzzFeed posted the entire unverified dossier in January 2017 as Mr. Trump was about to take office.
Cohen did file a libel lawsuit but dropped it once it became evident that his tax issues were being turned into a federal case.
On Russian collusion, Cohen issued a categorical statement last year to the Senate intelligence committee.
“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,” he said. “I emphatically state that I had nothing to do with any Russian involvement in our electoral process.
“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 to assist the Trump campaign or to damage the Clinton campaign,” he added.
Cohen could renounce those statements as part of an immunity deal.
Regardless, he already has implicated the president. In August, he pleaded guilty to violating campaign finance laws by making two nondisclosure payments during the election to two women who said they had an affair with Mr. Trump. He said he did so at the direction of Mr. Trump. The payments weren’t disclosed to the Federal Election Commission as part of campaign expenses.
In pleading guilty to lying to Congress, he said White House attorneys were aware of his testimony on the defunct Moscow hotel project. He didn’t say, however, that the president urged him to lie.
“Michael regrets that his vigor in promoting [Mr. Trump‘s] interests in the heat of political battle led him to abandon good judgment and cross legal lines,” Mr. Petrillo said in a Nov. 30 sentencing memo to a U.S. district judge.
Mr. Petrillo asked for no prison time.
“Michael’s decision to cooperate and take full responsibility for his own conduct well reflects his personal resolve, notwithstanding past errors, to re-point his internal compass true north toward a productive, ethical and thoroughly law-abiding life,” the attorney said in preparation for a Dec. 12 sentencing.
“In the context of this raw, full-bore attack by the most powerful person in the United States, Michael, formerly a confidant and adviser to Mr. Trump, resolved to cooperate, and voluntarily took the first steps toward doing so even before he was charged in this district,” the lawyer said.
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