WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump’s advisers dangled the possibility of a pardon for his former personal lawyer Michael Cohen last year, Cohen’s attorney said Thursday, as congressional investigators zero in on the president’s pardon power.
The issue of pardons has emerged as a key line of inquiry as Democrats launch a series of sweeping investigations into Trump’s political and personal dealings.
Lanny Davis, Cohen’s lawyer, said in a written statement Thursday that his client was “open to the ongoing ‘dangling’ of a possible pardon by Trump representatives privately and in the media” in the months after the FBI raided Cohen’s home, office and hotel room in April 2018.
Davis, who was not Cohen’s lawyer at the time, said Cohen “directed his attorney” to explore a possible pardon with Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani and others on Trump’s legal team. The statement appears to contradict Cohen’s sworn testimony last week at a House Oversight Committee hearing that he had never asked for, and would not accept, a pardon from Trump.
Davis’ comment raises questions about whether Cohen – who is slated to begin a three-year prison sentence in May for crimes including lying to Congress – lied to Congress again last week.
Cohen’s legal team argued that his statement was correct because Cohen never asked the president himself for a pardon.
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In a statement, Giuliani called Cohen a “serial liar.”
“Let’s hope Congress and DOJ are outraged at Cohen’s disrespecting them by perjuring himself repeatedly,” Giuliani said.
There is nothing inherently improper about a subject in a criminal investigation seeking a pardon from a president given the president’s wide latitude in granting them. But investigators want to know if the prospects of presidential pardons were somehow offered or used inappropriately.
It is hard to untangle the conflicting narratives given the unreliability of some of the central characters. Cohen, for instance, has pleaded guilty to lying to Congress and saw his credibility attacked last week by Republican lawmakers. Davis has had to walk back at least one bombshell assertion over the last year – that his client could tell investigators that Trump had advance knowledge of a Trump Tower meeting with a Russian lawyer during the 2016 campaign – and Giuliani has fumbled facts and repeatedly moved the goalposts about what sort of behaviour by the president would constitute collusion or a crime.
Congressional investigators, meanwhile, appear to be focusing on presidential powers as a significant line of questioning in their probes.
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The House Judiciary Committee, which is conducting a probe into possible obstruction of justice, corruption and abuse of power, sent letters to the FBI, the Justice Department and others for documents related to possible pardons for Cohen, former national security adviser Michael Flynn and former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort. All three have been charged in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible co-ordination between Russia and Trump’s presidential campaign.
Congressional investigators are also looking into whether anyone on Trump’s legal team tried quietly to reach out to Cohen last year before he turned on the president and as his legal problems mounted.
According to a person familiar with the matter, two New York attorneys who claimed to be in contact with Giuliani reached out to Cohen after the raids on his office and hotel room. The attorneys said they could join his legal team in order to be a conduit to Trump’s lawyers, the person said.
The person was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
The attorneys did not explicitly discuss a potential pardon, but investigators are looking into whether it was an implicit communication that Cohen’s chances of a pardon could be increased if he hired the attorneys, the person said. The lawyers later sent Cohen a bill for their legal service, which he didn’t pay, according to the person.
Giuliani, who did not immediately return a call for comment, has raised the prospect of pardons in the past.
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In June, he said the president might pardon Manafort and others who were ensnared in the Russia investigation if he believed they were treated “unfairly.” But, he said, that would happen only after Mueller’s work wraps up.
“The president is not going to issue pardons in this investigation,” Giuliani said. “Because you just cloud what is becoming now a very clear picture of an extremely unfair investigation with no criminality involved in it of any kind.”
But, he added, “When it’s over, hey, he’s the president of the United States. He retains his pardon power. Nobody is taking that away from him. He can pardon, in his judgment.”
Cohen has become a key figure in congressional investigations since turning on his former boss and co-operating with the special counsel. During last week’s public testimony, he called Trump a con man, a cheat and a racist.
Trump, in turn, has said Cohen “did bad things unrelated to Trump” and “is lying in order to reduce his prison time.”
In his statement on Thursday, Davis tried to downplay the contradiction between his statement and Cohen’s testimony. He said when he was brought on to Cohen’s legal team in June, his client “authorized me as a new lawyer to say publicly Mr. Cohen would never accept a pardon from President Trump even if offered.”
“That continues to be the case,” Davis said. “And his statement at the Oversight Hearing was true – and consistent with his post joint defence agreement commitment to tell the truth.”
WATCH: White House says Cohen lied in recent testimony, won’t comment on if he asked for pardon
Davis did not immediately respond Thursday to text messages and emails seeking additional information.
Separately on Thursday, Cohen filed a lawsuit in New York City claiming the Trump Organization broke a promise to pay his legal bills and owes at least $1.9 million to cover the cost of his defence. Cohen alleges the company breached a contract when it stopped paying his mounting legal fees after he began co-operating with federal prosecutors in their investigations.
WATCH: Cohen says President Trump is a racist, liar, cheat, conman
The Trump Organization didn’t immediately respond to messages seeking comment, and Cohen’s attorneys declined to comment on the suit.
Cohen is headed to prison in May after pleading guilty to campaign finance violations, lying to Congress and other crimes.
Federal prosecutors have said Trump directed Cohen to arrange payments to buy the silence of two women – porn actress Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal – who had alleged they had sex with Trump. Trump has denied having an affair.
Cohen also admitted that he lied to Congress about the duration of negotiations in 2016 over a Trump real estate project in Moscow.
The Senate intelligence committee is interested in re-interviewing Donald Trump Jr. and other witnesses after Cohen spoke to the committee last week, a person familiar with the probe said. The person wasn’t authorized to discuss the confidential investigation and spoke to AP on condition of anonymity.
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The committee first interviewed Trump Jr. in 2017, when he told the panel he was only “peripherally aware” of the proposal to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. Cohen told a House committee last week that he had briefed Trump Jr. approximately 10 times about the plan.