Update: Nearly 24 hours after Buzzfeed published its report, special counsel Robert Mueller, via a spokesperson, issued a statement disputing key elements of the story.
A potentially momentous Thursday BuzzFeed report provided the clearest-cut indication yet that President Trump may have violated federal law. Two federal law enforcement sources told the publication that Trump personally directed his former attorney, Michael Cohen, to lie to Congress about matters related to the Russia investigation—an order that Trump’s own attorney general nominee believes would constitute obstruction of justice.
No other publication has yet verified BuzzFeed’s story. And big questions remain. When exactly did Trump give Cohen this directive? How did the President transmit the request? Who else knew about Trump’s ask, and in what format did they learn about it?
BuzzFeed’s article offers some hints. It says Trump’s direction for Cohen to lie to Congress happened “after the election” and that special counsel Robert Mueller learned about it “through interviews with multiple witnesses from the Trump Organization and internal company emails, text messages, and a cache of other documents.” Cohen then confirmed the directive during interviews with Mueller’s team, according to BuzzFeed.
The Senate and House Intelligence Committees announced that they would investigate Russia’s interference in the 2016 election on Jan. 13 and Jan. 25, 2017, respectively. Cohen first provided false information to the committees via a letter sent on Aug. 28, 2017. That letter, Cohen’s prepared remarks to the Senate committee submitted on Sept. 19, 2017, and his subsequent Oct. 26, 2017 closed-door testimony before that committee all contained falsehoods meant to “minimize links” between a planned Trump Tower project in Moscow and Trump, Mueller wrote in a November 2018 document charging Cohen with lying to Congress.
Reporting from Trump’s first year in the White House sheds light on the rocky relationship between the President and Cohen during the period at issue in Buzzfeed’s report. In interviews with the press, Cohen lamented being excommunicated from Trump’s inner circle and expressed unwavering loyalty to his onetime boss. Trump’s campaign was footing the bill for some of Cohen’s legal expenses related to the Russia probe, paying some $230,000 to McDermott, Will & Emery between October 2017 and January 2018. And Cohen was receiving some $35,000 a month as reimbursement and reward for his role in funneling hush money to Trump’s alleged lovers during the 2016 presidential campaign.
The Buzzfeed report is the latest development that could expose Trump to the prospect of not just impeachment, but criminal penalties. In a statement Friday after the Buzzfeed report was published, Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani called the allegations “categorically false” and “made-up lies born of Michael Cohen’s malice and desperation, in an effort to reduce his sentence.”
According to BuzzFeed’s sources, Trump instructed Cohen to lie by claiming negotiations over the plan to construct Trump Tower Moscow “ended months earlier than they actually did—in order to obscure Trump’s involvement.” Mueller’s filings in the Cohen case revealed that Cohen falsely told Congress that work on the project ended in January 2016, when in fact he and fellow Trump associate Felix Sater continued pushing the development through June of that year. Their efforts involved communicating with Russian bankers, a Russian government official, Trump and members of Trump’s family.
BuzzFeed reported that Trump held “at least 10 face-to-face meetings with Cohen about the deal during the campaign,” and that his children Ivanka and Donald Trump Jr. also received “regular, detailed updates” about the development from Cohen. BuzzFeed also reported that Trump signed off on Cohen’s plan to have the presidential candidate visit Russia to personally meet with President Vladimir Putin about getting the project underway.
Cohen’s alleged lies about those details came in 2017, a difficult, pivotal year in the Trump-Cohen relationship. The longtime Trump fixer had felt assured he’d be offered a position in the Trump administration and was hurt to find himself shut out. But he was still acting as the President’s “pitbull” from afar, fiercely defending Trump in conversations with the media.
In early January 2017 interviews with the Wall Street Journal, Cohen reckoned with his lack of a White House job offer, predicting he could instead become Trump’s personal attorney.
“My sole purpose is to protect him and the family from anyone and anything,” Cohen told the Journal.
Cohen continued, “Let’s just say I have no shortage of work. It encompasses all aspects of his life from his business to the personal,” adding: “It’s private between Mr. Trump and myself unless it’s made public because of a lawsuit or a news story.”
Though there’s no known record of legal work Cohen did for Trump after the inauguration, Cohen did retain the title of personal attorney to the President.
One explanation for Cohen’s hurt feelings: he’d put himself on the line during the 2016 campaign by navigating hush money payouts to women who claim to have slept with Trump, even lying on a bank application to take out a line of credit in order to afford one of the payments.
According to court documents, it was in January 2017 that Cohen went to Trump Organization executives seeking reimbursement for these payments. Cohen requested $130,000 to cover the funds he brokered to adult film star Stormy Daniels to keep her silent ahead of the election, plus an additional $50,000 for “tech services” (later revealed to be funds Cohen paid an IT specialist to rig two online polls in Trump’s favor during the campaign). Trump Organization executives “grossed up” the money due to Cohen from $180,000 to $360,000, also offering Cohen a “bonus of $60,000” for a total sum of $420,000, per court documents.
Cohen received the $420,000 in 12 monthly payments of $35,000 each throughout 2017, according to filings in the criminal case. There has been no indication, from BuzzFeed or other outlets, that these payments were related to Cohen’s alleged agreement to lie to Congress to protect Trump, but it means that Cohen and Trump still had significant financial ties during the period in question.
From the outside, the President and his pitbull appeared to remain at arms length throughout most of 2017. Contact between Cohen and Trump was limited during this period on the advice of their respective legal counsels, Cohen told Vanity Fair in a September 2017 interview.
“All parties thought it would be best if we ceased communication unless it was an emergency so that when the questioning occurs, nobody can say to me, ‘Well, did you speak to the president within the last week or three weeks? What did you talk about?’”
“It’s good legal advice,” he continued. “But it’s not the advice I want. . . . That’s something that’s difficult for me because I routinely spoke to all of them on a regular basis.”
On Aug. 28, 2017 Cohen submitted a letter to the two congressional intelligence committees providing false information about his work on the Trump Tower Moscow project and adamantly denying the allegations about his deep ties to Russian officials laid out in the so-called “Steele dossier.”
Irritated lawmakers canceled Cohen’s scheduled Sept. 19, 2017 interview before the Senate Intelligence Committee after Cohen publicly released his prepared remarks. Both those remarks and the testimony Cohen gave when he ultimately appeared before the committee on Oct. 25 included the same false information about his enduring work on Trump Tower Moscow, and about Trump’s awareness of that project.
In his interview with Vanity Fair, Cohen appeared nostalgic for the good old days at the Trump Organization, using the word “loyal” 12 separate times to describe his relationship with the President. Cohen kept a phone that he claimed he specifically used to communicate with the White House on the table at all times during the interview. It was in this interview that Cohen made his infamous offer to “take a bullet for the president.”
One publicly known communication during this period between the two men came in November 2017, when Trump called to complain after Cohen was photographed meeting with frequent Trump critic Mark Cuban at a Manhattan restaurant, according to Wall Street Journal reporting.
“Boss, I miss you so much,” Cohen reportedly told Trump during this conversation. “I wish I was down there with you. It’s really hard for me to be here.”
The imbalanced power dynamic between the two men shines through in reporting on their communications. Less clear is how involved the rest of the Trump administration and Trump’s 2020 campaign were in keeping Cohen on their side.
BuzzFeed reported that “attorneys close to the administration” helped Cohen prepare his false testimony and statement to Congress, though the sources did not specify whether the lawyers were part of the White House counsel’s staff or if they knew the information they were working with was false. An attorney for former White House counsel Don McGahn told BuzzFeed that he had no involvement with Cohen’s testimony and was not “aware of anyone in the White House Counsel’s Office who did.”
The Journal has reported that Trump’s 2020 campaign footed the bill for some $230,000 of Cohen’s legal fees related to his testimony before Congress between Oct. 2017 and Jan. 2018.
After Cohen’s premises were raided by the FBI in April 2018, the Trump family paid for the review of documents, recordings and other materials seized by federal agents. Cohen and Trump shared a joint defense agreement, allowing their attorneys to share information and documents related to those seized materials. They spoke highly of each other to the press.
But by June of that year, with the noose tightening around Cohen and Trump publicly bashing him at every turn, the arrangement fell apart. Cohen dropped his legal team, retained former federal prosecutor Guy Petrillo, and put an end to the joint defense agreement.
Declaring his independence from Trump in an interview with ABC News, Cohen said, “My wife, my daughter and my son have my first loyalty and always will. I put family and country first.”