President Donald Trump's advisers dangled the possibility of a pardon for his former personal lawyer Michael Cohen last year, Cohen's attorney said on 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 on 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.
"This is more proof that Cohen is a liar," Giuliani said in an interview on Thursday. "The guy says he never asked Trump for a pardon. He's hiding behind having his lawyers do it."
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.
Chances of a pardon
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 chairperson Paul Manafort. All three have been charged in special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into possible coordination 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 authorised 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 said on Thursday he was contacted in May or June about a possible pardon for Cohen.
"My answer was the president is not going to consider or give any pardons now," Giuliani said. "As I have said in the past, the president has the right to, and that doesn't mean he won't consider it when the investigation is over. But there are no plans to do so; that's the answer that Jay and I and the president settled on. 'The best thing for you to do,' I would tell everyone, 'is assume you don't have the pardon'." Jay Sekulow is another Trump lawyer.
Cohen's legal team stressed that he was one of Trump's closest confidants and if he wanted a pardon, he would have just asked Trump himself.
Cohen has become a key figure in congressional investigations since turning on his former boss and cooperating 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".
Re-interviewing Donald Trump Jnr
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 "authorised 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."
Separately on Thursday, Cohen filed a lawsuit in New York City claiming the Trump Organisation broke a promise to pay his legal bills and owes at least $1.9m 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 cooperating with federal prosecutors in their investigations.
The Trump Organisation didn't immediately respond to messages seeking comment. Davis said Cohen has documents to prove the allegations in the lawsuit.
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 Jnr and other witnesses after Cohen spoke to the committee last week, a person familiar with the probe said. The person wasn't authorised to discuss the confidential investigation and spoke to AP on condition of anonymity.
The committee first interviewed Trump Jnr 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 Jnr approximately 10 times about the plan.