Gathered in the Oval Office in May 2017, President Donald Trump and two of his lawyers, Michael Cohen and Jay Sekulow, huddled to shape Cohen’s impending testimony before Congress. The conversation centered on Trump Tower Moscow, a planned condominium and hotel that could have been the most profitable project in the history of the Trump Organization. While running for president, Trump spoke to Cohen about it 10 times, and Cohen pursued the deal well into the summer of 2016.
But that day in the Oval Office, according to Cohen’s recent account, Trump claimed that the opposite was true: “There’s no Russia,” Cohen says the president insisted. “There’s no collusion, there’s no business, there’s no deals.” Cohen believed that Trump was telling him to lie.
Trump delivered that instruction on several occasions, Cohen told congressional investigators, but he needn’t have bothered. “For me, he didn’t have to say it more than once,” Cohen said. “I got it the first time, you know, what we were all in agreement on.”
Newly released transcripts from the House Intelligence Committee appear to support earlier reporting by BuzzFeed News, which revealed in January that Cohen had told prosecutors the president directed him to lie, and that a group of lawyers crafted his false testimony to Congress. Shortly after that story was published, the office of special counsel Robert Mueller issued a rare public statement that said unspecified elements were “not accurate.”
It is unclear how many of these episodes Cohen shared with Mueller’s investigators, but the final report of his two-year investigation into Russian influence and the 2016 election suggests he did not regard Cohen’s account as decisive. “The evidence to us does not establish that the president directed or aided Cohen’s false testimony,” the report said. Peter Carr, a spokesperson for Mueller, did not comment Tuesday about the transcripts or that office’s earlier statement.
These new transcripts, from testimony that Cohen gave behind closed doors this past February and March, offers the most granular account yet of the effort that Cohen says Trump and his attorney put into instructing him on how to deceive Congress — one of the crimes for which Cohen is now in prison.
The transcripts contain startling accounts of the Trump family and their attorneys shaping Cohen’s lies. Cohen said that Sekulow reviewed the statement that Cohen intended to submit to Congress in 2017, and told Cohen to say the negotiations for the Moscow tower ended earlier than they truly did. Sekulow reportedly instructed Cohen to change the date to January 2016, long before Trump became the Republican frontrunner — despite text messages and emails showing that the deal extended at least into that summer. Cohen also said that the president reviewed his statement before he submitted it to Congress.
“Mr. Sekulow said that he spoke to the client and that, you know, the client likes it and that it’s good,” Cohen testified.
He also alleged that someone from the Trump Organization withheld a critical email from Congress showing Cohen spoke with the assistant to Dmitry Peskov, a spokesperson for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Cohen also turned over drafts of his 2017 statement. In one, an attorney representing Ivanka Trump made notes asking Cohen to say that Ivanka was not involved; Cohen later acknowledged that she “knew about the back and forth” negotiations. He also testified that Donald Trump Jr. was “inaccurate” when he told the Senate Judiciary Committee that he had only a “vague familiarity” and “wasn’t very involved at all” with the Trump Tower Moscow plans.
“All the information that— almost all the information that I had he was aware of as well,” Cohen said about Trump Jr.
Cohen went on to say that he kept Ivanka and Donald Trump Jr. updated about the status of the Trump Tower Moscow negotiations but “not with the same regularity that I did with Mr. Trump. And that, sir, is because he would ask: What’s happening with Russia?”
“So we’ve identified two crimes that you say you believe Donald Trump in some way directed you to take the actions for which you have pled guilty?” asked Rep. John Ratcliffe, a Republican from Texas.
“No sir,” Cohen said. “Three.”
“Ok. What is the third?”
“The third one is the misstatement to Congress. Two for campaign finance violations and one for misrepresentation — well, for lying to Congress.”
Sekulow's attorneys, Jane Raskin and Patrick Strawbridge, dismissed Cohen's testimony as the words of a confessed liar. “That this or any committee would rely on the word of Michael Cohen for any purpose — much less to try and pierce the attorney–client privilege and discover confidential communications of four respected lawyers — defies logic, well-established law and common sense,” they said.
Lanny Davis, an attorney for Cohen, praised the House Intelligence Committee for publicly releasing the transcript of Cohen’s testimony: “Michael Cohen lied only once and that was to Congress — specifically for the benefit (and in accordance with the directives) of Donald Trump to cover for Trump’s repeated public lies during the 2016 campaign of 'no Russia deals or contacts.'”
Cohen pleaded guilty last November to lying to Congress about Trump Tower Moscow. In court documents, Mueller noted that Cohen’s false claim that the project ended in January 2016 was an attempt to “minimize links between the Moscow Project and Individual 1” — widely understood to be Trump — “in hopes of limiting the ongoing Russia investigations.” Cohen is currently serving a three-year prison sentence for perjury, tax fraud, and campaign finance violations at a federal correctional facility in upstate New York.
Jason Leopold is a senior investigative reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles. He is a 2018 Pulitzer finalist for international reporting, recipient of the IRE 2016 FOI award and a 2016 Newseum Institute National Freedom of Information Hall of Fame inductee.