Michael Cohen told a team of investigators from special counsel Robert Mueller's office that it was “not his idea” to write a statement to Congress that contained lies about Trump Tower Moscow, according to FBI documents BuzzFeed News obtained in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.
Cohen said that the White House expected him to stick to a message — that the negotiations to build a tower ended early in the 2016 campaign, despite emails and text messages showing that they ended much later.
In a heavily redacted summary of his FBI interview, Cohen does not specify who in the White House told him to put out the false statement, but in Congressional testimony, he said he was “indirectly told” by President Donald Trump.
This summary says Cohen’s statement to Congress “was put out to piggyback off of Jared Kushner putting out a statement before. The release was to shape the narrative and to let other people who might be witnesses know what Cohen was saying to keep the same message. This was Kushner’s approach to public messaging.”
This information — obtained by BuzzFeed News as part of an effort to uncover the documents behind Mueller’s April report — comes from a heavily redacted summary of an interview with Cohen in September 2018. This interview is one of six between the FBI and Cohen and came on the same day that Cohen signed a “proffer” agreement and began cooperating with federal prosecutors investigating President Trump and Russian interference in the 2016 election.
The first installment of the previously secret Mueller report documents also contains the FBI’s notes on interviews with Trump's former chief strategist and campaign chief Stephen Bannon and deputy campaign manager Rick Gates.
Cohen’s interview sheds further light on his lie to Congress about an ambitious plan to build the tallest building in Europe, and the negotiations that carried on during the heat of the 2016 presidential campaign.
In January, BuzzFeed News reported that Trump directed these lies. Cohen confirmed that assertion in his subsequent testimony to Congress.
When the article was published, however, Mueller’s office issued a statement disputing it.
In the special counsel’s final report, Mueller wrote: “While there is evidence … that the president knew Cohen provided false testimony to Congress … the evidence to us does not establish the president directed or aided Cohen’s false testimony.”
Today’s release of FBI records shows that Cohen told agents that his lies to Congress originated in the White House.
Cohen said Trump and aides Hope Hicks and Kellyanne Conway came up with a “script” to dismiss the seriousness of Trump Tower Moscow.
Cohen later spoke with Trump about this script. The president, he said, “already knew it was untrue.”
In May or June of 2017, around the time of Mueller’s appointment, Cohen said he had a discussion with Trump, attorney Jay Sekulow, and a third person whose name is redacted. He said he believed he was supposed to “have the Russia investigations end early.”
During Cohen’s interview, he recalled to agents that Trump asked him about the ambitious plan to build Trump Tower Moscow in March or April 2016 — well into the presidential campaign.
In fact, Cohen had continued to press for the tower and had arranged for Trump to visit Russia after the Republican National Convention.
“The discussion was not to worry, the investigation would not last,” the report stated.
But the investigation continued. As he prepared to testify before Congress in September 2017, Cohen told the agents he “had to keep Trump out of the messaging related to Russia and keep Trump out of the Russia conversation.” One area that he was specifically told to avoid: a possible meeting between Trump and Putin at the United Nations General Assembly that had been discussed on Sean Hannity’s TV program.
“Cohen was trying to be loyal,” the report stated. “The investigation was not supposed to have taken us where we are today. Cohen was told if he stayed on message, the president had his back, the president loves you."
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.