Editor’s note: On April 18, 2019, special counsel Robert Mueller’s report from his investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election revealed new information about this article. The report said that the Russian who told Michael Cohen he could put Donald Trump in touch with Vladimir Putin during negotiations over Trump Tower Moscow was not the former Olympic weightlifter Dmitry Klokov, as Cohen believed him to be throughout their communications, but a former government official with the same name. The main text of the story has not been edited since its initial publication.
WASHINGTON — Attorneys for Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s former fixer, submitted documents to lawmakers Thursday night accusing Trump and his team of lawyers of instructing Cohen to lie to Congress about when negotiations ended to build a Trump Tower in Moscow.
In a 12-page memo sent to top House Democrats, Cohen’s attorneys said Trump “encouraged Cohen to lie and say all Moscow Tower project contacts ended as of January 31, 2016 using ‘code’ language — telling Cohen during various conversations that there was ‘no collusion, no Russian contacts, nothing about Russia’ after the start of the campaign.’”
The memo addresses issues that have been at the center of the recently concluded two-year investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller into possible coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with Trump’s campaign. Attorney General William Barr has stated that the report, which has not been made public, did not find that the Trump campaign "conspired or coordinated with Russia."
The more than 100 pages of documents included with Cohen’s memo claim to lay bare a “conspiracy to collude” with the Russian government during the campaign, along with an array of other crimes by the president. The memo also for the "first time discloses Michael Cohen’s testimony to the Mueller team and to other non-public testimony to congressional committees," according to Cohen's legal team.
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Cohen’s memo supports BuzzFeed News' earlier reporting that Cohen told investigators Trump had directed him to lie about the timing of real estate negotiations in Moscow.
In January, BuzzFeed News reported that Cohen had described being instructed by the president to say the project was terminated long before Trump became the frontrunner in the Republican primary. In response to the story, many Democratic lawmakers have called for Trump’s impeachment.
Less than a day after its publication, a spokesperson for Mueller’s office stated, “BuzzFeed’s description of specific statements to the Special Counsel’s Office, and characterization of documents and testimony obtained by this office, regarding Michael Cohen’s Congressional testimony are not accurate.” The office never specified what descriptions or characterizations it was disputing. Peter Carr, the special counsel’s former spokesperson, declined to comment on Thursday night.
The new memo from Cohen’s attorneys says that Trump “encouraged” him to lie to Congress, alleging the president suborned perjury while in office. A footnote in the memo cites BuzzFeed News’ January report:
3. Note, this is not far off the words used by the Buzzfeed reporters — that Trump “directed” Cohen to lie in his congressional testimony vs. Cohen’s false statement to Congress, i.e., there were no Russian contacts after January 31, 2016, the day before the Iowa caucuses. Cohen’s false statement was made “in accordance with … [Trump’s] directives.”
Cohen has pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about when negotiations for the project ceased. A cache of documents obtained by BuzzFeed News over the past year shows that negotiations continued until at least right before the Republican National Convention in July 2016.
The memo states that Cohen’s false testimony was based on “Trump and associates’ overall and intense effort to persuade Cohen to commit crime of lying to congress.”
“Cohen explained that he was, in effect, instructed to lie about the January 31, 2016 date through the use of Trump code words that could only be interpreted as an instruction or ‘directive,’” the memo states, "to cover-up the fact that Cohen had been in contact with Russians during most of the presidential campaign, from the day of the Iowa caucuses, February 1, through all the primaries and caucuses and until June 2016, after Trump had become the putative Republican nominee by assembling a majority of delegates.”
The memo, which details some of what Cohen told the House and Senate intelligence committees behind closed doors in February, further states that after delivering his false testimony, Cohen received a call “from Trump’s attorney, who congratulated him on the testimony — and said his ‘client’ was happy with Cohen’s testimony.”
The memo from Cohen's attorneys goes a step beyond his public testimony before the House Oversight Committee in February, during which he said Trump had told him to lie "in his way."
Cohen’s attorneys also made new claims in the memo about Trump’s involvement in the Moscow tower project, which he has previously dismissed as barely more than a notion, and his role in trying to close the deal.
“In May 2016, Cohen told Trump he could travel to Russia to assist the building of the project either before or after the GOP Convention in August, and Trump agreed,” Cohen’s attorneys wrote. “Obviously this proves that Trump knew that Russian contacts about the Moscow Tower project continued after January 31, 2016. Cohen made inquiries about Trump’s schedule to Trump’s executive assistant” about a trip for Trump to make to Russia during the campaign, to move the negotiations along.
The trip did not take place, but the memo characterizes those inquiries “as further evidence that the trip to Russia was under serious consideration after Trump approved it.”
The memo implicates Ivanka Trump in the negotiations, stating that she knew Cohen gave false testimony to Congress. According to the memo, he told the intelligence committees that in late 2015 the president’s daughter forwarded him “an email from the wife of a former Russian weight-lifting champion about Ivanka sponsoring a health spa at the top of the Moscow Trump Tower.” BuzzFeed News first reported that in November 2015, Ivanka Trump put Cohen in touch with the weightlifter, a Russian Olympian named Dmitry Klokov who offered to introduce Trump to Russian President Vladimir Putin to facilitate the Moscow tower project.
Peter Mirijanian, a spokesperson for Ivanka Trump, did not immediately respond to calls for comment. He previously told BuzzFeed News, “Ms. Trump did not know about this proposal until after a non-binding letter of intent had been signed, never talked to anyone outside the Organization about the proposal, never visited the prospective project site and, even internally, was only minimally involved.”
Congressional investigators had reviewed emails and questioned witnesses about the interaction, BuzzFeed News reported, as had Mueller’s team. In a subsequent court filing, Mueller’s team wrote that in November 2015, Cohen had “received the contact information for, and spoke with, a Russian national” who “repeatedly proposed a meeting” between Trump and Putin to advance the project.
The memo is part of an effort by Cohen to reduce and delay the three-year prison term he was sentenced to serve, which is scheduled to begin on May 6. Highlighting evidence he provided to congressional committees in February, a letter that accompanied the memo states that Cohen “was only recently able to access a hard drive with important documents,” and that the “drive contains over 14 million files, which consist of all e-mails, voice recordings, images, and attachments from Mr. Cohen’s computers and phones.” Lanny Davis, one of Cohen’s attorneys, told BuzzFeed News that Cohen had no access to the hard drive when he testified before Congress earlier this year because it had been seized by prosecutors and was returned to him only last week.
The letter continues: “We are writing this letter in the hope that you will support Mr. Cohen’s value as a cooperating witness and the need for him to be readily accessible.”
Cohen’s lawyers also call his sentence “disproportionate,” noting that Cohen is the only Trump Organization employee headed to prison “for conduct almost all of which was for the benefit of Mr. Trump personally and indeed directed by him.”
“The actions against Mr. Cohen appear to be selective prosecution and the sentence imposed is a disproportionate one,” Davis said. “For him to surrender in 30 days would be a detriment to committees search for truth, as well as a miscarriage of justice."
Cohen’s attorneys sent the letter to the heads of the House Intelligence, Judiciary, Financial Services, and Oversight committees, who are Democrats. The lawyers wrote that, judging from the attacks that Republican lawmakers leveled against Cohen during his recent testimony, it was unclear whether they were interested in receiving the letter as well.
This story has been updated with additional comment from Cohen's legal team.
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.