Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s longtime personal attorney, is prepared to tell special counsel Robert Mueller that then-candidate Trump knew about and approved the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting between his campaign officials and a Russian lawyer who promised dirt on Hillary Clinton, according to a source with knowledge of Cohen’s account, who confirmed a CNN report from earlier Thursday.
Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and the Trump campaign chairman at the time, Paul Manafort, attended the meeting, billed as an opportunity for a Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, to share damaging information about the Democratic nominee for president.
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After reports of the meeting first surfaced last year, Trump Jr. claimed that only Russian adoption policy was discussed. He also testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee last September that he didn’t inform his father about the meeting, according to a transcript released by the panel.
The president himself, when asked about the meeting, told reporters aboard Air Force One last July, “I only heard about it two or three days ago.” That same month, Jay Sekulow, a member of Trump’s legal team, said: “The president wasn’t aware of the meeting, did not participate in the meeting, did not attend the meeting.”
Cohen claims that he and several others were present when Trump Jr. informed his father of the planned meeting, and that Trump signed off on going ahead with it, according to the CNN report.
Cohen’s legal team declined to comment on the record. A spokesman for Mueller’s office declined comment.
The source with knowledge of Cohen’s account said the CNN story was an accurate portrayal of what Cohen is claiming and what he is ready to tell Mueller. The source also said Cohen had not yet spoken with the special counsel.
Cohen’s claims undercut the Trump administration’s “no collusion” narrative because there is going to be evidence presented to the special counsel of a conspiracy to coordinate with the Russians, the source added.
“Everyone in the room is indictable if one overt act occurred after the meeting, and anyone who knew about the meeting ahead of the time and didn’t call the cops is an accessory or at least a conspirator,” the source said.
Alan Futerfas, an attorney for the Trump Organization, said in a statement: “Donald Trump Jr. has been professional and responsible throughout the Mueller and congressional investigations. We are very confident of the accuracy and reliability of the information that has been provided by Mr. Trump Jr. and on his behalf.”
Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani told CNN on Thursday that Cohen lacked credibility, citing the release earlier this week of a recording Cohen secretly made of a conversation with Trump two months before the 2016 election. In the tape, the two can be heard discussing payments to a former Playboy model.
“He’s been lying for years,” Giuliani said. “I mean, the tapes that we have demonstrate any number of very serious lies by him back a year and a half ago, including his fooling people, hiding tape recordings, telling them they weren’t recorded, lying to their face, breaking faith with them, taping his client, which is a disbarable offense. I don’t see how he has any credibility.”
Giuliani added: “There’s nobody that I know that knows him that hasn’t warned me that if his back is up against the wall, he’ll lie like crazy because he’s lied all his life.”
Giuliani said the dispute about whether Trump approved of the meeting with the Russians would amount to little more than “a credibility contest” between Cohen and other top Trump campaign hands.
“It would have to be people in the room with the president that can corroborate Cohen, which there won’t be because it didn’t happen,’ Giuliani said. “And then it becomes a credibility contest between two or three witnesses who say one thing and Cohen who says another.”
Trump has loudly and repeatedly denied that his presidential campaign colluded with the Russians, calling Mueller’s investigation a “witch hunt.”
But the explosive report, if corroborated by Mueller’s team, could potentially expose the president and his team to additional legal risk, according to experts.
“The significance of this report will depend on the facts,” said Barbara McQuade, a former U.S. attorney from eastern Michigan. “If Trump was aware of the meeting in advance and encouraged it to go forward, then he could face criminal exposure under a number of different theories.”
“He could be in violation of campaign finance laws for accepting a thing of value from a foreign national in relation to an election” she continued. “If he knew that the source of the information was from illegal hacking, he could be charged with accessory after the fact to a violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. He could also be charged with conspiracy to defraud the United States by impeding the fair administration of elections. In addition, he could be charged with obstruction of justice for misdirecting investigators by dictating a misleading press release.”
But Cohen’s statement on its own probably isn’t enough to convince Mueller.
“It’s huge if true. The question will be if it can be corroborated,” said Peter Zeidenberg, a former federal prosecutor. “It’s very possible that Mueller can or will be able to corroborate much of this. I would not be at all surprised if these participants emailed or texted one another about the meeting — before and after.”
“Of course, for some, even if Trump is caught on video talking Russian to Putin, they will not care,” added Zeidenberg, who served as deputy to independent counsel Patrick Fitzgerald during the George W. Bush-era investigation into who leaked CIA operative Valerie Plame’s identity. “For most, though, this is a big deal and would show, once again, how dangerous it is to rely on Trump’s denials.”
If accurate, the disclosure could also help Cohen with his own legal issues. Cohen’s business practices relating to taxi medallions and real estate are under federal investigation. But David Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor from Miami, said the former Trump Organization official might be able to find a way out of trouble with his testimony on the Trump Tower meeting.
“If what Cohen now says is true, this would be his golden ticket out of his problems,” Weinstein said. “The critical question is whether there is corroborating evidence to support his now changed testimony. If corroborated, this could become the backbone of a conspiracy to both commit the crimes Mueller is investigating and the cover-up. It will make Watergate look like a mere burglary.”
It remains unclear whether the other attendees at the meeting knew that Trump approved of the conversation. If they were aware, and they lied about it, they could face additional problems.
“If true, my first question is whether Trump Jr. told Congress that Trump didn’t know about the Trump Tower meeting,” said Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor from Chicago. “Did he lie to Congress? That is a crime if it can be proven that he knew Trump was aware of the meeting.”
Mariotti said Trump’s awareness of the Trump Tower gathering suggests that the meeting was considered significant enough to tell Trump himself and “runs counter to the spin that the meeting was considered unimportant.”
“Perhaps the key question is: What did Trump think the meeting was about?” Mariotti added. “If Trump thought he was meeting to obtain aid from the Russian government, that could have serious political implications regardless of any legal liability.”
Donald Trump, Jr. cited attorney-client privilege last year to avoid telling lawmakers about a conversation he had with his father after news broke of the Trump Tower meeting.
The revelation also underscores Cohen’s decision to turn on Trump, his ex-boss, whom he served for more than a decade.
“Few people will be surprised that President Trump is again caught in a lie to the public,” said William Jeffress, a white-collar defense attorney who represented former President Richard Nixon and also Vice President Dick Cheney’s senior aide, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, in the Plame investigation. “But if CNN’s report is accurate, it appears that Cohen has turned against Trump big-time, and that has to cause serious concern to him and his legal team.”