Cohen: Trump Had Advance Notice on WikiLeaks Email Release
Blasted by House Republicans as a liar, Trump’s longtime fixer suspects but cannot prove collusion with Russia.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s longtime personal attorney and fixer Michael Cohen told Congress on Wednesday that Trump had advance notice of damaging emails obtained by Russian intelligence operatives and published by WikiLeaks in the run-up to the 2016 election.
In wide-ranging testimony before the House Oversight Committee, Cohen offered a detailed account of his role in the Trump Organization and provided evidence that may leave Trump exposed to additional legal jeopardy, while also providing additional ammunition to House Democrats considering impeaching the president.
Cohen’s long-awaited testimony came as Trump was having dinner with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Vietnam, where the two men are meeting in a high-stakes attempt to make progress on last year’s vaguely worded declaration to rid the Korean Peninsula of nuclear weapons. While Cohen’s testimony offered some new details about Trump’s knowledge of the Russian campaign to meddle in the 2016 presidential election, partisan wrangling dominated much of his appearance, with Republicans attempting to undermine Cohen’s credibility by branding him as an inveterate liar.
In his most detailed accounting to date of the Trump camp’s ties to Russia, Cohen said that Trump oversaw an initiative to build a Trump-branded tower in Moscow well into the 2016 campaign. Cohen also said Trump was tipped off by the political operative Roger Stone that WikiLeaks was about to dump damaging emails stolen from Democratic political operatives, and that the president may have been forewarned about a 2016 meeting between his son Donald Trump Jr. and a Russian attorney promising damaging information about Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
Despite being under a gag order imposed as part of his trial on obstruction of justice charges, Stone disputed Cohen’s account in a statement to reporters. In a statement, a lawyer for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange denied Cohen’s claim that Stone and Assange had discussed the upcoming publication.
Cohen said he had no evidence to indicate that the Trump campaign had colluded with the Kremlin effort to meddle in the election but said he suspected that may be the case.
In the summer of 2017, when reports emerged that Trump campaign officials had met with a Russian lawyer offering supposedly damaging information on Clinton, Cohen said, he recalled an unusual incident from June 2016, when the meeting took place. Donald Trump Jr. walked behind his father’s desk, Cohen recalled, and in a low voice said, “The meeting is all set.” Trump responded, “OK, good … let me know.”
Cohen said the interaction may indicate that Trump was aware of the meeting ahead of time, noting that nothing of significance happened in the Trump family business without his approval.
The Trump Tower meeting with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya—and the question of whether the president had any advance knowledge of it—has become a focus of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. Trump told Mueller that he did not know about the meeting ahead of time.
Though Cohen freely discussed most aspects of his work on behalf of the Trump Organization, he remained mum on his recent communications with Trump and said that the communications were the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation by prosecutors in New York. Cohen said he was aware of additional illegal conduct by the president but that he couldn’t provide details about that behavior, citing the investigation.
Cohen has pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations, lying to Congress, and tax fraud charges in the Southern District of New York, and he is cooperating with prosecutors. His testimony on Wednesday provides the most concrete evidence to date that prosecutors in New York are continuing their investigation of Trump’s business activities and his lieutenants.
The lawyer has long been a pivotal figure in understanding the strange relationship between the Kremlin and Trumpworld. The dossier assembled during the campaign by the former British spy Christopher Steele alleged that Cohen traveled to Prague to meet with Russian intelligence operatives, but Cohen denied on Wednesday that he had ever been in the Czech capital.
Cohen described the proposed real estate project in Moscow as a potentially massive windfall for the Trump Organization and testified that Trump asked his lawyers about the project half a dozen times between January and June of 2016. Trump repeatedly said that he had no business projects in Russia while he was running for president.
Lawmakers also delved into Trump’s payments of hush money to women with whom he had affairs, payments that Cohen helped arrange. Cohen provided a copy of a $35,000 check signed by Trump while president that partially reimbursed Cohen for paying off one of the women. Another $35,000 check provided by Cohen was signed by Donald Trump Jr.
On Wednesday, Cohen sought to rehabilitate his shattered reputation by coming clean. But Republicans used much of the hearing to undermine his credibility as a witness, pointing out that he has pleaded guilty to lying to Congress and lambasting him for his consulting work on behalf of foreign companies.
Cohen gamely sparred with his Republican critics and offered a warning for the president’s defenders. “The more people that follow Mr. Trump as I did blindly are going to suffer the same consequences that I’m suffering,” he said.
While the drama played out on Capitol Hill, Trump was in Hanoi for his second summit Kim. At dinner with the North Korean leader, the president was asked by a reporter if had any reaction to Cohen’s testimony.
Trump simply shook his head.
Foreign Policy reporter Robbie Gramer contributed to this report.
Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll