Cohen Hearings Are Over, but Not the Arguing About His Testimony

WASHINGTON — Staring down a looming prison sentence for lying to Congress and other crimes, Michael D. Cohen arrived on Capitol Hill last week declaring that he was finally ready to tell the truth about his decade of work alongside President Trump.

“I have lied,” Mr. Cohen, the president’s former lawyer, told the House Oversight and Reform Committee at the outset of an explosive public hearing. “But I am not a liar.”

At least for now, Mr. Cohen’s success in clearing up his past actions, over nearly a week of public and private testimony on Capitol Hill, has become more muddled.

Mr. Cohen laid out a detailed case, complete with documentary evidence, that Mr. Trump fully participated in a fraudulent scheme during the closing weeks of his presidential campaign to buy the silence of a pornographic film actress who claimed they had an affair. But he left Washington on Wednesday having, however inadvertently, also handed his Republican critics just what they were looking for: fresh material they could weaponize to try to undermine the credibility of that larger account.

They wasted little time in seizing it. Mr. Trump’s legal team and Republicans on Capitol Hill have in recent days accused Mr. Cohen of changing key details of his stories — particularly about a possible job in the White House and a possible presidential pardon — to his benefit, and of seeking to profit off his notoriety. Mr. Trump himself picked up on one of their points Thursday afternoon.

Mr. Cohen’s allies have brushed off the criticism as little more than distractions, and suggested that the release of additional testimony he gave in private will clear him.

Still, the conflicting and disputed claims underscore Mr. Cohen’s flaws as a witness, at least in the version of investigations being litigated publicly by Congress.

“If today’s answer is different than yesterday’s answer, he just gets a reset, and says now I’m telling you the truth?” said Senator Richard M. Burr, Republican of North Carolina and the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which also privately grilled Mr. Cohen last week. “Prove it.”

All indications remain, however, that Mr. Cohen has proved to be a valuable witness for federal prosecutors working for the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, who have vouched for his truthfulness, and the Southern District of New York, who appear to have built a case at least in part around his accounts.

In his public testimony before the House Oversight Committee last week, Mr. Cohen emphatically denied that he had ever wanted a White House job or a presidential pardon.

“I did not want to go to the White House,” Mr. Cohen asserted under questioning.

But while he was still seated at the table in the hearing room, one of the president’s sons, Eric Trump, took to Twitter to dispute one of the claims.

“Michael was lobbying EVERYONE to be ‘Chief of Staff,’” he wrote. “It was the biggest joke in the campaign and around the office. Did he just perjure himself again?” Other members of the 2016 Trump campaign backed him up.

Mr. Cohen was just as adamant that he had not sought a pardon from Mr. Trump.

“I have never asked for, nor would I accept, a pardon from Mr. Trump,” he said at the hearing.

A week after that testimony, though, Mr. Cohen’s lawyer, Lanny J. Davis, told The Wall Street Journal that Mr. Cohen had directed his former lawyer, Stephen Ryan, to inquire about the possibility of a pardon with Mr. Trump’s lawyers.

Mr. Davis maintained that there was no discrepancy between that statement and Mr. Cohen’s testimony, insisting that his client had given those instructions only after the Trump team had “dangled” a possible pardon while they were all part of a shared defense. Mr. Davis said that Mr. Cohen was referring in his testimony to the period after early July 2018, when the president’s former fixer split from his old boss.

This time, it was Mr. Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., who pounced.

“So Cohen’s lawyer is admitting that Cohen committed perjury just last week when he said he NEVER sought a pardon?” the president’s son, who of the Trump children was the closest to Mr. Cohen, posted on Twitter. “Just making sure we are all on the same page here. CC: DOJ.”

Republicans in Congress, who conspicuously sought at the hearings to discredit Mr. Cohen rather than defend the president, quickly sought to document what they claimed were inconsistencies. Two of the Oversight Committee’s top Republicans, Representatives Jim Jordan of Ohio and Mark Meadows of North Carolina, referred Mr. Cohen to the Justice Department for possible prosecution for perjury.

Mr. Cohen’s testimony, they wrote, had been “a spectacular and brazen attempt to knowingly and willfully testify falsely and fictitiously to numerous material facts.” They documented what they said were six possible material misstatements by Mr. Cohen during the hearing, and on Thursday added Mr. Cohen’s statements about pardons to the list.

“As I warned before Mr. Cohen’s appearance before the Oversight Committee, relying on an admitted liar to attack the president is beneath the dignity of the People’s House,” Mr. Jordan said in a statement on Thursday. On Twitter, he asked the committee’s chairman, Representative Elijah E. Cummings, Democrat of Maryland, to take the claims seriously.

Democrats have been careful to qualify that they will need additional testimony and evidence to corroborate some of Mr. Cohen’s claims. But they have dismissed Republicans’ accusations as simple partisanship.

“I don’t think people should jump to conclusions until they have a chance to review all the evidence, including the testimony,” Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois, a Democratic member of the Oversight and Intelligence Committees.

People close to Mr. Cohen said that he had been expecting Republicans to attack his truthfulness.

Mr. Davis said in an interview that what Mr. Trump and his allies were doing was reminiscent of his own days working as a counsel in the Clinton White House during congressional investigations led by Republicans. In this case, he said, the goal is distracting from the fact that the president was reimbursing Mr. Cohen.

“What we would do is focus on a little trip-up, or pebble or something,” Mr. Davis said, with the intention of getting “everybody to talk about it so the big picture is obscured.”

“When we were facing a serious media storm,” he said, “we would do everything we could to change the subject to something trivial.” The bigger picture, Mr. Davis said, “is we have proven beyond any doubt that the president of the United States committed a felony by writing those checks.”

There were other public statements by Mr. Cohen under scrutiny as well.

Mr. Cohen testified in public that White House lawyers, including Jay Sekulow, had edited the false statement he delivered to Congress in 2017 about a proposed Trump Tower project in Moscow during the 2016 presidential campaign.

“There were several changes that were made including how we were going to handle that message, which was — the message of course being the length of time that the Trump Tower Moscow project stayed and remained alive,” he said.

Mr. Cohen shared drafts of the statement and other documents with the intelligence committees on Wednesday that he said supported that public claim. But on Thursday, Mr. Davis confirmed to CNN that Mr. Cohen had in fact written the false line.

Others familiar with discussions that took place at the time of Mr. Cohen’s original testimony said that his lawyers approved all of the Trump legal team’s proposals. These people added that the Trump lawyers had no indication at the time that the dates cited by Mr. Cohen were inaccurate.

Nicholas Fandos reported from Washington, and Maggie Haberman from New York. Emily Cochrane contributed reporting from Washington.

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