Trump or Cohen: Who can you trust in the ongoing blame game?

Contradicting allegations by characters in White House legal drama are causing confusion

Jonathan Lemire
New York
Saturday 09 March 2019 12:07 GMT
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Michael Cohen, right, President Donald Trump's former lawyer, leans back to listen to his lawyer, Lanny Davis of Washington, as he testifies before the House Oversight and Reform Committee, on Capitol Hill, Wednesday in Washington.
Michael Cohen, right, President Donald Trump's former lawyer, leans back to listen to his lawyer, Lanny Davis of Washington, as he testifies before the House Oversight and Reform Committee, on Capitol Hill, Wednesday in Washington. ((Alex Brandon/AP))

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

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It's a "he said, he said" where the "he" - no matter who he is - has a credibility problem.

The latest White House legal drama — whether or not the president's former legal fixer asked him for a pardon — has pulled back the curtain on a whole cast of characters whose comments can't always be taken at face value.

Michael Cohen, Mr Trump's former attorney who denies asking for presidential intervention, has himself pleaded guilty to lying to Congress — to back up Mr Trump's own stories. His representative, Lanny Davis, has repeatedly had to walk back and amend statements about what Cohen knew and when. But Mr Davis' need to correct previous claims has only been topped by that of Rudy Giuliani, the Mr Trump lawyer whose job description, at times, has seemed to be centred as much on fudging and on moving goalposts.

And then, of course, there is President Donald Trump, who declared for the first time on Friday that Cohen personally asked him for a pardon.

Mr Trump's foes call him a liar and worse. He made dozens of misstatements in just one speech last weekend and is estimated, by one count, to have made more than 9,000 false or misleading statements since taking office.

So, in a production filled with unreliable narrators, who, if anyone, can be trusted?

"My take is that it's all a mess and I don't know if we're ever going to know what really happened," says former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Trump ally who acknowledged that the battle over pardons has left him baffled. "It seems now that we live in an age of total confusion."

The latest act in the Shakespearean tragedy — farce? — over Cohen's fall from grace in Trumpworld came to light in the past week over a fierce debate as to whether the attorney had sought a pardon from the president after his office and hotel room were raided by the FBI last spring. Cohen, who spent a decade working for Mr Trump before turning on him and cooperating with the special counsel investigating the president, testified before Congress last week that he had never sought a pardon from his former boss.

But in the days that followed, stories changed.

Pictured on 20 November 2016: then-President-elect Donald Trump (right) and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani pose for photographs as Giuliani arrives at the Trump National Golf Club Bedminster clubhouse in Bedminster, New Jersey.
Pictured on 20 November 2016: then-President-elect Donald Trump (right) and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani pose for photographs as Giuliani arrives at the Trump National Golf Club Bedminster clubhouse in Bedminster, New Jersey. (AP)

Mr Davis, who was not Cohen's lawyer at the time, said Cohen "directed his attorney" to explore a possible pardon with Mr Giuliani and others on Mr Trump's legal team, a statement that appeared to contradict Cohen's sworn congressional testimony.

Then Mr Giuliani said that two lawyers working for Cohen approached him about a pardon last spring. And Mr Davis then allowed in a written statement Thursday that his client was "open to the ongoing 'dangling' of a possible pardon by Trump representatives privately and in the media" in the months after the FBI raid.

Trump took it one step further on Friday.

"Bad lawyer and fraudster Michael Cohen said under sworn testimony that he never asked for a Pardon. His lawyers totally contradicted him. He lied!" Mr Trump tweeted aboard Air Force One while en route to inspect damage from a deadly tornado in Alabama. "Additionally, he directly asked me for a pardon. I said NO. He lied again!"

Cohen's turn.

"Just another set of lies by (at)POTUS (at)realdonaldtrump. Mr. President" he wrote, before invoking the women whose hush money payments he helped facilitate for candidate Trump. "Let me remind you that today is (hash)InternationalWomensDay. You may want use today to apologize for your own (hash)lies and (hash)DirtyDeeds to women like Karen McDougal and Stephanie Clifford."

Just another set of lies by @POTUS @realdonaldtrump. Mr. President...let me remind you that today is #InternationalWomensDay. You may want use today to apologize for your own #lies and #DirtyDeeds to women like Karen McDougal and Stephanie Clifford.

Mr Giuliani again.

He said in an interview Friday that he remembered Mr Trump telling him when he joined the president's legal team eleven months ago that Cohen had asked for a pardon, something the former New York City mayor had never previously revealed, including in an interview about pardons the previous day.

This furore is far from the first time the players in this particular melodrama have, to put it charitably, arranged and rearranged their scripts.

Saturday Night Live skewers Michael Cohen testimony with Ben Stiller skit

Long before he entered politics, Mr Trump embellished his record, posing as his own spokesman to plant flattering stories in New York gossip pages and declaring that the 58-story Trump Tower was actually 68 stories so it would be the tallest in that section of Midtown Manhattan. That track record continued during his campaign and as president. He trotted out big falsehoods — claiming that Barack Obama was not born in the United States and, later, that he wiretapped Trump Tower — and smaller ones, including when boasted that the crowd for his Inauguration was the largest in history.

His administration has had more than 9,000 misleading statements, according to The Washington Post — fake news, according to the president.

Cohen has become a key figure in congressional investigations since turning on his former boss. During last week's public testimony, he called Mr Trump a con man, a cheat and a racist. Mr Trump, in turn, said Cohen "is lying in order to reduce his prison time."

Indeed, Cohen was known to lie to reporters during Trump's 2016 campaign. He is to begin a three-year prison sentence in May for crimes, including lying to Congress — lying to support Mr Trump's own statements about his real estate efforts in Russia.

Both men's lawyers — who act more as TV spokesmen then courtroom attorneys — have also struggled with keeping their facts straight, though sometimes the shifting stories appear to be deliberate efforts to create smoke screens rather than clear anything up. Mr Davis, who served as White House counsel during President Bill Clinton's early crises, has had to walk back at least one bombshell assertion over the past year, that his client could tell investigators that Mr Trump had advance knowledge of a Trump Tower meeting with a Russian lawyer during the 2016 campaign.

Mr Giuliani has fumbled facts and repeatedly moved the goalposts about what sort of behaviour by the president would constitute collusion or a crime. He has defended his scattershot approach with a series of memorable turns of phrases, including one that could act as a motto for many of those involved in the saga.

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