For years, Michael Cohen was referred to in press reports as “Donald Trump’s personal lawyer.” However, Cohen never really performed the tasks traditionally associated with attorneys – it’s rather difficult to imagine Cohen spending long nights in document review or taking depositions. Instead, Cohen was a “fixer,” a man with a degree from arguably the worst law school in the country whose real job was cleaning up Donald Trump’s messes.
And Trump left a lot of messes, even in the years before he won the presidency. Most famously, Cohen paid adult film actress Stephanie Clifford, who goes by the stage name Stormy Daniels, $130,000 to cover up an extramarital affair she had conducted with Trump. Cohen made the payments in October 2016, just weeks before the presidential election.
But while Cohen and Trump’s extracurricular activities were mostly outside the scope of Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, Cohen still plays a significant role in the Mueller Report. The report dives deep into Cohen’s role attempting to arrange a lucrative Trump Tower project in Moscow, an initiative that, contrary to Trump’s denials, extended far into the 2016 campaign.
In the final edition of our look at obstruction of justice in the Mueller Report, American Legal News turns to Section K of the report’s second volume, which examines Cohen’s attempts to secure a Trump Tower Moscow project, his eventual decision to cooperate with the government and the President’s behavior toward his former fixer, which the report indicates approached the threshold for obstruction of justice.
A Dark Tower
Donald Trump had long been obsessed with the idea of constructing a massive Trump Tower in the heart of Moscow. He had even held meetings with the Soviet government in the late 80’s to discuss the project. The idea never came together. But Trump didn’t give up on his dream.
According to the Mueller Report, Trump signed a letter of intent in the fall of 2015 for a Moscow Trump Tower. The letter of intent laid out terms that were very friendly to Trump – as had become his modus operandi, Trump licensed his name for the project and took on very little financial risk. He stood to make hundreds of millions of dollars while putting almost nothing on the line.
Section K of the Mueller Report lays out in great detail the full extent of Trump’s interest in building the Moscow tower. Trump was already in the presidential race when he signed the initial letter of intent, and his aides – led by Cohen – continued to push the project while Trump swept through the Republican primaries.
Cohen worked with Felix Sater, a financier with ties to both Trump and the Russian government. Cohen and Sater repeatedly tried to arrange for Trump to travel to Russia to finalize the deal, even during the campaign, but obstacles continued to arise on the Russian side of the deal. Cohen told the Special Counsel that Trump was heavily engaged in the project and repeatedly requested updates on the deal.
According to Cohen, the deal didn’t fully collapse until summer of 2016, after Trump had clinched the GOP nomination. Cohen told Trump the project was going nowhere because a Russian company had failed to secure the necessary land. According to Cohen, Trump never told him to abandon the deal.
Holding the Party Line
Of course, that was not the story Cohen agreed to tell once Trump took office.
According to the Mueller Report, Cohen determined to “toe the party line” that Trump’s attempts to build a Moscow property were tentative and ended in January 2016. He and Trump worked out talking points to those effects and Cohen told that story to the press.
Far more problematic was the false statement Cohen submitted to Congress in 2017. Congressional investigators grew interested in the possibility that then-candidate Donald Trump was pursuing a Moscow deal during the campaign and asked Cohen for information on the project. Cohen entered into a joint defense agreement with the President and repeatedly spoke with the President’s personal counsel.
Cohen eventually submitted a statement to Congress that he knew contained several false statements. Cohen’s statement said the Trump Organization had stopped pursuing the Moscow project in January 2016, when, in fact, Cohen and Sater had continued to press the Russians into the summer of that year. Cohen also implied Trump wasn’t very involved in the negotiations and said he had never considered asking Trump to travel to Russia.
Eventually, however, Cohen’s house of cards crumbled, and he was arrested and charged with crimes related to the payments he made to women who said they had sexual relationships with Donald Trump. In August of 2018, Cohen pleaded guilty to eight charges. Two months later, he spoke to Mueller’s team for more than 50 hours. This made him a serious threat to Donald Trump.
The Report’s Obstruction Analysis
In analyzing the President’s behavior toward Cohen, the Mueller Report’s authors focused on two areas of concern: whether Trump “aided or participated” in Cohen’s false statements to Congress and whether Trump took actions that would, as their natural result, have the effect of preventing Cohen from truthfully cooperating with the government.
On the question of Cohen’s false statement to Congress, the Mueller Report says “the evidence available does not establish that the President directed or aided Cohen’s false testimony,” which is relevant to the question of whether the President committed an obstructive act. Ultimately, the authors of report conclude that too much of the President’s intentions with regards to Cohen’s statement are protected by attorney-client privilege and write that the “absence of evidence about the President and his counsel’s conversations about the drafting of Cohen ‘s statement precludes us from assessing what, if any, role the President played.”
On both areas of concern the President’s actions had an obvious nexus to an official proceeding.
When it comes to the question of corrupt intent, the report is more conditional than truly condemnatory. The report’s authors say, for example, that “there is evidence that could support the inference” that Trump intended to discourage Cohen from cooperating with the government. Similarly, the report says “the evidence could support an inference” that the President was aware Cohen continued to push the Trump Tower project after the supposed January 2016 conclusion of that initiative.
In addition, the President’s public comments suggesting Cohen’s family may have committed crimes “could be viewed” as an effort to dissuade Cohen from cooperating with the government.