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Cohen: Pardons discussed with a second Trump lawyer

Michael Cohen, former attorney to President Donald Trump, testifies before the House Oversight Committee on Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019. Washington Post photo by Matt McClain.

WASHINGTON - Michael Cohen has claimed to the House Intelligence Committee that he discussed the subject of a pardon with President Donald Trump's attorney Jay Sekulow, bringing another of Trump's representatives into an ongoing dispute over precisely who opened discussions about the matter.

Under penalty of perjury, Cohen alleged to lawmakers that he discussed pardons with Sekulow in addition to Rudy Giuliani, another of Trump's lawyers, according to four people familiar with Cohen's testimony who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss his interview. Cohen appeared before the committee for about eight hours Wednesday, concluding a closed-door interview that began last week.

In a terse statement to The Washington Post, Sekulow flatly denied Cohen's allegation, calling it "not true" - and declining to elaborate further.

The people familiar with Cohen's testimony declined to provide specifics, including the dates or substance of his alleged conversations with Sekulow and Giuliani.

Giuliani said this week, "I can't confirm or deny whether I had a conversation with any of the attorneys because it's attorney-client privilege, but what I can say is that I've said the same thing to everyone, privately and publicly, which is that the president is not considering pardons at this time."

Cohen has privately claimed that Trump's representatives dangled the notion of a pardon, according to people familiar with the discussions, while others say it was Cohen's former representatives who broached the subject with Trump's legal team.

The stakes are high for both sides. If Trump's representatives sought a bargain with Cohen to gain assurances not to cooperate with prosecutors, it would raise questions about whether the intent was to obstruct justice. Were Cohen to intentionally mislead Congress, a crime to which he has already pleaded guilty, it could open him to additional prosecution and the prospect of a longer prison sentence.

It was not immediately clear whether Cohen claimed that Sekulow specifically was one of the people who had suggested the offer of a pardon in exchange for his continued defense of Trump. But the fact that Cohen named Sekulow could put the two in open conflict yet again.

In a public hearing before a separate House committee last week, Cohen accused Sekulow of making changes to statements Cohen planned to deliver to Congress in 2017 concerning how long into his presidential campaign Trump pursued a major real estate deal in Moscow. Cohen eventually pleaded guilty to lying to lawmakers about the project's timeline, and he begins a three-year prison sentence for those and other financial crimes in May.

Sekulow denied making any changes to Cohen's planned testimony about the timing of the Trump Tower Moscow project, calling Cohen's allegation "completely false."

On Wednesday, Cohen gave the House Intelligence Committee documents that purportedly illustrate how the president's lawyers edited his 2017 statements to Congress, according to people familiar with the matter. The committee has not made those documents public.

According to people familiar with what's contained in the documents, the changes were plentiful. But one of these people said that the changes were not substantive and that there had been no direct changes made to Cohen's original claims about the timeline along which Trump pursued the real estate project in Russia.

The timeline reflected in Cohen's testimony is significant because if Trump continued to pursue his Moscow tower project until at least June of 2016 instead of January of that year, as Cohen originally - and falsely - told lawmakers, it means he did so after it was clear he had won enough delegates to secure the Republican nomination for the presidency.

The documents accompanied Cohen's return to Capitol Hill on Wednesday for his fourth interview in recent days with congressional panels. The closed-door session follows another private interview with the Senate Intelligence Committee and a public hearing with the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. Together, these sessions have opened several avenues of inquiry for the six House panels looking into allegations of wrongdoing in Trump's campaign and presidency. Those investigations are picking up steam as lawmakers brace for an expected report from special counsel Robert Mueller III, who has spent nearly two years investigating Russia's interference in the 2016 election and whether anyone associated with Trump's campaign conspired with those efforts.

But Cohen's revelations have also fueled a bitter political divide in Congress, between Democrats intrigued by his testimony and Republicans who are suspicious of Cohen's intentions - and adamant that if he lied to Congress once, his testimony cannot be trusted now.

In a matter of months, Cohen has gone from being one of Trump's staunchest protectors to the most vocal accuser to emerge from the president's inner circle. On Wednesday, upon completion of his interview with the House Intelligence Committee, Cohen said he would continue to cooperate as needed.

In a statement, Cohen's attorney, Lanny Davis, said his client "responded to all questions truthfully." Cohen, Davis added, "also offered to answer additional questions from Republican members. He remains committed to telling the truth and cooperating with authorities."

The committee's chairman, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., told reporters that Cohen had been "fully cooperative" with the investigative process.

But in recent days, Republican leaders have questioned not only Cohen's integrity but also Schiff's.

This week, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., suggested on Fox News that Schiff had coached Cohen through his testimony, asking whether he had tried to "tamper" or "direct" Cohen to answer certain questions in a certain way and urging Schiff to recuse himself from the investigation.

On Wednesday, intelligence panel member Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio, sent a letter to Cohen, asking him to disclose the number and nature of his contacts with Schiff, and saying that those contacts raised questions about "witness tampering, obstruction of justice, or collusion."

Schiff has called McCarthy's suggestions "frivolous."

In response to Turner's letter, a spokesman for Schiff also characterized the committee staff's pre-interview contacts with Cohen as "proffer sessions," deeming them "completely appropriate."

A congressional aide also noted that Turner had not attended the intelligence panel's first closed-door session with Cohen.

The Washington Post's Tom Hamburger, Philip Rucker and Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.

This article was written by Karoun Demirjian, a reporter for The Washington Post.

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