The prospect of a pardon for President Donald Trump’s former attorney Michael Cohen was raised more than once between Cohen’s lawyer and attorneys representing the President, according to multiple sources familiar with the matter. The depth of those discussions – including whether a pardon was truly on the table in exchange for Cohen’s cooperation – is being disputed publicly among the different factions.
Cohen told Congress over the past week that his former attorney spoke separately with two attorneys for the President, Rudy Giuilani and Jay Sekulow, about the prospect of a pardon, the sources said. Cohen also testified to Congress that he spoke directly to Sekulow about pardons, according to the sources, which Sekulow denies.
In addition, Cohen has told Congress and others about a murky series of exchanges with two people who said they had connections to Giuliani and another member of Trump’s orbit, and they raised the idea of securing a pardon for Cohen, according to the sources.
Questions surrounding a possible pardon for Cohen – what exactly was discussed, who was initiating those conversations and how far they really progressed – have swirled over the past two weeks as Cohen’s team and the President’s camp have often provided contradictory versions of the events.
The matter is being investigated in Congress following Cohen’s public and private testimony before three congressional committees over the past two weeks. In question is whether there was an effort to seek a pardon or offer a pardon in exchange for Cohen’s cooperation.
Cohen’s attorney, Lanny Davis, said in a statement that prior to Cohen’s decision to leave the joint defense agreement and cooperate with federal investigators, Cohen “was open to the ongoing ‘dangling’ of a possible pardon by Trump representatives privately and in the media.”
“During that time period, he directed his attorney to explore possibilities of a pardon at one point with Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani as well as other lawyers advising President Trump,” Davis said. “But after July 2, 2018, Mr. Cohen authorized me as a new lawyer to say publicly Mr. Cohen would never accept a pardon from President Trump even if offered. That continues to be the case.”
But that version of events raises questions about Cohen’s public testimony that he “never asked for” and would not accept a pardon from Trump. Cohen did not specify in his testimony that this was his stance only after he broke from the Trump team.
Davis said Cohen’s public statement before the House Oversight Committee was true and consistent with his post-joint defense agreement decision to cooperate with investigators.
Giuliani denies he ever offered a pardon to anyone.
“I have been asked about pardons by lawyers and the press and I have said the President is not going talk about pardons now,” Giuliani told CNN. “What I am saying is that I never offered anyone a pardon. Not him (Cohen), not (Paul) Manafort, not (Roger) Stone, not (George) Papadopoulos, not John Smith. I gave a uniform answer, the same to everyone – the President will not consider a pardon now.”
The discussions about Cohen’s options, including a pardon, between Cohen’s camp and the President’s legal team occurred at various times, including after Cohen’s home and office were raided. At that time, he was part of a joint defense agreement with Trump’s lawyers and others in Trump’s orbit.
Cohen told Congress that he spoke to Sekulow about a possible pardon, though no pardon was directly offered in those conversations, sources said. Sekulow told CNN on Thursday that he has never had a conversation with Cohen about a pardon, either directly or indirectly.
Cohen did not speak to Giuliani or Trump directly about pardons, according to one source, including during Trump’s conversation with Cohen two months after the FBI’s raid on Cohen.
When Giuliani joined the legal team in April 2018, he was briefed as part of the joint defense agreement by Cohen’s then-attorney, Stephen Ryan, two of the sources said. The discussions were preliminary and cordial, according to one of the sources, and focused on the case and the potential ways it might be resolved. The notion of a pardon was on a list of possible resolutions, according to two sources.
The possibility of a pardon was also raised as part of a discussion after the raid between Ryan and Sekulow, according to the two sources. One source said that it was nothing beyond what attorneys would discuss about possible outcomes in a joint defense agreement.
The discussions began to fall apart after Cohen’s document production had been completed and after attorney Guy Petrillo took over Cohen’s defense, according to one source. With the hiring of Petrillo, Cohen signaled he was moving towards cooperating with prosecutors. Cohen was declaring his independence and he was met with vitriol by the President, who started to criticize his former lawyer in public.
But there were also another set of pardon discussions, in what Cohen described to Congress as emissaries from Trump’s orbit who approached Cohen to pursue a pardon, according to one source familiar with the matter.
The attorneys were Robert Costello and Jeffrey Citron, Costello acknowledged to CNN after The New York Times reported his role. Costello said the description of him offering to work out a pardon as an intermediary was inaccurate, but declined to further comment unless Cohen agreed to waive attorney-client privilege. He said they were talking to Cohen before Giuliani joined the Trump legal team and that Citron knew Cohen from serving on a school board together. Costello also told CNN he has not been contacted by federal investigators, only reporters.
Citron did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.
Cohen provided to investigators documentation showing that Costello was with Giuliani, including screenshots, according to one source.
Giuliani declined to comment on Cohen’s claim that people connected to Giuliani had spoken to him, saying Cohen would have to waive privilege first. ABC News was first to report on the discussions.
Pardons were just one of several issues involving Cohen that Congress is probing. Cohen was also asked about his 2017 statement to Congress in which he lied about the timeline of discussions surrounding a proposed Trump Tower in Moscow as well as Trump’s knowledge of the project.
Cohen provided the House Intelligence Committee with documents showing that Trump’s lawyers edited Cohen’s statement, according to sources familiar with the matter. The false date was in Cohen’s original drafted statement, and CNN has previously reported Trump’s lawyers had no indication that the timeline was inaccurate.
For Congress, which has now heard Cohen testify before three separate committees, Cohen’s credibility is a key issue.
In an interview with CNN Thursday, Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr declined to discuss what Cohen told his panel last week on pardons, but he criticized both Davis and Cohen.
“Lanny and Michael Cohen have a history of not necessarily factual statements – they’re the ones that have to clear that up,” the North Carolina Republican said. “This is a guy who has already lied to Congress – with every interview he does, he’s susceptible to forgetting what he said in the last. Not a situation a good lawyer should put him in.”
Asked if he thinks Cohen lied to Congress again, this time about pardons, Burr said he wouldn’t discuss the closed testimony but added, “It’s time for Michael Cohen to tell the truth and then suffer the consequences for any lies he told then or now.”
A source familiar with Cohen’s testimony, speaking in defense of Cohen, said that House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, D-California, will eventually release the transcript and that “Cohen will be vindicated.”
Generally, Trump’s stance on pardons has been uneven, ranging from then-White House counsel Ty Cobb saying “no pardons are under discussion” to the President himself saying that pardoning Manafort “was never discussed but I wouldn’t take it off the table.”
Giuliani has publicly said pardons would not be considered while the investigation was ongoing.
CNN’s Manu Raju, Kara Scannell and Dana Bash contributed to this report.