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The new revelations about pardon talks for Michael Cohen, explained

Was there a suggestion that Cohen could get a “pre-pardon”?

Michael Cohen, former attorney and fixer for President Donald Trump, in the basement of the Capitol in Washington, DC.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Michael Cohen’s legal team admitted Wednesday that, after the FBI raided his home and office last year, he asked President Donald Trump’s lawyers about a potential pardon.

Now reporters are trying to nail down the specifics of exactly what happened in those discussions. Federal prosecutors could be looking into the topic, too. And President Trump himself claimed in a Friday morning tweet that Cohen “directly asked” him for a pardon, adding, “I said NO.”

Cohen soon responded in a tweet disparaging “another set of lies” by Trump, but didn’t go into specifics.

The pardon discussions seem to have taken place after the April 2018 raids but over a month before Cohen, Trump’s former fixer, struck a plea deal with the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York (SDNY) last August.

What’s not yet entirely clear is whether this was mainly a case of Cohen seeking a pardon to no avail or whether he received an encouraging response from Trump’s team on the topic.

Perhaps most intriguingly, a recent ABC News report described a murky situation in which two lawyers “who claimed to be in close contact with Rudy Giuliani” reached out to Cohen and purportedly dropped hints about a pardon. The New York Times reported these discussions were about a “pre-pardon” for Cohen. One of the lawyers involved denied these accounts.

Now, on top of that, there’s Trump’s allegation that Cohen “directly” asked him for a pardon — though Trump has not yet explained when or where this happened.

In Cohen’s sworn testimony last week, he said he “never” asked for a pardon — but by his lawyer Lanny Davis’s admission, he did in fact authorize his previous attorney to “explore possibilities of a pardon.”

No pardon promise for Cohen seems to have materialized. But it’s worth understanding the details of what happened, because there has been much interest in how the president’s team uses the prospect of pardons to interfere with investigations. It’s already been one topic special counsel Robert Mueller has probed, and now it appears the SDNY prosecutors could be looking into it too.

Cohen was “pardon-curious” from April to June 2018

On April 9, 2018, the FBI raided Cohen’s office, residence, and hotel room, making it obvious that he was in very serious legal jeopardy.

For about two months after that, Cohen remained publicly defiant, and continued to proclaim his loyalty to Trump (whom he’d once said he’d “take a bullet for”). In mid-June, that suddenly changed, as word leaked out that Cohen was changing his legal team and “likely to cooperate” with prosecutors.

Behind the scenes, it’s now clear that before mid-June, there was at least some talk of a possible presidential pardon for Cohen. But how much of this talk started with Cohen, and how much came from Trump’s legal team, is a matter of dispute.

Cohen’s own lawyer and PR maven, Lanny Davis, admitted in a statement this week that Cohen had in fact authorized his previous attorney to “explore possibilities of a pardon” with Giuliani and other Trump lawyers, during that April to June 2018 period.

Additionally, Cohen privately testified to Congress that he spoke about a pardon with Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow, according to the Washington Post. Sekulow denies this.

Now, there’s Trump’s claim that Cohen “directly” asked him for a pardon. If that actually happened, it probably took place around this time. However, Trump’s team has not yet presented any specifics or corroborating details for this claim.

In any cae, last week, Cohen publicly testified that he has “never asked for, nor would I accept, a pardon from President Trump.” Even leaving aside Trump’s new claim, this statement seems to be quite misleading and arguably outright false. Davis’s attempt at clean-up tried to claim Cohen was only referring to “after July 2, 2018” when he said he never asked for a pardon, but Cohen actually said he “never” did.

Two attorneys may have talked pardons with Cohen

In any case, the most intriguing account of what took place during Cohen’s “pardon-curious” period came from ABC News’s Eliana Larramendia, James Hill, and Lauren Pearle, who offered the following new details.

  • Weeks after the FBI raided Cohen’s office, in late April 2018, two New York attorneys who “claimed to be in close contact with Rudy Giuliani” reached out to Cohen.
  • The attorneys said they were interested in representing Cohen, and urged him not to leave a joint defense agreement with Trump and his allies — essentially, not to flip on Trump.
  • Per ABC’s sources, “there was an implicit message that if Cohen hired these lawyers, it could preserve or increase his chances of a pardon down the road.”
  • Cohen did not hire the pair of attorneys. Afterward, they sent him a legal bill, which he didn’t pay.
  • Cohen told the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York about all this, and they may be investigating it.

After the story was published, ABC News updated it to include the two attorneys’ names: Robert J. Costello and Jeffrey Citron. (Costello told them the story was “not accurate” but that he couldn’t comment further because of attorney-client privilege.)

Meanwhile, the New York Times’s Michael Schmidt, Ben Protess, and Maggie Haberman added more details on the situation:

  • Costello sent Cohen “a cryptic email” saying “he had raised some issue of importance with” Giuliani, per their sources.
  • The talks with Costello “centered on whether Mr. Cohen could be given a ‘pre-pardon’” by Trump before his anticipated indictment.

It is unclear what, exactly, a “pre-pardon” would have entailed, but President Gerald Ford famously gave an unconditional pardon to his predecessor Richard Nixon for any crimes committed while he was president.

There’s no concrete allegation of wrongdoing here, and a lot of hints and maybes. One obvious unanswered question is whether Costello and Citron truly were acting at Giuliani’s behest, or whether they were talking a big game in hopes of landing a high-profile client. Another is whether the “pre-pardon” talk went beyond wishful thinking on Cohen’s side.

No pardon promise seems to have materialized for Cohen — but this is a broader issue

Cohen did not hire Costello and Citron, and ended up striking plea deals with both SDNY and Mueller. He has also had a high-profile falling-out with Trump, and publicly attacked the president at length in his recent testimony.

So, while anything’s possible, it certainly seems unlikely that all these pardon talks resulted in Cohen receiving what he viewed as a credible pardon promise.

Still, it’s worth understanding the facts of what happened here to get a better sense of how the president’s team may use the possibility of pardons more broadly to interfere with investigations.

The New York Times has reported that in 2017, Trump’s then-lawyer John Dowd had talks with attorneys for former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, in which he “broached the idea” of Trump pardoning them if they were to be charged by Mueller.

Flynn struck a plea deal with Mueller in December 2017, and committed to cooperate with investigators. Manafort, on the other hand, has fought the charges against him, and even after he eventually agreed to cooperate, Mueller’s team accused him of lying to them.

Trump’s use of pardons has drawn investigations’ interest, as potential obstruction of justice. In a recent court hearing, Mueller prosecutor Andrew Weissmann said Manafort could well be attempting to “augment his chances for a pardon.” Furthermore, a leaked list of questions Mueller wanted to ask Trump included one about “efforts” to “reach out to Mr. Flynn about seeking immunity or possible pardon.”

The recent ABC News story about Cohen suggests that SDNY prosecutors, too, could be looking into pardons. And when Cohen was asked at his testimony about his last communications with Trump’s team, he responded, “Unfortunately, this topic is something that’s being investigated right now by the Southern District of New York, and I’ve been asked by them not to discuss and not to talk about these issues.”

For more on the Mueller probe, follow Andrew Prokop on Twitter and check out Vox’s guide to the Trump-Russia investigation.

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