The Michael Cohen, CNN, and Trump-Russia controversy, explained

There’s Lanny Davis, and a CNN story that’s come under fire. What’s really going on, and does Robert Mueller care?

Did Michael Cohen and his lawyer Lanny Davis hoodwink the media?

Late last month, in the midst of a federal investigation into Cohen, sources close to the former Trump lawyer made a bombshell claim to CNN. They said that, according to Cohen, Donald Trump himself knew in advance about his son Don Jr.’s secret meeting with a Russian delegation during the 2016 campaign. These anonymous sources added that Cohen would be happy to tell special counsel Robert Mueller all about this. And other media outlets, such as the Washington Post, soon heard similar things from a source close to Cohen.

Here’s the problem: Davis has now admitted that he was one of these anonymous sources, for multiple media outlets — but he’s reversed himself, saying he’s “not certain” that what he was telling the press about Cohen’s Russia scandal knowledge was actually accurate.

It’s all rather bizarre, and has led to criticism of CNN for running with the Cohen team’s anonymous claims in the first place — including from President Trump. (CNN has stood by its story, saying it had more than one source and that the story accurately described what Cohen’s team was saying.)

But the bigger picture is that a week after Cohen pleaded guilty to tax, bank fraud, and campaign finance charges — and implicated Trump in the latter of those — Cohen’s role in the larger Trump-Russia saga remains a question mark.

Was Cohen just lying all along — pretending to have crucial Trump-Russia information when he has no such thing? Or is he lying now, after it was pointed out to him that his previous sworn testimony to Congress was quite different from his new claims and could expose him to criminal charges? Or has he simply decided to start giving his information to investigators rather than leaking it to the press? The only thing that’s clear from Cohen is that the claims he and his team have been making have been inconsistent and unreliable.

Meanwhile, from Mueller’s side, it’s clear that Cohen has been a figure of some interest in his investigation — the special counsel’s team has questioned witnesses about matters related to Cohen, and wants to ask Trump at least two questions about him. But whether Mueller views Cohen as a key target, a potential cooperator, or a minor player of little importance remains unclear.

The bizarre, months-long spectacle of Cohen’s team telling reporters that he had bombshell Trump-Russia information

Ever since the FBI raided Cohen’s residence and office in April, a drama over whether he’ll “flip” on President Trump has unfolded, much of it in public via leaks from people close to him.

All the way back on June 13, ABC got word that Cohen was “likely to cooperate” with prosecutors. Days later, a Cohen friend leaked to CNN that he “if they want information on Trump, he’s willing to give it.”

It seemed big. But there were inklings of another motivation at work. Some outlets heard that what Cohen really wanted was for Trump to pay his legal fees, with one “source close to Cohen” even telling the Washington Examiner that he could stonewall investigators for the right price.

In early July, Cohen decided to make even more waves by hinting on the record to George Stephanopoulos that he was considering flipping — he said his main “loyalty” was to his family, not Trump.

Stephanopoulos also asked Cohen a curiously specific question — whether Trump knew about the infamous Trump Tower meeting beforehand. (This is, of course, Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with a Russian lawyer to get dirt on Hillary Clinton in June 2016. The president has denied knowing anything about it at the time.) Cohen conspicuously declined to answer.

Soon afterward, Cohen hired Clinton ally and PR bulldog Lanny Davis, and the press began to report more tantalizing hints that Cohen had key Trump-Russia information. Two anonymous sources told CNN on July 9 that it would be dangerous for Trump if Cohen were to “tell the truth” about the Trump Tower meeting.

As I wrote at the time, there was reason to be deeply skeptical of Cohen’s motivations in all this. For one, it was deeply strange that Cohen was leaking what he supposedly knew to the press, rather than just telling prosecutors privately. It was almost as if he was trying to send a message to Trump — or even to shake down the president so he’d pay Cohen’s pesky legal bills.

The controversial CNN report and its aftermath

Finally, CNN ran the July 26 report that has caused the most controversy, bylined by Jim Sciutto, Marshall Cohen, and Watergate legend Carl Bernstein. The report says that, according to an unspecified number of “sources”:

  • Cohen “claims” that Trump “knew in advance about the June 2016 meeting in Trump Tower in which Russians were expected to offer his campaign dirt on Hillary Clinton.”
  • Cohen “is willing to make that assertion to special counsel Robert Mueller.”
  • Cohen “alleges that he was present, along with several others, when Trump was informed of the Russians’ offer by Trump Jr. By Cohen’s account, Trump approved going ahead with the meeting with the Russians, according to sources.”

The report also contains a line that says Davis was contacted for the story and “declined to comment.” However, Davis now says that he was in fact one of the anonymous sources for the piece. He also was the sole anonymous source the Washington Post used to confirm CNN’s report.

The CNN story caused a sensation, suggesting to many that a breakthrough in the Trump-Russia investigation was finally imminent. Other rumors of what Cohen might know circulated to reporters, and even spurred Rudy Giuliani to go on TV and attempt to rebut follow-up stories on the topic that hadn’t been published yet.

But then another few weeks passed, and Cohen finally appeared in court to plead guilty to those tax, bank fraud, and campaign finance charges. And then a few days later, Davis began to tell reporters that no, he wasn’t sure if Cohen had bombshell Trump-Russia information after all, and that yes, he was an anonymous source for many of the stories that made that claim.

“I should have been more clear — including with you — that I could not independently confirm what happened,” Davis told the Post. “I regret my error.” (He also said that his claims might still be true, who’s to say, really.) President Trump then claimed vindication on Twitter:

CNN, meanwhile, came under increasing criticism from conservatives and some mainstream media reporters for running the story in the first place. However, on Tuesday, Sciutto and Bernstein filed a follow-up CNN report essentially criticizing Davis for changing his story, while saying they stood by their initial report, which had “more than one source.”

However, it’s important to note that CNN is not saying — and has never said — that they’re vouching for Cohen’s story as true. The initial report only purported to describe Cohen’s “claims.” Obviously, it is possible for Cohen to be making false claims.

Still, there’s an understandable debate about whether CNN should have been more skeptical here, and whether they were used by Cohen and Davis — and, especially, there’s criticism that their sentence saying Davis declined to comment was very misleading, since he says he actually did comment anonymously (as Glenn Greenwald and others have argued).

So what happened here?

To hear Lanny Davis tell it, he’s the goat. “I should not be talking to reporters on background about something I’m not certain about,” he told Fox News Tuesday. “If I had a redo in life, I wouldn’t have said anything about the subject.”

Yet as the timeline above shows, Cohen’s hints that he knew something about the Trump Tower meeting predated Davis’s hiring. Furthermore, there were so many such hints, over such a long period of time, that it was surely no isolated mistake. It was evidently part of a deliberate strategy, approved by Cohen, to convince the media that he had bombshell Russia scandal information — true or not.

This was a strange strategy. It does not actually seem to have been aimed at prosecutors, because the near-universal advice for someone in Cohen’s position is to say as little as possible publicly — prosecutors don’t like it when a potential cooperator leaks what they have to the media beforehand. Perhaps it was partly motivated by Cohen’s desire to change his image. But a more cynical possibility, as mentioned above, is that Cohen was really trying to get Trump’s attention with his PR blitz — to scare the president into paying his legal fees.

Which poses another question: Why the walkback now?

Cohen has pleaded guilty. In doing so, he went out of his way to implicate Trump in campaign finance violations. Hours after Cohen’s plea, Davis was telling MSNBC that Cohen “has knowledge on certain subjects that should be of interest” to Mueller — including, he said, “about the computer crime of hacking and whether or not Mr. Trump knew ahead of time about that crime.”

But all of a sudden, Davis changed his tune dramatically, saying that actually, Cohen may not know anything about the Trump Tower meeting, he’s not really sure.

There are a few possibilities as to why. First, there’s the perjury problem. Cohen, it turns out, had testified to Congress last year that he personally did not know anything about Don Jr.’s Trump Tower meeting beforehand, and that he had no idea whether Trump did. If this was in fact a lie, Cohen could be charged for lying to Congress. So some have speculated that Davis’s original claim was accurate but that he’s now walking it back to protect Cohen.

Second, there’s the possibility that Cohen is finally shutting up and cooperating. Maybe, at long last, Cohen has decided to rein in his weird PR play and start giving whatever information he does have to investigators (perhaps stopping the leaks at their request). However, his plea agreement conspicuously did not mention any cooperation and there’s no evidence that this is the case so far.

Finally, there’s the possibility that Cohen was lying all along about having important Trump-Russia information — that he was bluffing to try to get Trump cash, and that now that the bluff has failed, he’s just decided to stop putting out these false stories.

Cohen is of interest in the Mueller investigation, but it’s not clear how central he is

Meanwhile, special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation has continued to move forward, far away from all this Cohen drama.

Though Mueller’s team initially found the information that led to the charges against Cohen, the special counsel and his boss, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, handed it off to the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York (SDNY).

The exact reasons why Rosenstein and/or Mueller passed off this Cohen probe remain unclear. Perhaps they thought taxi medallions and sex scandal hush money were too far removed from Russia, perhaps it was a question of resources, perhaps they wanted to make it harder for Trump to retaliate by firing someone — or perhaps they decided that Cohen just wasn’t as important to the election interference investigation as, say, Paul Manafort or Roger Stone.

However, we do know that Mueller has been investigating Cohen for Russia-related reasons — and that he continued to even do so after the SDNY investigation began.

  • Around March, Mueller’s team questioned the Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg at an airport. A company tied to Vekselberg had paid Cohen at least $500,000 through the shell company Essential Consultants in 2017.
  • In April, around the time of the FBI raids on Cohen’s office, Mueller’s team reportedly questioned a business associate of the Trump Organization about Cohen’s involvement in business deals abroad.
  • In June, Mueller interviewed a Ukrainian associate of Cohen’s, Andrii Artemenko, before the grand jury. Artemenko told the Washington Post afterward that he “realized that Michael Cohen is a target” of Mueller’s. (Early in the Trump administration, Cohen tried to get Artemenko’s proposal for a peace deal between Ukraine and Russia — reportedly on terms preferred by Russia — to National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.)
  • Two of the questions Mueller’s team wanted to ask Trump, according to a leaked list, relate to Cohen. One is about Cohen’s efforts to make a deal to build a Trump Tower Moscow during the 2016 campaign, and the other is about Cohen and Artemenko’s Ukrainian peace proposal.

Longtime aficionados of the Russia scandal will recall that Cohen is also mentioned several times in the Steele dossier as a supposed central figure. But none of the specific allegations about him there have been confirmed, and both Cohen and Davis still say that the dossier’s claims about him are false.

In any case, though we’ve heard a whole lot from Cohen’s team about what he might be able to tell Mueller, we’ve heard far less about how Mueller views Cohen in this investigation.

Perhaps Mueller hoped the SDNY charges would make Cohen more cooperative and will hear out what he has to say soon. But so far as we know, the special counsel’s team has not yet asked to question Cohen at any point during its long investigation, despite their evident interest in him — suggesting they may also view him as a target. Or it’s possible that they looked into him for various reasons but decided there was nothing there.

But as Cohen approaches sentencing on financial and campaign charges, we don’t know whether the Cohen-Trump scandal saga is nearing an end — or whether it’s just beginning.