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Cohen, Trump And The Pardon That Wasn't


President Trump's former lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen, instructed his attorney, at one point, to explore the possibility of a pardon from the president. This is according to Cohen's current counsel, Lanny Davis. That statement appears to contradict something Cohen said under oath last week to House lawmakers.


MICHAEL COHEN: And I have never asked for, nor would I accept, a pardon from President Trump.

GREENE: So what's going on here? Let's talk to NPR justice reporter Ryan Lucas who's on the line. Hey there, Ryan.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: OK. So Michael Cohen, in public testimony under oath, saying that he didn't ask for, nor would he accept, a pardon - what is - exactly is his attorney saying today that seems different?

LUCAS: Well, this is a bit of a tangled mess so bear with me here. Lanny Davis is Cohen's current lawyer and spokesman. And Davis says that before Cohen decided to cooperate with prosecutors in the summer of 2018, Cohen was open to what Davis calls the quote, "ongoing dangling of a possible pardon by Trump representatives behind closed doors and in the media."


LUCAS: Davis says Cohen directed his lawyer at the time - that's a man by the name of Stephen Ryan - to explore the possibilities of a pardon with Trump's attorneys including Rudy Giuliani.

Now, Davis says there was a clean break in July, 2018, when Cohen did indeed decide to cooperate with the government. And Davis rejects any seeming contradiction between those details that we just heard and Cohen's testimony last week when he said that he never asked for a pardon.

GREENE: OK. It does seem like a tangled mess. But they're saying there's no contradiction. So ongoing dangled pardon - is the White House - is the president's legal team responding to that suggestion?

COHEN: Well, I spoke to Giuliani this morning. And he zeroed in on the apparent contradiction in Cohen's statements. His first reaction, when I asked him about this, was actually - you got to be kidding me. He accused Cohen of perjury. He says Cohen testified under oath that he never asked for a pardon. And now he's saying that he was exploring that exact question.

Now, I asked Giuliani whether Cohen's attorneys did actually inquire about a possible pardon. Giuliani wouldn't answer that question. He said it's an issue that's covered by attorney-client privilege. But he told me that other people involved in the case have, over the course in the invest - in - of - over the course of this investigation, inquired about a possible pardon. And he says that he always gave the same answer, which is - the president isn't going to consider a pardon at this time. And he says he also always told people that if you want to assume anything, assume that you won't get a pardon.

GREENE: Remind us why pardons keep coming up in this - in all these investigations and why they're important?

LUCAS: Well, the concern for the president's opponents is whether Trump or his attorneys have dangled pardons to people to try to get them not to cooperate with investigators. So to not provide the government with information that could incriminate the president or his friends or his family. The president came under a lot of fire from Democrats about this when he refused to take off the table a possible pardon for his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort.

Manafort was convicted, by a federal jury, in a bank and tax fraud case last year. Pardons have remained part of the political fight in this whole investigation and they have for months. The new attorney general, Bill Barr, was actually asked about this during his confirmation hearing. He was asked whether the president could lawfully issue a pardon to someone in exchange for their not incriminating him. And Barr said that that would actually be a crime.

GREENE: And we should say you mentioned Manafort. You're actually in Virginia outside the courthouse where he's being sentenced today. Right?

LUCAS: Right. Right. That's the courthouse in Alexandria, Va. Manafort is to be sentenced today. The special counsel's office brought this case. It hasn't requested a specific sentence - made clear, though, that it thinks Manafort's crimes are serious. Manafort's lawyers are asking for leniency. The decision lies with Judge T.S. Ellis. But this is not the end for Manafort. He still faces sentencing in a separate case in Washington, D.C., next week.

GREENE: NPR justice reporter Ryan Lucas. Thanks, Ryan.

LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.
Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.