Panel cancels private interview with Trump lawyer

Eric Tucker and Mary Clare Jalonick
Associated Press

Washington — A scheduled private meeting between President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer and Senate committee staff was abruptly canceled on Tuesday amid a dispute over a public statement he issued before the meeting.

Senate intelligence committee leaders said they called off the closed-door staff meeting after Michael Cohen sent a public statement to the media just as the interview was about to start. Senate intelligence committee Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., and the panel’s top Democrat, Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, issued a terse statement saying the panel had asked Cohen to “refrain from public comment” and that they would request he return — this time for a public hearing.

“We declined to move forward with today’s interview and will reschedule Mr. Cohen’s appearance before the committee in open session at a date in the near future,” Burr and Warner said in the statement. “The committee expects witnesses in this investigation to work in good faith with the Senate.”

The Senate intelligence committee is one of several congressional panels investigating Russian interference in the presidential race and potential ties to the Trump campaign. Special counsel Robert Mueller and his team of investigators are conducting their own criminal investigation.

It’s unclear why Cohen’s choice to make a statement public prompted the reaction from the committee. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, publicly released his 11-page prepared remarks to the panel ahead of his interview with the Senate intelligence committee. That interview went forward with Kushner answering questions for hours behind closed doors.

Cohen stayed in the committee’s offices about an hour and a half before emerging and telling reporters that the committee had postponed his interview. He did not give a reason for why the meeting was off, but his lawyer said they issued the statement because the meeting had been leaked to the press.

Cohen’s interview had been expected to focus at least in part on a discussion to develop a Trump Tower in Moscow right as the presidential campaign was unfolding, a real estate deal he disclosed last month in a statement to congressional investigators. In a prepared statement obtained by The Associated Press ahead of his appearance, Cohen said that the proposal was abandoned before the first Republican primaries and was “solely a real estate deal and nothing more.”

After leaving the committee’s offices, Cohen attorney Steve Ryan said the “statement was factual, it was accurate, and we stand behind that statement.” Ryan said that Cohen still intends to voluntarily cooperate with the committee as well as its counterpart in the House, which is carrying out a similar investigation.

Cohen spoke briefly, saying “I’ll be back.”

Cohen disclosed details of the Moscow deal last month in a statement to congressional investigators, saying that he had worked on the real estate proposal with Felix Sater, a Russian-born associate who Cohen said had claimed to have deep connections to Moscow. Cohen also has said that he emailed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s press secretary after Sater suggested that the proposal would require approvals within the Russian government.

The discussions about the potential development occurred in the fall of 2015, months after Trump had declared his candidacy, and ended early last year when Cohen determined that the project was not feasible.

In his statement Tuesday, Cohen said the proposal was “solely a real estate deal and nothing more.”

“I was doing my job,” he added.

The Trump Organization has previously said that the licensing deal “was not significantly advanced” and that no site or financing materialized during the negotiations.

Cohen also denounced allegations from a dossier produced by an opposition research firm, calling the document “lie-filled” and fabricated. He said he had never discussed with any member of the Russian Federation or anyone else a plan to hack into email accounts or to interfere with the election.

“Given my own proximity to the President of the United States as a candidate, let me also say that I never saw anything — not a hint of anything — that demonstrated his involvement in Russian interference in our election or any form of Russian collusion.”