Last week, President Trump’s ex-lawyer Michael Cohen admitted he lied to Congress more than a year ago when he claimed discussions about a possible Trump Tower in Moscow ceased in January 2016. (The talks continued through the Republican primary season, which ended in June 2016.) Cohen made the claims in a two-page letter he drafted while in communication with the White House, and delivered it to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence in August 2017 as it was conducting an investigation into Russia’s attempts to interfere in the 2016 election.
Cohen’s plea agreement, released last week, raises a flurry of new questions, chief among them: Who else might have lied to the House Intel Committee? Over the course of its inquiry, the HPSCI interviewed 73 witnesses — including several members of Trump’s inner circle — before the Republican majority closed the investigation against the Democratic minority’s wishes.
Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA), who sits on the committee, tells Rolling Stone he wasn’t surprised to learn that Cohen was in communication with the White House while preparing his written testimony. “I’ve feared all along, just from my observations on the House Intelligence Committee, that witnesses and lawyers for witnesses are passing back what their clients learn in our investigations to the White House,” Swalwell says.
The California congressman notes that one red flag was the fact that a single lawyer — William Burck, who also vetted documents related to Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation proceedings — represented at least three witnesses. Former Trump campaign CEO Steve Bannon, White House counsel Don McGahn and former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus all retained Burck’s services, and that complicated matters for the committee when Bannon refused to answer certain questions at McGahn’s request. Later, the committee learned that Bannon was passing information he gleaned from the committee’s questions back to the White House.
“To me, that’s a major conflict of interest,” Swalwell says.
While there is, technically, no legal penalty for sharing such information, “the fact that they were just demonstrated to me a consciousness of guilt that they were all in cahoots, trying to get their stories straight and trying to, ultimately, benefit the president.”
There is a legal penalty, however, for lying to Congress — whether a person is under oath or not when committing the lie. Both the president’s son, Donald Trump, Jr., and his former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, were reportedly not put under oath when they testified.
For months, speculation has hung in the air that Donald Jr. may not have been truthful when he told Congress that he was not “aware” of foreign governments other than Russia offering to help his father’s campaign in 2016.
Who else might have lied to committee? Roger Stone is one possibility. “He has had to amend his answers to us a number of times,” Swalwell says. “He’s sent follow-up letters changing his testimony, which I think he only did once public reporting exposed that he had not been truthful with our committee.”
Erik Prince is another possibility, according to Swalwell. “His is one of the rare witness testimonies that is public, and I think if you look at the New York Times reporting on George Nader, if that story is true, then Prince was not truthful with us, either.”
With the revelations last week that Special Counsel Robert Mueller would seek to charge individuals for lying to Congress, and with the balance of power (in the House at least) having shifted back in Democrats’ favor, Swalwell says one of the committee’s first orders of business when the new legislative session begins will be to excavate reams of testimony from the subterranean chamber where it’s been sitting since the investigation was officially closed earlier this year, and for members to begin going through it, line by line.
The object, Swalwell says, won’t be to repeat the investigation. Rather, he hopes to “fill in the gaps, to go where the Republicans wouldn’t… to subpoena the kind of evidence that could have contradicted what the witnesses were telling us. We basically were running a take-them-at-their-word investigation, and most of these witnesses on the Trump team weren’t worthy being taken at their word. We want cell phone records, hotel records, bank records, travelogues to see if they were being truthful.”