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Senate Intel Panel's Meeting With Trump Lawyer Abruptly Called Off


Congressional investigations into Russian interference in last year's presidential election have been going on for months, and there's no end in sight. Today Donald Trump's longtime personal lawyer Michael Cohen was on Capitol Hill for an interview with the Senate intelligence committee. That meeting was called off just one hour after it was scheduled to begin. To talk about the latest in these investigations, we're joined by NPR's Ryan Lucas. Hi, Ryan.


CHANG: So why did the committee want to talk to Michael Cohen, the president's personal lawyer, to begin with?

LUCAS: Well, Cohen is a longtime confidant of President Trump. They go back in terms of business for many years, and he served as a senior executive in the Trump Organization.

CHANG: Right.

LUCAS: But a lot of this stems from the fact that Cohen shows up in that infamous dossier that was published in January, and that dossier alleges that he played a pivotal role as a middleman between the Trump campaign and Russia in Russia's influence operation during the elections.

In terms of his role as a - an executive in the Trump Organization, Cohen has said that he reached out to the to the Kremlin basically, to Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman in January of 2016 to try to enlist his help on a proposed Trump Tower deal in Moscow. That eventually fell apart. Cohen says it was for business reasons. But it raised a lot of questions about ties between people within the Trump orbit and Russia.

Cohen in a statement today for the committee before he went in to testify - he denied everything. He said that he did not engage or converse with Russians or proxies of the Russian government. He did not pay or get paid for hacking, creating fake news. He just said that he had no role whatsoever in any sort of Russian interference if it took place.

CHANG: Right, OK - so many things to follow up on. But then what exactly happened today? He was scheduled to appear. An hour goes by, and then what happened, some announcement that it was called off?

LUCAS: (Laughter) This is where it's a little weird. So yes, as you said, he's scheduled to come in. He shows up at 9:30. He goes behind closed doors. He emerges an hour later with his attorney, and his attorney says the committee has postponed the meeting. And the leaders of the Senate intelligence committee, Republican Richard Burr and Democrat Mark Warner, were not thrilled with how this all went down.

They issued a statement afterwards that said that Cohen had pre-empted their interview by releasing this statement - this four-page statement - and that he was supposed to talk to the committee. And they had reached an agreement that he would not talk to the press. So what they did was say, you know what? We'll talk to you, Mr. Cohen, but you're going to come in for a public hearing, and we're going to do it in open session. And you can tell us your story then.

CHANG: How unusual is this, this constant negotiating about the terms by which a witness appears before the Senate intelligence committee?

LUCAS: There's always a long-running conversation between the lawyers and the committee before a witness comes in to set the ground rules for what exactly is going to be permissible in the interview. But it's rare that a witness will come in, go into the meeting room and then the meeting will be canceled. That's not something that I recall happening at any point in time. I think it's a signal to witnesses that if you have an agreement with us that you're not going to talk to the press, don't talk to the press.

CHANG: So where does the Senate committee's investigation go from here?

LUCAS: Well, they're going to bring Cohen in. They said that that will be in the near future. They still want to talk to Donald Trump Jr. and others involved in the campaign. But one thing that's come up in the past couple of weeks is Facebook and Russian ads on Facebook.

CHANG: Right.

LUCAS: And that's something that Mark Warner in particular has been very adamant about learning more and getting to the bottom of how Russian ads were used to try to influence American voters and particularly try to drive a wedge between Americans on very divisive issues.

CHANG: All right. That's NPR's Ryan Lucas, who covers the Justice Department. Thank you very much.

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