- Sean Gallup/Getty Images
- Michael Cohen’s attorney Lanny Davis has made stunning reversals in recent days.
- Experts say it could make it much more difficult for Cohen to be viewed as a valuable witness in other investigations.
- Meanwhile, the reversals have caused CNN to come under fire for a story from which Davis has backed away.
- But CNN is standing firmly by its report.
Michael Cohen’s attorney has come under fire in recent days after backtracking on explosive claims that his client had knowledge that President Donald Trump knew in advance of the controversial June 2016 Trump Tower meeting involving top campaign officials and a Russian lawyer.
The reversal from Lanny Davis, the attorney, sparked widespread condemnation – particularly on the right – of a July CNN story citing multiple sources who claimed Cohen was prepared to tell special counsel Robert Mueller about Trump’s advance knowledge of the meeting. It also opened up Cohen to new questions about his credibility and, experts told Business Insider, it may complicate his ability to cooperate in other investigations.
Last week, Cohen pleaded guilty to eight counts of federal felonies, including two campaign-finance violations stemming from hush money payments to a pair of women who alleged affairs with Trump.
Davis’s reversals have brought a July CNN story under the microscope:
- In the story, “sources with knowledge” told CNN that Cohen knew that Trump knew in advance about the Trump Tower meeting and was “willing to make that assertion” to Mueller.
- Trump has has publicly denied this.
- The sources told CNN that Cohen was in the room with several others when Trump first learned of the Russians’ offer to meet.
- A source told CNN that Cohen did not testify that Trump had advance knowledge when he was testifying before the House Intelligence Committee.
- CNN said that Davis “declined to comment.”
At the time, Trump’s team hit back. The president’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, called Cohen a “pathological liar” who has been “lying for years.”
Giuliani has shared his thoughts on Davis’s credibility to Business Insider, pointing to the attorney’s past work for former President Bill Clinton. Davis served Clinton as an attorney and spokesman amid the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
Last week, nearly a month after the CNN story ran and right after Cohen pleaded guilty in federal court, Davis seemed to contradict the report, raising some eyebrows.
“I think the reporting of the story got mixed up in the course of a criminal investigation,” Davis told CNN’s Anderson Cooper. “We were not the source of the story.”
- Davis then told The New York Post and The Washington Post, two outlets to which Davis had confirmed the CNN story, that he actually could not independently confirm it.
- In his interview with The Washington Post, Davis also walked back from another claim – that Cohen could provide Mueller with information suggesting Trump knew in advance about Russian hacking efforts.
- Additionally, Davis told Axios last week that he didn’t shoot down the CNN story earlier because “we were not the source, we could not confirm, and we could not correct.”
But after initially denying he was a source in the CNN story, Davis told BuzzFeed on Monday that he was an anonymous source for the publication. That contradicted words he said on CNN days prior.
“I made a mistake,” Davis told BuzzFeed, adding that he didn’t lie to Cooper but just “unintentionally misspoke.”
CNN comes under fire
CNN is standing by the story, and two employees told Business Insider the network’s level of commitment is “100%.”
Those people, who requested anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, pointed to the multiple sources who provided the outlet with the information and what they said is an ulterior motive Davis could have for suddenly changing his tune.
After Cohen made his plea deal last week, leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee issued a statement saying they “recently reengaged with Mr. Cohen and his team following press reports that suggested he had advance knowledge of the June 2016 meeting between campaign officials and Russian lawyers at Trump Tower.”
“Mr. Cohen had testified before the Committee that he was not aware of the meeting prior to its disclosure in the press last summer,” Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr and Vice Chairman Mark Warner said. “As such, the Committee inquired of Mr. Cohen’s legal team as to whether Mr. Cohen stood by his testimony. They responded that he did stand by his testimony.”
If Davis, speaking on behalf of his client, stood by his original comments to CNN, Cohen could be opened up to a perjury charge.
Some critics called for CNN to issue some sort of correction – or even a full-blown retraction – but the CNN employees said that’s not under consideration. One person said the reaction to Davis’s reversal is “overblown” and there was “no freak out” among people inside the network.
That person added that CNN would make immediate amendments if the story was incorrect, but they haven’t found any reason to believe it is untrue. The person pointed to Davis saying not that the story was false, but simply that he cannot independently confirm it, as bolstering CNN’s argument.
A second CNN employee said Davis was one of at least two “primary sources” on the story. The backlash to the story is “an attempt to delegitimize” CNN, the other person said.
On Tuesday afternoon, two of the reporters who authored the original CNN piece wrote on Davis’s reversals in an attempt to provide clarity amid the backlash.
Davis did not return a request for comment from Business Insider. Cohen has not publicly addressed Davis’s reversals or the CNN story itself.
Legal experts: Davis just harmed Cohen’s credibility
Legal experts told Business Insider that Davis’ reversals could prove harmful to Cohen if he wants to further cooperate with the government in any ongoing investigations.
“To the extent that Michael Cohen knew that Lanny Davis would make (or had made) that representation and took no steps to repudiate it, that would create a credibility issue that could be used on cross-examination,” Mitchell Epner, an attorney at Rottenberg Lipman Rich and a former federal prosecutor in the District of New Jersey, told Business Insider. “Special Counsel Mueller would consider that information as part of the baggage that comes with Michael Cohen.”
Even if Cohen “immediately denied” the veracity of Davis’ statements, Epner said there is still “a potential credibility problem in the fact that Lanny Davis continues to represent Michael Cohen.”
Epner said he was surprised Cohen hired Davis originally because of Davis’ past comments on Cohen-related issues.
“It is difficult for an attorney to represent a client when that attorney has previously attacked the credibility of that individual,” Epner said.
Roland Riopelle, a partner at Sercarz & Riopelle who was formerly a federal prosecutor in the Southern District of New York, seconded Epner’s assessment, telling Business Insider in an email that the reversals “reduce Mr. Cohen’s value as a witness because they provide fodder for any future cross-examiner.”
“Mr. Davis has done a disservice to his client, in my opinion, by presenting his case in the press and then contradicting himself and making grandiose claims about what Mr. Cohen knows or can do,” he said. “These sorts of statements may very well benefit the Clintons … but they do not benefit Mr. Cohen.”