On Friday, President Donald Trump accused his former fixer and personal attorney Michael Cohen of being a serial liar and “directly” begging for a presidential pardon. In retaliation, Cohen called the president a liar as well and urged him to apologize, on International Women's Day, to the women he’d silenced with hush money payments.
The extraordinary back and forth served as a capstone to days of escalating accusations between the two camps, all based around a single, albeit deeply consequential, question: Who dangled the idea of a pardon first?
The saga began last week when, after Cohen testified to Congress that he’d never sought a pardon, his legal team seemed to suggest that Trump had in fact proposed the idea after Cohen found himself embroiled in legal jeopardy.
“Prior to Michael Cohen’s decision to leave the ‘Joint Defense Group’ and tell the truth on July 2, 2018, Michael was open to the ongoing ‘dangling’ of a possible pardon by Trump representatives privately and in the media,” Lanny Davis, Cohen’s legal adviser, said in a statement. “During that time period, he directed his attorney to explore possibilities of a pardon at one point with Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani as well as other lawyers advising President Trump.”
Soon after, ABC News published a story noting that two anonymous lawyers, who had claimed to be in close contact with Giuliani, reached out to Cohen and suggested the president may consider a pardon for him. The story furthered the impression that it was the president’s team proposing the idea, which if true could give credence to the idea that President Trump tried to obstruct justice.
On Thursday, The Daily Beast confirmed the identities of the two attorneys: Robert Costello and Jeffrey Citron, both of the firm Davidoff Hutcher & Citron. Costello has known Giuliani since the 1970s, and the two used to work together. Both Citron and Cohen have ties to Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School, located on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, which Barron Trump—the president’s youngest son—used to attend.
But according to Giuliani, the actual sequence of events has been misrepresented in the press, and one of the lawyers in question could attest to the fact that it was Cohen, not Trump, who was pushing for the pardon.
“[Last year], Costello and I had several conversations on the phone, at least one, possibly two, meetings in person, when the [joint defense agreement between Trump and Cohen] was in place,” Giuliani told The Daily Beast. “During one of those telephone conversations, he told me Michael asked him to ask me if there is a possibility he could get a pardon… and I said to him that is not on the table—something like that—the president is not going to consider any pardons or make any decisions on any pardons while the investigation is going on… I said, ‘You should assume, for safety’s sake, that you’re not gonna get a pardon.’”
Though he has ties to Giuliani, Costello was reportedly considering repping Cohen at the time that a potential pardon was discussed. It is not yet clear if Costello ended up being formally retained by Cohen, though he appears to have acted as a representative of Cohen’s in some capacity. According to The New York Times, federal prosecutors have obtained an email showing Costello telling Cohen he had raised some important matter with Giuliani.
Giuliani also said that Costello had mentioned to him, Giuliani, that he had said it was a “bad idea” to go fishing for a pardon, but that Cohen “insisted” that Costello approach Team Trump about it, anyway. Costello, as Giuliani tells it, subsequently told Giuliani that “Cohen got really upset” after Costello delivered the news.
“I’ve known Bob Costello for 40 years, and he’s going to tell the truth,” Giuliani added. “He will corroborate everything I said.”
Costello did not corroborate what Giuliani said. But he didn’t bat it down either. Instead, he stayed mostly tight-lipped.
“The situation has changed in the last [few] hours; I don't think that the attorney-client privilege will stand in the way in the near future,” Costello said cryptically, when asked about Cohen and the reported privilege between the two of them. Costello added he would be able to be more forthcoming about Cohen, as well as the fracas over alleged pardon-dangling, “shortly.”
What Costello eventually says about the matter could provide clarity to what has been the latest drama in a long-standing political and legal saga involving Trump and Cohen. After Cohen openly slammed the president on national television for more than five hours during his congressional testimony, Trump and his allies responded by accusing him of lying multiple times to the lawmakers questioning him. On Thursday, Cohen sued the Trump Organization and demanded it pay his legal fees. But a question of who broached pardons and when could have even larger consequences, potentially sparking charges of obstruction or perjury before Congress.
In response to Giuliani’s assertions, Cohen simply commented to The Daily Beast on Friday, “Trump lies and Rudy swears to it.” But a source close to Cohen made a more direct case to support the claim that Giuliani was making it all up. “Why would [Michael] need to go through Rudy if he wanted to ask for a pardon, when he could’ve asked Trump himself?” the source asked.