President Donald Trump’s former personal lawyer pleaded guilty Thursday to lying to Congress in violation of a law known for ensnaring celebrities, sports figures and other defendants in special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe — but this time in a way that could reverberate in congressional investigations next year.
Those convicted or who pleaded guilty to violating the criminal statute, Section 1001 of Title 18, include television personality Martha Stewart, politicians such as former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, and, in the Russia probe, Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn and campaign adviser George Papadopoulos.
But many of those charges hinged on lying to the FBI or other federal investigators for regulatory agencies. Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to violating Section 1001 by lying to Congress — a charge that by comparison is rarely brought — via a letter to Senate and House Intelligence committees and during testimony before the Senate panel.
House Democrats are poised to use Cohen’s plea as a basis to press for other people to be charged with lying to Congress, or at least use the threat of potential prosecution to get information.
Watch: Trump Blasts Former Fixer Michael Cohen
Rep. Adam B. Schiff of California, the top Democrat on House Intelligence who is expected to aggressively investigate the Trump administration as chairman next year, said Cohen’s plea highlights concern that House Democrats believe other witnesses also lied to the committee.
“And it’s certainly in the Congress’ interest as well as the broader public interest that we establish very clearly, you come and testify before us and you had better tell the truth. Because if not, you’ll be prosecuted for it,” Schiff told reporters. “And why the majority would want to protect people who misled us, I don’t know, because we’ve been urging for months that we provide these transcripts to the special counsel.”
Under the law, the statements don’t have to be under oath, and it can be written representations as well. Not all statements that are false can be prosecuted, and the law applies to “administrative matters” or an investigation or review, according to a 2012 book by former New York Democratic Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman.
Because the lie doesn’t need to occur in an official proceeding, the ongoing congressional and special counsel investigations mean Section 1001 “will sweep up almost all misrepresentations made to government officials,” Helen Klein Murillo concluded in an analysis of the “Law of Lying” in 2017 on Lawfare blog.
There have been plenty of testimony and written statements in congressional investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election — and plenty more to come when Democrats take control of House committees next Congress.
Critics say Section 1001 is arbitrarily enforced and often allows federal prosecutors in complex cases to lean heavily on lying as a way to get convictions because it has a broad sweep and is easier to prove.
Trump has echoed that criticism of Mueller’s probe, tweeting Wednesday that “at least 3 major players are intimating that the Angry Mueller Gang of Dems is viciously telling witnesses to lie about facts & they will get relief.” After Cohen’s plea Thursday, Trump said Cohen “is lying, very simply, to get a reduced sentence” on other charges.
Pursuing criminal charges against those who are untruthful to Congress would be a huge shift from tradition. “Almost no one is prosecuted for lying to Congress,” attorney PJ Meitl wrote in a 2006 law review article on the topic, “in fact, only six people have been convicted of perjury or related charges in relation to Congress in the last sixty years.”
Meitl, a federal prosecutor in Texas who worked for two members of Congress, was in private practice when he wrote that Quinnipiac Law Review article. He led with an anecdote about Baltimore Orioles first baseman Rafael Palmeiro telling a congressional committee in March 2005 that he had never used steroids — and then five months later was suspended for using steroids. Congress declined to recommend prosecution.
The most recent high-profile examples occurred during the scandal of professional athletes and illegal drug use. In 2009, a grand jury indicted pitcher Roger Clemens on six counts of lying to Congress when he said he had never used performance-enhancing drugs, including three charges under Section 1001. A jury acquitted Clemens on all charges in 2012.
Contrast that to other lies: Olympic gold-medal winner Marion Jones served six months in prison in 2007 for lying to a federal investigator about taking banned substances, former baseball star Barry Bonds was convicted of obstruction of justice for giving an incomplete answer to a grand jury.
Baseball player Miguel Tejada, however, pleaded guilty to one charge that in 2005 he lied to congressional investigators; lawmakers had asked the Justice Department for an investigation into whether that violated Section 1001.
Lying to Congress has featured in major scandals over the decades. John Poindexter was convicted in 1990 on five charges, including two counts of making false statements to lawmakers about weapons sales to Iran and efforts to aid the Nicaraguan rebels at a time when Congress had barred Government assistance, The New York Times reported at the time.
An independent counsel declined to seek an indictment against Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt in 1999 after an 18-month probe into whether he lied to Congress about his role in the department’s rejection of a Wisconsin casino project.
Now Cohen is added to that list. Cohen sent a letter in August 2017 to the Senate and House Intelligence committees “to provide the Committee with additional information regarding the proposal” to pursue a Trump-branded project in Moscow, according to the criminal information filed Thursday.
In the letter, Cohen “knowingly and deliberately” falsely represented that the Moscow project ended in January 2016, that he never agreed to travel to Russia in connection with the project and “never considered” asking Trump to travel for the project, and did not recall any Russian government response or contact about the Moscow project.
Cohen referred to the letter before he appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Sept. 19, and gave testimony to that panel on Oct. 25 consistent with the letter, the government wrote in the criminal information.
Instead, the project was discussed as late as June 2016, Cohen agreed to travel to Russia for the project and took steps to have Trump travel there as well, and spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s press secretary about the Moscow project, the government said.
Cohen made the false statements to minimize links between the Moscow project and Trump and give the false impression that the project ended before “the Iowa caucus and … the very first primary” in hopes of limiting the ongoing Russia investigations, the special counsel said in the criminal information.
New York Democrat Jerrold Nadler, who is expected to lead the House Judiciary Committee next year, said in a statement that lying to Congress is “a serious crime with serious consequences.”
Cohen “lied to Congress, apparently, about dealings between Trump and Russia, that leads me to suspect that there are more dealings that the president wanted hidden,” Nadler told CNN. “And this raises all kinds of questions, whether the Russian government has any kind of hold over the president.”