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Cohen Contradicts Denials Of Trump Tower Meeting By President's Team

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President Trump is rejecting a claim made by his former lawyer, Michael Cohen. According to several news outlets, Cohen says then-candidate Trump knew in advance about a key 2016 meeting at Trump Tower. At that meeting, Russians were expected to offer the Trump campaign dirt on Hillary Clinton. NPR has not yet independently verified this story. President Trump has long denied knowing about this meeting, and he tweeted this morning again strongly rejecting that he had any advanced knowledge. And he suggested that Michael Cohen is lying.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Ryan Lucas covers the Department of Justice for NPR.

Good morning, Ryan.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: All right. So just remind us, what was this meeting about?

LUCAS: Well, this was a meeting that took place in Trump Tower in June of 2016 - so the summer of that presidential campaign. The meeting was set up by Donald Trump Jr. and a music producer - a music - a promotional guy. And Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner - Donald Trump's son-in-law - Paul Manafort, the campaign chairman, they met with a Russian lawyer who was offering damaging information on Hillary Clinton.

Trump Jr. has said that the meeting ultimately lasted about 30 minutes. They talked more about Russian adoption policy and U.S. sanctions than it did about any sort of dirt on Hillary Clinton, so he's characterized the meeting as a bust. But the meeting is important as a moment for investigators because here you have Trump campaign officials sitting down in the same room with a Russian proxy who was offering information on Trump's opponent.

KING: All right. So let's say that President Trump did know about this meeting before it happened. Why does that matter?

LUCAS: Well, one of the lingering questions has been whether the president knew about Russian efforts to contact and even help his campaign. The White House and Donald Trump Jr. have said that the president did not know about the Trump Tower meeting, that he only found out about it a year afterwards. But remember - we now know that the president helped draw up the statement that Trump Jr. released after The New York Times broke the story in the summer of 2017 about this meeting. And we know this because Trump's lawyers have acknowledged as much, and they've done it in writing.

So if Trump did, indeed, know - and that's still a big if at this point - then this would draw a direct line from the Russians to Donald Trump. That's not something that we've seen before. Now, again, Trump Jr. has testified to Congress that his father did not know. Trump Jr.'s lawyers said in a statement last night that they are confident of the accuracy and reliability of the information that Trump Jr. has provided.

KING: All right. CNN is reporting that Michael Cohen is willing to tell all of this to special counsel Robert Mueller, the man leading the Russia investigation. Does Robert Mueller want to hear from Michael Cohen, do you think?

LUCAS: Well, I can't speak for Robert Mueller, but certainly, the Trump Tower meeting is of interest to investigators. And Cohen does have reason to want to make nice with federal prosecutors. He's under investigation in New York, where the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's Office is looking into Cohen's business dealings, including payments that he made on behalf of Trump to women who allege that they had affairs with the president.

Now, Cohen hasn't been charged yet, but because of this investigation, he is under an incredible amount of legal pressure and financial pressure. And that has raised the question from the beginning of whether he would be willing to cooperate with prosecutors - including, potentially, special counsel Robert Mueller - to tell them what he knows.

Cohen's attorney so far has declined to comment on the record about the CNN story. But one of the big concerns about Cohen for folks in the Trump orbit has been he probably knows quite a bit about Trump's business and personal matters that may be of interest.

KING: And also, he taped stuff, which we learned earlier this week when his lawyers released a recording of him and the president. Is it possible that there's a recording of any of this?

LUCAS: Well, according to CNN's report, Cohen does not have a recording of this conversation. No. But, you know, there may be other people who were in the room if Trump was, indeed, present. If such a meeting took took place, that Trump signed off on this Trump Tower meeting with Russians, there may be others who could corroborate what CNN is saying that Cohen is willing to say.

KING: Let me ask you a last question. The Wall Street Journal's reporting that Allen Weisselberg has been subpoenaed in the investigation of Cohen. Who is he, and how does he fit in here?

LUCAS: Well, it's not clear whether he's been subpoenaed or called in voluntarily to answer questions by prosecutors as part of the Michael Cohen investigation in New York. But he is the chief financial officer for the Trump Organization, so very prominent role - the leading role in handling the organization's finances for many, many years. So he's someone who would bring a lot of insight into the money that came into the company, the money that left the company - which, for people in the Trump orbit, you know, that can be a cause of concern. You know, is this somebody who's going to have to come in and talk to federal prosecutors and tell them all that he knows? We'll have to wait and see.

KING: Real quick, has President Trump or his legal team responded to any of this?

LUCAS: Well, (laughter) I spoke with president's - the president's lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, last night about the CNN report. And what Giuliani did first off was deny that Trump was aware of the meeting. So he's standing by the White House's original stories. But what he then did was really go after Cohen's credibility and say he's not a credible witness in this.

And, you know, this is something that we've kind of seen - a back and forth between Cohen's legal camp and the president's legal camp. And, the past couple of days, it started with the tape. And this is, in large part, because Cohen feels that, you know, he's been left out to dry by the president.

KING: All right. NPR's justice correspondent, Ryan Lucas.

Thanks, Ryan.

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