Michael Cohen’s claim that President Trump is threatening his family, explained

Michael Cohen’s testimony before the House Oversight Committee next month was supposed to be the first bombshell hearing from the new Democratic House of Representatives.

But on Wednesday, Cohen announced that he was withdrawing his commitment to appear — because, his lawyer said, of “threats against his family” from President Trump and his lawyer Rudy Giuliani.

On several occasions over the past month and a half, President Trump has publicly floated ominous innuendos about how Cohen’s father-in-law (and in one instance, Cohen’s wife) could be tied to criminal activity. Trump’s claim was that Cohen was trying to get a lighter sentence by giving purportedly false information about him, because he didn’t want to have to give accurate information about … something involving his father-in-law.

Finally, last Sunday, Giuliani made the subtext text by asserting on CNN that Cohen’s father-in-law “may have ties to something called organized crime.”

All this took place after Cohen’s plea deal with special counsel Robert Mueller was announced — and amid intense speculation about just what Cohen might have told the special counsel about President Trump. Cohen had previously pleaded guilty to tax and campaign finance crimes, and he ended up with a three-year prison sentence, which he is set to begin serving in March.

So Trump’s and Giuliani’s comments look a whole lot like an effort to retaliate against or intimidate a witness who flipped on Trump — by circulating unproven smears about his family, and even alluding to a potential Justice Department investigation into them.

Key Democrats decried Trump’s tactics as witness intimidation and said they still want Cohen to appear. There was talk of potentially subpoenaing him. The incident could arguably be more grist for Mueller’s probe into whether President Trump has obstructed justice.

The odd twist to this, though, is that well before Cohen turned on Trump, Cohen’s father-in-law, Fima Shusterman, was indeed a focus of reporters and bloggers either trying to get to the bottom of the Trump-Russia scandal or covering Cohen’s complicated finances. Now, it’s Trump himself raising questions about some of the same matters his critics explored in the past.

The timeline of Trump’s ominous innuendos about Cohen’s family

Trump first brought up Cohen’s father-in-law when his former lawyer was preparing for sentencing last December. His claim was that Cohen made up stories about him to get a reduced sentence, to get “his wife and father-in-law (who has the money?) off Scott Free.”

That was the first instance of the president going after the family of a witness who turned against him — suggesting, without evidence, that Cohen’s wife and father-in-law were in danger of being prosecuted. (Cohen ended up with a three-year sentence.)

Then, on January 10, 2019, the House Oversight Committee — newly run by Democrats — announced that Cohen would testify before them on February 7. The hearing promised to be explosive. Though Cohen wouldn’t be able talk about ongoing investigations, he’d spent over a decade working for Trump handling a great deal of dirty work — and had no desire to keep the president’s secrets anymore.

Two days later, on January 12, Trump called in to Judge Jeanine Pirro’s Fox News show. When asked about the upcoming testimony, Trump again brought up Cohen’s father-in-law.

TRUMP: “In order to get his sentence reduced, he says, ‘I have an idea. I’ll tell — I’ll give you some information on the president.’ Well, there is no information.

But he should give information maybe on his father-in-law, because that’s the one that people want to look at. Because where does that money — that’s the money in the family. And I guess he didn’t want to talk about his father-in-law. He’s trying to get his sentence reduced. So it’s pretty sad. You know, it’s weak. And it’s very sad to watch a thing like that. I couldn’t care less.”

PIRRO: “What is his father in law’s name?”

TRUMP: “I don’t know, but you’ll find out, and you’ll look into it. Because nobody knows what’s going on over there.”

Soon after that interview, three key House Democrat committee chairs — Reps. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), Adam Schiff (D-CA), and Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) — released a statement in response.

“Our nation’s laws prohibit efforts to discourage, intimidate, or otherwise pressure a witness not to provide testimony to Congress,” they wrote. “The President should make no statement or take any action to obstruct Congress’ independent oversight and investigative efforts, including by seeking to discourage any witness from testifying in response to a duly authorized request from Congress.”

But then, last Friday morning — the morning after BuzzFeed News reported that Trump had told Cohen to lie to Congress (and before Robert Mueller’s office disputed that report), Trump again tweeted to “watch” Cohen’s “father-in-law”:

Then, in an appearance on CNN Sunday, Rudy Giuliani went even further, stating flat-out that Cohen’s father in law, “a Ukrainian,” “may have ties to something called organized crime.”

So, Giuliani continued, Cohen was happy to “lie” about Donald Trump in the hope of getting a reduced sentence, because “he’s afraid to testify against his father-in-law, because the repercussions for that will be far worse.”

That brings us up to Wednesday’s developments:

  • Cohen attorney Lanny Davis announced that “due to ongoing threats against his family from President Trump and Mr. Giuliani” as well as “Mr. Cohen’s continued cooperation with ongoing investigations,” Cohen’s appearance before the committee “will be postponed.”
  • Chairmen Cummings and Schiff responded by saying that while they “understand” Cohen’s concerns, his “not appearing before Congress was never an option.” They added: “We will not let the President’s tactics prevent Congress from fulfilling our constitutionally mandated oversight responsibilities.”
  • President Trump, asked at the White House whether he had threatened Cohen’s family, responded: “He’s only been threatened by the truth.”

What is this all about?

The somewhat odd backstory to this is that it’s journalists and liberal Trump critics who were digging into Cohen’s father-in-law early last year in an effort to better understand Cohen’s finances or suss out potential Trumpworld Russia ties.

The facts — as laid out in a New York Times article from May 2018 after the FBI raided Cohen’s office but before he turned against Trump — are as follows:

  • Cohen’s father-in-law, Fima Shusterman, immigrated to the US from Ukraine (then part of the Soviet Union) in 1975.
  • In 1993, Shusterman “pleaded guilty to evading federal reporting requirements for large cash transactions, admitting that he had cashed $5.5 million worth of checks to evade disclosure laws.”
  • The following year, in 1994, Shusterman’s daughter Laura married Michael Cohen, who was then a young New York lawyer.
  • Cohen subsequently “began doing business with Ukrainian and Russian immigrants” in “communities through which a vein of organized crime ran.”
  • Shusterman helped Cohen get into the taxi medallion business, including by giving him a hefty loan. Shusterman also lent $20 million in recent years to another Ukrainian immigrant taxi-fleet operator.

Bloomberg also reported that Shusterman and his wife bought three units in Trump World Tower in New York between 2003 and 2005.

Some journalists had more eyebrow-raising claims. Seth Hettena wrote in his book Trump/Russia: A Definitive History that, according to “two former federal investigations,” it was Shusterman who introduced Cohen to Trump in the first place. One even claimed that Trump gave Cohen his job in the Trump Organization as a favor to Shusterman, who could have been “a conduit for Russian investors in Trump properties.” (Cohen told Hettena this was “untrue” and “fake news.”)

All this was extensively covered on Trump-Russia focused sites like TalkingPointsMemo, which ran a May post headlined “Here’s Why We Care About Fima Shusterman.” The assumption was that Cohen’s family history could explain something about money laundering, the Trump Organization, and perhaps even shady Russian connections. And at the time, Cohen was continuing to proclaim his loyalty to Trump.

Around the middle of the year, though, Trump and Cohen appeared to have some kind of falling out — and after months of rumors and leaks, Cohen agreed to plead guilty to financial and campaign finance crimes in an August deal with the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York.

Cohen really didn’t commit to fully cooperate with the government

Despite many claims from Cohen’s team that he’d be happy to provide information about President Trump related to the Russia investigation — something he eventually did do, per special counsel Robert Mueller — Cohen’s plea deal with SDNY conspicuously did not include a cooperation commitment.

Cohen’s lawyers later claimed he didn’t want to cooperate this was because he was concerned a “traditional” cooperation agreement would “delay his sentencing.” They claimed that, despite this, Cohen was still happy to keep coming in voluntarily to provide more investigation.

SDNY didn’t seem to buy this happy talk. “Cohen repeatedly declined to provide full information about the scope of any additional criminal conduct in which he may have engaged or had knowledge,” deputy US attorney Robert Khuzami wrote in a harsh memo requesting a stiff sentence for Cohen. Khuzami continued: “Cohen specifically declined to be debriefed on other uncharged criminal conduct, if any, in his past.”

But Trump is still clearly trying to retaliate against a witness

Given SDNY’s statements, it’s certainly reasonable to suspect that Cohen rejected a cooperation commitment because he’s had a shady past, and might be aware of various things he does not want to tell federal investigators.

Still. there’s no actual evidence that his refusal to cooperate is specifically due to a fear of implicating his father-in-law or other family members — or that his father-in-law is in danger of being charged with any crime.

This lack of evidence, of course, has not stopped President Trump and Rudy Giuliani from making those claims anyway. (There is also no evidence that Cohen is making up lies about Trump for Mueller, and the special counsel has said he finds Cohen’s information “credible.”)

Trump defends himself by saying that all he’s doing is is telling “the truth” about Cohen. But his claims are at the very least not proven. And coming from the president of the United States, they’re highly irresponsible.

Furthermore, the timing of the “father-in-law” talk seems specifically related to Cohen causing problems for Trump. The president first brought it up after Cohen struck his deal with Mueller, in which he admitted lying to Congress about efforts to build a Trump Tower Moscow.

Then, faced with the embarrassing spectacle of his former attorney and subordinate airing his secrets at a congressional hearing, Trump brought up the topic again this month. Now, it’s not clear whether that hearing will happen.

It’s ugly stuff — the president is clearly trying to send a message that, if you cross him, he’ll go after your family. Mueller has already spent over a year and a half investigating whether President Trump tried to obstruct justice, in connection with his firing of FBI director James Comey and other potential attempts to interfere with investigations into his associates. And now, Congress, too, will have to decide how to respond.

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