President Donald Trump knew in July 2016 that Wikileaks was planning to publish emails stolen from the Hillary Clinton campaign, his former lawyer Michael Cohen told the House Oversight Committee on Wednesday.
If true, Cohen’s testimony would be the first public evidence Trump knew about alleged efforts by his former campaign aide, Roger Stone, to contact Wikileaks for information on the hacked emails.
It also adds to the mountain of evidence compiled in news reports, court filings, and sworn testimony that senior Trump campaign officials knew the Russian government hacked the Clinton campaign and sought to coordinate with Russians to use that information to benefit the campaign.
“In July 2016, days before the Democratic convention, I was in Mr. Trump’s office when his secretary announced that Roger Stone was on the phone,” Cohen testified Wednesday. “Mr. Trump put Mr. Stone on the speakerphone. Mr. Stone told Mr. Trump that he had just gotten off the phone with [Wikileaks founder] Julian Assange and that Mr. Assange told Mr. Stone that, within a couple of days, there would be a massive dump of emails that would damage Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Mr. Trump responded by stating to the effect of ‘wouldn’t that be great.'”
On Wednesday, Stone denied Cohen’s claim about the conversation with Trump, telling The New York Times, “Mr. Cohen’s statement is untrue.”
Stone is also under indictment for allegedly lying to Congress. In that indictment, unsealed in January, prosecutors say Stone tried to make contact with Assange through two intermediaries. Stone denies those charges.
Cohen pleaded guilty last year to lying to Congress about a deal to build a Trump-branded real estate development in Moscow.
Get me Roger Stone
By the summer of 2016, Stone hadn’t been a paid Trump adviser for nearly a year. But he was still in regular contact with the campaign, according to federal prosecutors, and he was still acting as a Trump surrogate to the media.
Stone had been claiming to be in contact with Assange since that spring, according to two associates who spoke with The Washington Post. That May, Stone reportedly met a Russian national at a restaurant in Sunny Isles, Florida, who offered dirt on Clinton in exchange for $2 million.
Stone rejected that offer, according to the Post. But it was hardly the end of his hunt for Russian information on the Clinton campaign.
The phone conversation between Stone and Trump that Cohen described in his sworn testimony has not been previously reported. But it seems to echo information in Stone’s indictment, which says that he “informed senior Trump Campaign officials that he had information indicating Organization 1 [Wikileaks] had documents whose release would be damaging to the Clinton Campaign” sometime around June or July 2016.
Cohen said in his testimony that the call took place in July, before the convention, and after the Post first revealed on June 14, 2016 that state-sponsored Russian hackers stole opposition research from the Democratic National Committee.
The next day, Russia began publishing those materials online by posing as a lone Romanian hacker called Guccifer 2.0. Stone allegedly started exchanging direct messages with Guccifer 2.0 — in reality, Russian state intelligence agents — on Twitter that August.
Wikileaks began publishing the hacked emails on July 22, 2016, three days before the Democratic National Convention opened in Philadelphia. This plunged the convention into chaos: Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) was ousted as party chair and supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) feared that the party may have put its thumb on the scales of the presidential primary.
At a press conference in Florida on July 27, Trump went a step further, asking Russia to hack “missing” emails from Clinton.
“I will tell you this, Russia: If you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” Trump said. “I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”
Later that day, Russian hackers made their first attempt on Clinton campaign email accounts, according to a federal indictment.
A campaign of contacts
Stone wasn’t the only Trump campaign official who allegedly got hints about the hacked emails before July 2016.
On April 26, 2016, former Trump foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos had breakfast in London with Joseph Mifsud, a professor with ties to the Kremlin. Mifsud told Papadopoulous about “thousands of emails” Russia had that would reveal dirt on Clinton, according to federal prosecutors. Papadopoulos had several communications with other Trump campaign officials after his meeting with Mifsud, but it’s not clear whether he told them about the Clinton-related emails.
Papadopoulos pleaded guilty in October 2017 to lying to federal investigators about his contacts with Mifsud, for which he served 12 days in prison.
A little over a month after the meeting in London, on June 3, 2016, the future president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., got an email offering documents that “would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father.” The email came from Rob Goldstone, who had previously worked with Trump on business ventures in Russia.
“If it’s what you say I love it,” the younger Trump replied that same day, “especially later in the summer.”
On June 9, 2016, Goldstone made good on the offer: He brought Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya and others to meet Trump Jr. at Trump Tower. Trump’s son in law, Jared Kushner, and former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort — a longtime Stone associate — were also in that meeting.
Trump Jr. has downplayed the meeting, saying it was a bust: Veselnitskaya wanted to discuss U.S. policy toward Russia, he said, rather than offer any compromising information on Clinton as promised.
Trump Jr. has denied telling his father about the meeting. But in his testimony on Wednesday, Cohen recalled seeing Trump Jr. allegedly walk behind his father’s desk in early June 2016 to tell him, “The meeting is all set.”
“Ok good… let me know,” Trump replied, according to Cohen.
“Don Jr. would never set up any meeting of any significance alone,” Cohen testified, “and certainly not without checking with his father.”
By describing the president’s direct involvement in Russia’s meddling, Cohen’s testimony, if true, has established one of the clearest potential lines from the Kremlin to the Oval Office.