Senate Signals Interest in Investigating Cohen's Claims on Trump

(Bloomberg) -- Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley’s staff has begun talks with Michael Cohen’s attorney, Lanny Davis, as a first step before deciding whether his committee will investigate Cohen’s claims about President Donald Trump.

Grassley said the committee wants to know more about what Cohen might have to offer if the panel moves ahead with a probe.

“When some lawyer says that somebody’s willing to testify, well, what do they have to tell us? I want some idea that they’ve got something of substance to tell us," Grassley said Thursday in an interview.

Davis has spoken to committee staff after they made initial contacts on Wednesday, said George Hartmann, a spokesman for Grassley.

Cohen, a longtime lawyer and fixer for Trump before he became president, pleaded guilty Tuesday to charges in New York including making the payments shortly before the 2016 election in violation of campaign finance laws. Davis said after the plea was entered in court that Trump directed Cohen to “commit a crime.” The case has intensified the political and legal pressure on the president at the same Republican lawmakers are gearing up for their re-election campaigns.

Grassley previously said the committee would need to talk with Cohen’s lawyer about what information he could provide before determining whether to begin an investigation by the panel.

But Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, another Republican on the committee, said he didn’t want to open a probe at this point of Cohen’s claims that Trump directed him to pay hush money to two women in order to help him win the presidency.

"I’ve been very consistent about this, I don’t want to cross paths with ongoing criminal investigations," Graham said.

Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina, another Judiciary Committee member, said the panel should defer to the Intelligence Committee since it already has an investigation underway that has dealt with Cohen on other matters.

Trump has denied telling Cohen to make the payments, saying in an interview with Fox News that he only learned of them "later on."

The timing and the financial details match allegations by adult film actress Stephanie Clifford, professionally known as Stormy Daniels, and former Playboy model Karen McDougal that they had affairs with Trump and were paid for their silence.

Cohen’s plea came on the same day that Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, was convicted of tax and bank fraud charges that resulted from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference. The charges stemmed from Manafort’s work as a political consultant in Ukraine before joining the Trump campaign.

Although the charges against Cohen were brought by federal prosecutors in New York rather than Mueller’s team, both cases have raised the stakes in the special counsel’s probe.

During a committee hearing Thursday morning, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat, said that the committee is under "intense pressure" to investigate the president’s financial dealings with Russia. "The president has just been implicated in open court" for directing illegal activity, he said.

Whitehouse said the committee should seek a full accounting of the Trump organization’s dealings with Russian interests and determine whether Donald Trump Jr.’s testimony before the committee was accurate. "It is hard to say that we have been thorough," he said.

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