President Donald Trump's former lawyer, Michael Cohen, will not testify before a House committee next month as scheduled, his adviser said Wednesday, depriving Democrats for now of a prime opportunity to scrutinize Trump, his links to Russia and payments to buy the silence of a porn star.
Cohen indefinitely delayed his Feb. 7 appearance before the House Oversight and Reform Committee. He blamed threats from Trump and the president's attorney-spokesman, Rudy Giuliani, and cited his own ongoing cooperation in special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation.
Cohen adviser Lanny Davis said the decision was made on advice of Cohen's lawyers.
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"This is a time where Mr. Cohen had to put his family and their safety first," Davis said in a statement.
The statement did not detail the threats. But Trump and Giuliani have publicly urged the Justice Department to investigate Cohen's father-in-law, insinuating he was part of some unspecific criminal activity. Trump, for example, told Fox News this month that Cohen "should give information maybe on his father-in-law, because that's the one that people want to look at."
Asked about the claim of a threat, Trump accused Cohen of lying.
"He's only been threatened by the truth, and he doesn't want to do that, probably for me or other of his clients," Trump said at the White House. "He has other clients also, I assume, and he doesn't want to tell the truth for me or other of his clients."
Trump's fixer-turned-foe is a central figure in Mueller's investigation into possible coordination between Russia and Trump's campaign. Cohen also played a pivotal role in buying the silence of a porn actress and a former Playboy Playmate who both alleged they had sex with Trump. The president has denied their claims.
Cohen pleaded guilty last year to campaign finance violations and other offenses connected to the payments. Federal prosecutors have said Trump directed Cohen to make the payments during the campaign.
Newly empowered Democrats wanted to make Cohen the first high-profile witness since they regained control of the House and have promised an aggressive effort to investigate the president. They have pledged to limit their questioning to avoid interfering with any investigations.
It is unclear how long Cohen is seeking to delay his testimony, but Cohen "looks forward to testifying at the appropriate time," Davis said.
Cohen is scheduled to report to prison on March 6 to begin a three-year sentence.
Democrats have suggested they may subpoena Cohen to compel his testimony and the committee's chairman, Rep. Elijah Cummings, said Cohen could be brought from prison to appear before Congress.
"We will get his testimony," Cummings said.
In a statement, Cummings and Rep. Adam Schiff, who heads the House Intelligence Committee, said they understood the "completely legitimate concerns" Cohen raised about threats. But, they added, it "was never an option" for Cohen not to appear before Congress.
The committees have been in touch with Cohen and offered to work with law enforcement to enhance security measures to protect his family and is in touch with Cohen's lawyers about when he would testify, they said.
"We will not let the president's tactics prevent Congress from fulfilling our constitutionally mandated oversight responsibilities," the chairmen said in a statement. "This will not stop us from getting to the truth."
In November, Cohen also pleaded guilty to lying to Congress. He admitted that he said negotiations over the development of a Trump-branded tower in Moscow had ended in January 2016 but had actually continued until at least June 2016, well into Trump's presidential campaign. Cohen has said he lied to be consistent with Trump's "political messaging" and to minimize the public's understanding of Trump's ties with Russia.
Republicans, in their questioning at a Cohen hearing, probably would have seized on a disputed BuzzFeed News story that Trump instructed Cohen to lie before Congress.
The special counsel's office issued a rare public statement after the story ran last week disputing elements of the article. BuzzFeed stands by the story and has asked for clarity from Mueller's team.