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Former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen delays House testimony

It’s not clear, however, that Michael Cohen’s testimony will be indefinitely delayed. | Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

Former Donald Trump attorney Michael Cohen is trying to delay his public testimony before the House Oversight Committee, with Cohen’s lawyer citing “ongoing threats against his family” and his continued cooperation with investigators.

Cohen had been scheduled to testify on Feb. 7 at the highly anticipated hearing, which his attorney Lanny Davis noted he had voluntarily agreed to.

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But because of the threats, which Davis alleges came from Trump and his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani “as recently as this weekend,” and because of Cohen’s “continued cooperation with ongoing investigations, by advice of counsel, Mr. Cohen’s appearance will be postponed to a later date,” he said.

Cohen, who has a relationship with Trump dating back a dozen years, is required to report to federal prison in early March to serve a three-year sentence after pleading guilty to charges of tax evasion and lying to Congress. But his upcoming incarceration and the allegations of witness tampering against Trump has House Democrats now openly talking about other ways to compel Cohen’s testimony, including a subpoena.

In a joint statement on Wednesday, House Oversight Chairman Elijah Cummings and Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff accused the president of deploying “textbook mob tactics” in a bid to intimidate Cohen from publicly testifying in Congress.

When they started talks with Davis about having Cohen testify, the lawmakers said that “not appearing before Congress was never an option.”

“We expect Mr. Cohen to appear before both committees, and we remain engaged with his counsel about his upcoming appearances,” they said.

In the statement Wednesday, Davis said Cohen thanked House Oversight Chairman Elijah Cummings “for allowing him to appear” and said Cohen “looks forward to testifying at the appropriate time” but that “this is a time where Mr. Cohen had to put his family and their safety first.”

Appearing in the White House Roosevelt Room, Trump brushed aside Cohen’s concerns for his safety.

“I would say he’s been threatened by the truth,” the president said. “He’s only been threatened by the truth. He doesn’t want to do that. Probably for me or other of his clients. He has other clients also, I assume. And he does not want to tell the truth for me or other of his other clients.”

In a text message to POLITICO, Giuliani deferred to his boss’s statement. “President’s response covers it,” the former New York mayor wrote.

Cohen’s upcoming prison sentence stems from various charges, including violating campaign finance laws by arranging hush money payments to women who alleged affairs with Trump for the purpose of influencing the 2016 election. Cohen said in his guilty plea that he orchestrated the payments at Trump’s direction, potentially implicating him in the crime.

His guilty plea was elicited in part by special counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating whether Trump’s campaign assisted Russia in efforts to interfere in the election and if Trump has obstructed justice. Cohen has been cooperating with Mueller in the investigation, denouncing his past “blind loyalty” to Trump.

Trump and his legal team initially denied that the payments to women took place, but they now acknowledge the payments but say that Trump believed them to be legal.

The president has used his massive platform on Twitter and cable networks to rip Cohen as a “rat” who was lying to get a reduced sentence. He has also called for investigators to look into Cohen’s father-in-law, who he has suggested is involved in organized crime.

Giuliani has made similar insinuations, leading to speculation that the president and his lawyer were attempting to intimidate Cohen into staying silent.

The Democrats’ plans to have Cohen as one of their first high-profile House witnesses signaled an aggressive start for the new Congress, where some of the party’s most liberal members are already clamoring to begin impeachment proceedings against Trump. Speaker Nancy Pelosi has urged restraint until Mueller finishes his investigation.

Cohen’s at least temporary change of heart on voluntarily appearing before congressional puts the onus on Democrats to make the next move. Several of the House Oversight panel’s senior Democratic members indicated a subpoena may be in order.

“The general consensus on the committee, for the members I have spoken to, is that we will subpoena him,” Massachusetts Rep. Stephen Lynch told POLTICO. He added that Cohen’s concern about his safety didn’t square with the fact the Capitol and its surrounding office buildings can be locked down to protect witnesses as they come and go.

“We can assure him his safety will be our utmost concern,” Lynch said.

Virginia Rep. Gerry Connolly, another Democrat, said the panel has to look at a subpoena under the circumstances, given that Cohen is going to prison in March and there is a limited window for him to appear. The Democrat called it a “last resort option,” and argued that “we had wanted him to come voluntarily.”

“It was and remains very important that Mr. Cohen, given his relationship with the Trump Organization and his involvement in so many aspects of what Mr. Mueller is looking at, needs to be heard under oath in open testimony,” Connolly said. “Until a few hours ago, Cohen agreed with that, too.”

Connolly also blasted Trump for creating a hostile environment in which Cohen was afraid to appear. “It has the effect of silencing a key witness and that’s the last thing in the world we want,” he said, adding that Trump has “been not so subtle in attempting to intimidate this witness, and I don’t think Congress can allow that. That’s why the subpoena is a necessary option.”

The notion that Democrats need to bring Cohen in before he begins his prison sentence is up for debate. Some legal experts say it makes more sense from both an optical and planning standpoint to have the Trump lawyer testify before he reports to prison.

“It’s easier to bring him in now when he’s a public person who’s free to move about the country with limitations than it is to bring him in with a U.S. Marshall escort, the Bureau of Prisons and shackles,” said David Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor in Miami. “Now is the time to get him in and lock him into testimony.”

But John Q. Barrett, a former DOJ official now teaching law at St. John’s University, said Congress could easily find a work-around if they needed to wait until Cohen is in prison. He noted prisoners often are transported back to a prosecutor’s office for testimony or grand jury appearances.

“It’s just another logistical thing to navigate,” he said.

Rachel Bade, Andrew Desiderio and Melanie Zanona contributed to this report.

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