NEW YORK -- It's a "he said, he said" where the "he" -- no matter who he is -- has a credibility problem.
The latest White House legal drama — whether or not the president's former legal fixer asked him for a pardon — has pulled back the curtain on a whole cast of characters whose comments can't always be taken at face value.
Michael Cohen, Trump's former attorney who denies asking for presidential intervention, has himself pleaded guilty to lying to Congress — to back up Trump's own stories. His representative, Lanny Davis, has repeatedly had to walk back and amend statements about what Cohen knew and when. But Davis' need to correct previous claims has only been topped by that of Rudy Giuliani, the Trump lawyer whose job description, at times, has seemed to be centered as much on fudging and on moving goalposts.
And then, of course, there is President Donald Trump, who declared for the first time on Friday that Cohen personally asked him for a pardon.
Trump's foes call him a liar and worse. He made dozens of misstatements in just one speech last weekend and is estimated, by one count, to have made more than 9,000 false or misleading statements since taking office.
So, in a production filled with unreliable narrators, who, if anyone, can be trusted?
"My take is that it's all a mess and I don't know if we're ever going to know what really happened," says former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Trump ally who acknowledged that the battle over pardons has left him baffled. "It seems now that we live in an age of total confusion."
The latest act in the Shakespearean tragedy — farce? — over Cohen's fall from grace in Trumpworld came to light in the past week over a fierce debate as to whether the attorney had sought a pardon from the president after his office and hotel room were raided by the FBI last spring. Cohen, who spent a decade working for Trump before turning on him and cooperating with the special counsel investigating the president, testified before Congress last week that he had never sought a pardon from his former boss.
But in the days that followed, stories changed.
Davis, who was not Cohen's lawyer at the time, said Cohen "directed his attorney" to explore a possible pardon with Giuliani and others on Trump's legal team, a statement that appeared to contradict Cohen's sworn congressional testimony.
Then Giuliani said that two lawyers working for Cohen approached him about a pardon last spring. And Davis then allowed in a written statement Thursday that his client was "open to the ongoing 'dangling' of a possible pardon by Trump representatives privately and in the media" in the months after the FBI raid.
Trump took it one step further on Friday.
"Bad lawyer and fraudster Michael Cohen said under sworn testimony that he never asked for a Pardon. His lawyers totally contradicted him. He lied!" Trump tweeted aboard Air Force One while en route to inspect damage from a deadly tornado in Alabama. "Additionally, he directly asked me for a pardon. I said NO. He lied again!"
"Just another set of lies by @POTUS @realdonaldtrump. Mr. President" he wrote, before invoking the women whose hush money payments he helped facilitate for candidate Trump. "Let me remind you that today is #InternationalWomensDay. You may want use today to apologize for your own #lies and #DirtyDeeds to women like Karen McDougal and Stephanie Clifford."
Cohen arranged payments to Clifford, who goes by the stage name Stormy Daniels, and McDougal to prevent them from speaking publicly about alleged affairs with Trump.
He said in an interview Friday that he remembered Trump telling him when he joined the president's legal team eleven months ago that Cohen had asked for a pardon, something the former New York City mayor had never previously revealed, including in an interview about pardons the previous day.
This furor is far from the first time the players in this particular melodrama have, to put it charitably, arranged and rearranged their scripts.
Long before he entered politics, Trump embellished his record, posing as his own spokesman to plant flattering stories in New York gossip pages and declaring that the 58-story Trump Tower was actually 68 stories so it would be the tallest in that section of Midtown Manhattan. That track record continued during his campaign and as president. He trotted out big falsehoods — claiming that Barack Obama was not born in the United States and, later, that he wiretapped Trump Tower — and smaller ones, including when boasted that the crowd for his Inauguration was the largest in history.
His administration has had more than 9,000 misleading statements, according to The Washington Post — fake news, according to the president.
Cohen has become a key figure in congressional investigations since turning on his former boss. During last week's public testimony, he called Trump a con man, a cheat and a racist. Trump, in turn, said Cohen "is lying in order to reduce his prison time."
Indeed, Cohen was known to lie to reporters during Trump's 2016 campaign. He is to begin a three-year prison sentence in May for crimes, including lying to Congress — lying to support Trump's own statements about his real estate efforts in Russia.
Both men's lawyers — who act more as TV spokesmen then courtroom attorneys — have also struggled with keeping their facts straight, though sometimes the shifting stories appear to be deliberate efforts to create smoke screens rather than clear anything up. Davis, who served as White House counsel during President Bill Clinton's early crises, has had to walk back at least one bombshell assertion over the past year, that his client could tell investigators that Trump had advance knowledge of a Trump Tower meeting with a Russian lawyer during the 2016 campaign.
Giuliani has fumbled facts and repeatedly moved the goalposts about what sort of behavior by the president would constitute collusion or a crime. He has defended his scattershot approach with a series of memorable turns of phrases, including one that could act as a motto for many of those involved in the saga.
"Truth isn't truth," Giuliani has said.
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