MANHATTAN (CN) – Shortly after the FBI raided his home, office and hotel room, former Trump “fixer” Michael Cohen received an email: “Sleep well tonight, you have friends in high places.”
The message came from lawyer Robert Costello, and is quoted by special counsel Robert Mueller in his recently published report that probes whether Trump obstructed justice in his investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
In an email Monday, Costello did not mince words about the meaning of his message.
“I have absolutely no concern about any of this because it was simply a reference to the president of the United States being the ‘friend in high places’ — nothing more,” Costello said.
As suggested in Mueller’s report, however, Costello’s message is still drawing scrutiny. The New York Times reported in March that the exchange had piqued the interest of Southern District of New York prosecutors, and a footnote to Mueller’s mention of the message bears a redaction marked “Harm to Ongoing Matter.”
In March, Costello was less forthcoming when the Daily Beast asked him what the email meant. Though Costello claimed to have been referring to Garth Brooks, the popular 1990s single by the country artist is titled “Friends in Low Places.”
Mueller made 14 criminal referrals, but only two are publicly known: Cohen and Gregory Craig, who was charged recently with lying to investigators about the nature of lobbying work on behalf of Ukraine that was done with Paul Manafort.
As those referrals appear in Mueller’s report, meanwhile, two redacted names fall between Cohen and Craig on an alphabetical list.
Costello, whose surname would fit alphabetically, said he does not “believe” that Mueller issued the criminal referral against him.
“They never interviewed me so they could not have been that interested,” Costello said in an email, referring to the Special Counsel’s Office.
Costello’s “friends in high places” remark has been described in the media as an attempt to dangle a pardon to Cohen at a crucial time, a key component of the obstruction investigation, but Costello denies this was the intent.
“I have spoken with the SDNY and I have no reason to believe they think there is any truth to the ‘dangling pardons’ lie,” Costello said.
The Southern District of New York declined to comment. Mueller’s report shows that Cohen believed the email was an attempt to keep him in line.
“At the time, Cohen’s [sic] understood that his legal fees were still being paid by the Trump Organization, which he said was important to him,” the report states. “Cohen believed he needed the power of the president to take care of him, so he needed to defend the president and stay on message.
“Cohen also recalled speaking with the president’s personal counsel about pardons after the searches of his home and office had occurred, at a time when the media had reported that pardon discussions were occurring at the White House,” the report continues.
Mueller wrote that Costello described himself to Cohen as Giuliani’s “back channel.”
Asked about what Mueller may have referenced with the “Ongoing Matter” footnote related to his email, Costello floated a theory.
“While I really have no idea, if you want me to speculate, it’s possible they are trying to determine if the person that told them that ‘friends in high places’ means dangling a pardon (if in fact that is what he told them), was guilty of making false statements to federal agents,” Costello said.
Mueller’s report starkly contradicts that hypothesis. The email is described in Volume II of the report, dealing with potential obstruction, in a section titled “The President Sends Messages of Support to Cohen.”
“In analyzing the president’s intent in his actions towards Cohen as a potential witness, there is evidence that could support the inference that the president intended to discourage Cohen from cooperating with the government because Cohen’s information would shed adverse light on the president’s campaign-period conduct and statements,” Mueller wrote.
There is another name that falls between Cohen and Craig tied to an “Ongoing Matter” – that of far-right commentator and conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi, whose attorney Larry Klayman did not respond to an email requesting comment.
None of the other names in Mueller’s glossary between Cohen and Craig’s names alphabetically are associated with any similar redactions.