AILSA CHANG, HOST:
President Trump and his former lawyer Michael Cohen are engaged in a very public breakup. The president tweeted this morning that he did not know about a meeting between his campaign and Russians in 2016, and he accused Cohen of making up stories to save himself from legal jeopardy. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson has been following the dispute and joins us now to make sense of all of this. Hey, Carrie.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Will try, Ailsa.
CHANG: So what ignited this latest round of fighting between the president and Michael Cohen?
JOHNSON: CNN reported that Cohen says Donald Trump knew in advance about a June 2016 meeting between Russians and his son Donald Trump Jr. and that Cohen is willing to tell the Justice Department and the FBI about it. Remember, this is the meeting where Russians had promised dirt on Trump's political opponent Hillary Clinton.
JOHNSON: And Donald Trump Jr. replied via email, if that's what you say, I love it. Jr. later said the meeting was useless, and he didn't bother to tell his father. The White House has denied candidate Trump knew about the meeting, either before or right afterward. But Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner and then campaign manager Paul Manafort attended that meeting, too.
CHANG: And explain why this particular meeting is so critical to investigators.
JOHNSON: Two reasons - one is legal. Did Russia offer the Trump campaign something of value in 2016, and did the campaign accept? If so, it could be a violation of conspiracy law, election law or computer hacking law. And it could be a perjury problem if someone lied about it to investigators or to Congress. The second reason is political. Donald Trump and his White House have denied what they call collusion with Russia. It's a key part of their messaging strategy. Well, if the candidate knew his son and top officials were meeting with Russians promising dirt, it's hard to argue that anymore.
CHANG: And now the president is accusing Michael Cohen of making up stories, and his new lawyer Rudy Giuliani attacked Cohen's credibility on CNN last night. Let's give that a listen.
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RUDY GIULIANI: He's been lying for years. I mean, the tapes that we have demonstrate any number of very serious lies by him back a year and a half ago, including - he's fooling people, hiding tape recordings, telling them they weren't recorded, lying to their face.
CHANG: So who's telling the truth here?
JOHNSON: Just a few weeks ago, Rudy Giuliani was on TV calling Michael Cohen an honest man. This may be a job...
JOHNSON: ...For someone who has subpoena power, like prosecutors in New York or the special counsel Robert Mueller. Cohen says other people were in the room when Trump found out about the Trump Tower meeting. Investigators would look for those people. They'd also look for any emails or phone records that referenced the meeting before it happened or after. We do know that Senate investigators found Donald Trump Jr. had called at least one blocked phone number after he set up the meeting. And the Senate found his father's phone number is blocked. But on the other hand, CNN says Cohen himself didn't tell Congress about this when he was asked, which is not a great fact for him.
CHANG: Right. So this all gets back to the big question this week. What does this all actually mean for Michael Cohen? I mean, we should remind everyone he is being investigated by the FBI over some of his business activities.
JOHNSON: Yeah, it's hard to figure out what Michael Cohen is doing here. If he wants to offer some - some information to investigators to try to make a deal with them, that normally does not happen through CNN or...
JOHNSON: ...Other media outlets. And if Cohen wants a pardon or something from President Trump, he seems to have produced the opposite. He's made the...
JOHNSON: ...President and his family very angry and gotten them, potentially, in more legal trouble. It's not clear to me what Michael Cohen is doing or what the president is doing here. And what is clear is that it's going to be a very long summer when it comes to this investigation.
CHANG: Oh, yes, it is. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Thank you, Carrie.
JOHNSON: My pleasure.
(SOUNDBITE OF SINKANE SONG, "JEEPER CREEPER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.