After a quiet period, there was a potential blockbuster development in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible coordination between Russia and the 2016 Trump campaign this morning, when the president’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, made a surprise appearance in a Manhattan courtroom to plead guilty to making false statements to Congress.
According to the formal charging document, Cohen lied about a Trump real-estate deal in Russia — specifically, the “Trump Tower Moscow” project. This doesn’t prove that members of Trump’s 2016 campaign coordinated with Russia. But according to the document, discussions of the Trump Tower Moscow project went on for longer than Cohen had previously indicated, and Trump was aware of the discussions. According to Cohen’s plea deal, he is cooperating with the special counsel investigation.
This brings the total number of people charged in Mueller’s investigation to 33.
In the document describing Cohen’s alleged conduct, Mueller’s team says that contrary to Cohen’s congressional testimony in 2017 that the deal to build Trump Tower Moscow had concluded early in 2016, negotiations around Trump Tower Moscow were still going as late as June 2016, when Trump was the presumptive Republican nominee.
Cohen also testified that he only spoke to Trump about the project on three occasions and didn’t brief the Trump family on it, that he never personally agreed to travel to Russia or considered a Russia trip for Trump in relation to the project, and that he didn’t recall any response from the Russian government to the project — all of which was challenged in the Mueller team’s charging document. According to the document, the “status and progress” of the project was discussed more than three times with then-candidate Trump and that Cohen also talked to family members about the project’s trajectory. It also says that Cohen did agree to go to Russia (although the trip never happened) and even considered a potential trip to Russia by Trump. And the document says that Cohen reached Russian President Vladimir Putin’s personal spokesperson to ask for help reviving the deal.
Speaking to reporters on the White House lawn this morning, Trump repeatedly said that Cohen was lying in the hope of receiving a shorter prison sentence.
This is the first time that the Trump Tower Moscow project has been mentioned in a charge filed by Mueller’s team. The deal ultimately collapsed but has been scrutinized as a possible point of connection between Trump and high-level Russian operatives. According to some reports, Cohen has provided more than 70 hours of testimony to the special counsel, including about contacts between the 2016 Trump campaign and Russia, questions related to obstruction of justice by the president, and Trump’s previous business dealings in Russia.
Mueller hasn’t charged Cohen before, but this is the second time in three months that Cohen has appeared in a Manhattan courtroom to plead guilty to a federal crime. In August, Cohen pleaded guilty to eight federal charges filed by prosecutors in the Southern District of New York, including a violation of campaign finance laws that appeared to implicate Trump.
Now, Cohen’s cooperation could have big implications for the way Mueller’s investigation continues to unfold. Trump submitted written answers to questions from Mueller’s team last week; they reportedly included queries about the Trump Tower Moscow project. If Trump’s responses differ from Cohen’s testimony to Mueller, that could spell trouble for the president.