WASHINGTON — Michael Cohen, the former personal attorney and “pit bull” for President Donald Trump, pleaded guilty on Thursday to lying to Congress about a potential real-estate development in Moscow that he tried to broker for the Trump Organization.
In a 10-page “criminal information” filing, Special Counsel Robert Mueller describes how Cohen misled the House and Senate intelligence committees about the details and timing of the proposed “Moscow Project,” as it’s referred to in the filing.
In August 2017, Cohen sent a two-page letter to both intel committees in which he made several statements: that the Moscow Project had ended in January 2016; that it was not widely discussed inside the Trump Organization; that he had never agreed to travel to Moscow to close the deal and that he couldn’t recall any contact with Russian government officials related to the project. During appearances before the two intel committees, Cohen restated the facts that were laid out in his letter. The implication, of course, was that the Moscow Project had no overlap with the official start of the 2016 presidential race.
All of Cohen’s claims were false, according to Mueller.
Cohen pursued the Moscow Project through June 2016, months after he told Congress the project had ended and just weeks before Trump secured the Republican nomination for president. Cohen briefed a person listed as “Individual-1” — Trump — more times than what he told Congress. He also briefed members of Trump’s family as well, contradicting his claim that the deal wasn’t widely discussed inside the Trump Organization. He did agree to travel to Russia and “took steps” toward having Trump travel there as well. And he did communicate with Russian officials in connection with the deal, despite his previous denials.
Here are three key takeaways from this new twist in the Russia investigation.
Mueller finds the lies
One question that’s loomed over Congress’ various Trump-Russia investigations is whether any witnesses lied to those committees (as some have suggested) — and whether they’ll face any consequences for that.
Cohen’s latest crime is an open-and-shut case of lying to Congress: he said one thing, and Mueller showed the opposite is true. There will now be greater pressure on the House Intelligence Committee to potentially revive its Trump-Russia investigation after it was abruptly shut down by outgoing chairman Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), who spent most of the last two years running interference for the president.
The likely new chairman of that committee, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), said in a statement on Thursday that he believed it was “imperative for the House Intelligence Committee, in the new Congress, to continue to probe the Trump Organization’s financial links to Russia and determine whether the Russians sought financial leverage over Trump and his associates or hold any such leverage today.”
Trump likely feels the walls closing in
The president responded to Cohen’s plea deal with nastiness and anger. “He’s a weak person, and by being weak, unlike other people that you watch — he’s a weak person and what he’s trying to do is get a reduced sentence,” Trump said. “He’s lying about a project that everybody knew about.”
— This Week (@ThisWeekABC) November 29, 2018
Cohen was Trump’s right-hand man for years, his fixer (think Robert Duvall in The Godfather). Pretending that Cohen was some weakling won’t work and is terribly unconvincing as a defense strategy.
But it’s in keeping with Trump’s erratic behavior of the last few days. He’s lashed out at former Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta. He’s retweeted to his 56 million followers a meme of Clinton, Podesta, Nancy Pelosi, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and others behind bars. He’s sent one unhinged tweet after another attacking Mueller and his investigation. This might be the angriest, edgiest and most panicked we’ve seen this president.
Cohen might be the one who brings down Trump
It would be a twist of Shakespearean proportions: Cohen, the former loyal lieutenant, may implicate his former boss with his admission to lying about the Moscow Project.
It’s very likely that Mueller asked Trump and his lawyers about the Moscow deal in their written questions to the president. (A reporter for ABC News tweeted that Mueller had in fact done so.) Did Trump tell the same story that Cohen originally did? If so, did Mueller catch Trump in a lie?
In a court appearance Thursday, Cohen said he lied about the Moscow Project to align his story with Trump’s. “I made these statements to be consistent with Individual-1’s political messaging and to be loyal to Individual-1,” he said, referring to Trump.
Preet Bharara, the former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, calls this “perhaps the most significant issue I’ve seen raised so far” in the wake of new Cohen’s guilty plea:
This is perhaps the most significant issue I’ve seen raised so far: does Cohen contradict Trump’s recent written answers to Mueller specifically on the Moscow Trump Tower project. If so and Cohen version is corroborated, Trump is guilty of a false statement. https://t.co/PLObA79Al2
— Preet Bharara (@PreetBharara) November 29, 2018
If Mueller’s investigation truly is entering its final stages, we should get answers before long.