There are two big takeaways from the criminal sentencing memos released Friday for Cohen — the president’s former lawyer and fixer — by Special Counsel Robert Mueller and by the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York.
First, as revealed by Mueller, Trump personally directed Cohen to conduct outreach with the Russian government in 2015 — earlier in the presidential campaign than has previously been understood — and continued to pursue a lucrative deal on a potential Trump Tower in Moscow deep into 2016, when the Kremlin was actively interfering on behalf of Trump’s campaign.
Second, according to the New York feds, Donald Trump “directed” Cohen’s commission of felony campaign finance violations when Cohen paid out hush money to two women alleging they’d had affairs with the real estate tycoon — silencing scandals that could have impacted Trump’s pursuit of the presidency.
The first big reveal underscores that Trump had a huge financial incentive to please the Kremlin — and potentially a multi-million dollar motive for collusion. The second revelation may be even more dangerous for the president. He is now formally implicated in the commission of a crime, resulting from an investigation separate from the Mueller probe — meaning he can’t end it even if he axes the Special Counsel. “The real news right now,” tweeted former Acting Solicitor General (Supreme Court lawyer) Neal Katyal, “is about the conclusion by federal prosecutors that Donald J. Trump has committed a serious felony.”
The new Mueller memo makes clear that Trump Tower Moscow was more than a pipe dream — and potentially a huge money maker for the Trump organization: “If the project was completed, the Company could have received hundreds of millions of dollars from Russian sources in licensing fees and other revenues.” The only hitch? “The Moscow Project … likely required the assistance of the Russian government.”
The Mueller filing reveals that Trump and Cohen sought to “meet with the President of Russia in New York City during his visit for the United Nations General Assembly.” Putin’s U.N. speech was in September 2015; Trump had entered the presidential race three months prior. Cohen admitted to Mueller that he “conferred with Individual 1” — Trump — “about contacting the Russian government before reaching out to gauge Russia’s interest in such a meeting.” (The meeting did not happen.)
Sealing a deal on Trump Tower Moscow would require help from the Kremlin, and Mueller’s filing notes that several go-betweens were eager to help broker a deal. One Russian national made a striking proposal: “In November 2015,” according to the memo, “Cohen…spoke with a Russian national who claimed to be a ‘trusted person’ in the Russian Federation who could offer the campaign ‘political synergy’ and ‘synergy on a government level.’” What political “synergy” meant is not explained, but this person also wanted to arrange a meeting with Trump and Putin, insisting “there is ‘no bigger warranty in any project than consent of [the President of Russia].’” (The meeting did not take place. Cohen, the memo relates, “was working on the Moscow Project with a different individual who Cohen understood to have his own connections to the Russian government.”)
Cohen has recently come clean about lying to Congress about the Trump Tower Moscow project, revealing that negotiations stretched well into 2016. Mueller drops a bombshell on this matter — suggesting that Cohen may have plotted with others before lying under oath: “Cohen described… preparing and circulating his response to the congressional inquiries,” the memo reads, “while continuing to accept responsibility for the false statements contained within it.”
In a striking passage, the Mueller memo explicitly links the Moscow project to Russian interference in the election. “The fact that Cohen continued to work on the project and discuss it with Individual 1” — Trump — “well into the campaign was material” to the special counsel investigation, it reads, “particularly because it occurred at a time of sustained efforts by the Russian government to interfere with the U.S. presidential election.”
The Mueller memo suggests more than it says outright. By contrast, the sentencing memo by the New York feds is far more direct, placing Trump at the top of a conspiracy to commit serious violations of campaign finance law when Cohen paid hush money to Trump’s alleged paramours. This memo reads: “Cohen himself has now admitted, with respect to both payments, he acted in coordination with and at the direction of Individual-1” — Trump.
In a juicy detail, the memo reveals that Cohen taped an interaction with Trump about one of the payoffs — illicitly made through the parent company of the National Enquirer — and that the feds now have the transcript: “After Cohen caused the media company to make an illegal expenditure, in a secretly recorded meeting Cohen took credit for the payment and assured Individual-1 that he was ‘all over’ the transaction.”
The memo underscores that federal prosecutors treat the campaign finance violations as both serious and worthy of jail time: “Cohen’s commission of two campaign finance crimes on the eve of the 2016 election for President of the United States struck a blow to one of the core goals of the federal campaign finance laws: transparency,” the memo says. “Cohen sought to influence the election from the shadows” it continues, and “deceived the voting public by hiding alleged facts that he believed would have had a substantial effect on the election.”
Arguing against leniency, the New York feds conclude: “The sentence imposed should reflect the seriousness of Cohen’s brazen violations of the election laws and attempt to counter the public cynicism that may arise when individuals like Cohen act as if the political process belongs to the rich and powerful.”
One can only imagine what these prosecutors have in store for the billionaire candidate — now president — who gave Cohen his marching orders.