It’s Mueller Time: Making Sense of the Latest Russia Investigation Dump
Michael Cohen may have flipped on Donald Trump, offering federal prosecutors audio recordings and other evidence incriminating the President of the United States in felony campaign finance violations — but he likely won’t receive a get out of jail free card. “Cohen’s decision to plead guilty — rather than seek a pardon for his manifold crimes — does not make him a hero,” federal prosecutors wrote as they recommended Cohen be sentenced to at least 51 months in prison in documents filed Friday.
Prosecutors from the Southern District of New York are recommending that President Trump’s former lawyer-fixer serve a “substantial term of imprisonment.” Cohen is scheduled to be sentenced on Wednesday.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller, with whom Cohen also cooperated in the Russia investigation, said he did not have a position with regard to Cohen’s sentencing, adding simply that Cohen went to “significant lengths” to assist the probe.
The filing is particularly bad news for Trump, as it indicates that prosecutors believe Cohen committed the campaign violations at the direction of the president. The news that prosecutors believe the president committed a felony was the cherry on top of a day filled with bad news for the commander-in-chief: not only did former FBI Director James Comey, whom he fired, testify before Congress, but new court filings concerning Cohen and Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, were poised to jeopardize his presidency.
The self-proclaimed Hemingway of Twitter must have had a sense it was going to be bad because he preemptively tapped out a string of tweets casting aspersions on the integrity of the Russia investigation and the special counsel’s motives (punctuated by a sober commemoration of Pearl Harbor).
Now, hours later, the filings appear to confirm the president’s worst fears: the walls of the Russia investigation really are closing in around him.
Here’s what we’ve learned so far.
The prosecution for the Southern District of New York was not as kind to Cohen as Mueller was to Michael Flynn, for whom he recommended no prison time. The SDNY wrote on Friday that it “respectfully requests that this Court impose a substantial term of imprisonment, one that reflects a modest downward variance from the applicable Guidelines range.”
This range is 51-63 months, which means Cohen could be going away for a while. “Cohen’s decision to plead guilty – rather than seek a pardon for his manifold crimes – does not make him a hero,” the filing read.
In August, Cohen pleaded guilty to eight criminal counts counts, including tax fraud, making false statements to a bank and, most notably, campaign finance violations resulting from pre-election payments made to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal, with whom Trump allegedly had affairs. In pleading guilty, Cohen admitted that the payments were made at the direction of Trump.
In the sentencing memo filed Friday, the SDNY also iterated that the payments were directed by Trump.
This is significant. The Justice Department is alleging in court that the president directed his onetime lawyer to commit two felonies.
— Brad Heath (@bradheath) December 7, 2018
Though prosecutors acknowledged that Cohen cooperated to a certain extent, the filing notes that Trump’s former fixer “repeatedly declined to provide full information about the scope of any additional criminal conduct in which he may have engaged or had knowledge.” By contrast, Mueller’s office wrote that Cohen has gone to “significant lengths to assist the Special Counsel’s investigation,” that he has provided the special counsel’s office “with information about his own conduct and that of others on core topics under investigation” and that this information “has been credible and consistent” with other evidence obtained by the special counsel’s office.
Mueller added some of the of the information provided by Cohen pertained to “his contacts with persons connected to the White House during the 2017-2018 time period” as well as to “discrete Russia-related matters.” For example:
TRUMP ASKED COHEN TO REACH OUT TO RUSSIA IN SEPTEMBER 2015. pic.twitter.com/WMhyKlIdGD
— emptywheel (@emptywheel) December 7, 2018
Cohen’s legal team said in a filing last week that the president’s former lawyer had voluntarily met with the special counsel on at least seven occasions, during which time he reportedly provided “dozens of hours of testimony potentially damaging” to Trump.
Despite his cooperation with the special counsel’s office, Mueller stressed on Friday that Cohen’s crime of lying to Congress about a potential Trump Tower in Moscow was “serious,” and that “the sentence imposed should reflect the fact that lying to federal investigators has real consequences, especially where the defendant lied to investigators about critical facts, in an investigation of national importance.”
Last week, Mueller announced that the president’s former campaign chairman breached his agreement with the special counsel’s office by not only lying to investigators, but also to the FBI “on a variety of subject matters.” Mueller promised more details would be forthcoming, and on Friday his office filed a new document that, despite being heavily redacted, shed new light on what Manafort allegedly lied about.
The document says Manafort made false statements to Mueller’s office and the FBI about five different subjects: his interactions with a man named Konstantin Kilimnik, who worked closely with Manafort on their hugely lucrative political consulting work in Ukraine; Kilimnik’s role in witness tampering efforts that Mueller says Manafort also participated in; a wire transfer to a firm working for Manafort; information related to a different Justice Department investigation; and Manafort’s communications with members of the Trump administration.
In other words, Mueller claims that Manafort repeatedly lied to his team, blowing up his plea deal signed in September and likely increasing his eventual sentence.
Much of Mueller’s filing laying out Manafort’s lies is redacted:
Sadly, much of Mueller's new Manafort filing looks a lot like this: pic.twitter.com/wWYlg7dJRx
— Andy Kroll (@AndyKroll) December 7, 2018
The identifying information about the separate DOJ investigation Manafort allegedly lied about is also redacted, as well as many of the details about Manafort’s interactions with Kilimnik about which he also apparently misled law enforcement officials.
But there are no redactions in the portion of Mueller’s memo that outline how Manafort, even after his legal troubles became grave, allegedly stayed in touch with the Trump administration:
There are no redactions, however, in the portion of Mueller's new Manafort filing that describe how he allegedly lied about his ongoing communications with the Trump administration (even after he'd gotten into legal trouble): pic.twitter.com/KjvngnldEy
— Andy Kroll (@AndyKroll) December 7, 2018
One detail is incredible: According to Mueller, Manafort “had been in communication with a senior Administration official up through February 2018.” That was the same month Manafort was indicted by Mueller.
“In his interviews with the Special Counsel’s Office and the FBI, Manafort told multiple discernible lies — there were not instances of mere memory lapses,” Mueller’s team writes at the end of the filing. “If the defendant contends the government has not acted in good faith, the government is available to prove the false statements at a hearing.”
None of this is good news for the president, who has reportedly submitted written answers to Mueller’s investigators while also communicating and coordinating with Manafort’s legal team.
On Friday, the president’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, signaled that Trump’s legal team planned to respond with a time-honored tradition: deny, deny, deny. “In the questioning of Manafort, they did tell them at the time that they believed he was lying about certain things related to us that he’s not lying about,” Giuliani told CNN.
And on one of the worst days of his presidency, Trump, of course, did what Trump does best:
Totally clears the President. Thank you!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 7, 2018