President Donald Trump’s ex-lawyer Michael Cohen entered an unexpected and explosive guilty plea Thursday in Manhattan federal court, admitting he lied to Congress last year out of “loyalty” to Trump about a project his company tried to develop in Moscow in 2016 as he ran for president.
Cohen said he falsely claimed that talks about the project ended in January 2016, when they in fact continued until that June, to support Trump’s denials of any Moscow contacts after the February 2016 Iowa caucuses and the president's insistence that probes of his Russia ties were a witch hunt.
“I made these misstatements to be consistent with [Trump’s] political messaging and out of loyalty,” said Cohen, who publicly broke with the president earlier this year.
Although Cohen did not claim that Trump — identified as “Individual 1” in court papers — asked him to lie, the unforeseen plea to charges from special counsel Robert Mueller opened the door to unpredictable new legal and political risks for the president and others involved in the deal.
Trump immediately denounced Cohen. “He’s a weak person and what he’s trying to do is get a reduced sentence,” the president said before leaving the White House for Argentina on Thursday morning. “So he’s lying about a project that everybody knew about. We were very open with it.”
The president also denied any improper machinations in the failed talks about a Trump-branded Moscow real estate development, which critics say could have been a tool of Russian leverage. “There would have been nothing wrong if I did do it,” Trump said. “That was my business.”
But Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), soon-to-be chair of the House intelligence committee, said in a statement that Cohen’s admissions raised doubts about other witnesses’ honesty and highlighted the need for further investigation of the “Moscow Trump Tower” deal and other Russia ties.
“Today’s guilty plea … demonstrates that the President’s associates were willing to lie to Congress about the Trump Organization’s business interests in Russia,” he said. “Significantly, they also make clear that the President’s own denials during the campaign were false or misleading.”
Cohen faces up to 5 years in prison on the new charges. Earlier this year, he pleaded to a campaign-finance violation charge for payments to porn star Stormy Daniels, and has been meeting with Mueller’s office ever since. Cohen’s lawyer wants a combined sentencing on both cases on Dec. 12.
The discussions of a major Moscow real estate project by the Trump Organization, where Cohen was an executive, at the same time Trump was running for president have long fueled suspicions about Russian influence.
During his plea, Cohen said that when he answered questions to Senate and House committees in August 2017, he was in touch with Trump’s advisers and was familiar with the president's efforts to distance himself from Russian contacts.
“I was aware of … repeated disavowals of commercial and political ties between himself and Russia, his repeated statements that investigations of such ties were politically motivated and without evidence,” Cohen said.
According to the charges to which Cohen pleaded guilty and his statements in court, Cohen misled Congress on three different aspects of the Russian project — lying about travel and feedback from the Russian government, as well as claiming it was abandoned in January 2016 because it wasn’t feasible, with minimal involvement by Trump.
In fact, Cohen admitted, it was discussed “multiple times” with Trump and Trump’s family, and Cohen worked until that June with an intermediary identified as “Individual 2.” His description matched news reports about the role of Felix Sater, a well-connected Russian-American formerly of Sands Point with a criminal record.
Sater’s lawyer declined to comment.
Cohen also falsely told Congress, he admitted, that he never agreed to travel to Russia in connection with the project and never discussed travel with Trump, when in fact he did plan a trip to Moscow, and did discuss with Trump and his campaign a trip by Trump to pursue the project.
In May 2016, according to the charges, “Individual 2” emailed Cohen that “I had a chat with Moscow,” and he asked about the timing of a Cohen trip and a Trump visit. “My trip before Cleveland," Cohen responded. “[Individual 1] once he becomes the nominee after the convention.”
The intermediary, Cohen admitted, offered to arrange a meeting with the president or prime minister of Russia if Cohen visited in June. But in June, Cohen decided not to make the trip and dropped the project.
In addition, Cohen admitted that he lied when he told Congress he never got a response from the Russian government to an email he sent seeking support for the Trump Moscow project idea. In fact, he said, he got a response from the Kremlin press secretary, spoke to an English-speaking aide for 20 minutes, described the project and asked for government support.
The day after, according to the charges, “Individual 2” — the intermediary — contacted Cohen and asked to speak with him, messaging, “It’s about [the President of Russia] they called today.”
After the plea, Cohen declined to comment as he left the courthouse. Although he has not entered a formal cooperation agreement with the government, he was known to be in discussions with Mueller since his earlier guilty plea involving Daniels, tax evasion and false statements to a bank.
Cohen faces up to 65 years in prison that case. Mueller’s office, according to the plea agreement in the new case, has agreed to bring his assistance to the attention of the sentencing judge in the earlier case, U.S. District Judge William Pauley.
“Mr. Cohen has cooperated,” Cohen’s attorney Guy Petrillo told reporters outside court. “Mr. Cohen will continue to cooperate.”
With Nicole Fuller, Candice Ferrette and Tom Brune
Excerpts from Michael Cohen's plea
“In 2017, I was scheduled to appear before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence as well as the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence concerning matters under their investigation, including principally whether Russia was involved in or interfered in the 2016 campaign and election.
“In connection with my appearances, I submitted a written statement to Congress, including, amongst other things, a description of a proposed real estate project in Moscow that I had worked on while I was employed by the Trump Organization.
“That description was false — I knew at the time — in that I had asserted that all efforts concerning the project had ceased in January of 2016 when, in fact, they had continued through June of 2016;
“That I had very limited discussions with Individual 1 [now President Trump] and others in the company concerning the project, when in fact I had more extensive communications; and,
“Lastly, that I had never agreed to travel to Russia in connection with the project and had never asked Individual 1 to travel, when in fact I took steps to and had discussions with Individual 1 about travel to Russia.
“And I would like to note that I did not in fact travel there, nor have I ever been to Russia.”