Michael Cohen, a lawyer who spent years working as President Donald Trump’s self-described “fixer,” received a 36-month prison sentence on Wednesday, and the weight of that judgment revolved, in part, around the fact that he lied to Congress. And that should unnerve anyone else in Trump’s orbit who also may have lied to Congress.
Judge William H. Pauley III said that Cohen pleaded guilty to a “veritable smorgasbord of fraudulent conduct” informed by “personal greed and ambition” and said that each of Cohen’s crimes — which included, among other things, bank fraud, tax fraud and campaign finance violations — was “a serious offense against the United States.”
But Pauley also went out of his way to highlight Cohen’s appearance on Capitol Hill last year, when he lied to the Senate Intelligence Committee about the timing of a Moscow real estate project he negotiated on Trump’s behalf during the 2016 presidential campaign.
“Mr. Cohen’s crimes implicate a far more insidious crime to our democratic institutions especially in view of his subsequent plea to making false statements to Congress,” Pauley noted before giving him a three-year sentence.
Almost two weeks ago, Cohen pleaded guilty to lying about the Moscow venture. Cohen originally told investigators that Trump’s advisers ended talks about the project in January 2016. In fact, Cohen admitted, negotiations continued through June 2016 — well into the heart of the presidential primary season and after it was already clear Trump was going to be the Republican nominee.
All of that creates a possible scenario in which the Trump Organization — and possibly Trump himself — was trading financial favors with Russian interests and using Trump’s candidacy and proximity to the Oval Office to enhance his business. During Wednesday’s hearing, Cohen noted that part of his job profile for Trump included covering up the president’s “dirty deeds.” (Cohen has already produced a recording of Trump discussing hush-money payments to his alleged paramours, and with a prison term ahead of him he will be motivated to give federal prosecutors added help.)
Democrats, whose recent midterm victories will give them control of the House of Representatives in January, have said that Cohen’s guilty plea has reminded them of the need to review previous testimony on Capitol Hill to see if any tall tales might have spilled from the mouths of others in Trump’s circle. Lying to Congress, after all, is a felony.
Should that worry, for example, Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son? Maybe.
Last week, Jackie Speier, a Democratic congresswoman who sits on the House Intelligence Committee, said she believes the president’s son lied to her committee at least twice. She declined to be specific about the alleged dissembling but said that it was “somewhat related to documents that we never were able to subpoena because the Republicans were really the puppets of the president in terms of trying to protect him and not being the independent investigative authority that we should have been.”
Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee are also scrutinizing Trump Jr.’s testimony before them.
According to a transcript of a September 2017 interview with that committee, Trump Jr. was asked about two efforts to craft real estate deals in Russia. One involved Cohen’s effort. Asked about it, the young developer said he knew “very little” other than the fact that his father signed a letter of intent that loosely committed the Trump Organization to the project. Other than that, Trump Jr. said, he “wasn’t involved” in the transaction and was only “peripherally aware of it.”
A second, similar foray involved the Russian developer Aras Agalarov and his son, Emin, that apparently was discussed years before Cohen’s deal. Trump Jr. told the committee that that deal “sort of faded away, I believe at the end of ‘14.”
Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said recently that he now considers Trump Jr.’s testimony to be “evasive and potentially misleading or deceptive.”
Should the prospect of having delivered bogus testimony also worry, for example, Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law? Maybe.
Kushner, in a statement following his testimony before Congress in the summer of 2017, said that his interaction with Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser, and Sergei Kislyak, former Russian ambassador to the U.S., the previous December was an innocent discussion of Syria policy and didn’t include chats about doing Russia a favor by lifting economic sanctions imposed on the country.
Kushner also said a second conversation that Kislyak arranged with a prominent Russian banker in the same month only involved polite discussion about improving U.S.-Russian relations — and didn’t include any discussion of recruiting Russians to invest in the Kushner family’s troubled real estate business.
Perhaps Trump Jr. and Kushner have nothing to fear in all of this, but at a minimum they’ll likely have to prepare themselves for fresh scrutiny in the new year.
In the meantime, they can ponder Michael Cohen’s anguished appearance in a Manhattan federal courtroom on Wednesday.
“I have been leading a personal and mental incarceration ever since the fateful day that I accepted the offer to work for a famous real estate mogul whose business acumen I greatly admired,” Cohen said during the hearing. “There is no sentence that can supersede the suffering I live with on a daily basis knowing that my actions have brought undeserved pain and shame upon my family.”
Timothy L. O’Brien is the executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion. He has been an editor and writer for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, HuffPost and Talk magazine. His books include “TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald.”