NEW YORK/WASHINGTON (REUTERS) – Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s former longtime personal lawyer, pleaded guilty on Thursday (Nov 29) to lying to Congress about a proposed Trump Organisation skyscraper in Moscow, prompting Mr Trump to lash out at Cohen as a “liar” and “weak person”.
The plea stemmed from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 election and whether the Trump campaign conspired with Moscow to boost his chances, and put new pressure on the president.
Cohen, who in the past described himself as Mr Trump’s “fixer", entered his guilty plea in federal court in Manhattan to one count of making false statements to two congressional committees about a real estate project Mr Trump was pursuing while running for president in 2016.
Not long after Cohen entered his plea, Mr Trump cancelled a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin scheduled to take place in Argentina during the upcoming summit for the Group of 20 industrialised nations, citing the current Ukraine crisis.
Cohen said in court that in 2017 he submitted a written statement to Congress saying all efforts relating to the real estate project in Moscow had ceased by January 2016. He said that in fact these efforts continued until June 2016, after Mr Trump had clinched the Republican presidential nomination.
The proposal to build a skyscraper bearing Mr Trump’s name in the Russian capital ultimately did not materialise.
Cohen provided false statements to both the Senate and House intelligence committees to create the false impression the Moscow real estate project had ended by the time the political primary season began, the charging document said.
“He’s a weak person and not a very smart person,” Mr Trump told reporters of Cohen. “He’s got himself a big prison sentence. And he’s trying to get a much lesser prison sentence by making up this story.”
Mr Trump, who last week submitted written answers to questions posed in Mueller investigation, called the project a “deal that didn’t happen” mostly because he was busy running for president, but defended its propriety.
“Now here’s the thing. Even if he was right, it doesn’t matter because I was allowed to do whatever I wanted during the campaign. I was running my business, a lot of different things during the campaign,” Mr Trump added.
Cohen said that in his statement to Congress, he claimed to have had limited contact with Mr Trump concerning the project, when in fact it had been “more extensive”.
Cohen also said he falsely told Congress he never took any steps toward travelling to Russia, when in fact he had discussed travelling there, although he never did.
“I made these mis-statements to be consistent with individual 1’s political messaging and out of loyalty to individual 1,” Cohen said in court. He previously identified individual 1 as Mr Trump.
Asked whether there was anything in the answers to questions from Mr Mueller that Mr Trump submitted that contradicts Cohen on the Moscow project, Mr Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani told Reuters in a text message: “Not that I know of.”
In August, Cohen pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations, tax evasion and bank fraud in a case brought by federal prosecutors in New York.
Mr Putin’s spokesman said in August 2017 that he had received an e-mail in January 2016 from Cohen about a Moscow real estate project, but said he had neither replied nor discussed it with Mr Putin.
The Washington Post reported last year that Cohen had e-mailed Mr Dmitry Peskov, Mr Putin’s spokesman, seeking his help in advancing a stalled Trump Tower development project in Moscow at the same time Mr Trump was running for president.
Mr Peskov said at the time that Cohen had written about “a certain Russian company and certain people” who wanted to build a skyscraper in Moscow and wanted his help in making the stalled project a reality.
‘TAKE A BULLET’
Mr Mueller, who took over the Russia investigation from the FBI in May 2017, has brought criminal charges against a series of former Trump aides and associates, including his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and former national security adviser Michael Flynn, as well as Russian individuals and entities.
Cohen has previously said he would “take a bullet” for the president. Mr Trump has sought to distance himself from Cohen despite their long association.
Cohen testified in August that Mr Trump had directed him to commit a crime by arranging payments to silence two women who alleged before the 2016 election that they had affairs with Mr Trump. Adult-film star Stormy Daniels was given US$130,000 (S$178,000) and former Playboy model Karen McDougal was paid US$150,000.
Cohen pleaded guilty in August to eight criminal charges including tax evasion, bank fraud and campaign finance violations.
Mr Trump said in October that Cohen’s testimony was “totally false” and he minimised Cohen’s role working for him, describing him as “a PR person who did small legal work”.
Cohen left the courthouse on Thursday without speaking to reporters.
The Mueller investigation has cast a cloud over Mr Trump’s presidency. Mr Trump has called it a witch hunt.
“When will this illegal Joseph McCarthy style Witch Hunt, one that has shattered so many innocent lives, ever end-or will it just go on forever?” Mr Trump wrote on Twitter on Thursday before Cohen entered his plea, referring to a US senator who led an anti-communist crusade in the 1950s.
“Did you ever see an investigation more in search of a crime?”
Asked by reporters if she was concerned about Cohen’s plea, top House of Representatives Democrat Nancy Pelosi said, “Of course. He lied to the American people.”
Mr Mueller’s team said on Monday that Manafort had breached his plea deal by lying to federal investigators.
Mr Trump said on Wednesday that he had not ruled out granting a pardon to Manafort, who has pleaded guilty to a range of federal charges from money laundering to unregistered lobbying.
Professor Joshua Dressler, an Ohio State University law professor, noted that Cohen’s plea came after Mr Trump submitted his written responses to Mr Mueller.
“If Trump was asked anything relating to the matters about which Cohen has now admitted he lied, then the president could be found to have lied to the special prosecutor, which is a crime and impeachable offense,” Mr Dressler said.
Cohen’s lawyer, Mr Lanny Davis, noted that Mr Trump called his client a liar.
“Who do you believe?” Mr Davis asked on Twitter.