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Surprise Michael Cohen guilty plea signals something big may be brewing in Mueller probe

A closer look at the day's most notable stories with The National's Jonathon Gatehouse: Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian election tampering is heating up; Canadian economy reality check; Indian national women's hockey team makes an epic road trip to play in Calgary.

Newsletter: A closer look at the day's most notable stories

Michael Cohen, former personal attorney to President Donald Trump, exits the federal court in New York City on Thursday. At the hearing, Cohen pleaded guilty to making false statements to Congress about a Moscow real estate project Trump pursued during the 2016 presidential campaign. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Welcome to The National Today newsletter, which takes a closer look at what's happening around some of the day's most notable stories. Sign up here and it will be delivered directly to your inbox Monday to Friday.


  • Michael Cohen's surprise guilty plea today sparks speculation that Robert Mueller's investigation into alleged Russian tampering with the 2016 U.S. election may be heating up.
  • How's the Canadian economy doing? It's a matter of perspective.
  • India's national women's hockey team makes an epic road trip to play in Hayley Wickenheiser's tournament in Calgary.
  • Missed The National last night? Watch it here.

Toying with Trump

In the 18 months that special counsel Robert Mueller has been probing Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, there has been one, big Watergate-style question hanging over Washington.

What does he know and when will he show it?

The events of the past few days suggest a two-part answer — quite a bit, and very soon.

Robert Mueller, seen in this 2008 file photo, has been investigating allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, including possible collusion with the Trump campaign. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

This morning in Manhattan, Donald Trump's former lawyer Michael Cohen made a surprise appearance in U.S. District Court to plead guilty to a new charge of making false statements to Congress.

Cohen, who is cooperating with Mueller's office, had already copped to several crimes in Trump's service. They include:

  • Making a $130,000 US hush-money payment to porn actress Stormy Daniels.
  • Arranging for a friendly tabloid publisher to buy and bury the story of an ex-Playboy model who also claimed to have had an affair with the man who is now U.S. president.

Both actions count as illegal campaign contributions, and Cohen faces four to five years in jail.

But today's plea goes to the heart of what Mueller has been probing over the past year-and-a-half — whether Trump had undisclosed ties to the Russian government, and whether his campaign colluded with the Kremlin to boost his chances in the 2016 vote.

The nine-page charge sheet details how Cohen "misled" two U.S. Congressional committees when he claimed that a planned Trump real estate venture in Moscow fell apart at the very beginning of the campaign in January 2016. It also indicates he lied when he said he never succeeded in making contact with Vladimir Putin's office.

Cohen now admits that discussions carried on into June 2016, and that the Russian President's office did respond to his request for help in securing land and financing for the project; a gaudy, glass tower that would soar above every building in Moscow and have Trump's name at the very top.

Mueller has spent a year and a half investigating whether Trump had undisclosed ties to the Russian government, and whether his campaign colluded with the Kremlin. (Jim Young/Reuters; Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik/Associated Press)

He also reveals that plans were afoot to send Trump to Russia mid-campaign to hammer out a deal and perhaps meet with Putin.

Some of this simply confirms what was already reported in the Washington Post a year ago, and fleshed out in a Buzzfeed investigation this past spring.

However, Mueller now appears to have a witness who will testify that the president lied when he claimed that he had no business dealings in Russia and that discussions about the project ended at a very preliminary stage.

That shouldn't come as a shock, given that Trump has dissembled and deceived more than 3,800 times in the two years since the election.

Yet paired with some other recent developments, it suggests that Mueller is rapidly building both collusion and obstruction of justice cases against the U.S. president.

Last week, Jerome Corsi, a right-wing conspiracy theorist and political gadfly, shared a document that Mueller's office had prepared as part of possible deal for his testimony. The draft suggested that Trump might have had prior warning of Wikileaks' October 2016 dump of Hillary Clinton campaign emails — stolen by Russian hackers — via Corsi's communications with his longtime friend and advisor Roger Stone.

And then on Monday, it emerged that Mueller's cooperation deal with Trump's former campaign manager Paul Manafort has unravelled because he reportedly lied and breached his plea agreement.

Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort arrives at the courthouse in Washington for a hearing on June 15. Mueller's cooperation deal with Manafort has unravelled because he reportedly lied and breached his plea agreement. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

That might sound like a big setback for the special prosecutor, but the timing of the announcement — just a couple of days after Trump finally supplied written answers to the special prosecutor's questions about Russia, the campaign, and the firing of FBI Director James Comey — has raised some eyebrows.

Sharp-eyed observers have noted that Manafort's plea deal omitted a standard clause about not sharing information with third parties. An oversight that his lawyer apparently exploited in regular meetings with White House legal staff.

That could just have been an uncharacteristic mistake by Mueller.

The other, more tantalizing possibility is that the special prosecutor deliberately left it out to set a trap, hoping that lies he already knew Manafort was telling would line up with the president's written testimony.

Something is clearly bugging Trump.

He has taken to Twitter on four straight mornings now to loudly denounce Mueller's investigation.

Today's broadside came at 6:54 a.m.

The special prosecutor does seem to have game.

This morning's surprise Cohen plea came a couple of hours later, just before Trump was scheduled to board Air Force One for the 11-hour flight to the G20 in Buenos Aires.

The president was unable to resist the urge to tell his side of the story to the press immediately, holding a lengthy scrum in which he lambasted Cohen as a "weak" and "not very smart person," while maintaining that his Russian real estate play was all above board.

U.S. President Donald Trump answers questions from the press Thursday before departing the White House in Washington to attend the G20 summit in Argentina. Trump answered numerous queries regarding his former attorney Michael Cohen's court appearance and testimony. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

"Everybody knew" about the deal, Trump said, erroneously suggesting that it had been written about in newspapers. Besides, he added, "there would've been nothing wrong if I did do it."

But something curious happened just before Trump took off for Argentina.

He sent out another tweet, cancelling a planned face-to-face meeting with Russia's Vladimir Putin.

At Issue

How's the Canadian economy doing? It's a matter of perspective, writes Rosemary Barton.

I've been on the road a bit this week doing interviews (to air soon), and whether it was Rick Mercer or the people I met in New York City, all had things to say about the closure of the General Motors plant in Oshawa.

The question of what happens next to the town, the 2,500 workers and all the other jobs that are reliant on the auto industry is not clear.

But the union says it won't back down. And the federal government says it will do what it can to help.

A global restructuring plan seems hard to stop. But no matter what happens, it's safe to say GM has burned its chances of getting a second government bailout.

GM workers gather for a meeting at UNIFOR Local 222 near the General Motors assembly plant in Oshawa, Ont., on Monday after the company announced it would close the factory. (Carlos Osorio/Reuters)

Meanwhile, the oil industry in Alberta is struggling and also searching for a solution to save jobs.

Speaking with our pal Paul Wells last night, Premier Rachel Notley said the Alberta economy is being held hostage because oil can't be moved out of the province to buyers.

She wants the federal government to help her buy rail cars to get the oil moving. Of course, the feds have already purchased a pipeline, so Notley's request is likely not all that appealing.

Notley is also gearing up to fight an election against Jason Kenney, who yesterday called for a 10 per cent cap on oil production in the province to help buoy prices.

All of this, and yet Ottawa's latest economic update assures us the economy is going gangbusters and Canada has the highest growth in the G7.

That may well be, but there are big economic troubles at our door, and how the government responds will inevitably have a political price.

We will somehow tackle all of this in 12 minutes tonight on At Issue. Chantal Hébert, Andrew Coyne and Jason Markusoff will be there, hope you will be too.

- Rosemary Barton

  • WATCH: At Issue tonight on The National on CBC Television and streamed online   

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Epic hockey road trip

Reporter Erin Collins has been covering India's national women's hockey team at Hayley Wickenheiser's tournament in Calgary.

Hockey season is well under way in this country, which means players across Canada are hitting the ice, dragging their gear to far-off tournaments and dreaming of on-ice glory. But I'd wager that very few would travel 12,000 kilometres to play the game they love.

It takes a dedication bordering on obsession for that, a passion the women on a team from the Himalayas of Northern India clearly have.

Women who play hockey in Ladakh, India, had to battle traditional social stereotypes to play the game they love. (Hayley Wickenheiser)

India's national women's hockey team made the long trip to Calgary to play in Wickfest, one of the top hockey tournaments in the world for girls. India's best women are facing off against teenagers, even though many are in their mid-twenties and are doctors, teachers and PhD students.

Despite the age advantage, though, they are serious underdogs on the ice.

I was able to spend several days getting to know the team as they played games, practiced, and experienced life on the ice in hockey-mad Canada.

Like any team playing on the road, India leans heavily on goalie Noor Jahan. It's a challenge that Jahan, who is completing a doctorate in art conservation when she isn't stopping pucks, relishes.

"We always say the goalie is the backbone of the team — it's a lot of pressure, but a good pressure."

As defenceman Diskit Angmo slips on her skates inside a posh dressing room at the Winsport facility in Calgary where Canada's Olympic teams practice, she's in awe of her surroundings.

"It's like a dream, you know? I'm going to cherish this for all of my life."

Diskit Angmo, who plays defence for India's national women's ice hockey team, during pre-game prep at Wickfest in Calgary. (Erin Collins/CBC)

The remarkable journey they took to get here started in Ladakh, a region in Northern India high up in the Himalayan Mountains that might be as crazy about hockey as Canada. But in Ladakh, hockey has traditionally been a man's game, and female players struggled to find gear and ice time.

When the women from Ladakh couldn't get onto the outdoor rink dominated by the local men's teams, they simply built their own.

A YouTube video attempting to raise funds for Ladakh's female hockey players caught the eye of Canadian Olympian Hayley Wickenheiser. The winner of four Olympic hockey golds says she can relate to the challenges the women of Team India faced just to play the game.

"It's kind of how I grew up in Saskatchewan — those outdoor rinks, you've got to find a way to make your own ice, it's frickin cold."

She made some calls and went to Ladakh herself, handing out 73 bags of gear and running practices while she was there.

Olympian Hayley Wickenheiser watches a hockey practice in in Ladakh, a region in Northern India high up in the Himalayan Mountains. (Hayley Wickenheiser)

"These girls have had to fight for everything," Wickenheiser told me. "It's not traditional for a woman to play hockey, like it wasn't when I started, so imagine what it is like to be in the Indian Himalayas."

She also figured out how to get Team India to Canada to play in her Wickfest tournament. And as they took to the the pristine Olympic-size rink in Calgary, their biggest fan was in the stands watching.

On the ice at Wickfest, Team India lost five to nothing in their opening game. Afterwards there were some tears in the dressing room, but a pep talk from Wickenheiser put the game in perspective.

For these players, just being here is a win.

"Everyone here is proud of what you are doing. You are actually making it a lot easier for girls in your part of the world to do anything," Wickenheiser told them.

Inspiring a nation of young women is no small task. Luckily, the team got some inspiration of their own while visiting Calgary: front-row seats to watch some of the biggest stars in the game prepare for the Battle of Alberta. The looks on the women's faces as they watched the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers practice was a mixture of awe and pure joy.

A great day, capped off by a tour of the teams' dressing rooms and an opportunity to meet the greatest hockey player of all time, Wayne Gretzky.

India's national women's ice hockey team meets Wayne Gretzky in Calgary. (Erin Collins/CBC)

But this trip and this team are about much more than hockey. Goaltender Noor Jahan says that playing the game she loves has meant overcoming the stereotypical role of women.

"We are told that you are supposed to get married and start a family at a very early age. Maybe for some people this is not something that they want, and I think now seeing us going outside like this and playing for the nation, it's a big deal."

Game two starts off better for India — both teams trade chances and then early in the first, it happens. India scores to take a one-goal lead, and the celebration is on.

The women from Ladakh would score twice more, but eventually lose the game. They wouldn't score again in the tournament, finishing last but winning over fans everywhere they went.

With the tournament behind them, they continued to use any chance they could get in Calgary to run full practices, skating, stickhandling and shooting. Honing skills and techniques they will take home to India, where Diskit Angmo says the team will share what they've learned with other hockey players.

India's national women's ice hockey team goalie Noor Jahan at the Wickfest tournament in Calgary. She says her team's trip to Canada is a 'big deal' in terms of setting an example for young people in the community. (Erin Collins/CBC)

"We are going back to the hotel and noting down everything, whatever we are learning. And definitely, we are going to use it back home when we coach the younger kids, especially the girls, and we do our own coaching camps."

As Team India's time in Canada winds down, they receive one last gift — a chance to hoist the sport's Holy Grail. At one of the team's last practices the Stanley Cup is brought out on the ice and each player takes their turn skating with the cup. A fitting end to a truly epic hockey road trip.

- Erin Collins

  • WATCH: Erin Collins' story about India's national women's ice hockey team tonight on The National on CBC Television and streamed online

A few words on ... 

A safe meeting place for divided families along the Canada-U.S. border.

Quote of the moment

"This case is not closed as far as Canada is concerned. We are clear that a credible and transparent investigation has not happened and it needs to happen."

- Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, speaking to reporters at the G20 Summit Buenos Aires this morning, as she unveiled sanctions against 17 Saudi nationals believed "responsible for or complicit in" the killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland speaks to media at the Panamericano Hotel in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on Thursday, at the G20 Summit. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

What The National is reading

  • Global temperatures on track to rise 3C to 5C by 2100, UN warns (CBC)
  • Another Canadian diplomat in Cuba affected by mysterious brain injury (CBC)
  • Deutsche Bank headquarters raided over money laundering (BBC)
  • Ukraine urges NATO to deploy ships amid Russia standoff (CBC)
  • Crisis in Dublin: 30,000 empty homes and nowhere to live (Guardian)
  • Russian bank 'mistakenly' loans $12 billion to Central African Republic (Africanews)
  • The struggle to save the coffee industry from climate disaster (Medium)
  • Researchers build smart dress to show how often women are groped in clubs (Quartz)

Today in history

Nov. 29, 2002: Bodies in the Chevy

Bank robber Edwin Alonzo Boyd gained famed for good looks and daring jailbreaks. But there were suggestions that he had an even darker past. In 2002, shortly before his death at age 88, Boyd told journalist Brian Vallée about a "big mistake" early in his criminal career where he had to "do away with" two people. Vallée came to believe that Boyd was speaking about the September 1947 murders of Iris Scott and her married boyfriend George Vigus. Their bodies were found in the locked trunk of a Chevy Coupe in Toronto's High Park. To this day, the crime remains unsolved.

Could Edwin Alonzo Boyd have been a murderer? One journalist believes he has a taped confession. 11:09

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About the Author

Jonathon Gatehouse

Jonathon Gatehouse

Has covered news and politics at home and abroad, reporting from dozens of countries. He has also written extensively about sports, including seven Olympic Games and a best-selling book on the business of pro-hockey.