Michael Cohen pleads guilty to lying to Senate about Trump Tower project in Russia
President says Trump Tower project in Moscow not a secret, rules out Putin sideline meeting at G20
Michael Cohen, U.S. President Donald Trump's former lawyer, pleaded guilty early Thursday to lying to Congress about work he did on a Trump real estate deal in Russia.
Cohen made a surprise appearance Thursday in a New York courtroom at around 9 a.m. ET and began entering the plea.
He admitted to making false statements in 2017 to the Senate intelligence committee about a plan to build a Trump Tower in Moscow.
Cohen said he lied about the timing of the tower negotiations and other details to be consistent with Trump's "political message."
Cohen said that among other lies, he told Congress that all discussions of the Moscow Trump Tower project ended by January 2016, when they had actually continued until June of that year, as Trump was securing the Republican nomination for president.
Putin aware of project: Cohen
Cohen also said he sent an email to the spokesperson for Russian President Vladimir Putin as part of the potential deal.
In his statement, Cohen said he worked on the real estate proposal with Felix Sater, a Russia-born associate who he said claimed to have deep connections in Moscow.
The discussions about the potential development began after Trump had declared his candidacy. Cohen had said the talks ended when he determined that the project was not feasible.
Cohen had also disclosed that Trump was personally aware of the deal, signing a letter of intent and discussing it with Cohen on two other occasions.
Even if he was right, it doesn't matter because I was allowed to do whatever I wanted during the campaign.- Donald Trump
Speaking to reporters at the White House before departing for the G20 summit in Argentina, Trump called Cohen "a weak person" and said his former lawyer was just trying to finagle a more lenient sentence from prosecutors.
"When I'm running for president, that doesn't mean I'm not allowed to do business," said Trump.
"Even if [Cohen] was right, it doesn't matter because I was allowed to do whatever I wanted during the campaign," he claimed at another point.
Kremlin now says they contacted Cohen
Trump said the potential project was well documented, and he emphasized that the plan was abandoned.
"There was a good chance that I wouldn't have won, in which case I would have gone back into the business, and why should I lose lots of opportunities?" Trump said.
Based on the fact that the ships and sailors have not been returned to Ukraine from Russia, I have decided it would be best for all parties concerned to cancel my previously scheduled meeting....—@realDonaldTrump
The Kremlin had indicated early Thursday Trump would meet with Putin on the sidelines of the G20.
Soon after speaking to reporters at the White House, Trump said on Twitter he would not meet Putin separately at the summit, citing Russia's seizure of Ukrainian vessels on Nov. 25.
In a statement, Putin's spokesperson Dmitry Peskov confirmed that Cohen had made contact with the Russian administration about a Trump building project but was told in response, "we have nothing to do with construction issues in the city of Moscow."
Peskov downplayed the Cohen request as one of dozens of emails from around the world the Russians receive every week.
The statement marked a shift compared to what Peskov said in August 2017, in which he indicated the message was unreturned.
"Because we do not react to such [questions about] business themes, and this is not our job, we left this matter without a response," Peskov said then.
Cohen's prosecution in New York arose from the work of Robert Mueller, who as special counsel was given the job of probing "any links and/or co-ordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump; and any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation."
One of the prosecutors working with Mueller was in the courtroom Thursday.
There is no clear link in the court filings between Cohen's lies and Mueller's central question of whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia. And nothing said in court, or in associated court filings, addressed whether Trump or his aides had directed Cohen to mislead Congress.
Still, the case underscores how Trump's business entity, the Trump Organization, was negotiating business in Moscow at the same time investigators say Russians were meddling on his behalf in the 2016 election, and that associates of the president were mining Russian connections during the race.
Democrats want to protect Mueller
On Capitol Hill, Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia called it "remarkable that you had the president's personal lawyer still dealing on a Trump Tower project through the whole [presidential] campaign."
Cohen is among a number of people in Trump's orbit who have pleaded guilty to criminal charges. The list also includes his former presidential campaign chair, Paul Manafort, and Manafort's colleague, Rick Gates, former national security adviser Michael Flynn and campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos, who began serving a short prison sentence this week.
"There seems to be a trend here amongst so many of the president's closest allies, that they don't tell the truth, although we've also got a White House that seems on a daily basis not to have its facts straight," said Warner, a member of the Senate intelligence committee.
Warner stressed that the Mueller investigation must be allowed to proceed to its completion and strongly suggested that Matthew Whitaker, the interim attorney general who was accused of having prejudged the Mueller probe, should recuse himself from any Russia inquiries.
So far, Republican Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has resisted calls from colleagues to use legislation to theoretically protect Mueller from firing.
"This is a solution in search of a problem," McConnell said on Tuesday. "The president is not going to fire Robert Mueller."
Earlier plea involved payments to women
Cohen pleaded guilty in August to eight separate charges, including campaign finance violations that he said he carried out in co-ordination with Trump.
At that time, Cohen said he secretly used shell companies to make payments used to silence former Playboy model Karen McDougal and adult-film actress Stormy Daniels for the purpose of influencing the 2016 election. The women have claimed they had affairs with Trump after the real estate mogul married his third wife, Melania.
Trump has insisted he only found out about the payments after they were made, despite the release of a September 2016 recorded conversation in which Trump and Cohen can be heard discussing a deal to pay McDougal for her story of a 2006 affair.
Trump derided Cohen at that time for co-operating with prosecutors and turning state's evidence, which is a staple of the criminal justice system.
"It's called flipping and it almost should be illegal," Trump said. "In all fairness to him, most people are going to do that."
He downplayed his involvement with Cohen, who worked for him for a decade, saying he was just a "part-time attorney" with many other clients.
On Thursday, he was asked why he retained Cohen for so long.
"Because a long time ago he did me a favour," Trump said, without offering specifics.
While Trump has mused about not being opposed to offering a presidential pardon to Manafort, Cohen's prosecution at the state level would make him ineligible for a pardon.
1) <a href="https://twitter.com/MichaelCohen212?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@MichaelCohen212</a> this morning reaffirmed what he said last July 2 and told me many times since — that he decided to put his wife, daughter, son and country first. Today he again told the truth and nothing but the truth. <a href="https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@realDonaldTrump</a> called him a liar. Who do you believe?—@LannyDavis
The latest development comes with the Democrats set to take control of the House in January. The party's leadership has promised to vigorously pursue areas of investigation into Trump's finances and Trump team contacts with foreign actors, having accused the Republicans of choosing party loyalty over proper oversight the past two years.
Reacting to the plea to the new charges, outgoing House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Republican, said Cohen "should be prosecuted to the extent of the law. That's why we put people under oath."
Back in Manhattan, Cohen's lawyer, Guy Petrillo, noted that a letter from federal prosecutors showed that Cohen's co-operation with Mueller will be described to Cohen's sentencing judge. However, the letter makes clear that Cohen, 52, is not receiving the kind of "5K1.1" letter written on behalf of formal government co-operators.
Another Cohen lawyer, Lanny Davis, said on Twitter that Cohen "told the truth and nothing but the truth."
With files from CBC News