Michael Cohen, President Trump’s longtime personal lawyer, admitted Thursday to concealing the extent of Trump’s efforts to develop a luxury hotel and condominium complex in Moscow during the 2016 campaign, the first criminal charge from the special counsel investigation to focus on the president’s personal financial interests.
In a surprise appearance in federal court in New York, Cohen pleaded guilty to making false statements to Congress in an attempt to limit the investigation led by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, which has targeted members of Trump’s inner circle and has now moved closer to the president himself.
Standing in court, Cohen, 52, said he had lied out of “loyalty” to help Trump’s “political messaging.” Cohen, who previously implicated the president in a felony by admitting he had paid hush money to two women at Trump’s direction during the campaign, now poses a doubled-barreled legal threat to the White House.
Two hours after the guilty plea was announced, Trump canceled a scheduled meeting Saturday with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Group of 20 summit in Buenos Aires. Trump blamed a maritime clash last weekend between Russia and Ukraine for the cancellation, not his former lawyer’s plea.
According to a nine-page document filed by prosecutors, Cohen told the Senate and House intelligence committees in August 2017 that, as Trump’s lawyer and an executive vice president of the Trump Organization, he pulled the plug on a proposed development deal in Moscow in January 2016, before the first presidential nominating contest.
But in his guilty plea, Cohen admitted that he pursued the project with Felix Sater, a Russian-born business associate of Trump, through the political primary season until June 2016, when Trump had in effect locked up the Republican nomination. In response to an email from Sater that May, Cohen said Trump would visit Moscow “once he becomes the nominee.”
In addition, Cohen said he had repeatedly briefed Trump and members of his family on the status of the project in Moscow, more than the three conversations he previously had disclosed. He also admitted to conversations with a Russian government office, which he previously had denied.
Trump had signed a letter of intent for the proposed Moscow tower in October 2015, five months after he launched his candidacy.
The president promptly lashed out Thursday by accusing his once devoted lawyer and fixer of being a “weak person” and “making up a story” to win a shorter prison sentence “for things that have nothing to do with me.”
In a rambling statement to reporters before he left for the G-20 summit, Trump said that he canceled the Moscow project because he was focused on running for president.
“If I did do it, there would have been nothing wrong,” he said, adding, “I was allowed to do whatever I wanted during the campaign.”
He also made a candid concession that he wanted to keep potential business opportunities alive in Russia in case he lost to Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee.
“There was a good chance that I wouldn't have won, in which case I would have gone back into the business,” said. “And why should I lose lots of opportunities?”
Cohen’s latest courtroom admissions are a potent reminder that he poses a significant legal problem for the president. He has met with Mueller’s prosecutors seven times since Aug. 7, according to a court filing.
Cohen’s first guilty plea, involving bank fraud, tax evasion and campaign finance violations tied to the hush money payments, was reached with the U.S. attorney in Manhattan.
Thursday’s case marked the first time he’s been charged by Mueller, who is investigating whether any of Trump’s associates conspired with Russian operatives to influence the 2016 election. So far, Mueller has charged 33 people, including 25 Russians, with assorted crimes.
“I think he’s probably familiar with the full panoply of activity by Trump and his people in Russia,” said Bradley D. Simon, a former assistant U.S. attorney in Brooklyn. “So it’s obviously not good news for Trump and his people.’’
The guilty plea does not implicate Cohen in Moscow’s election meddling, which included hacking and releasing thousands of emails stolen from the Democratic Party and Clinton’s staff, disrupting her campaign.
But court documents make clear that Trump was seeking a major business deal in Moscow while Kremlin-backed operatives were covertly involved in the U.S. campaign, according to U.S. intelligence and previous indictments. As the election drew closer, Moscow focused on boosting Trump’s chances and undermining Clinton.
Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former New York mayor who now is a personal lawyer for Trump, said Cohen’s guilty plea doesn’t show that Trump did anything wrong.
In a statement, Giuliani said prosecutors only know that Cohen lied because the Trump Organization, the private holding company for Trump’s network of businesses, “voluntarily disclosed” documents involving the proposed Moscow project, and “there was nothing to hide.”
“The president has been completely open and transparent,” he added.
Trump’s past declarations of ignorance or innocence often have unraveled as new facts emerge. Democrats will control the House of Representatives after January, and they are likely to launch their own investigations into Trump’s business deals and alleged conflicts of interest.
“Anyone who still believes that this is a ‘witch hunt’ must now face the reality that the investigation appears to be closing in on the president,” Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), the incoming chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said in a statement.
Trump has escalated his attacks on the special counsel’s office in recent weeks, raging against the Russia investigation in early morning Twitter tirades.
“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?” Trump tweeted Thursday before the Cohen guilty plea was revealed.
He added, “It has proven only one thing-there was NO Collusion with Russia. So Ridiculous!”
Since launching his presidential campaign, Trump has repeatedly denied any financial interests in Russia.
“Russia has never tried to use leverage over me. I HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH RUSSIA - NO DEALS, NO LOANS, NO NOTHING!" he tweeted in January 2017.
Two decades earlier, Trump had a decidedly different view.
“We are actually looking at something in Moscow right now, and it would be skyscrapers and hotels, not casinos,” Trump said, according to a New Yorker profile in 1997. “Only quality stuff.”
More recently, at a 2008 business conference in New York, Trump's eldest son described Russia as an important market for the Trump Organization. “We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia,” Donald Trump Jr. told the gathering.
While pursuing the Moscow project during the presidential campaign, Cohen teamed up with Sater, a businessman with a criminal past who had an office at Trump Tower in New York.
During a bar fight in 1991, Sater stabbed a man with a broken margarita glass and subsequently served a year in prison. Seven years later, he pleaded guilty to racketeering during a stock fraud investigation and cut a deal to help the FBI as an informant.
In the court filings, Cohen described Sater as an “intermediary” who helped connect Trump with a Russian developer to advance the project proposal in Moscow.
In May 2016, Sater wrote to Cohen that "I had a chat with Moscow" involving a possible visit to Russia on the project, prosecutors said. Cohen responded that he would visit before the Republican National Convention that July, and Trump would go "once he becomes the nominee."
Cohen’s guilty plea marks the first time in the Russia investigation that someone has been charged with lying to Congress, a felony that is rarely prosecuted.
But Mueller has demonstrated that he will pursue cases involving false statements. Four people, including Trump’s former national security advisor, Michael Flynn, have pleaded guilty to lying to FBI agents so far.
Other indictments or guilty pleas may be forthcoming. The Senate Intelligence Committee has occasionally provided Mueller with transcripts of its closed-door interviews for the Russia investigation, but Republicans have so far blocked similar releases from the House Intelligence Committee.
Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), who is set to take over the committee in January, told The Times he plans to turn over the transcripts “immediately.”
"There's certainly reason to believe that other people who have testified before the committee have likewise been untruthful,” he said.
Schiff said that includes Roger Stone, a longtime political advisor to Trump who has been under scrutiny for alleged contacts with WikiLeaks, which released hacked Democratic Party emails. Stone has denied lying to Congress or breaking any laws.