By entering into his first plea deal with special counsel Robert Mueller on Thursday, Michael Cohen drew the federal Russia investigation closer to his one-time boss, President Donald Trump.
In a major development in that probe, Cohen’s criminal information linked Trump’s foreign business interests with his 2016 campaign for president. It puts Cohen in touch with Trump, Trump’s family and high-level Russian government officials about efforts to develop a new project in Moscow just months before Election Day.
Cohen pleaded guilty at federal court in Manhattan Thursday to willfully lying about those contacts during interviews with the House and Senate Intelligence Committees last year, and the court documents reveal that Cohen met with Mueller’s team at least seven times since August.
“This basically reflects that Michael Cohen is cooperating on the central focus of the Mueller investigation, which is the conspiracy between the Russian government and the Trump campaign,” former federal prosecutor Nick Akerman told TPM.
“It goes right to the bulls-eye of what Mueller’s looking at,” Akerman added.
Another former federal prosecutor, Harry Sandick, pointed out that getting these damning details out in the open allows Mueller to keep the public appraised of some of what his investigation has turned up. Sandick said that while there is great expectation that Mueller will release some sort of report, the special counsel regulations don’t guarantee that any such report would be made public.
“I think that this is the report in real time,” Sandick told TPM.
Trump and his attorney, Rudy Giuliani, downplayed the news, claiming Cohen is lying about the Moscow project in order to reduce his prison sentence. Cohen already faces another four to five years in prison in a separate case brought by the U.S. Attorney’s office in Manhattan. He pleaded guilty to a slew of financial crimes, including campaign finance violations stemming from hush money payments Cohen made to women on Trump’s behalf.
Cohen has emerged as the greatest threat to Trump as the special counsel and congressional committees continue to dig into the President’s financial and business ties to Russia.
Per the criminal information, Trump’s former attorney lied about the Moscow project to “minimize links between the Moscow Project and Individual 1,” who is identifiable from the document as Trump. Cohen falsely suggested that work on the project ended before the January 2016 Iowa caucus “in hopes of limiting the ongoing Russia investigations,” Mueller’s team alleged.
Former federal prosecutor Patrick Cotter told TPM that the filing made it clear that the special counsel trusted Cohen’s version of events.
“Cohen’s status with the special prosecutor was very ambiguous until apparently recently, and I think that this is a recognition that, they’ve gone from sort of frenemies to really on the same team,” Cotter said. “He’s 100 percent cooperating and the prosecutors appeared to have become pretty comfortable with what he’s saying and that what he is saying is credible.”
The filing comes days after Trump submitted his written responses to Mueller’s questions about his involvement with Russia as a presidential candidate. The Wall Street Journal reported that the President was specifically asked “about his communications with Cohen about the Moscow project during the campaign.”
It’s unclear if Trump provided answers on that specific topic. It’s also not yet known exactly what Cohen told Trump and his family members—who are not identified by name in the information—about the Moscow project planning.
But the document claims that Cohen “discussed the status and progress” of the project with Trump more than just on “the three occasions” he admitted to the Senate Intelligence Committee, and that he “briefed family members of Individual 1 within the Company about the project.”
Cotter said that it was significant that a by-the-books prosecutor like Mueller referenced Trump’s family explicitly, rather than using a typical prosecutorial “term of art” like “individuals known and not known to the grand jury.”
“That has to be seen as a message directed at not only other members of the Trump family, but anybody that had anything to do with any of these cases that I, Mueller know a lot, I’ve got a lot of information, and you really really shouldn’t lie to me because you could lie to me about something you think that I’ll never know, but in fact I do,” he told TPM.
According to court documents, planning for the Moscow project, which Cohen coordinated with longtime Trump associate and mob-linked felon Felix Sater, continued through June 2016—a month after Trump became the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.
Cohen allegedly asked Trump directly if he would travel to Russia to pursue the project, and reached out to “a senior campaign official about potential business travel to Russia.”
Cohen also worked with the office of Dmitry Peskov, President Putin’s spokesman and top deputy, to try to hammer out the details of the project.
Sater claimed that Peskov invited Cohen to attend a June 2016 conference in St. Petersburg where he’d have the opportunity to meet with Putin or Russia’s Prime Minister, according to an exchange included in information. They had multiple discussions about the possible trip between May 4 and June 14, 2016.
All of these new details contradict what Trump has said about his business dealings with Russia. In July 2016, he said that he had “zero” investments in and “nothing to do with” the country.
It’s unclear if Donald Trump Jr., who worked at the family company at the time and now manages day-to-day operations with his brother Eric, is one of the family members mentioned in the information. Trump Jr. testified to Congress last year that he knew “very little” about the Moscow deal. He said he was only “peripherally aware” of the Moscow project, and knew about it mainly from press reports.
Former prosecutors say Thursday’s news provides even more evidence that Cohen provides the thread connecting all of the matters imperiling Trump’s presidency: Russia, hush money payoffs, and the Trump Organization’s sketchy finances. Already, according to ABC News, he has provided more than 70 hours of testimony to Mueller’s team.
As Cohen’s attorney Guy Petrillo told reporters outside the courthouse Thursday, “Mr. Cohen is cooperating, Mr. Cohen will continue to cooperate.”