The president condemned his former attorney Michael Cohen as a liar on Thursday, less than an hour after his longtime legal confidant pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about Trump’s exploration of a real estate venture in Russia during the entire time he was slicing through the 2016 Republican primary field.
The Trump Tower project in Moscow never got off the ground, but the Trump Organization didn’t shelve it until June 2016, long after the future president had locked up the GOP’s White House nomination.
The revelation is giving Trump’s Democratic adversaries new reasons to trumpet their belief that the president has long maintained ties with Russia that he hasn’t acknowledged.
With Mueller’s Russia probe appearing to gather steam and House Democrats eager to wield subpoena power when they take over in January, pressures on the White House are intensifying.
An hour after Cohen emerged from a Manhattan courthouse, Trump canceled a planned one-on-one meeting with Vladimir Putin that was to have occurred during this week’s G20 summit in Argentina. The White House said the move was a reaction to the Russian navy firing on and seizing three of Urkaine’s ships in contested waters.
One detail inthe Cohen case could be especially damaging to the president: Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team charged that Cohen had promised Trump would visit Moscow personally to pitch the building project, but not until after the 2016 Republican National Convention when he would have the security of being the GOP’s presidential nominee.
The president was combative on Thursday, saying as he left the White House that Cohen is ‘making up a story’ and ‘lying, very simply, to get a reduced sentence.’
‘He’s a weak person and not a very smart person,’ Trump told reporters, contending that ‘he’s trying to get a much lesser prison sentence by making up a story.’
Cohen admitted falsely telling House and Senate Intelligence Committee investigators earlier this year that the Moscow project didn’t extend past January 2016.
Prosecutors wrote in a charging document that Cohen lied in order to ‘minimize links’ between Trump and his proposal, and to ‘give the false impression that the Moscow Project ended in early 2016 before “the Iowa caucus and the very first primary,” in hopes of limiting the ongoing Russia investigations.’
Trump said before boarding his Marine One helicopter that even if Cohen were telling the truth, ‘it doesn’t matter. Because I was allowed to do whatever I wanted during the campaign. I was running my business.’
He said ‘I’m not worried at all’ about the implications of Cohen’s actions, and boasted that he would have resumed work on the Moscow undertaking if he had lost the election to Hillary Clinton.
Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani told The New York Times on Thursday that when the president supplied Mueller with written answers to his questions a week ago, he documented his conversations with Cohen about the Moscow project.
‘The president said there was a proposal, it was discussed with Cohen, there was a non-binding letter of intent and it didn’t go beyond that,’ Giuliani said.
Asked Thursday at the White House why he ever hired Cohen for a top-tier Trump Organization job in the first place, given his recent characterization of the attorney as dishonest, Trump responded: ‘Because a long time ago he did me a favor.’
Cohen helped Trump in 2003 during a dispute with condominium owners in Trump World Tower. He had hiked condo fees by tens of thousands of dollars per unit in order to recoup legal expenses from suing New York City in a case that resulted in $94 million in tax savings for the building.
Rep. Adam Schiff, a California Democrat who will take over the reins of the House Intelligence Committee in January, blasted Cohen and Trump on Twitter.
‘To help Trump, Cohen lied to Congress about Trump’s business interests in Russia. The President’s own denials during the campaign were also false or misleading, and underscore the importance of investigating any financial entanglement between Trump and Russia,’ Schiff wrote.
Dianne Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said that Cohen’s plea ‘shows that the Trump family did have business dealings in Russia despite President Trump’s repeated statements to the contrary.’
‘It raises serious questions about the president’s relationship with Russia and whether he and his family have been honest,’ she said in a statement.
Democrats also howled on Wednesday when Trump confirmed that a pardon for Paul Manafort, his former campaign chairman, is ‘not off the table.’
‘It was never discussed, but I wouldn’t take it off the table. Why would I take it off the table?’ the president said in an interview.
Manafort is awaiting formal sentencing for making millions representing Russian oligarchs and a Ukrainian strongman without registering as a foreign agent in the U.S., and without paying taxes on the income. The crimes occurred years before he and Trump met.
A pardon is thought to be unlikely because some of the crimes Manafort stands convicted of are also covered by state laws in New York and elsewhere. A 150-year-old legal tradition holds that presidential pardons cannot cover state-level convictions because the U.S. and individual states are ‘separate sovereigns.’
The Supreme Court could overturn that doctrine in a matter of weeks, however. The high court is weighing the fate of a man who was charged with both state and federal crimes for the same illegal gun possession. Overturning the ‘separate sovereigns’ tradition could change the equation for Manafort, if not for Cohen.
According to the government’s criminal indictment, known as an ‘information,’ Cohen made false statements in writing to the House and Senate Intelligence Committees about the length of discussions about the project, and about his related conversations with Trump Organization figures.
His false statements included claiming that the deal wasn’t discussed extensively, that he never agreed to travel to Russia to promote it and ‘never considered’ asking Trump to travel there, and that he didn’t recall a Russian government response.
The information says Cohen ‘knowingly and deliberately’ lied.
‘In truth and in fact, and as Cohen well knew, Cohen’s representations about the Moscow Project he made’ to Congress were ‘false and misleading,’ according to prosecutors.
Cohen discussed the project with the future president ‘on more than the three occasions,’ briefed Trump and his family members about it, and had multiple discussions with an unnamed person about Trump making a Moscow visit.
That unnamed individual is likely project backer Felix Sater.
In one May 4, 2016 email, Sater wrote that he ‘had a chat with Moscow’ about the real estate venture and said the question was whether Trump would go ‘before or after the [Republican] convention’ for a meeting between the ‘big guys.’
Cohen responded that he would go ‘before Cleveland,’ the site of the Republican National Convention, and that Trump would take a trip ‘once he becomes the nominee after the convention.’
A May 5 email includes an invitation from Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, Dmitri Peskov, inviting Cohen to St. Petersburg for an introduction to either the president or prime minister of Russia.
Prosecutors also found proof that on Jan. 20, 2016, exactly a year before Trump took office, Cohen spoke to a Peskov assistant for about 20 minutes.
He ‘requested assistance in moving the project forward, both in securing land to build the proposed tower and financing the construction,’ the criminal information says.
Sater contacted him the following day to ask about the call, writing that it was ‘about [the President of Russia that] they called.’
Cohen’s courtroom comeuppance on Thursday came after he gave Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his team a reported 70 hours of interviews.
They pressed him on Trump’s real estate business ties in Russia, possible discussions with the president about pardons, and obstruction of justice.
Cohen appeared outside the federal courthouse in Manhattan with his lawyer Guy Petrillo, who told reporters: ‘Mr. Cohen has cooperated. Mr. Cohen will continue to cooperate. Sentencing is set for December 12.’
He has already testified in a Manhattan courtroom that he made an illegal hush-money payment to Stormy Daniels, a pornographic actress who claims to have bedded Trump a decade ago, ‘in coordination with, and at the direction of’ Trump.
Virginia Democratic Sen. Mark Warner told reporters that Cohen’s admissions were part of a ‘rollout of close Trump allies’ pleading guilty ‘almost always to their trying to hide their ties with Russia and the Russians attempt to infiltrate the Trump campaign.’
‘You’ve got all these close associates of the president one after another pleading guilty, often pleading guilty, about their ties to Russia and Russians. And what are they covering up for?’
‘If anything the president said is true, that there’s “no there there,” why are all his closest associates being found guilty of lying about their ties to Russia?’ Warner asked.
The latest twist in his saga will come with an attached string of dozens of hours of of testimony that could be criminally damaging to the president.
Cohen’s new charge comes from Mueller. His previous ones, bank and tax charges to which he has already pleaded guilty, were lodged by federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York.
At issue is Cohen’s testimony before two congressional panels in September 2017 during the course of their own Russia investigations. At the time, he was still considered a loyal Trump footsoldier.
Some of his testimony related to the construction of a Trump World Tower Moscow, a project that involved the Agalarov family – who was also involved in the effort to set up a Trump Tower meeting with Russians in 2016.
Cohen testified before Congress that the tower project had fizzled, saying the ‘proposal was not feasible for a variety of business reasons and should not be pursued further,’ Yahoo News reported in May.
However, Cohen’s communications with Moscow-born developer Felix Sater revealed that the contacts continued beyond what Cohen admitted during his sworn testimony.
Sater handed over his texts and emails to Mueller’s investigators. The texts and other communications revealed Cohen and Sater were discussing the project as late as May 2016.
That puts the high-level talks about a plan to build the tallest building in Moscow well into the Republican nominating process. Trump during the campaign said repeatedly he didn’t have business dealings with Russia.
Emails between Sater and Cohen revealed Sater’s efforts to pitch the skyscraper project to the Trump Organization. Sater said he could get Russian President Vladimir Putin to say ‘great things’ about Trump.
In a statement released before his closed-door sessions with congressional investigators, Cohen said he ‘had nothing to do with any Russian involvement in our electoral process’ and ‘never saw anything – not a hint of anything – that demonstrated [President Trump’s] involvement in Russian interference in our election or any form of Russian collusion.’
He is expected to be sentenced to between four and five years in prison in December for his first federal case. It’s unclear if the new guilty plea will involve more jail time.
Cohen has publicly turned against President Trump since the FBI raided his home and offices in April.
Prosecutors deemed the $130,000 Stormy Daniels payment illegal because it was intended to help Trump avoid an embarrassing electoral loss to Hillary Clinton – and was therefore an ‘in-kind’ political contribution far in excess of the limits of the law.
Cohen’s earlier plea also covered his role in arranging an illegal payment from the parent company of the National Enquirer to Karen McDougal, a former Playboy model who claimed to have had a Trump affair.
At Cohen’s request, American Media Inc. bought the rights to McDougal’s life story and sat on it without publishing anything, in a practice known as ‘catch and kill.’
American Media’s chairman and CEO, David Pecker, is a longtime Trump friend.
The Mueller probe has been a consistent thorn in the president’s side, turning Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein into his bête noire for having appointed the special counsel.
On Wednesday he defended his decision to distribute a Photoshopped image that showed 11 of his foes in a prison cell together, including Rosenstein.
A New York Post reporter asked the president, ‘Why do you think he belongs behind bars?’
‘He should have never picked a special counsel,’ Trump responded.
The president had hours earlier retweeted a series of posts from a fan account, including the cartoonish image that also depicts Special Counsel Robert Mueller joining nine prominent Democrats in lockup.
‘NOW THAT THE RUSSIA COLLUSION IS A PROVEN LIE, WHEN DO THE TRIALS FOR TREASON BEGIN,’ its caption reads.
Among the ‘imprisoned’ Democrats in the collage are former Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton; Hillary Clinton, her former campaign chairman John Podesta and top aide Huma Abedin; former Attorney Generals Loretta Lynch and Eric Holder; and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.
Trump has long resented Rosenstein for hiring Mueller to investigate the unproven allegation that campaign aides in 2016 colluded with Russian agents to tilt the election in the president’s favor.
The special counsel appointment became inevitable after Trump fired Comey last year. That followed a decision by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to recuse himself from the matter because he was a Trump campaign adviser and investigators could consider him a witness.
Trump has grumbled publicly and exploded privately about Sessions’ move, saying he never warned him before he got the job that the recusal would be part of the deal.
SOURCE: DailyMail, by David Martosko and Geoff Earle