WASHINGTON -- The longtime personal lawyer for President Donald Trump admitted he lied to Congress about the timing and extent of his discussions with unnamed Russian officials about a proposed Trump-branded development in Moscow.
The guilty plea by Michael Cohen, entered in the U.S. District Court in Manhattan on November 29, was a dramatic development in the deepening legal problems Trump faces from various Russia-linked investigations ongoing in Washington and elsewhere.
The new charges brought by Special Counsel Robert Mueller said that Cohen misled at least one congressional committee about the discussions he had with unnamed Russian and other officials about a building that Trump had long sought to build in Moscow.
Cohen had previously said that talks about the deal stopped in January 2016, but, according to Mueller’s court filing, those discussions in fact were ongoing as late as June 2016, as Trump was closing in on securing the Republican party's nomination to be U.S. president.
Cohen admitted that he misled the Senate Intelligence Committee about that and other details in testimony he provided to the committee in August 2017.
In his appearance in federal court, Cohen said: "I made these misstatements to be consistent with Individual 1's political messaging and out of loyalty to Individual 1."
Mueller's court filing describes "Individual 1" as the owner of a "Manhattan-based real estate company"-- a description that matches Trump's.
Trump, meanwhile, had denied he had any business dealings in Russia during the 2016 election campaign, and he reacted quickly to news of Cohen's guilty plea on November 29.
"He is a weak person. And by being weak, unlike other people that you watch, he's a weak person, and what he's trying to do is get a reduced sentence. So, he is lying about a project everybody knew about," Trump said at the White House as he departed for the Group of 20 summit being held in Argentina on November 30-December 1.
Trump had been scheduled to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the summit, but in a post to Twitter just after departing the White House, Trump said the meeting had been canceled. He cited the uptick in tensions between Russia and Ukraine over a naval confrontation near the Black Sea.
The Trump Tower project in Moscow never got built, despite years of efforts by Trump to develop some sort of real estate venture in the Russian capital.
In the new charges, Mueller detailed Cohen's direct communications with the Kremlin in early 2016. Cohen had previously said he e-mailed the office of Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov in January 2016, seeking to discuss "the Moscow Project," but had received no reply.
In fact, according to the new charges, an assistant to Peskov e-mailed a reply to Cohen on January 20, 2016, and Cohen then spoke with the assistant for about 20 minutes. A day later, Cohen was contacted by "Individual 2" who asked to speak with Cohen, saying "It's about [the President of Russia] they called today."
While the new plea stemmed from charges brought by Mueller’s investigators, Cohen had earlier pleaded guilty in a separate prosecution that grew out of Mueller’s investigation, but was filed instead by federal prosecutors in Manhattan.
Trump's former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, will be in federal court on November 30, as part of new charges filed by Mueller that allegedly involve a shadowy Ukrainian man who U.S. intelligence believes has ties to Russian security agencies.
Manafort had been convicted by a U.S. jury of financial crimes related to his lobbying work for Ukrainian politicians, work that preceded his time as Trump’s campaign chairman in 2016.
And on November 26, a former foreign policy aide to the Trump campaign, George Papadopoulos, reported to prison to serve a two-week sentence for lying to the FBI about his conversation with Russian officials during the 2016 campaign.
Also, this week, Trump submitted written answers to a series of questions made by Mueller’s investigators. The answers have not been released publicly.
'We Swore Him Under Oath'
News of Cohen's plea prompted scattered reaction among lawmakers in Congress.
Paul Ryan, who is resigning this year as the top Republican in the House of Representatives, said Cohen should be prosecuted.
"Well, he should be prosecuted to the extent of the law," Ryan said at a forum hosted by The Washington Post. "That’s why we put him under oath. I mean so just back it up for a second, lying to Congress. That means he came and testified. That means we swore him under oath. That means we put him on the record. That means we did our job."
That was echoed by Richard Burr, the Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
"This is a reason people shouldn't lie when they're in front of a congressional investigation," he said.
Mark Warner, Burr’s Democratic counterpart on the committee, called on Congress to pass legislation to protect Mueller from being fired by Trump. Earlier this week, the Senate majority leader, Republican Mitch McConnell, declined to allow a vote on such legislation.
Adam Schiff, who will be the Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee beginning in January, said the plea provided new impetus to restart the committee’s investigations.
The committee’s investigation was ended in April by its Republican majority, which issued a report that largely cleared Trump and his associates of any wrongdoing in connection with Russian influence operations.
The report was criticized by the committee’s Democrats, who will now be in the majority come January.
"All these developments make clear the counterintelligence imperative for the House Intelligence Committee in the new Congress to continue to probe the Trump Organization’s financial links to Russia,” Schiff said.