WASHINGTON (AP) - President Donald Trump's former lawyer, Michael Cohen, confessed in a surprise guilty plea Thursday that he lied to Congress about a Moscow real estate deal he pursued on Trump's behalf during the heat of the 2016 Republican campaign. He said he lied to be consistent with Trump's "political messaging."
Cohen's plea arrangement made clear that prosecutors believe that Trump, who insisted repeatedly throughout the campaign that he had no business dealings in Russia, was continuing to pursue the Trump Tower Moscow project weeks after he had clinched the Republican nomination for president and well after he and his associates have publicly acknowledged.
The negotiations about building the Moscow tower continued as late as June 2016 — the same month Trump's oldest son met in Manhattan with a Kremlin-connected lawyer — even though Cohen told two congressional committees last year that the talks ended that January.
Cohen also discussed the proposal with Trump on multiple occasions and with unidentified members of the president's family, according to court papers filed by special counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating Russian interference in the presidential election and possible coordination with the Trump campaign. Cohen is cooperating with Mueller and has met with his team at least seven times, prosecutors say.
The Cohen case was filed in New York a week after Trump and his lawyers provided Mueller with responses to written questions and is the first new charge filed by the special counsel since the appointment of Matthew Whitaker, who has spoken critically about the investigation, as acting attorney general with oversight of the probe.
Whitaker was advised of the plea ahead of time, according to a person familiar with the investigation.
Cohen is the first person charged by Mueller with lying to Congress, an indication the special counsel is prepared to treat that offense as seriously as lying to federal agents and a warning shot to dozens of others who have appeared before Congress.
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.
Even so, the case underscores how Trump's business entity, the Trump Organization, was negotiating business in Moscow at the same time when 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
Cohen's court appearance marked the latest step in his evolution from trusted Trump consigliere — he said Thursday he had lied out of "loyalty" — to prime antagonist. It is the second time the lawyer's legal woes have entangled Trump, coming months after Cohen said the president directed him during his campaign to make hush money payments to two women who said they had sex with Trump.
Trump on Thursday called Cohen a "weak person" who was lying to get a lighter sentence and repeatedly stressed that the real estate deal at issue was never a secret and never executed. His lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, said that Cohen was a "proven liar" and that Trump's business organization had voluntarily given Mueller the same documents cited in the guilty plea "because there was nothing to hide."
"There would be nothing wrong if I did do it," Trump said of pursuing the project. "I was running my business while I was campaigning. 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?"
He said the primary reason he didn't pursue it was "I was focused on running for president."
But during the campaign, Trump was repeatedly dismissive of claims that he had connections to the Kremlin, an issue that flared as especially sensitive in the summer of 2016 after the Democratic National Committee and a cybersecurity company asserted that Moscow was behind a punishing cyberattack on the party's network.
"I have a great company. I built an unbelievable company, but if you look there you'll see there's nothing in Russia," Trump said at a July 2016 news conference.
"But zero, I mean I will tell you right now, zero, I have nothing to do with Russia," he said.
The guilty plea comes as Mueller's team has accused Trump's former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, of lying after his own guilty plea and continues to investigate whether campaign associates had advance knowledge of hacked emails becoming public. Another potential target, Jerome Corsi, has rejected a plea offer and faces a possible indictment.
It was not immediately clear whether questions about the Russian real estate deal were among those answered by Trump and his lawyers last week. But a prior list of queries that Mueller's team presented to Trump lawyers this year did include a question about it, and Mueller's team is known to have asked about Trump's business dealings over the years.
If he did answer questions on the topic, Trump could have problems if the responses deviate from prosecutors' factual narrative.
The nine-page charging document for Cohen traces the behind-the-scenes communication about the project that had been discussed more than 20 years ago and almost became reality in October 2015 when an obscure Russian real estate developer signed a letter of intent sent by Cohen for a 15-floor hotel, condominium and retail complex in Moscow.
On Jan. 14, 2016, just weeks before the Republican party caucus in Iowa, Cohen emailed the office of Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov asking for help getting the Trump Tower Moscow project off the ground. He then had a 20-minute phone call with one of Peskov's assistants about it and asked for help "in securing land to build the proposed tower and financing the construction," court papers say.
The dialogue resumed over the next several months with the Republican primaries in full swing.
In early May, prosecutors say, Cohen and Felix Sater, an executive who had worked on and off for the Trump Organization, discussed having Trump visit Russia after the Republican National Convention. They also discussed the possibility of Cohen meeting in June with Putin and Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.
On June 9, 2016, Donald Trump Jr., Manafort and Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, met with a Kremlin connected lawyer at Trump Tower about getting "dirt" on Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Around that time, prosecutors say, Cohen and Sater exchanged several messages about the Moscow project and Cohen's travel to Russia, and the DNC announced that its computer networks were penetrated by Russian hackers.
Cohen admitted lying about the timing of the negotiations, his communications with people in Trump's company and in Russia about the deal, and other details to be loyal to Trump and consistent with Trump's "political messaging." Cohen and prosecutors referred to Trump as "Individual One" throughout Thursday's proceedings and said Cohen lied "to be loyal to Individual One."
Cohen said he also lied about his contacts with Russian officials and lied when he said he never agreed to travel to Russia in connection with the project and never discussed with Trump plans to travel to Moscow to support the project.
Thursday's charges were handled by Mueller, not the federal prosecutors in New York who handled Cohen's previous guilty plea in August to other federal charges involving his taxi businesses, bank fraud and his campaign work for Trump. Cohen is to be sentenced Dec. 12. Guidelines call for little to no prison on the new charge.