We don’t know why President Donald Trump’s former personal attorney and fixer pleaded to another crime now — or even why Mueller would want his plea now. But there are some potential clues in the document. Here are three take-aways about what’s significant.
WASHINGTON — Michael Cohen reached a new plea deal Thursday with special counsel Robert Mueller’s team in which he admitted to lying to Congress about an effort to build a Trump Tower in Moscow.
We don’t know why President Donald Trump’s former personal attorney and fixer pleaded to that crime now — or even why Mueller would want his plea now. The plea deal comes as Cohen has already pleaded guilty to other crimes, provided dozens of hours of cooperation with Mueller, and implicated Trump in a campaign finance violation. It’s not like Mueller needed more leverage on Cohen, at least by outward appearances.
But there are some potential clues that we can glean from the document. Here are three take-aways about what’s significant.
1) There are conspicuous mentions of Trump and his family
In written testimony to both the House and Senate intelligence committees last year, Cohen said the Trump Tower Moscow deal was abandoned in January 2016.
“By the end of January 2016, I determined that the proposal was not feasible for a variety of business reasons and should not be pursued further,” Cohen said.
The plea deal says that not only did Cohen continue to pursue the project through June 2016, but also that he briefed Trump on it more than the three times he had originally claimed, and also that he briefed Trump’s family members.
“COHEN discussed the status and progress of the Moscow Project with Individual 1″ — a clear reference to Trump — “on more than the three occasions COHEN claimed to the Committee, and he briefed family members of Individual 1 within the Company about the project.”
The timeline isn’t exactly clear. Is Mueller saying that Cohen gave these status updates and briefings after January 2016 — suggesting Trump and his family were still pressing for this during the early part of the 2016 campaign? Or is he merely saying Cohen didn’t disclose all contacts?
Even if it’s just the latter, the briefing of family members is a particularly conspicuous inclusion. Cohen never directly denied briefing them; he only said he didn’t brief them when he made the decision to shutter the project. “I did not ask or brief [Individual 1], or any of his family, before I made the decision to terminate further work on the proposal,” Cohen said in his testimony.
It seems possible Mueller is trying to draw a more direct line between the potential Russia real estate deal and the Trumps than either Cohen or the Trumps have acknowledged. “For the record, I have ZERO investments in Russia” Trump tweeted in July 2016. The next day, he claimed, “I have nothing to do with Russia.”
But why do that? Will this be a more central piece of the collusion investigation? Is Mueller laying marker? These are the most intriguing questions — especially, again, since Mueller didn’t necessarily need to charge Cohen with more crimes.
2) Putin’s spokesman appears to have lied about contact with Cohen
It has been reported that Cohen emailed Vladimir Putin’s press office in January 2016 seeking to grease the skids for the deal. But Cohen had said he never heard back.
Turns out, that was a lie. An assistant to Putin’s top spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, emailed him back, according to the plea deal, and then Cohen spoke with the assistant on the phone for 20 minutes.
But Cohen wasn’t the only one who lied about it. So, too, apparently, did Peskov. Here’s what Peskov said of the matter back in August 2017: ” … Since, I repeat again, we do not react to such business topics — this is not our work — we left it unanswered.”
It’s not as if Russia is clean as the driven snow in all of this — they are the ones accused of interfering in the 2016 election, after all — but it’s notable that Mueller is now directly contradicting Peskov’s claim in a criminal filing. It suggests Russia was covering up Trump-related things, too.
3) The deal apparently died the day The Post broke a story about Russian hacking
The plea deal indicates the last known discussion about the deal was “on or about June 14,” 2016, when Cohen told a Russian associate, Felix Sater, that he was canceling plans to travel to Russia.
Why is that date significant? It happens to be the day The Washington Post broke a big story that Russia had hacked the Democratic National Committee.