WASHINGTON — Robert Mueller has for the first time publicly connected Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and business to the Russian government, adding a significant new chapter to the special counsel’s ongoing investigation into Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 elections.
In a guilty plea Thursday, Trump’s former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen admitted that he spoke with Trump and Russian officials as late as June 2016 — a month before Trump officially accepted the Republican presidential nomination — about a potential business deal in Moscow that Cohen told Congress had ended months earlier.
Here are the key takeaways from Cohen’s plea for lying to Congress:
—It ties Trump to Russia during the campaign.
Mueller’s “criminal information” filing lays out multiple exchanges between Cohen, real estate developer Felix Sater and Russian government officials about a proposed Trump tower development in Moscow.
While the deal never went through, conversations about it between Cohen, Trump, his family and at least one campaign official came as Russia was in the midst of a sophisticated plan to meddle in the U.S. election that American intelligence agencies found was intended to hurt Democrat Hillary Clinton and ultimately to help Trump win.
“This is enormous,” said Mimi Rocah, a former federal prosecutor. “We’re seeing financial motives and financial entanglements with a foreign power who interfered in our elections.”
Cohen discussed the Moscow tower project with Trump at least four times, including the possibility that the presidential candidate would travel to Russia, according to the filing. Cohen also briefed Trump family members about it and discussed the possible travel with a senior campaign official.
On May 5, days after Trump had won the heavily contested Indiana primary and appeared all but certain to clinch the nomination, Cohen was invited by a Russian official to a conference in St. Petersburg with the offer of a possible meeting between Cohen and Russian President Vladimir Putin or Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.
Cohen was actively planning for the trip, including filling out relevant forms, until it was called off in mid-June for a reason the statement doesn’t specify. On June 14, 2016, the Washington Post reported that Russian government hackers had penetrated the network of the Democratic National Committee and gained access to the party’s opposition research file on Trump.
Cohen had told the House and Senate intelligence panels in a two-page statement in August 2017 that all talk of the Moscow project ended in January 2016, emphasizing that was before any of the presidential caucuses or primaries. He said he made the false statement, which is a crime, to help Trump and limit the ongoing Russia probes.
—It doesn’t prove collusion or conspiracy by itself.
It’s not illegal for a presidential candidate to simultaneously explore possible business deals overseas, as Trump emphasized to reporters on Thursday. But the ongoing contacts raise continuing questions about Trump’s attitude and motivations toward Russia.
As a candidate and as president, Trump has continued to say he wanted to get along with Putin, at times saying he believed the Russian leader’s assurances that his country didn’t meddle in the election despite the finding by U.S. intelligence agencies that it did.
—It adds to a list of Russian contacts with Trump associates.
Right about the time Cohen was in contact with Russian officials and discussing a possible Russia trip for Trump, campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos was doing the same.
The day before Cohen was invited to the St. Petersburg conference, possibly to meet Putin, a Russian contact emailed Papadopoulos saying his country was “open for cooperation” and offering to arrange a meeting with him in Moscow. Several weeks later, Papadopoulos emailed a senior campaign staffer trying to set up a Trump trip to Moscow, writing “Russia has been eager to meet Mr. Trump for quite sometime.”
On June 9, while Cohen was preparing paperwork for his trip to Moscow, a Russian lawyer visited Trump Tower in New York for a now infamous meeting with Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr, son-in-law Jared Kushner, and campaign chairman Paul Manafort. Cohen called off his trip to Moscow days later.
In early July, another Trump campaign adviser, Carter Page, traveled to Moscow where he gave a commencement speech and says he briefly interacted with Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich and had a meeting with Andrey Baranov, head of investor relations for oil giant Rosneft and an aide to Rosneft Chief Executive Officer Igor Sechin.
—It gives Mueller an opening into Trump’s business.
Trump has previously said that Mueller would be crossing a red line if he looked into his business dealings. But Cohen’s guilty plea could contribute to the special counsel’s rationale for delving more deeply into the Trump Organization.
Emails cited in the plea deal came from the Trump Organization, which turned them over to prosecutors.
Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s attorney, said the documents Mueller’s office “is using to show that Cohen lied to Congress were voluntarily disclosed by the Trump Organization because there was nothing to hide.” He also called Cohen a “proven liar who is doing everything he can to get out of a long-term prison sentence for serious crimes of bank and tax fraud that had nothing to do with the Trump Organization.”
It’s significant that Mueller negotiated the plea agreement with Cohen, rather than having another U.S. attorney’s office do so, as happened with the charges brought against Cohen earlier this year related to hush-money payments to adult performer Stormy Daniels, Rocah said. It’s a strong indication that Cohen’s lies, as well as other information Mueller may have, is directly relevant to his investigation into whether Trump or any of his associates conspired with Russia.
“The walls are crumbling down on top of them from so many different directions,” Rocah said.
—It contradicts Trump’s past statements.
Trump has repeatedly denied having business ties to Russia during the presidential campaign and as president. While those statements appear to be accurate in regard to the Moscow tower project that never came to fruition, he appears to have been downplaying his business relationship.
He tweeted in July 2016 — just a month after it’s now known that discussion on the Moscow development stopped — that he had “ZERO investments in Russia” and that accusations “Russia dealing with Trump” were “crazy.”
He has repeatedly said that his closest business ties with Russians was the purchase and sale of a Palm Beach mansion.
“I have had dealings over the years where I sold a house to a very wealthy Russian, many years ago,” he said in an interview with NBC News. “I had the Miss Universe pageant, which I owned for quite a while, I had it in Moscow, long time ago. But other than that, I have nothing to do with Russia.”
At a February 2017 news conference at the White House, he expanded on that assertion, saying, “I have nothing to do with Russia. To the best of my knowledge no person that I deal with does.”
—It suggests Cohen may have offered other information.
Mueller struck an ongoing cooperation agreement with Cohen, which builds on meetings that have already taken place between Trump’s ex-fixer and federal and state prosecutors. Cohen first met with Mueller’s office on Aug. 7 in a so-called proffer session, and he had six more debriefings, according to his plea agreement.
Cohen has been scheduled to be sentenced in the hush-money matter on Dec. 12. His lawyers asked the court to consolidate Thursday’s case with that and for the sentencing to proceed on schedule.
The timing suggests that Mueller may already have secured most of the information he wants from Cohen.
—It underscores that the list of guilty pleas keeps growing.
Trump has accused Mueller of forcing former aides and associates to lie — as he said Thursday about Cohen — or pay a heavy price for refusing to do so.
“Wait until it comes out how horribly & viciously they are treating people, ruining lives for them refusing to lie,” Trump tweeted this week.
But Rep. Jerrold Nadler, who’s in line to head the Judiciary Committee when Democrats take control of the House in January, said Thursday that the list of Mueller successes was long and damning.
“The special counsel has now secured guilty pleas from President Trump’s personal attorney, his campaign manager, his deputy campaign manager, a foreign policy adviser to his campaign, and his national security adviser,” Nadler said in a statement. “The president can pretend that this investigation has nothing to do with him and nothing to do with Russia, but these indictments speak for themselves.”
(Shahien Nasiripour contributed to this report.
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