Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer, pleads guilty to lying to Congress

(Mary Altaffer | The Associated Press) In this Aug. 21, 2018, file photo, Michael Cohen leaves Federal court, in New York. Cohen, President Trump's ex-lawyer, is making an court appearance before a federal judge in New York on Thursday, Nov. 29.

Michael Cohen, a former personal attorney to President Donald Trump, pleaded guilty Thursday in New York to lying to Congress about a Moscow real estate project that Trump and his company pursued during the months he was running for president.

In a nine-page filing, prosecutors laid out a litany of lies that Cohen admitted he told to congressional lawmakers about the Moscow project — an attempt, Cohen said, to minimize links between the proposed development and Trump as his presidential bid was taking off.

Cohen falsely said efforts to build a Trump-branded tower in Moscow ended in January 2016, when in fact discussions continued through that year, the filing said. Among the people Cohen briefed on the status of the project was Trump himself, on more than three occasions, accord to the document.

Trump has repeatedly said that he had no business dealings in Russia, tweeting in July 2016, "For the record, I have ZERO investments in Russia" and telling reporters in January 2017 that he had no deals there because he had "stayed away."

Cohen’s new guilty plea is the latest development in a wide-ranging investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

On Wednesday, Trump denounced Cohen when reporters asked about the case as he left the White House.

"Michael Cohen is lying and he's trying to get a reduced sentence for things that have nothing to do with me," the president said. "This was a project that we didn't do, I didn't do. . . There would be nothing wrong if I did do it."

"He's a weak person," Trump added.

During the campaign, Cohen acted as Trump's point person in an attempt to build the Trump development in Moscow. He has said the project was in its early stages in the fall of 2015, as Trump's presidential campaign heated up.

Cohen previously said the project stalled in January 2016, prompting him to email a top aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin seeking help. Cohen previously said he never received a response and the project was halted that month.

In fact, according to the filing, Cohen received a response and discussed the project for 20 minutes on the phone with an assistant to a Russian official, seeking help with both securing land and financing.

Prosecutors also said that that Cohen continued to have contact into the summer of 2016 with Felix Sater, the Russian-born developer who was assisting on the project. Some of those contacts were first reported by The Washington Post.

In June 2016, Sater invited Cohen to attend an economic conference in St. Petersburg, assuring Cohen he could be introduced to Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, top financial leaders and perhaps Putin, The Post reported.

According to the criminal information filed by prosecutors, Cohen sent a two-page letter to the committee in which he "knowingly and deliberately" made false statements, including that the Moscow project "ended in January 2016 and was not discussed extensively with others in the company," that Cohen "never agreed to travel to Russia in connection with the Moscow project and 'never considered' asking Individual 1 to travel for the project," and that Cohen "did not recall any Russian government response or contact about the Moscow Project."

The document does not identify "Individual 1," but according to people familiar with the case, that person is President Trump.

"Cohen discussed the status and progress of the Moscow Project with Individual 1 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," according to the information.

The document goes on to say Cohen made those statements attempting to conceal or minimize a number of facts, including that the project "was discussed multiple times within the company and did not end in January 2016," but rather Cohen and "Individual 2" discussed the efforts as late as June 2016.

The document does not identify Individual 2, but people familiar with the investigation said it is Sater.

The document also says that Cohen discussed in May of 2016 the possibility that he might travel to Russia before the Republican National Convention and that Individual 1 might travel there after the convention, but a month later, told "Individual 2" — Sater — that he would not be making such a trip.

Federal sentencing guidelines would call for Cohen to face a prison sentence of only six months at high end, and no time in prison at the low end, according to his plea agreement for false statements. Both sides agreed they would not ask for a sentence outside of those range, provided Cohen continues to cooperate.

Mueller also is examining whether any of Trump's associates conspired with Moscow to influence the election's outcome.

Outside the courthouse Thursday, Guy Petrillo, a lawyer for Cohen said, "Mr. Cohen has cooperated. Mr. Cohen will continue to cooperate." He said sentencing in the case is scheduled for Dec. 12.

Cohen said nothing as a gaggle of reporters shouted questions at him.

In August, Cohen, 52, pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations related to payments before the election to two women who alleged they had affairs with Trump years prior. He told the court he had arranged those payments, designed to keep the women quiet before the presidential vote, at Trump’s direction.

He had also pleaded guilty to multiple counts of tax evasion, as well as bank fraud, related to his personal finances and management of taxi medallions.

Cohen worked as a top lawyer to Trump and his real estate company for a decade. After Trump took office, Cohen left the company and became a personal attorney to the president, while taking on consulting clients, including AT&T, Novartis and a New York firm that manages assets for a Russian billionaire.

Once one of Trump's most loyal aides, he has taken a swift and thorough turn against the president in recent months. Cohen used to describe himself as Trump's pit bull and delighted in jousting with the celebrity businessman's enemies, once asserting that he would "take a bullet" for his longtime boss.

But after pleading guilty, he said his conscience required him to tell the truth about Trump. Before the midterm elections, he urged the public to vote for Democrats, writing on Twitter that the election “might be the most important vote in our lifetime.”

In recent months, he has been spending hours meeting with prosecutors, including Mueller’s team and was spotted recently arriving in Washington for additional meetings with his legal team.