Major Takeaways from Michael Cohen’s Plea on Trump Moscow Project

On Thursday, President Donald Trump’s former personal lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty in federal court to new charges related directly to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and the prospect of collusion with the Trump campaign.

Here are the relevant court documents:

The biggest revelations came from the special counsel’s outlining of Cohen’s false statements to Congress. Lying to Congress–intentionally making false statements that are material to the investigation at hand–is a federal crime.

In written answers and in-person interviews with congressional investigators, Cohen lied about when the Trump organization halted its pursuit of building a Trump Tower in Moscow (known as the Moscow Project), whether he or Trump considered traveling to Russia to discuss the project with Russian officials during the presidential campaign, with whom he discussed the project within the Trump organization, and whether the Russian government responded to his outreach.

The court documents released Thursday make clear that Cohen worked on the Moscow Project on behalf of the Trump Organization into the summer of 2016, far longer than he previously admitted. He discussed the project repeatedly with then-candidate Trump and Trump’s “family members.” Cohen was intending to travel to Moscow to discuss the project with Russian government officials in June 2016 and raised the possibility of Trump traveling to Russia during the campaign with the presidential candidate himself. Finally, Cohen exchanged emails and phone calls with members of the Russian government about pursuing the deal.

Those are the basics of what we learned Thursday. So, what are the big takeaways and new questions that the information raises? And how does this information shed light on other public information concerning alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin? Here are some highlights:

Trump withheld material information about his business interests in Russia from the American people at a critical time during the campaign.

As questions swirled around candidate Trump, his campaign associates and their potential connections to the Russian government, the Trump Organization concealed its outreach to the Kremlin on the Moscow Project. In July 2016, Trump told CBS News, “I have nothing to do with Russia. I don’t have any jobs in Russia. I’m all over the world but we’re not involved in Russia.” In January 2017, Trump said at his first major press conference as president-elect, “I have no dealings with Russia … I have no deals that could happen in Russia because we’ve stayed away.” He added, “We could make deals in Russia very easily if we wanted to, I just don’t want to because I think that would be a conflict.”

Of course, even without the Trump Organization’s pursuit of a Trump Tower Moscow in 2016, Trump’s statements were easily disproved. “Trump repeatedly sought business in Russia as far back as 1987,” the New York Times reported. And more recently, Trump and his children had repeatedly sought Russian business partners to build a Trump Tower in Moscow.

How might the Moscow Project connect up with allegations of collusion?

In addition to the enormous leverage Putin could hold over Trump by way of a carrot (the plan was to build the tallest building on the continent) and a stick (public disclosure of a secret deal), it is important to put these new revelations in context of other information about  Russian election interference and ties to the Trump campaign.

First, Russian emigre and longtime Trump business associate, Felix Sater (“Individual 2” in the plea documents who negotiated the deal with Cohen), reportedly emailed Cohen on Nov. 3, 2015 to say, “I will get Putin on this program and we will get Donald elected. … I know how to play it and we will get this done. Buddy our boy can become President of the USA and we can engineer it. I will get all of Putins [sic] team to buy in on this.” In short, the statement directly and explicitly connected the deal to Russian efforts to help Trump win the White House.

In moving the Moscow Project deal forward, Sater put Cohen directly in communication with a former member of Russian military intelligence (Sater also reportedly told Congress, “No such thing as a former Russian spy.”). And, according to the most in-depth investigative report on the Moscow deal, some of the very same Russians with whom Cohen was interacting on the Russia deal were also involved in the election interference operation:

“FBI agents investigating Russia’s interference in the election learned that Cohen was in frequent contact with foreign individuals about Trump Moscow — and that some of these individuals had knowledge of or played a role in 2016 election meddling, according to two FBI agents.”

Finally, it is worth highlighting another thread in the Trump-Russia timeline that intersects with Cohen’s admission that the Moscow Project deal lasted into summer 2016. Cohen and Sater also worked on a backchannel plan for Ukraine that Ukraine’s ambassador would later say could have been produced “only by those openly or covertly representing Russian interests.” According to a Ukrainian politician involved in the secret plan, the discussions with Sater and Cohen began “at the time of the primaries, when no one believed that Trump would even be nominated.” In other words, the two deals–the Cohen-Sater Moscow Project and the Cohen-Sater Ukraine backchannel plan–may have overlapped in time, raising questions about  any quid pro quo. (For more on this, see “Trump’s Moscow Tower and Back-Channel Ukraine Dossier: Both Began During the Election, Evidence Suggests.”)

State of the Mueller investigation: We won’t know till we know.

Just Security’s Alex Whiting observed: “The Cohen plea and cooperation agreement is another reminder that it is difficult to assess the state of the Mueller investigation on a day to day basis. When the Manafort plea and cooperation agreement fell apart, and Corsi announced that he was rejecting a plea deal, it seemed to some that the Mueller investigation was perhaps stumbling. Now today’s Cohen news indicates that it is piling up more successful prosecutions. These ups and downs should remind us that the investigation is a complex one, appears to have many threads, is moving in a number of directions at once, and most importantly that there is a lot, a lot, that we do not yet know.”

Mueller Thinks Cohen has valuable testimony to share about the Russia investigation:

As Just Security’s Renato Mariotti noted on Twitter, “Michael Cohen now has a cooperation deal with Mueller. This deal indicates that Cohen has cooperated and will continue to cooperate. Cohen didn’t get a cooperation deal previously. This indicates Mueller believes Cohen has valuable testimony.”

Cohen’s previous plea agreement, in August, related to crimes that had nothing to do with Russian interference in the 2016 election. Instead, he pleaded guilty to charges of tax and bank fraud, as well as to two counts of violating federal campaign finance law in coordinating hush money payments to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal, women with whom Trump had extramarital affairs. (There is a significant risk that the federal campaign finance case, in which Cohen is also cooperating, may directly implicate the president. For more, read Paul Seamus Ryan’s “The Already-Strong Campaign Finance Case Against Donald Trump Just Got Stronger—Criminal offenses included,” from earlier this month.)

Which Trump family members were involved in Moscow Project discussions? Have they also lied to Congress or other federal authorities about their knowledge of the project?

We now know, thanks to Cohen’s plea, that the Moscow Project was discussed multiple times within the Trump Organization. This includes with Trump himself and his family members who worked there. The court documents read:

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.

Of course, it’s impossible to discern from this alone which family members were included in these discussions. Donald Trump Jr., Ivanka and Eric all worked for the Trump Organization at this time. Ivanka’s husband, Jared Kushner, never held a position at the Trump Organization, but it’s possible he was included in these discussions or was made aware of them as he was a senior adviser on Trump’s campaign. Of Trump’s three children who worked for him, only Donald Trump Jr. has testified before Congress on this matter. In his testimony to Congress, Trump Jr. downplayed his knowledge of the Moscow Project, saying he was “peripherally aware” that something was being pursued, that he knew “very little” about the deal Cohen was pursuing, and that he “wasn’t involved” in it. Trump Jr. also said he believed Sater worked with Cohen on the deal “in 2015.”

However, he and Ivanka had been very involved in previous attempts to get a project in Moscow off the ground, and have traveled to Russia for it. On a 2006 trip, Sater organized a tour of the Kremlin for Don Jr. and Ivanka. Sater said that during that trip, Ivanka sat in Putin’s chair behind his desk.  

Cohen intended to travel to Russia, but changed his plans abruptly around the time of the infamous June 9, 2016 Trump Tower meeting.

Thursday’s court documents raise new questions about a critical period during the presidential campaign: May-June 2016.

“It’s obviously significant that Trump and Cohen pursued a business deal with the Russian government well into his campaign, and lied about it, but it may be even more important why the deal stopped precisely when it did,” notes Just Security’s Julian Sanchez.

Here are the relevant dates to track: In early May, Cohen emailed Sater about a possible trip to Russia to discuss the Moscow Project. He told Sater that he could travel to Russia “before Cleveland,” a reference to the Republican National Convention taking place that summer in Ohio, and that Trump could make such a trip “once he becomes the nominee after the convention.” On May 6, 2016, Cohen confirmed with Sater that a June 16-19 trip to Russia would work for Cohen.

On June 9, Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort met with suspected Russian agents who promised to deliver “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. On that same day, Sater started sending Cohen “numerous messages,” about the upcoming Moscow trip “including forms for Cohen to complete.” Then, on June 14, the first public report is made of suspected Russian government hackers penetrating the computer network of the Democratic National Committee. That same day, Cohen met Sater in the lobby of Trump Tower to tell Sater that “he would not be traveling at that time.”

“These are all details that didn’t strictly need to be in the plea, and they prompt the obvious question: What changed between early May and June 14?” asks Sanchez. “Did something cause Trump to abruptly become concerned about being overtly tied to the Russian government, long before anyone was publicly talking about ‘collusion’? To suddenly abandon a potentially lucrative deal after pursuing it for months is a fairly dramatic step that might imply an uncannily prescient understanding of how serious a liability such public entanglement might become.”

Just Security’s Laura Rozen also identified the conspicuous timing of these events and, in particular, that Mueller chose to reference these specific dates: “I am struck by the specific timing Mueller included in the statement of information for Cohen canceling plans for the Russia trip…I expect Mueller’s inclusion of those dates is not random.”

It is also worth noting that the court documents include the detail that Cohen “asked a senior campaign official about potential business travel to Russia.” This further connects Cohen’s business dealings with the Kremlin with Trump’s presidential campaign.

Cohen’s revelations show Putin’s leverage over Trump well into the presidential campaign.

The question has always been: Does Putin have some kind of leverage over Trump? While there is likely much more to learn, Thursday’s news shows that while running to be president of the United States, Trump was seeking a private business opportunity, from which he’d personally gain, that required the approval of Putin.

Whether or not there were kompromat or other financial leverage over Trump, the prospect of the Moscow Project is a separate plausible motive for all of Trump’s bizarre flattery of Putin throughout the campaign,” notes Just Security’s Andy Wright.

Was Trump asked about the Moscow Project in his written questions to Mueller? Was he truthful? If not, did he provide enough wiggle room to avoid perjuring himself?

Last week, Trump’s legal team submitted the president’s written answers to questions from Mueller about possible collusion between Trump associates and the Kremlin. We don’t know if Mueller asked about the Moscow Project, and we don’t know how Trump answered, if he did. But we do have good reason to think that Trump did not have the benefit of knowing what Cohen had told Mueller, and that the public would be made aware of this information this week.

“I bet President Trump and his legal team wish the dog had eaten their homework for another few days,” Just Security’s Andy Wright said. “The president is now locked in on answers and faces potential criminal liability for material untruths.”

Cohen taking a very different path than Manafort; Trump is taking notice.

Responding to the morning’s news that Cohen was cooperating with federal investigators, the president called his former fixer and personal lawyer a “weak person” and a “liar.”  

During the same Q&A with reporters, Trump said, “It’s very sad what’s happened to Paul,” in reference to Manafort, his former campaign chief. Trump has previously described Manafort as “brave” for not caving under legal pressure.

With news this week that Manafort’s cooperation deal with Mueller is falling apart because Manafort is not being truthful with federal investigators and is also continuing to share information with the president’s legal team, the question remains open whether Trump will reward Manafort with a pardon in the end, even if he does, whether Manafort will be able to avoid charges at the state level.  

Pursuit of Trump Tower Moscow was not simply a business deal, but involved senior officials of the Russian government.

Trump has described the Moscow Project as a “business deal,” but it’s clear Cohen was not brokering negotiations with private investors, but instead was in discussions with go-betweens for senior Russian government officials, as well as brokering potential meetings between Trump and Putin himself. It’s not unexpected that approval and active support from the Kremlin would need to be obtained for a project like Trump Tower Moscow, but because Putin’s permission would be necessary makes it impossible to brush this off as a simple private business deal.

“This was not private commerce,” notes Just Security’s Andy Wright. “Rather, Cohen is testifying about contacts with the Kremlin and efforts to charm Putin personally.”

This is likely the tip of the iceberg in terms of information Cohen is providing Mueller and the Southern District of New York.

While we learned plenty Thursday, given Cohen’s proximity to Trump and the role he played for years within the Trump Organization, it’s fair to say that Cohen knows much more than what’s been revealed so far. For example, the court documents do not shed light on whether Cohen actually met with Russian officials during the summer of 2016, or whether he traveled to Prague later in the summer, as the Steele Dossier alleges and McClatchy has reported. The court documents make no mention of Cohen’s possible knowledge about the June 9, 2016 Trump Tower meeting. Plus, Cohen potentially has important insight into Trump’s financial situation and cash flow over the years, including the Trump Organization’s cash purchases of real estate, shell corporation building tenants, and, as we note above, the potential election law violations related to hush money payments.

Who is in charge?

Thursday’s developments show that it remains opaque which “cases” are being supervised by Mueller and which by other jurisdictions, for example, the Southern District of New York. This question even pertains to particular defendants such as Cohen, for whom, evidently, it’s some from each column.

We also have no idea whether and to what extent Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker is supervising these investigations now. There has been no public update as to what happened to his recusal inquiries with ethics officials at the Justice Department. We also don’t know what role Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein (who oversaw the Mueller probe before Whitaker replaced Attorney General Jeff Sessions) continues to play, and whether either or both of them raised any doubts about or objections to this prosecution or told Trump about it in advance (hence, our hedging above as to what Trump might have known beforehand about Cohen’s plea).

Stepping back and looking at the big picture. So much criminality.

Just Security’s Alex Whiting said: “The Cohen plea marks yet another instance of a person selected by Trump who committed federal crimes while working for him. The accumulation of criminality surrounding Trump is frankly staggering.” Speaking of which, did Cohen act alone in deciding to lie to Congress? How did he expect to get away with it unless he thought Trump and others in the Trump Organization would not tell the truth either? In other words, is this yet again, a pattern of lying that suggests an organized effort to mislead federal authorities, and, if so, who was involved in that potential criminal conspiracy?

Image: Drew Angerer/Getty

 

About the Author(s)

Kate Brannen

Editorial Director of Just Security; nonresident senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council; previously senior reporter covering the Pentagon for Foreign Policy Follow her on Twitter (@K8brannen).

Ryan Goodman

Co-Editor-in-Chief of Just Security, Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Professor of Law at New York University School of Law, former Special Counsel to the General Counsel of the Department of Defense (2015-2016). You can follow him on Twitter @rgoodlaw.