What to Make of Michael Cohen’s Latest Guilty Plea

It’s been a significant week in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. On Monday, prosecutors filed a court document saying that President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, breached his plea deal by repeatedly lying to prosecutors. On Wednesday, Jerome Corsi, an associate of Roger Stone and conservative commentator, made public a draft court filing that showed Mr. Mueller was preparing to tell the court that Mr. Stone had asked Mr. Corsi to contact Wikileaks in an attempt to obtain unreleased emails stolen from Democrats by Russian hackers. On Thursday, Michael Cohen, Mr. Trump’s former personal attorney, pled guilty to lying to Congress in exchange for an agreement to cooperate with Mr. Mueller’s investigation.

Mr. Cohen’s plea agreement is perhaps the most significant development of the week. In it, Mr. Cohen acknowledges lying to Congress about how long the Trump Organization’s efforts to build a Trump Tower in Moscow continued into the 2016 campaign season and the extent of Mr. Trump’s involvement in the project.

Mr. Cohen told Congress that the Trump Organization abandoned the Trump Tower Moscow project in January of 2016, before the Presidential primary elections began. In fact, Mr. Cohen admits in his guilty plea that discussions about the project continued for six more months, until at least June of 2016. Further, Mr. Cohen told Congress that he had only spoken with Mr. Trump, who is identified in the court document as “Individual 1,” about the Trump Tower Moscow effort on three occasions. In his guilty plea, Mr. Cohen now acknowledges that his discussions with Mr. Trump about the project were more numerous.

Mr. Cohen’s plea indicates that Mr. Trump was more involved in the Trump Tower project than he had previously acknowledged and that Mr. Trump’s claims of having no business interests in Russia were not entirely true. According to the documents prosecutors filed in court Thursday, Mr. Cohen “made the false statements to (1)minimize links between the Moscow Project and Individual 1 and (2) give the false impression that the Moscow Project ended before ‘the Iowa caucus and . . . the very first primary,’ in hopes of limiting the ongoing Russia investigations.”

Mr. Trump defended his role in the discussions over the Trump Tower meeting Thursday. “There was a good chance that I wouldn’t have won, in which case I would have gotten back into the business, and why should I lose lots of opportunities?” he told reporters as he left for the Group of 20 meeting in Argentina.

What It Means

The court documents do not allege a connection between the Trump Tower deal and Russia’s efforts to meddle in the 2016 election. Neither do they address whether there was any coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia in Moscow’s election meddling. It’s important to recognize that this is the statement of the criminal information related to the charges to which Mr. Cohen plead guilty, not a comprehensive accounting of his, Mr. Trump’s, or anyone else in the Trump orbit’s interactions with Russia.

It is significant that unlike Mr. Cohen’s August guilty plea on tax and campaign finance charges, this one includes a cooperation agreement. A cooperation agreement indicates that Mr. Mueller has concluded that Mr. Cohen has valuable information to offer on other targets of his investigation. Just what this information is or to whom it relates we don’t yet know, but it’s safe to assume that there are other shoes to drop.

Further, Mr. Trump was reportedly asked about the Trump Tower Moscow deal in the questions Mr. Mueller put to him. Now the question becomes did Mr. Trump’s accounting of events in the responses he submitted last week align with Mr. Cohen’s? Mr. Trump’s lawyers say they did. But, when asked about Mr. Cohen’s statements, Mr. Trump called Mr. Cohen a liar who made up a story to save himself from a long prison term, which implies that they didn’t. If Mr. Trump’s account matched Mr. Cohen’s, why would he say Mr. Cohen lied? This raises the possibility that Mr. Trump could have misled in his response to Mr. Mueller on the topic.

Mr. Cohen’s guilty plea could also spell trouble for others in Mr. Trump’s orbit, including members of his family, who have spoken with prosecutors and congressional investigators about the Trump Tower Moscow project and may have given misleading accounts of events that conflict with Mr. Cohen’s.

On Friday, several news reports indicated that Mr. Mueller had asked questions about Mr. Trump’s eldest children’s role in building projects in Russia as well. Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump Jr. both engaged in efforts to develop properties in Moscow separate from that which Mr. Cohen was pursuing and may have had some tangential involvement in Mr. Cohen’s. As far as we know, there is nothing to suggest that there was anything improper about this. So, it’s unclear what Mr. Mueller’s interest in the Moscow dealings of the Trump children might indicate.

The Bottom Line

There is nothing inherently illegal about the Trump Organization’s pursuit of real estate development projects in Russia prior to the election. The main problem for Mr. Trump at this point is the extent to which this undermines the credibility of his repeated claims of having “nothing to do with Russia” and the potential that he and others around him could be in legal hot water if they misled investigators about it.  There is no “smoking gun” for “collusion” in Cohen’s plea deal. And perhaps there will never be one. But, given the cooperation agreement Mr. Cohen has struck, it’s very possible that he has more information that could implicate others in Mr. Trump’s orbit, if not Mr. Trump himself.

Indeed, if Mr. Mueller does possess smoking gun evidence of collusion — and we don’t know that he does — I wouldn’t expect him to reveal that at this point. It’s more likely that he would hold such information until the conclusion of his investigation. Mr. Mueller appears to be methodically putting in place the pieces to the puzzle of what happened between Russia and Mr. Trump and those in his orbit during the 2016 election. This plea agreement is but one piece — and the puzzle is not yet complete.

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