President Donald Trump’s former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty to lying to Congress on Nov. 29 in a federal court in New York, according to the office of special counsel Robert Mueller.
Cohen pleaded to one count of making false statements to Congress as part of a plea deal with Mueller. Cohen said during the hearing that he submitted a false written statement about a Trump Organization real estate project in Moscow.
The charges stem from a letter Cohen sent on Aug. 28 last year to the House and Senate committees on intelligence, according to the statement of offense bearing Mueller’s signature (pdf).
Cohen had written to lawmakers that he terminated a real estate project in Moscow in January 2016 without asking or briefing Trump. Cohen added that he declined requests to travel to Moscow, never asked Trump to make the trip, and did not remember “any Russian government response or contact about the Moscow Project.”
Cohen summarized the missive to lawmakers when he appeared before the Senate committee on intelligence on Sept. 19 last year.
“I assume we will discuss the rejected proposal to build a [Company-branded] property in Moscow that was terminated in January of 2016, which occurred before the Iowa caucus and months before the very first primary,” Cohen said.
“This was solely a real estate deal and nothing more. I was doing my job.”
Cohen now alleges that he made those statements knowing they were false. In the court documents, he agrees that he continued to discuss a potential trip to St. Petersburg as late as May 6, 2016. Cohen eventually cancelled the trip during a meeting with his contact in the lobby of Trump Tower on June 14, 2016. The Democratic National Committee announced on the same day that its servers had been penetrated by Russian government hackers.
Discussions about the trip involved an invitation from an unnamed Russian official for Cohen to visit the St. Petersburg Forum, Russia’s version of Davos which took place on June 16-19. The invitation was made via Cohen’s contact, who is also not named in the court documents.
The contact wrote that the Russian official “wants to meet there with you and possibly introduce you to either [the President of Russia] or [the Prime Minister of Russia],” according to the court documents.
Cohen told his contact on May 4 that Trump may visit Russia “once he becomes the nominee after the [Republican National] convention.”
In addition to discussing the trip, Cohen communicated with an assistant to the press secretary for Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to the court documents. Contrary to what he told Congress last year, Cohen spoke to the assistant for about 20 minutes on Jan. 20, 2016, asking for help in securing land, financing, and construction for the project.
Lying to Congress is a felony which carries a maximum sentence of five years imprisonment, a fine of up to $250,000, and up to three years of supervised release. Cohen’s plea agreement (pdf) recommends a sentence of up to six months and a fine of up to $9,500. Cohen and his attorney, Guy Petrillo, signed the plea agreement on Nov. 29.
Cohen told the court that he submitted the false statements out of his loyalty to Trump at the time. The loyalty appears to have lapsed since Cohen pleaded guilty in August to tax evasion, bank fraud, and campaign finance violations in a case brought by federal prosecutors in New York. Cohen registered as a Democrat in October.
Trump told reporters on Nov. 29 that Cohen “a weak person and not a very smart person.” The president said it was legal to operate a business while running for president. Trump added that the Moscow project was a public deal which he opted to cancel so he could focus on the presidential campaign.
“What he’s trying to do is very simple, he’s got himself a big prison sentence and he’s trying to get a much lesser prison sentence by making up a story,” Trump said.
“This deal was a very public deal. Everybody knows about this deal. I wasn’t trying to hide anything.”
Mueller is investigating allegations of collusion between Trump campaign associates and Russia, as well as matter which arise from the probe. None of the charges brought by Mueller to date are related to collusion. The full scope of the special counsel’s investigation remains classified.
Trump is a fierce critic of the Russia investigation. The president wrote on Twitter on Nov. 29 that Mueller is not looking at “crimes that were committed by Crooked Hillary Clinton and the Democrats” and called the probe “a total disgrace.”
“When will this illegal Joseph McCarthy style Witch Hunt, one that has shattered so many innocent lives, ever end-or will it just go on forever?” Trump wrote. “After wasting more than $40,000,000 (is that possible?), it has proven only one thing-there was NO Collusion with Russia. So Ridiculous!”
The president also cancelled on Nov. 29 a planned meeting with Putin in Argentina, citing Russia’s detention of Ukrainian ships and sailors.
Reuters contributed to this report.