MANHATTAN (CN) – Pleading guilty to a new charge of having lied to Congress, ex-Trump lawyer Michael Cohen told a federal judge Thursday morning that the president’s inner circle pursued a Moscow real estate project well into the 2016 campaign season.
Cohen’s surprise court appearance came three months after he first implicated the president in making two illicit payments to women “for the purpose of influencing the election.”
This morning, putting Trump one step closer to election-related conspiracy with the Kremlin, the president’s onetime-fixer admitted that he lied to the Senate and House intelligence committees on Aug. 28, 2017.
On that date Cohen had insisted in a letter to investigators that a plan for Trump skyscrapers in Russia’s capital was abandoned in January 2016.
Revising that statement today, however, 52-year-old Cohen breezily admitted that the project extended through June 2016 – the month before Trump formally accepted the Republican nomination.
Cohen told U.S. District Judge Andrew Carter at the hearing that he lied “out of loyalty” to the president, and said it was also a lie when he told investigators that he never agreed to travel to Russia.
“In fact, I took steps to and had discussions with Individual 1 about travel to Russia,” Cohen said, identifying “Individual 1” as President Trump. “And I would like to note that I did not in fact travel there, nor have I ever been to Russia.”
After Cohen concluded his prepared statement, Assistant U.S. Attorney L. Rush Atkinson said that the lawyer left out a significant detail.
“In fact, he had received a response from the Kremlin and spoke to someone from the press secretary’s office for approximately 20 minutes,” Atkinson said. “So, in essence, that Mr. Cohen minimized his contacts with the Russian government and stated so falsely in his submission.”
Pressed about this omission, Cohen said: “There was one contact that I had had for the 20 minutes, as stated.”
Court documents made available following the hearing describe Cohen’s dealings with an intermediary in the real estate deal identified as “Individual 2.”
This figure, who is widely believed to be Russian-mafia linked developer Felix Sater, wrote Cohen on May 4, 2016, roughly two months before the Republican National Convention.
“I had a chat with Moscow,” the intermediary wrote.
“ASSUMING the trip does happen the question is before or after the convention,” the message continued. “Obviously the pre-meeting trip (you only) can happen anytime you want but the 2 big guys where [sic] the question. I said I would confirm and revert.”
Cohen’s reply suggests that he wanted Trump to go after he accepted the Republican nomination.
“My trip before Cleveland,” Cohen wrote, referring to the site of the convention. “[Individual 1] once he becomes the nominee after the convention.”
A day later, Individual 2 relayed an invitation for Cohen to the Kremlin.
“[Russian Official 1] would like to invite you as his guest to the St. Petersburg Forum, which is Russia’s Davos it’s June 16-19,” the May 5, 2016, message said. “He wants to meet there with you and possibly introduce you to either [the President of Russia] or [the Prime Minister of Russia], as they are not sure if 1 or both will be there. He said anything you want to discuss including dates and subjects are on the table to discuss.”
The criminal information indicates that Cohen backed out of those travel plans during a meeting with his contact in the Trump Organization’s lobby on June 14, 2016.
While the intermediary is unnamed, Sater has been identified as Cohen’s go-between on the Moscow project many times before, including in a series of emails from late 2015.
“Our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it,” Sater wrote in one of them. “I will get all of Putin’s team to buy in on this, I will manage this process.”
In another message, envisioning a ribbon-cutting in Moscow, Sater added: “I will get Putin on this program and we will get Donald elected.”
Sater’s journey from Moscow to Trump’s inner sanctum is a tangled one, having turned government informant after secretly pleading guilty in 1998 to participating in a pump-and-dump stock fraud orchestrated by the Russian mafia.
His subsequent real estate career included a stint as managing director of the Bayrock Group LLC, which collaborated on various Trump real estate projects including Trump International Hotel & Residence, Trump Soho and Trump International Hotel and Tower.
Sater later passed out Trump Organization business cards touting himself as “senior advisor to Donald Trump.”
Within hours of Cohen’s guilty plea, Trump denounced his former lawyer as a “weak person,” according to reports from the White House reporting pool. Pressed about the Trump Organization’s Moscow real estate project this morning, Trump insisted: “There would have been nothing wrong if I did do it.”
After Cohen’s plea today, Trump abruptly canceled his upcoming meeting with Putin in Argentina via Twitter.
“Based on the fact that the ships and sailors have not been returned to Ukraine from Russia, I have decided it would be best for all parties concerned to cancel my previously scheduled meeting in Argentina with President Vladimir Putin,” Trump tweeted. “I look forward to a meaningful Summit again as soon as this situation is resolved!”
Trump’s negotiations with Putin over Russian aggression in Ukraine also have a connection to Cohen and Sater.
In June, the Washington Post reported that a former member of the Ukrainian parliament described a back-channel “peace proposal for Ukraine that he hoped Cohen would ferry to the White House.”
“The meeting was organized by Felix Sater, a Trump business partner who had also worked to broker the deal to build a Trump Tower in Moscow during the presidential campaign,” the Post reported earlier this year. “The back-channel proposal offered a pathway for resolving the Ukrainian dispute that could have eventually led to the lifting of U.S. sanctions on Russia, a top goal of Putin.”
Cohen is slated to be sentenced by U.S. District Judge William Pauley III on Dec. 12 in connection to the eight counts to which he pleaded in August.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller personally signed the 10-page criminal information against Cohen unsealed this morning.