Michael Cohen, former personal lawyer for US President Donald Trump, pleaded guilty Thursday to lying to Congress in the ongoing investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential election.
Cohen, 52, admitted to making a false statement to a Senate committee about plans for building a Trump Tower hotel in Moscow, according to the office of special counsel Robert Mueller.
The false statements were with regard to when discussions about the Moscow project took place and the extent of his interactions with both people in the Trump campaign and Russian officials.
The special counsel said Cohen lied “to minimize links between the Moscow project and [Trump]” and give the false impression that the Moscow project ended before the 2016 Iowa caucus voting – the first in the presidential election.
While Cohen previously said that the Moscow project was stopped in January 2016, he agreed in his plea that he discussed it with people in Trump’s real estate company and in Russia on several occasions beyond that date, including occasions after Trump took office.
It said Cohen also lied about his correspondence with Russian officials and tried to conceal that he agreed to travel to Russia in connection with the project. The document shows that Cohen cancelled his travel plans in June 2016.
Cohen made the plea as part of a deal with Mueller, who is investigating election interference and possible links between Russia and political campaigns.
Cohen’s cooperation with the special counsel is potentially damaging to Trump, who commented on the developments prior to leaving for the G20 summit in Buenos Aires.
Trump said Cohen’s original testimony to Congress was the truth and that he is now lying to get favourable treatment when he is sentenced.
“He’s lying, very simply in order to get a reduced sentence,” he said. In addition to calling Cohen a liar, Trump said he is “weak” and “not a very smart person.”
Trump also said he was never trying to hide anything about the Moscow project, which his company didn’t pursue.
“To my way of thinking, the Moscow project] was an option that I decided not to do,” Trump said. He said the project was well-known and there would have been no violations if he had decided to do it.
The president complained about the Mueller investigation in tweets earlier in the day.
“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? After wasting more than $40,000,000 (is that possible?), it has proven only one thing-there was NO Collusion with Russia. So Ridiculous!” Trump said on Twitter.
The charge against Cohen was separate from earlier charges that he pleaded guilty to in August. He admitted then to committing eight counts of campaign finance violations, including making two payoffs with the intention of influencing an election.
Those charges stem from a raid on Cohen’s home and offices by the FBI after a referral from Mueller. He is scheduled to be sentenced on those charges next month.