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Thursday, November 29, 2018

SNITCH? Michael Cohen Pleads Guilty To LYING About Russian Contacts

FILE - In this Aug. 21, 2018, file photo, Michael Cohen leaves Federal court, in New York. Cohen, President Trump's ex-lawyer, is making an court appearance before a federal judge in New York on Thursday, Nov. 29. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)
FILE - In this Aug. 21, 2018, file photo, Michael Cohen leaves Federal court, in New York. Cohen, President Trump’s ex-lawyer, is making an court appearance before a federal judge in New York on Thursday, Nov. 29. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer

Jeff Mordock and Dave Boyer

Michael Cohen, President Trump’s former personal attorney, pleaded guilty Thursday to lying to Congress and, according to court documents, now says the president’s business empire was pursuing a deal with Russia even during the heart of the 2016 campaign.
Cohen reached the plea agreement with special counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating allegations of collusion between the Russia and members of the Trump campaign.
Cohen had previously told Congress that his attempts on behalf of the Trump organization ended in January 2016 and that he had never talked about having Mr. Trump travel to Moscow.
But in court documents Thursday, Mr. Mueller presented evidence Cohen continued to pursue what was known as the “Moscow project” through at least June 2016, he did plan a Moscow trip himself and was working on one for Mr. Trump for later in 2016.
Cohen agreed with a federal prosecutor’s statement that he had a 20-minute conversation with a spokesman for the Kremlin. Prosecutors said Cohen minimized to lawmakers his contact with Russia.
“I made these statements to be consistent with Individual-1’s political messaging and to be loyal to Individual-1,” Cohen said in court. Based on comparing his previous public statements to the court documents, it’s clear “Individual 1” is Mr. Trump.
After the plea Mr. Trump told reporters Cohen was “a weak person and not a very smart person.”
The president said he canceled the Moscow project, which was to be a Trump Tower built in Russia, but said it would have been fine if he’d gone ahead with it anyway, since he was running a business while running for president.
“What he’s trying to do is get a reduced sentence so he’s lying about a project that everybody knew about,” Mr. Trump said.
The plea agreement marks the second time Cohen has struck a deal with prosecutors on charges that arose from the special counsel investigation into allegations of Russian collusion with the Trump campaign.
Earlier this year, he pleaded guilty in the Southern District of New York to making illegal campaign contributions for facilitating payouts to porn star Stormy Daniels and model Karen McDougal.
Both women have alleged affairs with Mr. Trump, a claim he denies, though he has acknowledged the payments were made.
Cohen has been cooperating with the Mueller probe. He has reportedly spent more than 70 hours with Mr. Mueller’s prosecutors answering questions about contacts between Russia and Trump campaign officials during the election. Cohen has also spoken to Mr. Mueller’s team about Mr. Trump’s business ties to Russia and possible pardons, ABC News reported.
Cohen served as Mr. Trump’s personal fixer for more than a decade, working with real estate mogul-turned-president on highly sensitive personal and business matters.
Solomon Wisenberg, a Washington lawyer who served as independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr’s deputy during investigations into President Clinton, said he doesn’t view the details disclosed in the Cohen agreement as particularly devastating to Mr. Trump.
“In terms of criminal liability, the special counsel would have to show that Trump knew of and approved Cohen writing a false letter to Congress,” he said.
Mr. Wisenberg said a presidential candidate conducting business with a foreign government may be good fodder for the pundits, but it is not illegal. And it’s likely not going to be a political liability for the president, he said.
“Add this to the list of stuff that would be devastating, historically, to any other candidate but doesn’t seem to affect Trump,” he said. “We are talking about a guy who just said he wouldn’t take a pardon off the table for [Paul] Manafort. What do optics mean at this point?”
Jacob S. Frenkel, a former federal prosecutor in New Orleans and now a Washington white-collar defense attorney, warned Mr. Mueller’s team may know much more than what’s contained in the Cohen deal.
“I think to suggest that a narrow plea agreement means that is all that occurred gives a false sense of security or interpretation,” he said. “By its very nature, a plea deal reflects a set of parameters in this type of an investigation that enables the prosecutor to add another puzzle piece to the story yet still keep substantive evidence close to the vest.”
Mr. Frenkel said Mr. Trump’s defense of running of his business while a presidential candidate may be good public relations, but doesn’t amount to much of a legal argument if it comes to that.
“Legal defenses and public relations are very different, whether it is a court of law or whether it is proceedings before the United States Congress,” he said. “Most lawyers would prefer a client not comment at all.”
As Cohen’s cooperation with the special counsel moves forward, experts said they could see Mr. Trump’s legal team reviving their argument that his dealings with his longtime attorney are privileged.
The issue was raised in Cohen’s legal proceedings in New York, but resolved when Special Master Barbara Jones declared more than 7,000 items privileged among the more than 1 million documents seized from the attorney.
Mr. Frenkel expects the fight began anew, but believes Mr. Mueller’s team is prepared for the battle.
“Barbara Jones did conduct a review and analysis, but that doesn’t eliminate the issue altogether,” he said.
“It is reasonable to believe the special counsel’s office was diligent in its analysis of the applicability of privilege because it would not want a court throwing out evidence for violating the privilege,” he said.
Sen. Mark Warner, the vice chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, said Cohen’s latest guilty plea increases the need for him to return to Congress for another testimony.
“There seems to be a trend here among so many of the president’s closest allies, that they don’t tell the truth,” Mr. Warner told reporters.
The senator also stressed that the latest development emphasized the importance of Mr. Mueller’s independence, but didn’t feel that acting Attorney General Matthew G. Whitaker has “the temperament” to oversee that investigation.
• Gabriella Munoz contributed to this report.

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