Reporting by Pat Milton
Michael Cohen, President Trump's former personal lawyer, made a surprise appearance at the U.S. District Court in Manhattan Thursday where he pleaded guilty to one count of making a false statement to Congress regarding work he did on the development of a Trump Tower in Russia. The plea indicates that discussions about the project extended longer into the 2016 presidential campaign than Cohen had said, and involved discussions with Mr. Trump about a trip to Moscow.
As the president left the White House for his trip to a summit of world leaders in Argentina, he fielded questions from reporters about Cohen's latest plea deal. and "not a very smart person," and he accused him of "lying" and said "he's trying to get a reduced sentence for things that have nothing to do with me."
Cohen is expected to be sentenced Dec. 12, according to a person familiar with the matter.
In court testimony, Cohen pleaded guilty to making the misstatements, saying, "I made these misstatements to be consistent with Individual 1's political messaging and out of loyalty to Individual 1." While the criminal information does not identify Individual 1, Cohen in court confirmed President Trump is Individual 1.
Cohen's false statements are related to his correspondence with the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, which were investigating Russian interference in the U.S. election. In August, just before he was to be interviewed by the Senate Intelligence Committee, Cohen released a letter describing the project, which, he said, was similar to other projects undertaken by the Trump Organization.
Under the deal, the Trump Organization would license the Trump brand name to a Moscow-based real estate development company that would be responsible for all development and financing costs. Cohen said in his letter he "determined the proposal was not feasible" by the end of January 2016.
The letter rankled the Senate committee, which felt there was a tendency by Mr. Trump associates to selectively leak favorable parts of the private testimony, and it led them to call off that day's interview. Cohen was, however, interviewed behind closed doors by the House Intelligence Committee in 2017.
Much of the special counsel's criminal information focuses on statements in Cohen's public letter. The criminal information said Cohen wasn't truthful about the timing of the project, his discussions with people in "the Company" and in Russia, or about travel to Russia related to the project.
Cohen claimed in the letter that the project "was under consideration at the Trump Organization from September 2015 until the end of January 2016" and that he hadn't discussed it extensively with others in the company. In fact, the criminal information said, "The Moscow Project was discussed multiple times within the company and did not end in January 2016." As late as June 2016, Cohen was still talking about obtaining governmental approval for the project. By June, it was apparent Mr. Trump would have the delegates needed to clinch the Republican presidential nomination.
Cohen's letter also stated that he had "never considered asking Mr. Trump to travel to Russia in connection with this proposal." The criminal information said otherwise. "Cohen agreed to travel to Russia in connection with the Moscow Project and took steps in contemplation of Individual 1's possible travel to Russia," it reads. And the special counsel goes on to say that Cohen asked "Individual 1 about the possibility of Individual 1 traveling to Russia in connection with the Moscow Project, and asked a senior campaign official about potential business travel to Russia." But it does not say whether Mr. Trump considered making the trip to Russia.
Cohen spoke in a matter-of-fact, straightforward manner in entering his plea to the criminal information, two people in the courtroom said. Three prosecutors working on special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 presidential election were present in the courtroom. Cohen has been cooperating and will continue to cooperate with the Mueller probe.
Last year, Cohen confirmed to CBS News' Jeff Peguesabout a real estate deal in Moscow on three occasions, briefly. Cohen told Pegues in August 2017 the conversations with Mr. Trump on the topic "totaled less than four minutes." He described it to Pegues as a "significant deal" with proceeds that would have "lasted in perpetuity," and it would have included office, residential and hotel space in Moscow. The Wall Street Journal first reported the conversations between Mr. Trump and Cohen on the project. The criminal information said Cohen spoke with Mr. Trump more than the three times he claimed to the committee and also briefed his family members on the project.
In August, Cohento charges stemming in part from his campaign work for President Trump, and he is scheduled to be sentenced on that plea Dec. 12. It's not yet clear whether he will be sentenced for this new plea on the same date.