Donald Trump’s former personal lawyer has admitted he was pursuing a project to build a Trump tower in Russia deep into the 2016 presidential campaign and later misled Congress about the discussions.
Michael Cohen, who once said he would take a bullet for Mr Trump, yesterday pleaded guilty to misleading Congress and made a string of new revelations about the project in Moscow.
Court documents showed that while Cohen claimed the project ended in January 2016 – before the first primary vote in the Republican presidential campaign – he actually pursued it until June 2016.
Cohen admitted he talked to Mr Trump – identified as ‘Individual 1’ in court documents – about the building project more than the three times he had previously disclosed.
He also said he briefed members of the Trump family.
Emails showed that Cohen agreed to visit Russia to discuss the deal in May 2016 and that there appeared to be a discussion about getting Mr Trump to also visit the country during the campaign.
Cohen gave the misleading statements, made to two congressional committees last year, to give the “false impression” that the project had ended before the first Republican primary vote in 2016, according to court documents.
Taken together, the revelations show that the Trump team was pursuing a building project in Russia for months longer during the 2016 election campaign than had previously been admitted.
That raises questions of whether there was a financial incentive to get close to the Kremlin, which could play a role in the approval of such a major building project in the country’s capital.
Mr Trump dismissed the developments, saying that Cohen was lying in an attempt to reduce a previous criminal sentence.
He also said there would be nothing wrong with pursuing a business deal while running for president.
“Cohen is a weak person and not a very smart person,” Mr Trump told reporters outside the White House.
“He’s got himself a big prison sentence.
“And he’s trying to get a much lesser prison sentence by making up this story.
“I don’t know when I decided but somewhere during the period of time, I was never very enthused, somewhere during the period of time when I was running for president… But when I run for president, that doesn’t mean I’m not allowed to do business. I was doing a lot of different things when I was running.”
During his surprise court appearance in New York yesterday, Cohen pleaded guilty to making false statements to Congress in August 2017, when he gave testimony to lawmakers leading an investigation into whether the Trump campaign co-operated with Russia to sway the 2016 presidential election.
Cohen told the court he made the “misstatements” to be consistent with Mr Trump’s “political messaging” and “out of loyalty” to the president.
Cohen has previously said he was Mr Trump’s “fixer” and would “take a bullet” for the president.
His plea may turn up the heat on the president, who has provided written answers to questions posed in the investigation.
In August, Cohen pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations, tax evasion and bank fraud in a case brought by federal prosecutors in New York.
Yesterday’s guilty plea may signal Cohen is hoping for a lighter sentence on the charges in exchange for continuing to co-operate with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.
Mr Trump has sought to distance himself from Cohen despite their long association.
Cohen testified in August that Mr Trump had directed him to commit a crime by arranging payments to silence two women who alleged before the 2016 election that they had affairs with Mr Trump.
He also pleaded guilty in August to eight criminal charges including tax evasion, bank fraud and campaign finance violations.
Mr Trump said in October that Cohen’s testimony was “totally false” and he minimised Cohen’s role working for him, describing him as “a PR person who did small legal work”.
Meanwhile, Mr Trump warned Democrats against launching investigations into his presidency – vowing that he is a “counter-puncher” who will unleash fury.
He warned of consequences if the Democrats – who take control of the House in January – use their new-found power to investigate him.
“If they go down the presidential harassment track… I think that would be the best thing that would happen to me,” he said.
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