President Donald Trump’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty Thursday to a new charge of lying to Congress about a Russian real estate venture Trump sought to develop during his presidential campaign.
The charge was filed by special counsel Robert Mueller, who is leading a probe into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.
Cohen, who previously pleaded guilty to violating campaign finance laws, directed efforts to construct a Trump-branded complex in Moscow.
He admitted to a federal judge in New York he lied about the timing of negotiations and other information in order to be consistent with Trump’s “political message” and “to be loyal to Individual One,” a reference to Trump during the court session.
Among the lies Cohen told the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2017 was that discussions of the project ended by January 2016 when they actually continued until June of that year.
Cohen said he also lied about his communications with Russian officials, when he said he did not agree to a project-related trip to Russia, and when he said he never thought about asking Trump to travel to support the project.
Trump strongly denounced his former attorney, accusing him of succumbing to pressure from prosecutors.
“He’s a weak person and what he’s trying to do is get a reduced sentence,” Trump told reporters outside the White House. “So he’s lying about a project that everybody knew about. I mean we were very open with it. We were thinking about building a building,” Trump added.
“I decided ultimately not to do it. There would have been nothing wrong if I did do it. If I did do it, there would have been nothing wrong,” Trump said.
In the nine page filing by prosecutors, Cohen said Trump was among the people he updated about the project, doing so on at least on three occasions. Cohen also said Trump signed a letter of intent. Trump has repeatedly denied he had business dealings in Russia.
Cohen also said he reached out to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman by email as part of the potential deal.
The former Trump attorney said he collaborated on the deal with Russian-born developer Felix Sater, who Cohen said claimed to have deep connections in Moscow.
Discussions about the real estate proposal began after Trump announced his candidacy. Cohen said the talks ended when it became clear the project was not feasible.
The top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Mark Warner, said Cohen’s plea is another example of Trump allies being untruthful about Russia, asking reporters, “What are they covering up for?”
Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani said, “It’s no surprise that Cohen lied to Congress.” Giuliani called Cohen a “proven liar” who is trying to avoid a long prison term for “serious crimes … that had nothing to do with the Trump Organization.”
Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff, in line to become chairman of the House Intelligence Committee next year, said Cohen’s guilty plea clearly demonstrates “the president’s own denials during the campaign were false or misleading.”
Schiff said the guilty plea also highlights the belief of Democratic committee members that “other witnesses were also untruthful” during testimony before the panel in August and in October of 2017.
Trump has tried to distance himself from Cohen despite their long relationship. Cohen testified in August that Trump ordered him to illegally arrange payments to buy the silence of two women before the 2016 election, who said they had affairs with Trump. The president has denied their claims.
The developments come as Trump continues almost daily attacks on Mueller’s investigation of Trump campaign links to Russia and whether Trump, as president, obstructed justice in an effort to thwart the probe.
Trump last week provided written answers to about two dozen questions posed by Mueller about his own actions and recollections of the campaign.
It is not known, however, whether Mueller will seek to follow up with more questions for Trump, now nearly halfway through his first term in the White House.