Michael Cohen, a former lawyer for President Trump, pled guilty in Manhattan federal court this morning to making false statements to Congress regarding his involvement in efforts to build a Trump Tower complex in Moscow (the “Moscow project”).
As our Jack Crowe has noted, Cohen’s guilty plea is in connection with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation and pertains to testimony Cohen gave to the Senate Intelligence Committee. Cohen pled guilty to a one-count criminal information.
In a nutshell, Cohen gave testimony to the committee that minimized the extent and duration of efforts made by the Trump organization on the Moscow project. In order to downplay Donald Trump’s connections to Russia, Cohen told the committee that the project had ended in January 2016 (i.e., before the Iowa caucuses), and that Trump’s personal involvement had been scant — limited to three conversations with Cohen.
In reality, Cohen now says efforts on the project continued well into 2016. Moreover, both Donald Trump and members of his family were extensively briefed on it. The efforts involved communications with Russian-government officials, as well as discussions of possible trips to Russia by Cohen and Trump, and possible meetings with Russian president Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev.
For those who’ve been predicting an imminent end of the Mueller investigation, my sense is that this is not a “tying up the loose ends” guilty plea. There is a strategy here of proving collusion . . . even if Mueller cannot prove a collusion crime. (As we’ve frequently noted, collusion is a hopelessly vague term, referring to concerted activity that could be legal or illegal; it must be distinguished from conspiracy, which is an agreement to commit a crime — along with the activity in furtherance of that agreement.)
The collusion narrative held that Russia “hacked” the election and the Trump campaign was complicit. If that were true, it would be worthy of a prosecutor’s attention because hacking is a crime, so “collusion” in it could rise to a criminal conspiracy. But there is no evidence to support a “cyberespionage” conspiracy — there are just the sensational, unverified claims in the Steele dossier (a product of the Hillary Clinton campaign).
Rather than ending the investigation because the suspected crime cannot be established, Mueller is apparently determined to prove “collusion” that is not criminal, however nefarious it may be made to appear. The prosecutor’s objective appears to be to show: (a) that ties between Donald Trump and the Russian regime were more elaborate than Trump has let on, and (b) that the Russian regime offered help to the Trump campaign in the form of information that would be politically damaging to Hillary Clinton, and the Trump campaign knowingly and eagerly accepted that offer — i.e., collusion to affect the outcome of the election.
Now, such a showing of collusion could be politically damaging. It might even be something on which the Democratic-controlled House could try to build an impeachment effort. But it is not a criminal conspiracy because it does not establish an agreement to commit a federal crime.
Mueller is camouflaging this defect in his investigation by inducing people in the Trump campaign orbit to plead guilty to various false-statements charges. The anti-Trump press then reports that (a) Mueller is investigating Trump–Russia collusion, (b) many Trump-campaign figures have been convicted, and (c) many Russians have been charged. No mention is made of the inconvenient facts that the Trump associates’ guilty pleas have nothing to do with Russia’s interference in the election and that the charges against Russians have nothing to do with the Trump campaign.
If I am right about where Mueller is going, then all roads lead to the Trump Tower meeting.
That would be the now-infamous June 9, 2016, gathering at which three top Trump-campaign officials — Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner (the president’s son-in-law), and Paul Manafort (then the campaign manager) — expected to receive damaging information regarding Hillary Clinton from a Kremlin-tied lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya.
The meeting was arranged by Don Jr. and Aras Agalarov, a Russian real-estate tycoon with close ties to Putin (who communicated with Don Jr. through intermediaries — his pop-star son Emin Agalarov and British publicist Rob Goldstone). Aras Agalarov runs a company called Crocus Group. As the Washington Post’s David Ignatius has recounted, he was quoted in state-run media in 2013 about participating in talks to be Trump’s partner on a Trump Tower development in Moscow. That same year, he was also Trump’s partner and host when Trump brought the Miss Universe pageant to Moscow.
In arranging the meeting, Agalarov communicated to Don Jr. that the purportedly damaging information about Mrs. Clinton was being transmitted as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump” in the 2016 election. But the meeting is said to have yielded no useful campaign dirt; it was largely used by Veselnitskaya to lobby the Trump campaign to oppose the Magnitsky Act (a bête noire of Putin’s).
Obviously, this is why the meeting is in Mueller’s crosshairs. The special counsel is especially interested in whether President Trump had foreknowledge of the meeting. Both the president and Don Jr. have denied that then-candidate Trump was told about it.
The Trump Tower meeting is not mentioned in the criminal information to which Cohen pled guilty today. But its specter is unmistakable if you’re paying attention. And the special counsel wants you to be paying attention. Most criminal informations (filed in lieu of an indictment when a defendant agrees) are bare-bones, one-paragraph affairs; Mueller, however, uses this one as the opportunity to convey a nine-page narrative. Again, there’s more going on here than just a false-statements plea. In this narrative, the timeline and the involvement of top-tier Russian officials are noteworthy.
The criminal information details that on January 20, 2016 (i.e., the point in time at which Cohen falsely told the Senate that the Moscow project had petered out), Cohen had an extensive telephone conversation with the personal assistant of “Russian official 1,” who is further described as Putin’s press secretary. (Consistent with Justice Department policy, the names of uncharged people are not mentioned — Trump, for example, is “Individual 1.”) During the discussion, Cohen outlined the Moscow project, including a description of “the Russian development company with which the [Trump] company had partnered” (likely a reference to Agalarov’s conglomerate). Cohen further “requested assistance in moving the project forward, both in securing land to build the proposed tower and financing the construction.”
Cohen had been referred to Putin’s press secretary by his friend, Felix Sater, who is an interesting character, to say the least. Sater is a former business associate of Trump’s, in addition to being a convicted racketeer and former (we assume it’s former) government informant. Sater often boasted of ties to Putin. As the New York Times has reported, he wrote a November 3, 2015, email to Cohen that said:
Michael[,] I arranged for Ivanka [Trump] to sit in Putins [sic] private chair at his desk and office in the Kremlin. I will get Putin on this program and we will get Donald elected. We both know no one else knows how to pull this off without stupidity or greed getting in the way. I know how to play it and we will get this done. Buddy our boy can become President of the USA and we can engineer it. I will get all of Putins [sic] team to buy in on this.
The criminal information confirms that Sater served as an intermediary between the Trump organization and the Kremlin on the Moscow project. On January 21, the day after Cohen spoke with the assistant to Putin’s press secretary, Sater sent Cohen a message asking him to call: “It’s about [the President of Russia] they called today.”
In the ensuing months, the criminal information relates that the Moscow project was discussed several times within the Trump company. Cohen says he separately discussed with candidate Trump and Sater the likelihood that Trump would travel to Russia in connection with the project, potentially to meet in person with Putin. On May 4, 2016, Sater sent a message to Cohen explaining that he “had a chat with Moscow,” and that while Cohen could come to Russia for a “pre-meeting trip” at any time, they needed to address whether a potential Trump trip — for a meeting of “the 2 big guys” — would happen “before or after the [Republican] convention” in Cleveland. Cohen responded, “My trip before Cleveland. [Trump] once he becomes the nominee after the convention.”
The day after this conversation (i.e., May 5), Sater informed Cohen that Putin’s press secretary was extending an invitation for Cohen to be his personal guest at “the St. Petersburg Forum which is Russia’s Davos,” from June 16 to 19. There, Cohen would meet with one or both of Putin and Medvedev. Mueller’s criminal information relates that this anticipated meeting would not be limited in scope to the Moscow project: “anything you want to discuss including dates and subjects are on the table.”
Cohen quickly agreed to come to St. Petersburg. But on June 14, just two days before the forum, he abruptly told Sater he was pulling out.
When one reads the criminal information with the June 9 Trump Tower meeting in mind, Mueller’s description of when and how Cohen aborted the trip is intriguing. Mueller states that beginning on June 9, Sater sent “numerous messages to Cohen about the travel, including forms for Cohen to complete.” That went on until June 14, when Cohen met with Sater “in the lobby” of Trump Tower — i.e., he wouldn’t even bring him up to the office — and informed Sater that “he would not be traveling at that time.”
As I’ve previously observed, the best explanation of the Trump Tower meeting is that Putin played the Trump campaign: By simply taking a meeting with the hope of getting campaign dirt, the candidate (now president) was compromised. Even if no exploitable information was transmitted, Putin would be positioned to embarrass Trump with the details of the meeting at the moment of his choosing, and therefore able to drive harder bargains in negotiations if Trump became president.
When it turned out that Veselnitskaya had nothing useful to offer, did the Trump team realize they had been had? Did they sense that Putin was trying to maneuver Trump, and did they decide to distance themselves?
Not only was the decision that Cohen would not travel to Russia made in mid June; the criminal information indicates that this is also when discussions about the Moscow project, including “efforts to obtain Russian governmental approval,” ground to a halt.
It should be noted that Cohen has not been charged with any offense involving Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. Moreover, no deal was ever closed for a Trump project in Moscow.
Three months ago, Cohen pled guilty to several other charges brought by the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. These included campaign-finance violations involving pay-offs to women who claim to have had extramarital liaisons with Donald Trump a decade before he was elected president. Cohen is scheduled to be sentenced on those charges on December 12.
At a minimum, this latest guilty plea in Mueller’s investigation illustrates that the special counsel is scrutinizing the president’s business connections to Russia. Shortly before being inaugurated, Trump tweeted, “I HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH RUSSIA — NO DEALS, NO LOANS, NOTHING!” He elaborated at a press conference that his business dealings with Russians were limited to “selling condos,” and one big real-estate deal in Florida, in which he sold to a Russian oligarch for about $100 million a mansion he’d purchased for about $40 million.
I would expect to see these assurances of minimal Russia ties repeated in Mueller’s final report. They will, of course, be juxtaposed against the facts that the special counsel revealed today, using Cohen’s guilty plea as the pretext. And I would expect to hear a lot more about the Trump Tower meeting.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Donald Trump was involved in the Miss America pageant in Moscow. Trump was involved with the Miss Universe pageant.