Robert S. Mueller III is closing in on President Trump.
That’s the best interpretation of Thursday’s striking news that the special counsel has obtained a guilty plea and an agreement to cooperate from Michael Cohen, President Trump’s erstwhile attorney, fixer and all-around handyman.
Cohen is now admitting that he lied to Congress about some key matters involving his former boss. But the really important part isn’t what’s in the documents that have been released Thursday; it’s what isn’t in them.
In a nine-page filing, prosecutors laid out a litany of lies that Cohen admitted he told to congressional lawmakers about the Moscow project — an attempt, Cohen said, to minimize links between the proposed development and Trump as his presidential bid was taking off.
Cohen falsely said efforts to build a Trump-branded tower in Moscow ended in January 2016, when in fact discussions continued through that year, the filing said. Among the people Cohen briefed on the status of the project was Trump himself, on more than three occasions, according to the document.
Trump has repeatedly said that he had no business dealings in Russia, tweeting in July 2016, “For the record, I have ZERO investments in Russia” and telling reporters in January 2017 that he had no deals there because he had “stayed away.”
When he spoke to reporters about this Thursday, Trump stressed over and over that it would have been perfectly fine for him to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, as he had long sought to do. Legally speaking, that’s true. But given the controversy around Trump’s solicitousness toward Vladimir Putin and the growing realization that Russia was intervening in the campaign on his behalf, through 2016 it was important for him to distance himself publicly from Russia, which he did many times by stressing that he had no investments there.
That provides the explanation for why Cohen would have lied to Congress about the Moscow deal, claiming that by the time the campaign heated up it was no longer being considered. In the document filed Thursday with Cohen’s guilty plea, the Mueller team explains that while Cohen testified and said publicly that the Moscow project was abandoned before the Iowa caucus in early 2016, that was in fact false:
COHEN made the false statements to (1) minimize links between the Moscow Project and [Trump] and (2) give the false impression that the Moscow Project ended before ‘the Iowa caucus and . . . the very first primary,’ in hopes of limiting the ongoing Russia investigations.
The status of Trump’s long-pursued dream to build a Trump Tower Moscow might seem like a relatively minor part of the entire scandal. Indeed, if you were Trump you might say, “I never told Cohen to lie about that, and anyway, who cares?”
But this matter is only what Cohen is admitting to in exchange for his cooperation with Mueller. It tells us nothing about what else he has told Mueller, and on what subjects.
Here’s what Trump told reporters today about Cohen:
He was convicted of various things unrelated to us. He was given a fairly long jail sentence, and he’s a weak person, and by being weak, unlike other people that you watch, he’s a weak person, and what he’s trying to do is get a reduced sentence. So he’s lying about a project that everybody knew about.
Interestingly enough, just moments later Trump lamented how terribly unfairly Paul Manafort — who also pleaded guilty in exchange for cooperating with prosecutors — is being treated. Manafort is apparently not “weak” in Trump’s eyes. That’s probably because Manfort’s lawyers have been regularly briefing Trump’s lawyers on his sessions with Mueller’s team, meaning Manafort has all but acting as a spy for the president. Manafort is still valuable to Trump; Cohen is not.
But it’s more than that. Just about everyone who has followed this story closely understands that whatever might or might not have happened with Trump and Russia during the campaign, the real threat to the president lies in the Trump Organization. As Adam Davidson of the New Yorker put it, “I am unaware of anybody who has taken a serious look at Trump’s business who doesn’t believe that there is a high likelihood of rampant criminality.”
Cohen was intimately involved for years in that business, making deals and putting out fires. If he’s telling Mueller everything he knows, Trump could be in serious trouble.
Some of what Cohen has to reveal could indeed involve Russia. Let’s recall that despite his denials, Trump has had extensive financial connections to Russia for some time. After a series of business bankruptcies in the 1990s, Trump found it increasingly difficult to convince banks to loan to him, but as Eric Trump reportedly told a golf journalist a few years ago, “we don’t rely on American banks. We have all the funding we need out of Russia.” (Eric Trump has denied saying this.)
Donald Trump Jr. has said something similar. “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets,” the older brother said in 2008, “say in Dubai, and certainly with our project in SoHo and anywhere in New York. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.” In addition, Trump properties have been a magnet for Russian oligarchs and mobsters, who have bought hundreds of millions of dollars worth of them for the apparent purpose of money laundering.
Will all of that appear perfectly legal and not potentially scandalous in any way once the details are fully known? What do you think?
From everything we’ve learned over the past couple of years, Cohen seems to have worshiped Trump and wanted desperately to win his favor. But the admiration went only in one direction. As Roger Stone told the New York Times in April, “Donald goes out of his way to treat him like garbage.” It might be time for Cohen to get his payback.