Opinion writer

The Post reports on the latest plea deal with President Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen:

President Trump’s former personal attorney Michael Cohen pleaded guilty Thursday in New York to lying to Congress about a Moscow real estate project that Trump and his company pursued at the same time he was running for president.

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 well underway.

Cohen’s guilty plea — his second in four months — is the latest development in a wide-ranging investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Activity in that probe has intensified this week, as one planned guilty plea was derailed, and, separately, prosecutors accused Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort of lying to them since he pleaded guilty.

[…] Cohen previously said the project stalled in January 2016, prompting him to email a top aide to Russian President Vladi­mir Putin seeking help. Cohen previously said that he never received a response and that the project was halted that month.

Just hours after that news broke, Trump decided to cancel a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Buenos Aires, perhaps fearing a replay of the disastrous appearance with Putin in Helsinki, when Trump sided with him over the conclusive findings of the U.S. intelligence community that Russia meddled in our election.

“Cohen was Trump’s fixer and was clearly part of the effort to conspire with Russia,” said Max Bergmann, who heads the Moscow Project. “Most worrying for Trump, Cohen knows what Trump knew and when he knew it. The walls are closing in.”

There are multiple issues here.

First, Trump recently turned in his written answers to Mueller. If Mueller asked about the Moscow Trump Tower deal and Trump lied, saying that it had ended in January, that would be a strong basis for a perjury charge. Trump might say that he didn’t know Cohen was continuing in talks with Russia, but the tantalizing detail from the indictment, namely that Cohen communicated with Individual 1 (presumably Trump) three times, suggests that Mueller may have some definitive evidence of the conversations. (Did Cohen tape them?) The Post reports: “Prosecutors seemed to make a point in the document of emphasizing how Cohen had talked with Trump himself — whom they didn’t name — about the project. The document said Cohen lied because he hoped his testimony would limit the ongoing Russia investigations.” In other words, both Cohen and Trump tried to disguise the extent of Trump’s ties with Russia, which, in the context of the campaign, may have been part of a conspiracy to help get him elected.

Second, Trump appears to be conducting foreign policy to avoid implicating himself in wrongdoing, it seems, and therefore has to cancel a meeting to avoid underscoring the appearance that he is under Putin’s thumb. The idea that Trump would meet with Putin and read him the riot act appears to be out of the question.

Third, Cohen plainly is cooperating with Mueller — and not communicating with Trump. Unlike the situation with Manafort, Trump has no way of seeing inside the Cohen-Mueller talks. That creates enormous uncertainty and risk. Trump may already have contradicted himself under oath.

Fourth, if it weren’t obvious already, Cohen’s plea agreement shows that the Mueller probe is not a “witch hunt.” Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), in line to chair the House Judiciary Committee, issued a statement, which read in part:

The Special Counsel has now secured guilty pleas from President Trump’s personal attorney, his campaign manager, his deputy campaign manager, a foreign policy advisor to his campaign, and his National Security Advisor. He has filed 191 charges against more than thirty individuals—almost all of whom are in President Trump’s orbit, Vladimir Putin’s orbit, or both. The President can pretend that this investigation has nothing to do with him and nothing to do with Russia, but these indictments speak for themselves. We must allow this investigation to run its course without interference from the President or his allies on Capitol Hill. As the new Congress begins, these developments make clear that my colleagues and I must step in and provide accountability. No one is above the law, not even the President, and our job will be to check his impulse to abuse his office to protect himself. We will do everything in our power to allow the Special Counsel to finish his work and follow the facts and the law to their conclusion.

Fifth, the Cohen revelations emphasize the need for legislation to protect Mueller. Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) implored his colleagues to do just that: “It’s a reminder that there has been a remarkable volume of criminal activity uncovered by the special counsel’s investigation. No one — especially not the president — can credibly claim that the investigation is a fishing expedition. Calling Mueller’s investigation a ‘witch hunt’ is just a lie. Plain and simple. A lie.” He continued, “The president’s actions clearly show he has a lot to hide, but he is afraid of the truth and doesn’t want Mueller or anyone else to uncover it. . . . Let’s not forget, President Trump has already fired the attorney general and replaced him with a lackey, without Senate approval, a nominee whose only qualification seems to be that he has a history of criticizing the special counsel.”

Finally, if Cohen is telling the truth, Trump lied during the campaign in flatly denying any deals in Russia. That in itself is a big deal. Trump took a bizarrely pro-Putin stance during the campaign and in the debates specifically. The notion that a candidate would take the side of a foreign foe of the United States while negotiating business deals in that country should be seen as wholly unacceptable, perhaps even an attempt to defraud voters. If he was doing it to assist his own economic interests, it can be seen as a quid pro quo.

But was it illegal or impeachable? If lying about the Trump Tower deal was part of a scheme to conspire/collude with Russia, the latest revelation will be one more fact in a conspiracy charge (or campaign finance violation against Trump). Trump’s shocking insistence Thursday that he was “allowed to do whatever I wanted during the campaign” seems to leave open the possibility that he did not comprehend the ramifications of working with the Russians to feather his own nest and get him elected.

Lying about Russia deals also might be considered one in a series of impeachable acts. Constitutional law professor Laurence Tribe told me, “The only pre-election lying (or other misconduct) that becomes impeachable if and when the candidate wins office is conduct that contributes materially to a fraudulent victory, which much of Trump’s activity with Russia during the 2016 campaign may well have done.” Remember, Article One of Richard Nixon’s impeachment included “making or causing to be made false or misleading public statements for the purpose of deceiving the people of the United States.”

Cohen is helping Mueller to tie Trump — financially, personally, politically — to the highest levels of the Russian government. Whether that amounts to crimes (apart from efforts to obstruct justice) remains to be seen. It does, however, mean that Trump lied his way into the presidency, in part, to protect financial interests in Russia and perhaps to get Russian assistance (e.g., in disclosing dirt on Hillary Clinton). Trump has every reason to panic.

Read more:

Paul Waldman: Cohen’s new plea deal may be only the tip of the iceberg

Greg Sargent: As Cohen pleads guilty, raging Trump blows up GOP’s Mueller spin

Harry Litman: The stunning implications of the Manafort-Trump pipeline

Randall E. Eliason: Mueller will get to the truth even if Manafort is lying