This post has been updated.
Michael Cohen reached a new plea deal Thursday with the team of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, in which he admitted to lying to Congress about an effort to build a Trump Tower in Moscow.
We don’t know why President Trump’s former personal attorney and fixer pleaded to that crime now — or even why Mueller would want his plea at this point. The plea deal comes as Cohen has already pleaded guilty to other crimes, provided dozens of hours of interviews with Mueller and implicated Trump in a campaign finance violation. It’s not as though Mueller needed more leverage on Cohen, at least by outward appearances.
But we can glean potential clues from the document. Below are a few takeaways about what’s significant.
1. There are conspicuous mentions of Trump and his family
In written testimony to both the House and Senate intelligence committees last year, Cohen said the Trump Tower Moscow deal was abandoned in January 2016.
“By the end of January 2016, I determined that the proposal was not feasible for a variety of business reasons and should not be pursued further,” Cohen said.
The plea deal, though, says that not only did Cohen continue to pursue the project through June 2016, but also that he briefed Trump on it more than the three times he had originally claimed, and also that he briefed Trump’s family members.
“COHEN discussed the status and progress of the Moscow Project with Individual 1″ — a clear reference to Trump — “on more than the three occasions COHEN claimed to the Committee, and he briefed family members of Individual 1 within the Company about the project.”
The timeline isn’t exactly clear. Is Mueller saying that Cohen gave these status updates and briefings after January 2016 — suggesting that Trump and his family were still pressing for this even in the heat of the 2016 primary season?
Update: Trump’s lawyers now confirm the president was aware of the ongoing effort during the primaries.
The briefing of family members is a particularly conspicuous inclusion. Cohen never directly denied briefing them; he said only that he didn’t brief them when he made the decision to shutter the project. “I did not ask or brief [Individual 1], or any of his family, before I made the decision to terminate further work on the proposal,” Cohen said in his testimony.
It seems possible that Mueller is trying to draw a more direct line between the potential Russia real estate deal and the Trumps than either Cohen or the Trumps have acknowledged. “For the record, I have ZERO investments in Russia,” Trump tweeted in July 2016. The next day, he claimed, “I have nothing to do with Russia.”
But why do that? Will this be a more central piece of the collusion investigation going forward? Is Mueller laying a marker? These are the most intriguing questions — especially, again, because Mueller didn’t necessarily need to charge Cohen with more crimes.
2. Putin’s spokesman appears to have helped cover this up
It has been reported that Cohen emailed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s press office in January 2016 seeking to grease the skids for the deal. But Cohen had said he never heard back.
Turns out, that was a lie. An assistant to Putin’s top spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, emailed him back, according to the plea deal, and then Cohen spoke with the assistant on the phone for 20 minutes.
But Cohen wasn’t the only one who lied about it. So, too, apparently, did Peskov. Here’s what Peskov said of the matter in August 2017: “ . . . Since, I repeat again, we do not react to such business topics — this is not our work — we left it unanswered.”
It’s not as though Russia is clean as the driven snow in all of this — it is accused of interfering in the 2016 election, after all — but it’s notable that Mueller is now directly contradicting Peskov’s claim in a criminal filing. It suggests that Russia was covering up Trump-related things, too.
3. This ties the Trump family’s efforts to the Russian government
As Cohen was planning to travel to Russia, his Russian associate Felix Sater relayed a message that Cohen might even get an audience with Putin or Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.
Sater told Cohen that Peskov “would like to invite you as his guest to the St. Petersburg Forum which is Russia’s Davos it’s June 16- 19. He wants to meet there with you and possibly introduce you to either [the President of Russia] or [the Prime Minister of Russia], as they are not sure if 1 or both will be there.”
So Cohen not only received a reply from Peskov’s office but also that office was making high-level arrangements for him — the lawyer and fixer for an American presidential candidate.
The question from here is how much Trump knew and when. If Putin’s office was helping him with a business proposal during the 2016 election, that casts his Russia commentary in whole new light. And Trump is already having to retreat from his previous claims of not having business in Russia.
4) The deal apparently died the day The Post broke a story about Russian hacking
The plea deal indicates that the last known discussion about the deal was “on or about June 14,” 2016, when Cohen told Sater that he was canceling plans to travel to Russia.
Why is that date significant? It happens to be the day The Washington Post broke a big story that Russia had hacked the Democratic National Committee.