Late Friday night brought another twist in the Michael Cohen saga, with his lawyers filing a lengthy sentencing submission seeking leniency for the crimes he has pleaded guilty to.
Contained within the 37 pages are some more clues about exactly what he’s saying, and what role President Trump’s team might have played in his lies to Congress about Trump’s business dealings in Russia. Cohen was Trump’s longtime personal lawyer.
Here are three takeaways:
1. Cohen told Trump about his contacts with the Russian government
We found out this week that Cohen lied to Congress about his efforts, on behalf of Trump, to secure a deal for Trump Tower Moscow. Those efforts persisted beyond the January 2016 date he had previously claimed — extending through the 2016 GOP primary season. We also found out from Cohen’s plea deal that he had briefed Trump on the effort more extensively than he previously claimed. And we found out that he got a response from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s press office when he reached out to them about the project — again, contrary to what he said before (and contrary to the Kremlin’s claim, too).
The question from there was whether Cohen ever told Trump that he was using Russian government help. Now Cohen indicates he was.
“Michael had a lengthy substantive conversation with the personal assistant to a Kremlin official following his outreach in January 2016, engaged in additional communications concerning the project as late as June 2016, and kept [Trump] apprised of these communications,” Cohen’s lawyers write in the filing, which refers to Trump as “Client-1.” “He and [Trump] also discussed possible travel to Russia in the summer of 2016, and Michael took steps to clear dates for such travel.”
This is significant because it means Trump knew the Russian government was involved in helping him land a major real estate deal — even as Trump was asking Americans to vote for him for the U.S. presidency. Cohen was even asked to be the guest of Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, during his planned trip to Moscow and told he might be introduced to either Putin or Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.
That Trump knew all of that and continued to say “I have nothing to do with Russia” and “I don’t deal there” is pretty damning.
2. Cohen says he consulted with Trump’s team — but doesn’t directly say they told him to lie
These filings are often carefully worded, and that’s definitely the case when it comes to Cohen’s lawyers talking about Trump and the White House’s role in Cohen’s false testimony.
Cohen’s lawyers write that “in the weeks during which his then counsel prepared his written response to the Congressional Committees, Michael remained in close and regular contact with White House-based staff and legal counsel to [Trump].”
As such, he was (a) fully aware of [Trump]’s repeated disavowals of commercial and political ties between himself and Russia, as well as the strongly voiced mantra of [Trump] that investigations of such ties were politically motivated and without evidentiary support, and (b) specifically knew, consistent with [Trump]’s aim to dismiss and minimize the merit of the SCO investigation, that [Trump] and his public spokespersons were seeking to portray contact with Russian representatives in any form by [Trump], the Campaign or the Trump Organization as having effectively terminated before the Iowa caucuses of February 1, 2016.
Seeking to stay in line with this message, Michael told Congress that his communications and efforts to finalize a building project in Moscow on behalf of the Trump Organization, which he began pursuing in 2015, had come to an end in January 2016, when a general inquiry he made to the Kremlin went unanswered.
What’s important here is that Cohen’s lawyers never directly say anybody told him to lie. They say that his testimony was meant to echo the White House’s line and that he consulted with them, but it’s never directly stated that it was requested that he lie. Hence, he’s not quite saying his lies were part of a White House-involved conspiracy to lie to Congress.
Former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti believes Cohen’s lawyers would have said he was directed to lie if it was explicit — especially given Cohen has said Trump did direct him to commit another crime, the campaign finance violation in which he implicated Trump earlier this year:
All of that said, Cohen’s lawyers suggest the White House and/or Trump’s lawyers were aware of what Cohen was preparing to say to Congress, which was false in numerous ways.
3. Cohen has been talking — a lot — including to New York state
It was reported this week that Cohen had spoken to Mueller’s team for 70 hours — an amount of time that should give the Trump team some heartburn.
In this filing, Cohen also discloses that he has talked to authorities in New York about their Trump-related probes:
Michael has similarly met voluntarily with representatives of the New York State Office of the Attorney General (“NYAG”) concerning a state court action in which the NYAG has sued the Donald J. Trump Foundation and certain individual defendants, including Donald J. Trump. He also provided the NYAG with documents concerning a separate open inquiry. As above, Michael intends to make himself available to the NYAG to provide any additional cooperation it may request in these matters.
Michael, following his plea, additionally waived subpoena and met on an expedited basis with the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance (“DTF”), and has cooperated personally and through counsel and tax professionals with requests for information from DTF. His cooperation has included a waiver that allowed DTF to forego the burden of issuing subpoenas for materials, including the federal tax revenue adjustment report in this case.
Given Cohen has promised to cooperate fully with investigators, it’s perhaps not surprising that he’s talking so much. But the extent of his cooperation is notable.