Michael Cohen’s latest guilty plea is both surprising and unsurprising. The president’s former personal attorney admitted on Thursday to having lied to Congress about the extent of President Donald Trump’s business dealings with Russia during the 2016 presidential campaign. “I made these statements to be consistent with [Trump]’s messaging and to be loyal to [Trump],” Cohen told a federal judge in New York during his allocution. His plea came as part of his cooperation with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s inquiry, according to court filings.
The president’s longtime legal fixer already pleaded guilty to eight tax and fraud-related charges in August, including two campaign-finance violations related to payments he made during the 2016 campaign to cover up alleged affairs between Trump and two women. Cohen told the court at the time that Trump personally directed him to make the payments.
Thursday’s plea deal offered little in the way of new revelations on Trump’s relationship with Moscow during the election. BuzzFeed News reported the bulk of Cohen’s story in May, detailing how he and Trump associate Felix Sater negotiated to build a new Trump Organization tower on a Moscow riverfront during the 2016 campaign. It’s also been widely reported for months that Cohen is cooperating with Mueller’s inquiry, though the full extent of that cooperation remains unclear.
But that’s not to say that the plea deal is meaningless. It confirms that Trump himself lied for years about his business ties with Russia. (“I HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH RUSSIA - NO DEALS, NO LOANS, NO NOTHING!” the president tweeted in 2017.) It draws a direct line between the Trump Organization and the Russian government during the 2016 election. It raises questions about whether other people in Trump’s orbit may have told similar lies to Congress about the Trump Organization’s contacts with the Kremlin, and whether those people may now be in greater legal jeopardy. (Cohen’s statement of information explicitly notes that he informed members of Trump’s family about the contacts when they took place.)
The most surprising—and perhaps most significant—aspect of Cohen’s plea deal may be its timing. It’s the second time, for example, that the special counsel’s office has made a major public move in the days ahead of a scheduled meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. In July, the Justice Department indicted twelve Russian intelligence operatives for election cyberattacks against the Democratic Party. Three days later, Trump stood next to Putin at a press conference in Helsinki and said he believed the Russian president’s denials over the conclusions of U.S. intelligence agencies.
This time, the Trump-Putin tête-à-tête was scheduled to take place during the G20 summit in Buenos Aires this weekend. Hours after Cohen’s plea deal, however, Trump announced on Twitter that he would no longer be meeting with the Russian president in Argentina, citing an incident last weekend between Russian and Ukrainian naval forces as his reason for canceling the meeting.
Cohen’s plea deal also comes less than a fortnight after Trump answered a series of written questions from Mueller about his campaign’s ties to Russia. The exact questions Mueller asked and Trump answered aren’t yet known. Two questions The New York Times reported the Mueller team had sent to Trump in April, however, touch upon what Cohen pleaded guilty to on Thursday: “What communication did you have with Michael D. Cohen, Felix Sater and others, including foreign nationals, about Russian real estate developments during the campaign?” and “What discussions did you have during the campaign regarding any meeting with Mr. Putin? Did you discuss it with others?”
Trump’s lawyers told reporters Thursday that the president’s answers matched Cohen’s new narrative in his guilty plea this week. If Trump’s answers don’t match what Cohen told the court, however, he could find himself in greater legal peril than he already was. It’s illegal to lie to federal investigators during the course of a criminal investigation.
Thursday’s plea deal also comes shortly after Mueller’s office told a federal judge in D.C. that Paul Manafort, the president’s former campaign chairman, violated his plea agreement by lying to investigators on multiple investigations since he signed it in August. What’s more, Manafort’s lawyers reportedly briefed Trump’s legal team on what Manafort was telling the special counsel. Those communications amounted to what one legal observer called a “brazen violation of criminal defense norms” and “a catastrophe for everyone involved.”
It’s not yet known what Manafort lied about and how Mueller knew he lied. But the twist is a serious blow to the investigation. When Manafort agreed to cooperate with the special counsel’s office in September, I noted that the disgraced political operative is the one of the few Americans not related to Trump by blood or marriage who could give a comprehensive account of the campaign’s ties to the Russian government. Manafort’s alleged lying casts doubt on whatever he already told Mueller and makes him of limited use as a witness in any future criminal cases.
Mueller has other avenues of inquiry, though. Cohen’s plea deal for lying to Congress increases the legal peril faced by Jerome Corsi, a conservative activist currently under the special counsel’s scrutiny. Corsi rose to fame in the 2000s by smearing John Kerry’s military service during the 2004 and spreading racist conspiracy theories about Barack Obama’s citizenship throughout his presidency. During the 2016 election, he communicated with veteran political operative Roger Stone about obtaining hacked Clinton campaign emails from WikiLeaks—one of the events some believe may have involved cooperation between Russians and the Trump campaign.
Corsi, who is 72 years old, acknowledged in a TV interview on Wednesday that he misled Congress about his actions during the 2016 election and that he may die in prison as a result. But he also distanced himself from the prospect of accepting a similar plea deal and cooperating with Mueller’s inquiry, telling MSNBC’s Ari Melber that he believed “in his heart” that he didn’t intend to deceive Congress. Corsi’s lawyers have signed a joint defense agreement with Trump’s legal team, indicating that their legal interests are currently aligned.
Mueller’s overall silence, coupled with his office’s apparent lack of leaks, makes it hard to gauge where he’s going next in the Russia investigation. Whether intentionally or not, the timing of Cohen’s plea deal will likely send a few signals to the president, other witnesses, and the public. The federal investigation into Trump’s connections with Russia isn’t over. Lying to Congress about those connections will result in criminal charges. Mueller’s office is still willing to cooperate with witnesses who tell the truth. And it’s unwilling to brook witnesses who don’t.