President Donald Trump’s former personal attorney Michael Cohen pleaded guilty in federal court Thursday morning of lying to two congressional committees about the Trump Organization’s attempts to make a real estate deal in Russia through the summer of 2016, well into the presidential campaign. Cohen had testified under oath to the House and Senate intelligence committees that the Trump Organization’s “Moscow Project” to build a branded tower in the Russian capital had ended in January 2016 and that Cohen had made the decision on his own.
In fact, according to a document filed by the special counsel’s office in federal court in Manhattan, Cohen “made the false statements to (1) minimize links between the Moscow Project and Individual 1 [Donald 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.”
While Cohen has pleaded guilty to telling bald-faced lies about the Trump Organization’s efforts in Russia, his former boss, Trump, has also made several statements that are, in light of Cohen’s guilty plea and the news reporting on the Trump Organization’s attempted dealings with Russian businesses, at best diversionary.
Trump told reporters Thursday that Cohen’s statements were lies in order to get a shorter sentence and also were essentially old news, telling reporters, “he’s lying about a project that everybody knew about. We were very open with it. We were thinking about building a building. …. There would have been nothing wrong if I did do it. If I did do it, there would have been nothing wrong. It was my business. So he’s lying very simply to get a reduced sentence, OK?”
The information filed in court Thursday says that Cohen had “briefed family members of Individual 1 [Trump] within the Company about the project” through June 2016 and had asked Trump about possibly “traveling to Russia in connection with the Moscow Project, and asked a senior campaign official about potential business travel to Russia.”
Cohen had also, in January 2016, spoken with a Russian government official’s assistant, and “described his position at the Company and outlined the proposed Moscow Project, including the Russian development company with which the Company had partnered,” according to Mueller’s filing, and had “requested assistance in moving the project forward, both in securing land to build the proposed tower and financing the construction.” The next day, another person working on the deal wrote to Cohen and said, “It’s about [the president of Russia] they called today.”
While in court Thursday, Cohen said that he had lied to Congress “out of loyalty to Trump” and so he could be “consistent with the president’s political messaging” after he took office .
And as soon as Trump won the election—and during the 2016 campaign, as Russia became a bigger topic after WikiLeaks’ release of hacked Democratic emails—he was concerned with putting to bed any doubts that he had not won the election entirely on his own, which meant repeatedly denying that he had any business dealings in Russia besides putting on the Miss Universe pageant there in 2013.
July 26, 2016
Trump’s denials started simply, as with this tweet almost a week after the Republican National Convention, when his campaign was responding to a lot of coverage of the Clinton campaign’s allegations of Trump ties to Russia in the aftermath of the DNC email dump:
Oct. 10, 2016
In their second presidential debate, Hillary Clinton said that Trump had “praised Putin, maybe because he says he agrees with a lot of what Putin wants to do, maybe because he wants to do business in Moscow, I don’t know the reasons.” Trump responded indignantly:
I notice, anytime anything wrong happens, they like to say the Russians are—she doesn’t know if it’s the Russians doing the hacking. Maybe there is no hacking. But they always blame Russia. And the reason they blame Russia because they think they’re trying to tarnish me with Russia. I know nothing about Russia. I know—I know about Russia, but I know nothing about the inner workings of Russia. I don’t deal there. I have no businesses there. I have no loans from Russia.
Jan. 11, 2017
Less than two weeks before his inauguration, President-elect Trump started the day with an unambiguous tweet:
Then he held a press conference to discuss the disposition of his business interests as president. When Trump was asked by a reporter, “Does Russia have any leverage over you, financial or otherwise? And if not, will you release your tax returns to prove it?” Trump responded:
So I tweeted out that I have no dealings with Russia. I have no deals that could happen in Russia, because we’ve stayed away. And I have no loans with Russia.
As a real estate developer, I have very, very little debt. I have assets that are—and now people have found out how big the company is, I have very little debt—I have very low debt. But I have no loans with Russia at all.
And I thought that was important to put out. I certified that. So I have no deals, I have no loans and I have no dealings. We could make deals in Russia very easily if we wanted to, I just don’t want to because I think that would be a conflict. So I have no loans, no dealings, and no current pending deals.
Feb. 7, 2018
Shortly after arriving in the White House, Trump again said he did “not know” Putin (despite having said for years he had), and that had “no deals in Russia.”
May 11, 2018
In his now infamous interview with Lester Holt, Trump said, “But regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey knowing there was no good time to do it. And in fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself—I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story. It’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should’ve won,” he also made a further denial of business interests in Russia, telling Holt:
[I] have nothing to do with Russia. I have no investments in Russia, none whatsoever. I don’t have property in Russia. A lot of people thought I owned office buildings in Moscow. I don’t have property in Russia … I built a great company, but I’m not involved with Russia. I have had dealings with them over the years where I sold a house to a very wealthy Russian many years ago. I had the Miss Universe pageant which I owned for quite a while. I had it in Moscow a long time ago, but other than that, I have nothing to do with Russia.
In the strictest sense, none of these denials appears to represent a lie as far as we know, because of Trump’s adherence to present-tense verbs: I have no dealings with Russia … I don’t do deals … I have no loans with Russia. But these statements serve to mislead people about Trump’s attempted deal with Russia and Cohen’s and Sater’s past contacts with the Russian government. And one claim in particular, “We’ve stayed away,” rings particularly disingenuous.
Now that Cohen’s lies about the attempted Moscow deal are out in the open, Trump is saying that of course they were trying to do a deal in Russia, everyone knew about it (and, in fairness, he even tweeted about it in 2013) and that there’s nothing to see here. But why would Trump not mention that, for example, during the Lester Holt interview, when the president brought up the two more above-board Russian deals.
That’s because at no point does Trump want to offer up any information that could substantiate any suspicions that he was somehow coordinating with or in any debts to powerful Russians during the campaign.
Trump’s denials—of his involvements with Russia or any other controversy he finds himself in—all follow a similar pattern: say what may be, at best, literally true, in order to get out of a tight spot. If you have to tell the truth, tell what little you can and make sure it sounds as benign as possible. The problem for Trump is that he’s been in the same sticky situation for more than two years, and he’s only gotten more stuck. Who knows what he’ll have to say—or do—next.