Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s former longtime personal lawyer, pleaded guilty on Thursday to lying to Congress.
He lied about a proposed Trump Organization skyscraper in Moscow, prompting the president to lash out at Cohen as a liar and “weak person.”
The unexpected plea stemmed from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s intensifying investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 election.
The investigation is also on whether Trump’s campaign conspired with Moscow to boost his chances, and put new pressure on the president.
Cohen entered his guilty plea in a federal court in Manhattan to one count of making false statements to two congressional panels about a real estate project Trump was pursuing while running for president in 2016.
Cohen is a former member of Trump’s inner circle who in the past described himself as the president’s “fixer” .
Not long after Cohen entered his plea, Trump abruptly canceled a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin scheduled to take place during this week’s G20 industrialized nations summit.
The summit is taking place in Argentina and Trump cited the current Ukraine crisis for the cancelation.
Cohen said in court that in 2017 he submitted a written statement to Congress saying all efforts relating to the real estate project in Moscow had ceased by January 2016.
Cohen said that in fact these efforts continued until June 2016, after Trump had clinched the Republican presidential nomination.
The proposal to build a skyscraper bearing Trump’s name in the Russian capital ultimately did not materialize.
Cohen provided false statements to both the Senate and House intelligence committees to create the false impression the Moscow real estate project had ended by the time the political primary season began, the charging document said.
“He’s a weak person and not a very smart person,” Trump told reporters of Cohen.
“He’s got himself a big prison sentence. And he’s trying to get a much lesser prison sentence by making up this story.”
Trump, who last week submitted written answers to questions posed in Mueller’s investigation, called the Moscow project a “deal that didn’t happen” mostly because he was busy running for president, but defended its propriety.
Trump had denied pursuing Moscow real estate project.
“Now here’s the thing. Even if he was right, it doesn’t matter because I was allowed to do whatever I wanted during the campaign.
”I was running my business, a lot of different things during the campaign.
“Everybody knows about this deal. I wasn’t trying to hide anything,” Trump added.
Cohen said that in his statement to Congress he claimed to have had limited contact with Trump concerning the project, when in fact it had been “more extensive.”
Cohen also said he falsely told Congress he never took any steps toward traveling to Russia when in fact he had discussed going there, though he never did.
“I made these misstatements to be consistent with individual 1’s political messaging and out of loyalty to individual 1,” Cohen, who previously identified individual 1 as Trump, said in court.
Asked whether there was anything in the answers to questions from Mueller that Trump submitted that contradicts Cohen on the Moscow project, Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani told media in a text message: “Not that I know of.”
In August, Cohen pleaded guilty to eight criminal charges, including tax evasion, bank fraud and campaign finance violations, in a case brought by federal prosecutors in New York.
His sentencing is scheduled for Dec. 12.
Trump has called Mueller’s investigation, which has cast a cloud over his presidency, a witch hunt.
Mueller also is looking into whether Trump has sought to unlawfully obstruct the probe.