One of Donald Trump’s closest advisers spoke with a Kremlin official about securing Russian government support for a planned Trump Tower in Moscow during the 2016 presidential election campaign, he said on Thursday.
Michael Cohen, who served as Trump’s legal fixer for more than a decade, said in an explosive testimony that Trump continued trying to develop a tower in Russia’s capital months into his campaign for the presidency – contradicting Trump’s account.
The development signalled legal peril for Trump, whose presidency has been besieged by special counsel Robert Mueller’s inquiry into whether his campaign team colluded with Russia’s interference in the 2016 US election.
Cohen made his disclosure as he pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about the Moscow project. He said he made false statements to hinder the Trump-Russia investigation and to protect Trump, who was identified in court as “Individual 1”.
“I made these statements to be consistent with Individual 1’s political messaging and out of loyalty with Individual 1,” Cohen told the federal court in Manhattan on Thursday morning, after signing a plea agreement with Mueller. He did not say if Trump directed him to lie.
Mueller said Cohen had specified that he lied “to give the false impression that the Moscow project ended before the Iowa caucus” which took place on 1 February – the critical first vote in Trump’s presidential primary contest in 2016.
Outside the White House, Trump told reporters that Cohen was “a weak person and not a very smart person” and claimed without evidence that Cohen was lying to secure a reduced punishment for other crimes.
Mueller said that in addition to lying about the extent of Trump’s oversight of the Moscow project, Cohen’s emails showed that he also lied when he told Congress that there had been no plans for Trump to travel to Moscow in 2016.
The new disclosures challenged Trump’s repeated denials that neither he, nor his associates, had any contact with Russian officials. Mueller is investigating whether Trump’s team coordinated with Moscow’s interference in 2016, which US intelligence agencies concluded was aimed at helping Trump win
In August last year, Cohen told congressional investigators that though he had sent a speculative email to Russian president Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, about the Trump Tower project, he received no reply, and had no other contacts with Russian officials about the plans.
But Mueller said in a court filing on Thursday that Cohen now admitted that he did receive a reply from Peskov’s office, and that during a telephone call with Peskov’s assistant in January 2016, he “requested assistance in moving the project forward” with land and financing.
Cohen also said on Thursday that efforts to pursue the Moscow project actually continued until June 2016 – several months later than he claimed previously. By that time, Trump was the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.
Last year, Cohen claimed to Congress that in January 2016 it was decided the Moscow development “was not feasible for a variety of business reasons and should not be pursued further”. This allowed Trump to deny having had any business ties to Russians during the presidential campaign.
Cohen now admitted that he had briefed Trump on the Moscow project more frequently than the three occasions that he previously said, according to Mueller, and that he also briefed unidentified Trump “family members”. Trump’s eldest three children were senior executives in his property company.
The special counsel said Cohen also made plans for Trump to travel to Russia during the presidential campaign. He asked Trump if a visit would be possible and “asked a senior campaign official about potential business travel to Russia”, Mueller said.
Cohen allegedly said in a May 2016 email that Trump’s visit to Russia would take place “once he becomes the nominee after the convention”.
Mueller said Cohen made that suggestion in an email to Felix Sater, a Russian-born business associate of the Trumps, who worked with Cohen on the “Trump Tower Russia” plans and claimed to have connections with influential figures in Moscow.
Sater, identified as “Individual 2”, emailed Cohen the day after Cohen spoke with the Kremlin aide, according to Mueller. “It’s about Putin they called today,” the email said.
Sater continued trying to arrange travel to Russia for the project for several months, according to Mueller. In May 2016, he wrote to Cohen to say he had spoken “with Moscow” about “a pre-meeting trip” involving only Cohen and a possible further visit involving “the two big guys” – apparent references to Trump and Putin.
Sater also emailed Cohen to say that Peskov wanted to invite Cohen to the June 2016 St Petersburg Forum – styled as Russia’s answer to the World Economic Forum in Davos – where Cohen could meet Putin or Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian prime minister.
“He said anything you want to discuss, including dates and subjects, are on the table to discuss,” Sater told Cohen. Mueller said Cohen eventually scrapped plans to attend the conference.
In August this year, Cohen pleaded guilty to violating election campaign finance laws. He told the court at the time that he did so at the direction of Trump. He has been cooperating with Mueller’s Trump-Russia investigation since then.
Cohen on Thursday appeared more upbeat than at his August hearing. He greeted reporters and seemed relaxed throughout proceedings. Wearing a grey suit, white shirt and periwinkle tie, Cohen answered routine questions from Judge Andrew Carter about whether anything – such as prescription medications – could affect his judgment in pleading guilty. He said no.
The developments followed several days of increasingly frenzied attacks against Mueller by Trump, who has without evidence accused the special counsel of carrying out a “witch-hunt” against him and his associates.
Mueller said on Monday that Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, had continued lying to investigators even after agreeing to cooperate with the inquiry into Russian election interference.
The new actions against Manafort and Cohen promptly followed the president’s long-delayed submission of written answers to questions from Mueller. Investigators are likely to be comparing alleged and admitted lies told by Manafort and Cohen with the answers provided by Trump to check the president gave truthful responses.