The lawyer who had long worked for Donald Trump as his self-described “fixer” has admitted to lying to US Congress over the Russia investigation.
The question now is what this means for the US President himself — and specifically, how Michael Cohen’s new account of events squares with what Mr Trump had told special counsel Robert Mueller.
Let’s take a closer look at this latest development.
Cohen has given a new version of events when it comes to Mr Trump’s business dealings in Russia
Here’s what the court documents say:
- He told Congress in a written statement in 2017 that a Trump Tower project in Moscow had ceased by January 2016, but now he says they didn’t stop until June 2016 (after Mr Trump became the Republican presidential nominee)
- In January 2016, Cohen spoke with an assistant to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson about moving the project forward
- In May 2016, Cohen talked to a Trump Organisation official about making a trip to Russia in relation to the project
- Cohen discussed the real estate project with Mr Trump on multiple occasions and with unidentified members of the President’s family
Cohen says the reason he lied was to be consistent with Mr Trump’s “political messaging”.
However, nothing said in court or in associated court filings addressed whether Mr Trump or his aides had directed Cohen to mislead Congress.
There is also no clear link in the court filings between Cohen’s lies and Mr Mueller’s central question of whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia.
What’s relevant is that Mr Trump had insisted repeatedly during the 2016 campaign that he had no business dealings in Russia
Here’s an example from July 2016:
Donald Trump tweet: “For the record, I have ZERO investments in Russia”
And here’s what Mr Trump said during the second presidential debate in October 2016:
“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.”
Mr Trump’s statements might not have been contradicted, but if true, Cohen’s testimony suggests the President wasn’t giving the full picture.
Then there’s the question of what Mr Trump had told Mr Mueller about his Russian business dealings
It was only last week that Mr Trump and his lawyers had provided Mr Mueller with responses to written questions.
Mr Mueller’s team has asked Mr Trump about the Russian real estate deal, but it wasn’t immediately clear whether that was one of the questions Mr Trump answered last week.
If he did answer questions on the topic, Mr Trump could have problems if the responses deviate from prosecutors’ factual narrative.
According to the New York Times, Mr Trump’s lawyers have long feared that Mr Mueller was trying to catch out Mr Trump in a lie
Mr Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani had previously made that argument to Fox News in August:
“Why do you [Mr Mueller] want to get him under oath? You think we’re fools? You want to get him under oath because you want to trap him into perjury … You are trying to trap him into perjury because you don’t have a case.”
Alan Dershowitz, Emeritus Professor of Law at Harvard, made similar points in a Fox News interview following the revelation that Cohen had given a new account of events to Mr Mueller.
“They’re going to comb through every one of his answers and see if they can come up with anybody who can contradict anything the President said. That’s why it’s called a perjury trap. Because even if the President believes what he said was true, if somebody will contradict it, then the President can be charged with lying to government officials, which is the equivalent of perjury,” he said.
Professor Dershowitz went on to say:
“I think the weakness of Mueller’s substantive findings are suggested by the fact that he has to resort to false statement prosecutions, which really shows that he didn’t start with very much. And the very fact that he is conducting an investigation has created these crimes. These are not crimes that had been committed prior to his appointment.”
However, some have previously taken issue with the suggestion that Mr Mueller was laying a ‘perjury trap’
In August, former federal prosecutor Randall Eliason spoke to NPR’s All Things Considered about the issue.
Firstly, he said “perjury trap” had a precise definition:
“A perjury trap is a specific legal defence. It’s actually related to entrapment, and it’s actually an accusation of prosecutorial misconduct. So what it means is that the prosecutor calls you in to testify not because they’ve got some legitimate investigative reason to have you testify, but simply to try to sort of trick you or trap you into some kind of a lie that they could then charge you with.”
He said the concept didn’t apply in this situation because Mr Mueller had legitimate reasons for wanting to speak to Mr Trump given the President “is at the centre of everything that he’s investigating”.
“Simply the fact that you’re asked to testify doesn’t make it a perjury trap. If that were true, then every witness who is called to testify about anything could claim they were being set up with a perjury trap,” he said.
Legal experts at publication Lawfare say there’s no obvious criminal exposure for Mr Trump in what Mr Cohen said
“While there are many reasons to be alarmed about a candidate for president of the United States, soon to be designated the presidential nominee of a major political party, contemplating a significant real estate deal in the capital of a hostile foreign power, that in and of itself does not constitute criminal behaviour.”
However, they also note we haven’t been told everything:
“Mueller almost certainly knows a great deal more about what Donald Trump did and said than is included in this document. And that means that Mueller knows what Trump did and what role he played in this matter — and Trump and his lawyers know that Mueller knows this.”
Meanwhile, Mr Trump says Cohen is lying to get a lighter sentence
He called Cohen a “weak person” and repeatedly stressed that the real estate deal at issue was never a secret and never executed.
“There would be nothing wrong if I did do it,” Mr Trump said of pursuing the Moscow project.
“I was running my business while I was campaigning. There was a good chance that I wouldn’t have won, in which case I would have gone back into the business, and why should I lose lots of opportunities?”
He said the primary reason he didn’t pursue it was “I was focused on running for president”.
Mr Giuliani, meanwhile, said that Cohen was a “proven liar” and that Mr Trump’s business organisation had voluntarily given Mr Mueller the same documents cited in the guilty plea “because there was nothing to hide”.
He also told the New York Times there was no contradiction between what Mr Trump told Mr Mueller and what Cohen had.