U.S. President Donald Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen exits Federal Court after entering a guilty plea in Manhattan on Thursday. Cohen said he lied about the timeline of a Trump Organization project in Moscow that never came to fruition.
U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller released two key court memos on Friday, revealing more about where his investigation into alleged collusion between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is heading and what it has covered so far.
The first filing released was a sentencing recommendation for Trump’s former personal attorney and fixer, Michael Cohen, who has admitted to lying to Congress and also pleaded guilty to financial crimes and breaking campaign finance laws.
It lays out in vague terms how Cohen aided Mueller’s investigation. Cohen participated in seven interviews, spending more than 70 hours with Mueller’s team.
The second filing, released an hour later, laid out how former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort breached his plea agreement with the Special Counsel’s Office. It details Manafort’s “multiple, discernible lies” to the special counsel about his contacts with Trump administration officials and Konstantin Kilimnik, a Russian-Ukrainian political operative with suspected ties to Russian intelligence.
Both documents hint at how strong Mueller’s hand is, former prosecutors said, and offer hints of his progress.
Legal experts who spoke with CBC News were most compelled by the Cohen document. It suggests Trump was interested in meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and also mentions previously undisclosed contacts between Cohen and Russians.
The filing also makes multiple references to Mueller’s team having corroboration on Cohen’s story.
Legal experts highlighted a few key lines. Here’s what they say the document suggests about what Mueller’s team believes:
1) Russians were tying Trump’s business interests with his political ambitions
“The defendant recalled that this person repeatedly proposed a meeting between Individual 1 and the President of Russia. The person told Cohen that such a meeting could have a ‘phenomenal’ impact ‘not only in political but in a business dimension as well,’ referring to the Moscow Project…”
Mueller is referencing conversations in 2015 between Cohen and a Kremlin-linked contact promising access to Putin. In other words, “synergy on a government level,” as the offer was described in the brief.
“Individual 1” refers to Donald Trump. The proposed business prospect is Trump Tower Moscow. Although Cohen originally told Congress the talks for the project ended in January 2016, he now admits he pursued a deal to building a tower in the Russian capital until June 2016, just months before the presidential election.
Cohen, left, was hoping for leniency as a result of his co-operation. Paul Manafort in September had agreed to co-operate, but it was revealed last week that the agreement fell through.(Craig Ruttle/Alexandria Detention Center/Associated Press )
The wording suggests Cohen knew about a pitch from Russian nationals to co-ordinate Trump’s business interests with his political ambitions, said former federal prosecutor Barbara McQuade.
“It sounds like the Russians were trying to pitch this as a great partnership, not only in business, but also in politics,” she said. “Was Russia trying to say ‘play ball with us on politics and we’ll make this deal with you?'”
2) Cohen implicates Trump — in a footnote
“The defendant admitted that … he had in fact conferred with Individual 1 about contacting the Russian government before reaching out to gauge Russia’s interest in such a meeting.”
Trump has denied speaking with Russians during the 2016 election campaign. Cohen is now contradicting Trump.
Cohen now says “he had in fact conferred with” Trump about contacting the Kremlin in 2015. Later, Cohen gave a radio interview suggesting that Putin and Trump meet in New York.
The meeting never took place.
3) Cohen may have been subject to witness tampering
“Cohen described the circumstances of preparing and circulating his response to the congressional inquiries.”
That sounds like an accusation of witness tampering to former federal prosecutor Barak Cohen. Why else, he asks, would Mueller use a sentencing memo to detail insight regarding the former Trump attorney’s interviews with prosecutors? Unless it’s significant to the probe, it strikes him as an odd detail to include.
Instead, Mueller appears to be saying he has evidence relevant to his investigation describing directions Michael Cohen received before testifying.
“‘Circulate’ is an interesting word,” McQuade added. “Who did he circulate this too? Cohen had a written statement [to Congress]. So did he write those things and send it around to various people to ask, ‘Does this look right?'”
Aside from witness tampering, she said, such actions could amount to conspiracy to obstruct justice before Cohen’s 2017 congressional hearing.
4) Cohen lied in his 1st interview
“Starting with his second meeting with the SCO in September 2018, the defendant has accepted responsibility…”
It is suggested that Cohen lied to the Special Counsel in their initial meeting set up at Cohen’s request, after he had already agreed to co-operate.
Mark Osler, a former federal prosecutor who teaches at University of St. Thomas Law school, said this may explain why Cohen didn’t get the same generous sentencing recommendation offered to former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn, another co-operating witness. Mueller’s team has requested no jail time for Flynn.
Michael Cohen, former personal lawyer to President Donald Trump, leaves his New York apartment building on Friday. Prosecutors Friday asked a judge to sentence Cohen to a ‘substantial term of imprisonment’ for paying an adult film star hush money on Trump’s behalf and evading taxes.(Richard Drew/Associated Press)
But Mueller’s team has only asked for “due consideration” to Cohen for his change of heart and efforts to correct his lies. They have also asked for him to serve a sentence that is concurrent with a separate case against him for campaign finance violations. The Southern District of New York is prosecuting that case.
Legal scholars, referring to sentencing guidelines, believe that means modest leniency on a three-and-a-half-year sentence.
5) Mueller is indicating he has corroboration
“The information provided by Cohen about the Moscow Project in these proffer sessions is consistent with and corroborated by other information obtained in the course of the SCO’s investigation.”
There are at least two points in the filing that show Cohen’s testimony on the Trump Tower Moscow project has been corroborated by other sources. The memo states: “The information [Cohen] has provided has been credible and consistent with other evidence obtained in the SCO’s ongoing investigation.”
Osler said this means Mueller “has multiple other witnesses independently telling the same story.”
6) Trump’s family members could be in hot water
“Cohen provided the SCO with useful information concerning certain discrete Russia-related matters core to its investigations that he obtained by virtue of his regular contact with Company executives during the campaign.”
What’s “core” to Mueller’s investigation is Russian meddling with the U.S. election. The reference to the “Company” is understood to mean the Trump Organization.
“It sounds like Cohen provided information related to election interference, and people at the Trump Organization were telling him things about election interference,” McQuade said.
Company executives could include family members such as Trump’s sons Donald Trump Jr. and Eric, or his daughter, Ivanka. Donald Trump Jr. and the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, both attended a Trump Tower meeting in New York in June 2016, where a Kremlin-linked lawyer offered dirt on Trump’s presidential rival Hillary Clinton.
Trump didn’t comment on the Mueller probe while speaking to reporters on the South Lawn of the White House on Friday, saving his invective about the investigation for social media.(Evan Vucci/Associated Press)
SDNY prosecutors allege Trump’s involvement in a felony
A separate sentencing memo on Friday filed by the Southern District of New York states for the first time that federal prosecutors have reason to believe that Cohen “acted in coordination with and at the direction of” Trump.
The case centres on Cohen’s guilty plea for violating campaign finance laws by arranging hush money to pay off two women alleging affairs with Trump.
Prosecutors from the Southern District are effectively stating that they have reason to believe through corroboration that Cohen’s account is truthful. If that’s the case, this means the government is saying it has evidence Trump may have committed a crime.