Michael Cohen’s plea deal for making false statements to Congress doesn’t just indicate that he lied about the Trump Organization’s attempt to get a real estate project off the ground in Russia — it also indicates that the Kremlin helped in the cover-up.
In August 2017, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov confirmed that he received an email from Cohen, who was then Donald Trump’s lawyer and an executive at the Trump Organization, in January 2016. Cohen’s email asked for help with a development project in Russia. Peskov said he never responded to Cohen’s query.
“This email said that a certain Russian company together with certain individuals is pursuing the goal of building a skyscraper in the ‘Moscow City’ district, but things aren’t going well and they asked for help with some advice on moving this project forward,” Peskov said at the time. “But since, I repeat again, we do not react to such business topics — this is not our work — we left it unanswered.”
Peskov’s account of what happened matched Cohen’s. Cohen told CNN his message to Peskov was “an email that went unanswered that was solely regarding a real estate deal and nothing more.” He told that same story to Congress during his sworn testimony.
But according to the plea agreement Cohen agreed to in federal court on Thursday, it turns out both he and Peskov were lying.
From Mueller’s court filing:
COHEN did recall that in or around January 2016, COHEN received a response from the office of Russian Official 1, the Press Secretary for the President of Russia, and spoke to a member of that office about the Moscow Project. i. On or about January 14, 2016, COHEN emailed Russian Official 1’s office asking for assistance in connection with the Moscow Project.
i. On or about January 16, 2016, COHEN emailed Russian Official 1’s office again, said he was trying to reach another high-level Russian official, and asked for someone who spoke English to contact him.
ii. On or about January 20, 2016, COHEN received an email from the personal assistant to Russian Official 1 (“Assistant 1”), stating that she had been trying to reach COHEN and requesting that he call her using a Moscow-based phone number she provided. iii. Shortly after receiving the email, COHEN called Assistant 1 and spoke to her for approximately 20 minutes. On that call, COHEN described his position at the Company and outlined the proposed Moscow Project, including the Russian development company with which the Company had partnered. COHEN requested assistance in moving the project forward, both in securing land to build the proposed tower and financing the construction. Assistant 1 asked detailed questions and took notes, stating that she would follow up with others in Russia.
iv. The day after COHEN’s call with Assistant 1, Individual 2 [Felix Sater] contacted him, asking for a call. Individual 2 wrote to COHEN, “It’s about [the President of Russia] they called today.”
In sum, Cohen emailed Peskov about a development project and got a response that led to a string of phone calls. But as Trump’s contacts with Russia came under increased scrutiny in the summer of 2017, both Cohen and the Kremlin decided to lie about it, pretending they’d never successfully connected.
The episode illustrates one way the Kremlin has blackmail material over the president. Lying to Congress is a criminal offense. The Kremlin knew for more than a year that the story Trump’s longtime lawyer and personal fixer told Congress wasn’t true. Cohen also knew that the Russians knew this — and could have exposed his lies, if they’d wanted to.
Last year, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov claimed Cohen’s outreach on the Trump Tower Moscow deal received no response. As Cohen’s plea demonstrates, they lied. They helped Trump by providing false corroboration. This is a counterintelligence nightmare. https://t.co/jRBoBQ0DsO— Adam Schiff (@RepAdamSchiff) November 30, 2018
While Cohen’s plea agreement indicates that the Kremlin helped Trump cover up his contacts with Russia, it remains unclear why they did so.
It wasn’t just Cohen — throughout 2016 and ’17, Trump himself repeatedly said things like “I HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH RUSSIA — NO DEALS” and “I know nothing about Russia ... I don’t deal there.” But the plea deal indicates those comments were misleading at best, as Trump was briefed about the proposed Russia project “on more than the three occasions,” Cohen acknowledged to Congress during his testimony.
In the day since news of Cohen’s deal broke, Trump abruptly moved the goalposts about his Russia contacts — his new position being that contacts did happen but there was nothing criminal about them.