Standing in front of a helicopter on the White House lawn Thursday, President Donald Trump was asked by reporters why he relied on Michael Cohen, his former lawyer and adviser, for years even while describing him as "not a very smart person" who was prone to "lying" and was "very weak."
"A long time ago he did me a favor," Trump responded.
Cohen appears to be through with doing favors for Trump. He pleaded guilty in New York on Thursday to lying to the Senate Intelligence Committee last year about the timing of a Moscow real estate project he was negotiating on Trump's behalf during the 2016 presidential campaign. Cohen originally told investigators that those talks were abandoned in January 2016. In fact, Cohen admitted in his guilty plea, negotiations continued through June 2016.
Cohen's testimony means that the Trump Organization was trying to do business in Russia during the heart of the presidential primary season in 2016 -- when it had already become obvious that Trump was going to be the Republican nominee in July (the final five Republican primary contests were on June 7, and Trump was well ahead in the delegate tally even before then). Anyone, anywhere -- in Russia, for example -- who wanted to curry favor with a future president had mounting evidence during the first six months of 2016 that Trump might be worth the gamble.
Cohen's guilty plea raises the possibility that the Trump Organization and Trump himself were trading financial favors with Russian interests at a time when his presidential prospects might have given him leverage in any transaction. To be sure, it's doubtful that Russian businesspeople and the Kremlin fully believed Trump would be president. The general consensus in the news media and elsewhere at the time was that Hillary Clinton would thrash Trump in the general election.
But Vladimir Putin and Russia's intelligence services have always played long ball, and it's quite possible that they were placing bets on Trump well before 2016. Regardless, we now know that a group of Russians visited Trump Tower on June 9, 2016, offering to hand over compromising information on Clinton to Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort. We also know from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and U.S. intelligence services that shortly after that Trump Tower meeting, the Russian government began a concerted effort to tilt the 2016 election in Trump's favor -- which culminated in Russian interests seeding social media with bogus news accounts that undermined Clinton and the successful hacking of the Democratic National Committee's computer servers and theft of embarrassing emails.
Did the Trump Organization end negotiations for the Moscow project -- on or around June 14, 2016, and just several days after Trump Jr. convened his Trump Tower meeting -- because his presidential prospects had improved by then and pursuing that deal had become more overtly problematic? Did Russia then trade a financial relationship for a political relationship in order to court Trump more closely? Cohen's guilty plea doesn't fully answer those questions, but it does bring the public closer to knowing the outcome of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation of possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 election.
Cohen, on the advice of Felix Sater -- a longtime Trump business associate, a high school pal of Cohen's and a career criminal -- pitched the real estate deal to Moscow. He did so comically and haphazardly at first by sending an inquiry to a publicly available email address for Putin's press secretary. That apparently opened the door, however, and according to a charging document Mueller's prosecutors filed in New York on Thursday, that led to further chats with Kremlin insiders. The document says that Cohen spoke with Trump more than three times about the transaction and inquired about traveling to Russia to negotiate further.
Although Sater is not identified in the charging document, someone identified in it as "Individual 2" took actions that track with what is already known publicly about Sater's involvement in the deal. According to the document, Individual 2 wrote to Cohen at one point asking for a call about Putin because "they called today." As the New York Times reported last year, Sater emailed Cohen at one point during negotiations for the Moscow deal and boasted that "I will get Putin on this program and we will get Donald elected." Sater, as I have noted before, invoked Putin's name in order to get other, even earlier deals done involving the Trump Organization -- though much, or all, of that might have been braggadocio.
Braggadocio -- or bald-faced lying -- might also cause the president new problems. The president's comments Thursday, during which he flatly dismissed Cohen's statements and guilty plea as a tissue of lies -- despite evidence documenting them in the information Mueller's prosecutors have made public -- are likely to cause his lawyers to pull out their collective hair.
And he's made ample statements in the past that might come back to haunt him as well. "I have no deals that could happen in Russia, because we've stayed away," Trump said in early January 2017, when he was the president-elect. "We could make deals in Russia very easily if we wanted to, I just don't want to because I think that would be a conflict. I have no loans, no dealings, and no current pending deals."
"No current pending deals" might have been a true statement at the time. But "we've stayed away" certainly was a lie; Cohen and Trump first began considering a Moscow project in 2015. And Trump once told my attorneys during a 2007 deposition in an unsuccessful libel case he filed against me that Sater had brought Russian investors to his Trump Tower office in the early or mid-2000s because he was thinking of investing in Russia.
"It's ridiculous that I wouldn't be investing in Russia," Trump said in that deposition. "Russia is one of the hottest places in the world for investment."