Michael Cohen, former lawyer for President Donald Trump, pleaded guilty this morning to lying to Congress about the timeline and the extent of discussions between people in Trump's business organization over a potential real estate deal to build a hotel in Moscow.
Cohen had testified to both House and Senate intelligence committees that the Trump company's efforts to negotiate with Russia over the "Moscow Project" ended in January 2016, before the Iowa caucuses. Cohen also testified that he had not discussed the decision to end project negotiations with Trump or his family, had never considered traveling to Russia or asking Trump to travel to Russia to negotiate a deal, and had never been contacted by any Russian officials about the deal.
Today, in U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, a charging document by Special Counsel Robert Mueller says that Cohen's statements were lies and that Cohen's plea today is an admission of guilt. According to the new charges, Cohen and individuals within Trump's company were still trying to get the Russian government's approval for a hotel as late as June 2016, and Cohen had in fact been briefing Trump and members of Trump's family about the efforts. Cohen had discussed internally the possibility of traveling to Russia in May 2016 to meet several Russian officials at a forum in St. Petersburg, including possibly Russian President Vladimir Putin himself. (That trip ultimately did not happen.) And Cohen did, in fact, have a lengthy phone call detailing the Moscow Project with a Russian official connected to Putin's office.
Trump responded to today's news by calling a Cohen "weak person" who is lying to get a reduced sentence. Cohen has previously pleaded guilty to tax evasion and illegal campaign contributions (also connected to Trump), but he has not yet been sentenced.
These new charges come with a maximum possible sentence of five years and a fine of up to $250,000. But the plea agreement estimates a likely sentence of zero to six months and a fine of up to $9,500, assuming that Cohen is cooperative and there aren't any more surprise bombshells or crimes he's concealing.
Putting this all into appropriate context is a challenge, given that there's still a lot we don't know. Arguably the biggest deal here is the possibility that Trump was still negotiating with Russia to build a hotel while running for president, and the possibility that this attempt at a business relationship played a role in Russia's attempts to influence the election.
The timeline and Cohen's previous denials of contacts with Russian officials are particularly relevant because they were used in a House Intelligence Committee report that concluded there was no collusion between anybody in Trump's election campaign and the Russian government. If Cohen lied to Congress about the timeline, that conclusion is now potentially compromised as well.
Trump had been planning to meet with Putin at the G20 summit in Argentina this weekend, but this morning he announced he was canceling that plan, giving Russia's recent aggression against Ukraine as the reason.