Michael Cohen’s admission that he lied to Congress about Donald Trump’s knowledge of the ongoing effort to build a Trump Tower in Moscow during the 2016 campaign has ensnared the President’s children in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
After previously saying that the Moscow project had stopped in January 2016, just before the Iowa caucuses, Cohen said Thursday in federal court that discussions actually continued until June 2016 — when Trump was the presumptive Republican nominee.
Cohen, in accepting a plea deal, admitted that he had “more extensive communications” than the three he previously indicated he had with Trump, which he previously claimed lasted no more than a few minutes, and added that he “briefed” Trump family members about the project. The guilty plea doesn’t state which family members Cohen is referring to or when he spoke with them. It would not be illegal to discuss the plans with Trump’s children, who were helping steer the business.
At least one of Trump’s children, Donald Trump Jr., a loyal surrogate for his father on the campaign trail, has provided testimony under oath to at least three congressional committees where he was asked about the proposed deal. Most of that testimony is not public and it isn’t clear how detailed the questions were about the project. Yet it could place him in legal jeopardy if anything he told Congress conflicts with information provided by Cohen if it is supported by other evidence.
A person close to the company tells CNN that Trump Jr. did know about the project as did his sister, Ivanka, whose involvement was limited to recommending architects and designers. The source says Trump Jr.’s testimony that his knowledge was “peripheral” is “100% accurate.”
The source added that the Trump Organization found one email involving Trump Jr. and a few that included Ivanka, but said all of those communications were sent before January 2016.
One House panel said in a footnote to a report that Trump Jr. told them he believed the Moscow project was dormant as of early June 2016. But it was not clear the context of what Trump Jr. was asked or exactly how he answered it.
“All communications, all document that we have [about] Trump Moscow end by January 2016,” the source said. The person added, if Cohen continued to work on the project into 2016 “we weren’t aware of it.”
It is not clear if Trump Jr. has testified before the special counsel and he has not been accused of wrongdoing.
Trump Jr. is already under the spotlight because of his role in the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting that he agreed to take after being told a Russian lawyer had incriminating information on Hillary Clinton.
The President has previously said an investigation into the Trump Organization, his family’s closely-held business, would be a red line for him in terms of his tolerance for the special counsel probe.
Following the guilty plea Thursday, Trump called Cohen a liar, saying on the South Lawn of the White House. “Michael Cohen is lying and he’s trying to get a reduced sentence for things that have nothing to do with me,” Trump said.
The President defended the deal for a possible Trump real estate venture in Moscow. The project, Trump said, “lasted a short period of time,” adding that he decided not to do it because he wanted to focus on running for president. In Cohen’s now-discredited testimony, he told lawmakers that he made the decision to terminate the deal on his own without consulting with Trump or any members of the Trump family.
However, the President maintained Thursday that “there would’ve been nothing wrong if I did do it.”
The overlap of Trump’s business ties and his political ambitions has been a knotty issue for him since the campaign. He only handed the reins of his business over to his two sons and chief financial officer on the eve of his inauguration, keeping his hand on the steering wheels during the campaign.
Trump kept a firm grip on the business before he took the oath of office in 2017, with key decisions about projects belonging to him and his children Trump Jr, and Ivanka Trump. They were more intimately involved in real estate projects than their younger brother, Eric Trump.
Ivanka Trump was often at her father’s side and visited projects. She posted a photo of her at a construction site for a project in Azerbaijan on Instagram while both Trump Jr. and his sister attended ribbon cutting ceremonies at project announcements and openings around the globe, from Trump Soho in New York to condo-hotel projects in Toronto and Vancouver.
Alan Futerfas, an attorney for the Trump Organization and Trump Jr., did not respond to a request for comment. An attorney for Ivanka Trump declined to comment.
Discussions over the Trump Tower Moscow project began in 2015 and by October 28, Trump had signed preliminary agreement that would have brought $4 million in fees to his business to work with a Russian to develop a luxury hotel.
According to documents provided to CNN, the project under discussion would have named the hotel spa named after Ivanka Trump. Trump’s company was explicitly given the option to “brand any or all portion of the spa or fitness facilities as ‘The Spa by Ivanka Trump’ or similar brand,” according to the document. And if they did name it after Trump’s daughter, then Ivanka or her designee would be given “sole and absolute discretion” to approve “all interior design elements of the spa or fitness facilities,” the document says.
The deal never came to fruition.
The only one of Trump’s children who has testified under oath about the Trump Tower Moscow effort in 2015 and 2016 is Trump Jr., who was questioned by several congressional committees investigating Russia’s interference in the election.
Trump Jr was asked by the House Judiciary Committee if he had any involvement in the potential deal. He responded, under oath, “Like I said, I was peripherally aware of it, but most of my knowledge has been gained since as it relates to hearing about it over the last few weeks,” according to a transcript of the interview, which occurred in September 2017, shortly after Cohen publicly revealed details about the Trump Tower Moscow proposal.
He also testified before the Senate and House Intelligence committees. The House Intelligence panel report released by the Republicans references Trump Jr.’s testimony about the Moscow deal. The report says in a footnote, “Trump Jr. testified that, as of early June 2016, he believed the Trump Tower Moscow project was dormant.”
By contrast, Cohen says he lied when he told lawmakers the deal talks ended in January. The House report does not provide direct quotes from Trump Jr.’s testimony. The Senate has not released any information about Trump Jr.’s testimony.
Cohen’s guilty plea does not indicate when he briefed the family members about his dealings to get the project off the ground. The source close to the Trump Organization said, “Michael’s modus operandi is to work independently. He doesn’t have a great history in including people in the discussion. And on this project, everything that we’ve seen and all the prep we’ve done of Don (Jr.) indicates he really knew nothing about this project.”
According to court papers filed Thursday, Cohen spoke with the assistant to Putin’s spokesman in January about moving the project forward and possible financing. He also discussed traveling to Moscow in early May 2016 adding that Trump could travel “once he becomes the nominee after the convention.”
Cohen spoke again in June with a person identified as “Individual 2” in Thursday’s court filings but known to be Felix Sater, a Russian-American business partner who was involved in other Trump Organization projects in Florida and New York.
Between June 9 and June 14, 2016, the court papers allege, Sater sent multiple messages to Cohen about traveling, including forms for Cohen to fill out.
Cohen met with Sater in the lobby of Trump Tower on June 14, 2016, to tell Sater he wouldn’t be traveling.
Sater has shared documents with the special counsel’s office. He has been a government informant for years stemming from his role in a stock manipulation scheme from the late 1990s. Sater’s attorney did not respond to a request for comment.
Trump Tower meeting on Clinton
The Moscow project overlaps with another critical meeting that is of interest to the special counsel’s investigation.
On June 3, a publicist for a Russian pop star reached out to Trump Jr. to arrange a meeting with a Russian lawyer promising incriminating information on presidential rival Hillary Clinton.
Several phone calls, including one to a blocked phone number, followed.
Trump Jr. had several brief phone calls with Emin Agalarov, the son of a Russian real estate magnate, who requested the meeting. Trump Jr. told lawmakers he didn’t recall speaking with Emin ahead of the June 9 meeting.
Nestled between those calls was one made to a blocked number. Lawmakers have openly suggested Trump Jr. may have called his father on that line. During its investigation, the House Intelligence Committee heard testimony that Trump’s primary residence has a blocked phone line.
Trump Jr. told lawmakers “I have no idea” who the blocked call was with. When asked if he told his father about the meeting or the underlying offer he said, “No, I did not.”