Michael Cohen made a surprise appearance in a New York courtroom on Thursday to enter a guilty plea for lying to Congress about work that he did on a secret Trump real estate project to erect a Trump Tower in Moscow.
Cohen said he lied about both the timing of the tower negotiations, which happened during Trump’s presidential run, and other details that needed to be consistent with Trump’s “political message,” the Associated Press reports.
This is not Cohen’s first guilty plea, but it is new knowledge regarding a business deal with Russia that Trump may have actively been engaged with during his presidential run. Here’s what you need to know:
1. Trump’s Company Was Pursuing the Trump Tower Plan in 2015 & Early 2016
In the early stages of Trump’s presidential campaign in late 2015 and early 2016, his company was actively pursuing a plan to create a Trump Tower in Moscow, Russia, according to The Washington Post.
It’s not clear to what extent Trump had knowledge of the negotiations, but Cohen served as the lead negotiator for the Trump Organization. Trump never went to Moscow, though his company did sign a letter of intent on the project.
Cohen explored the possibility of a Trump Tower in Moscow as early as fall 2015. He did so with a longtime business associate who has helped Trump in negotiations before and is Russian-born: Felix Sater. Sater reportedly emailed Cohen, “I will get Putin on this program and we will get Donald elected. Buddy our boy can become President of the USA and we can engineer it. I will get all of Putins [sic] team to buy in on this.”
Sater’s email was a part of a New York Times report that showed how many of Trump aides believed that the company’s business negotiations in Russia might help him win the presidency.
2. The Negotiations on the Moscow Project Ended Before Russian Interference Became a Controversy in the Campaign
The negotiations for a Moscow Trump Tower ended in 2016, right before the presidential primaries and before questions of Russian interference became a massive controversy in Trump’s presidential campaign and subsequent presidency.
In July 2016, Trump tweeted that he had zero business connections to Russia. He wrote, “for the record, I have ZERO investments in Russia.”
However, there is proof that Trump was actively involved in his company’s efforts to make a building in Moscow in the past. Sater said in an unrelated court case in 2008 that he would provide Trump with “verbal updates” on their efforts. He said, “When I’d come back, pop my head into Mr. Trump’s office and tell him, you know, ‘Moving forward on the Moscow deal.’ And he would say, ‘All right.'”
3. Prior to His Presidential Run, Trump Has Been Outspoken About His Interests in Building in Moscow and Russia Overall
Trump didn’t make any public statements about a Trump Tower in Moscow at any point in 2015 or 2016. However, he has had longstanding interests in building in Russia, and The Washington Post reports that Trump attempted to build a Trump Property for three decades in Moscow, an attempt that has yet to succeed.
In a 2007 court deposition, Trump said, “Russia is one of the hottest places in the world for investment…we will be in Moscow at some point.”
4. The Trump Tower Was Meant to Be a ‘Sheer, Glass-Encased Obelisk’ That Stood Taller Than Any Other Building in Moscow, BuzzFeed News Reports
According to a BuzzFeed News report in May, the Trump Tower was meant to be over 100 stories, be situated on the river, and rise above every other building in Moscow. Felix Sater, a developer who has negotiated deals around the world for Trump, was the lead alongside Cohen within these negotiations.
Sater has since told the Senate Intelligence Committee that Cohen was the “intermediary” for Trump and that he wanted to “score points with Trump” from this deal.
BuzzFeed News also reports that Robert Mueller intended to ask Trump directly a question about the Trump Tower in Moscow, though it’s unclear whether that question has actually been asked. The question is: “What communication did you have with Michael D. Cohen, Felix Sater, and others, including foreign nationals, about Russian real estate developments during the campaign?”
5. As a Part of Cohen’s New Deal With Mueller, He Will Provide ‘Dozens of Hours’ of Testimony
According to Vox, Cohen’s new deal with Mueller includes a promise to provide “dozens of hours of testimony potentially damaging” to Trump. Cohen has already pleaded guilty to bank fraud, tax fraud, and campaign finance charges. But this is the first time he’s been charged as a part of the Russia investigation.