According to the Department of Justice, an investigation into possible criminal violations related to Russian meddling in the 2016 election revealed evidence that attorney Michael D. Cohen attempted to obtain funding from the Clinton Foundation to oppose the candidacy of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.
“The plea agreement is a remarkable turn of events in a case that was mostly about Donald Trump,” said Will Stuckey, a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
Scheduled for sentencing on 9 December, Cohen is a criminal associate of Trump who frequently served as his personal lawyer and emissary during the 2016 campaign and has testified that Trump directed Cohen to commit a crime when he directed Cohen to make payments to two women who alleged affairs with Trump. Trump and Cohen deny these accusations.
Cohen is reported to have informed special counsel Robert Mueller that he was meeting in June 2016 with an executive for Russian-based equity fund Cascade Investments who wanted Cohen to commit to opposing the candidacy of then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.
In October, President Trump raised his suspicions about the payment to Karen McDougal, the adult film star who had an affair with Trump. On Wednesday, the White House acknowledged Cohen has been under federal investigation for months. On 6 November, a day after FBI agents seized over a dozen hard drives, files and cellphones from Cohen, Trump brought up the matter at a press conference.
“You have to understand, I have nothing to do with it,” Trump said. “I had no knowledge of it, of course I disavow it, and I hope he will say the same thing about the other thing.”
Prior to the December hearing, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders told the press pool, “Cohen is looking to try to get a reduced sentence by cooperating with Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. We’re not surprised he would want to sell his story.”
Cohen and his lawyer Lanny Davis have declined to comment for this story.
On Wednesday, Cohen confessed to making criminal statements to Congress when he denied seeking money from a Russian billionaire in late 2016 to pay off porn star Stormy Daniels.
In a statement to the court on 9 November, Cohen said: “I acted in coordination with and at the direction of a senior member of the presidential campaign.” He said that he and other campaign officials looked at alternative ways to silence Daniels after she said she was paid $130,000 to keep quiet about a 2016 sexual encounter with Trump. Cohen has claimed he agreed to make the payment to help keep from harming Trump’s election prospects.
Cohen’s statement would likely complicate Trump’s efforts to put the issue behind him, especially since a purported payment to Daniels was met with significant pushback from Republican senators.
In October, the House judiciary committee asked Cohen to speak before it. Representatives Jerry Nadler, the top Democrat on the committee, and Mark Meadows, the co-chairman of the conservative Freedom Caucus, have said they are already working on legislation to impose new regulations on how White House staff talk to reporters.
Heather McGhee, the executive director of the left-leaning thinktank Demos, said Cohen’s announcement could escalate the probe into a new phase of intensified scrutiny from lawmakers.
“Cohen made a deal, which meant he could be subject to harsher penalties,” McGhee said. “It puts the president in an incredibly difficult position.
“Trump has repeatedly insisted he knew nothing about these discussions and that the money to the [Daniels] was totally unrelated to the election. Even though he denies these conversations about the payment are about the election, it is very hard to believe that he had no knowledge.”
Cohen also pleaded guilty to tax evasion, making false statements to banks and making illegal campaign contributions to adult film star Stormy Daniels. Cohen’s guilty plea comes after prosecutors in Brooklyn charged Trump Jr and former campaign chairman Paul Manafort with lying about Trump’s Russia ties to Mueller’s investigation.
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On 10 November, the justice department released a rare DOJ transparency report noting the special counsel’s investigation into Russian interference is not under review.