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President Donald Trump's former lawyer Michael Cohen exits Federal Court after entering a guilty plea in Manhattan, New York City, November 29, 2018

Andrew Kelly | Reuters
President Donald Trump's former lawyer Michael Cohen exits Federal Court after entering a guilty plea in Manhattan, New York City, November 29, 2018

President Donald Trump‘s former personal lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to a new charge Thursday, revealing in detail how he had lied to Congress last year to back up Trump’s claims of having no business ties to Russia.

Cohen, 52, also said he lied by telling Congress that any contact with Russian nationals by the Trump campaign or the Trump Organization had “all terminated before the Iowa Caucus.”

That Feb. 1, 2016, event marked the formal beginning of the electoral process to select the Republican nominee for president.

Cohen told a judge Thursday that he lied to the Senate “to be consistent with Individual 1’s political messaging and out of loyalty to Individual 1.”

Cohen had noted earlier during his plea hearing that the “Individual 1” mentioned in the charging document filed against him is “the former CEO of the Trump Organization and now President of the United States.”

Trump last week submitted a series of written answers to questions from Mueller, who is investigating Russian interference in the presidential election. ABC News reported Thursday that answers included responses to questions about the Trump Tower Moscow project.

Trump’s written answers came after it was publicly known that Cohen was cooperating with Mueller’s investigation on the heels of his first guilty plea in August. Those earlier charges included tax fraud and facilitating hush-money payments shortly before the 2016 election to women who claim they had sex with Trump.

The timing of Cohen’s latest guilty plea comes just days after those answers were transmitted, immediately sparking speculation by former Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara and others that Cohen’s account of Trump’s involvement in the project could conflict with what the president has told Mueller.

Such a conflict could open Trump to a possible charge of lying to federal investigators.

Rudy Giuliani, a lawyer for Trump, did not reply to about a half dozen requests for comment from CNBC.

However, Giuliani told The New York Times that Trump’s memory of the Trump Tower project jibed with Cohen’s account, and that the president had described, in his written answers to Mueller, his conversations with Cohen about the project before it died.

“The president said there was a proposal, it was discussed with Cohen, there was a nonbinding letter of intent and it didn’t go beyond that,” Giuliani told the Times, while declining to reveal either the wording of Mueller’s questions or of Trump’s answers.

Giuliani later told NBC News that Trump’s written answers to Mueller about building a Trump Tower in Moscow were consistent with what Cohen said in court.

Trump earlier on Thursday told reporters that Cohen is “a weak person” who “is lying” to get a reduced criminal sentence.

U.S. District Judge Andrew Carter asked Cohen on Thursday to “tell me what it is that you did that makes you guilty of” making false statements to Congress.

Cohen began by noting that he had served before the election as executive vice president and special counsel to Trump at the Trump Organization, the Manhattan-based real-estate firm.

By 2017, Cohen said, he was no longer in that job, but “continued to serve on several matters as an attorney” to Trump.

Cohen said he continued to also “follow the day-to-day political messaging that both” Trump “and his staff and advisors repeatedly broadcast.” He also said he stayed “in close contact” with Trump’s advisors.

“As such, I was aware of Individual 1’s repeated disavowals of commercial and political ties between himself and Russia, his repeated statements that investigations of such ties were politically motivated and without evidence, and that any contact with Russian nationals by Individual 1’s campaign or the Trump Organization had all terminated before the Iowa Caucus, which was on February 1 of 2016,” Cohen said.

Cohen said that when he was scheduled to appear before the Senate intelligence committee and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence about whether Russia was involved in or interfered in the campaign and election, he submitted a written statement to Congress about the Trump Tower Moscow project and other issues.

His description of the project “was false, I knew at the time, in that I had asserted that all efforts concerning the project had ceased in January of 2016 when, in fact, they had continued through June of 2016,” Cohen said.

More lies

In July 2016, Trump, while running for president, had said, “I will tell you right now, zero, I have nothing to do with Russia.”

Another lie to Congress, Cohen said, was his claim that “I had very limited discussions with Individual 1 and others in the company concerning the project, when in fact I had more extensive communications.” Those “others” included members of Trump’s family who work at the Trump Organization. Both the president’s adult sons, Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump, now run that firm.

And a third lie was Cohen’s claim “that I had never agreed to travel to Russia in connection with the project and had never asked Individual 1 to travel, when in fact I took steps to and had discussions with Individual 1 about travel to Russia,” Cohen told the judge. “I would like to note that I did not in fact travel there, nor have I ever been to Russia.”

The charging document against Cohen says he asked Trump about the possibility of Trump himself traveling to Russia in connection with the Trump Tower project “and asked a senior campaign official about business travel to Russia.”

Cohen also admitted lying to Congress in claiming that he had not received a response after reaching out to the Kremlin in January 2016 about the Trump Tower Moscow project. In fact, he admitted, he did get a response from someone in the Kremlin press secretary’s office, with whom he spoke for about 20 minutes.

“Mr. Cohen minimized his contacts with the Russian government and stated so falsely in his submission” to Congress, said L. Rush Atkinson, an assistant U.S. attorney, at the hearing.

— Additional reporting by CNBC’s Brian Schwartz


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