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The Latest In Mueller's Russia Investigation


We'll continue our coverage of the death of President George H.W. Bush. But now some of the news of the week. Cooperation deals came together and fell apart - spectacularly so - in special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation.

NPR's justice reporter Ryan Lucas joins us. Ryan, thanks so much for being with us.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: My pleasure.

SIMON: And let's start with Michael Cohen. We learned a lot this week, didn't we?

LUCAS: We did indeed. And it all comes from this guilty plea that Cohen made about lying to Congress regarding efforts to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. So Cohen originally told Congress that negotiations with Russians about this project ended in January of 2016. He now admits that that was a lie. According to court papers, Cohen now says that work on the proposed Moscow Trump Tower ran at least into June of 2016.

He originally told Congress that the Moscow project wasn't really something that was discussed within The Trump Organization. Cohen now says that that was not true. He says he discussed the proposal with Trump on multiple occasions, also briefed his family, kept them informed.

And Cohen also originally told lawmakers that he emailed the Russian president's press secretary about the project but said that he never heard back. Well, that wasn't true either. Cohen now says he actually did succeed in contacting the Kremlin. He ended up having a 20-minute phone call with a Kremlin official. And Cohen requested help securing land and financing for the project.

SIMON: And if this is true, how does that change our understanding of the timeline of what happened in 2016 when President Trump - Mr. Trump was running for president?

LUCAS: Right, well, it definitely gives us a more detailed picture of contacts between Trump and his associates and Russia. If you look at the timeline, in mid to late January of 2016, Cohen was reaching out directly to the Kremlin to try to get help with this real estate project. In February, February 1, the Republican primaries begin. A month after that, Russian operatives hacked into the emails of Clinton campaign manager John Podesta.

In April, Trump delivered a foreign policy address calling for improved relations with Russia. And then in June, there's that fateful meeting at Trump Tower where Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort, Donald Trump Jr. met with the Russian lawyer who was offering dirt on Hillary Clinton. Days later, the news breaks that the Russians had hacked into the Democratic National Committee.

We now know that all of that took place - as all of that was going on, Cohen was working for The Trump Organization to advance this proposed Trump Tower in Moscow. He was keeping Trump and his family abreast of those efforts. And over that time, Trump was publicly denying any financial or other dealings with Russia. And while the American public may not have known that that wasn't true at the time, the Russian government certainly did.

SIMON: Same time this week, the cooperation deal with Paul Manafort has apparently collapsed. The special counsel team says he's lied to them even after he got his deal. He's already in prison. What else can they do?

LUCAS: Well, Mueller's team does say that Manafort lied to the special counsel's office. And prosecutors say that that's a violation of his plea agreement that - which required that he cooperate fully, truthfully with the government. Manafort's lawyers of course dispute the government's allegations. They say that he met with investigators, provided them information. Another twist has emerged in this where one of Manafort's lawyers was briefing the White House about Manafort's discussions with the special counsel's office after he agreed to cooperate.

This isn't illegal, but it is definitely highly unusual. The standard is if a witness agrees to a plea and to cooperate with the government, their lawyers stop sharing information with other attorneys defending other people in the case. Bottom line on this is that Manafort - we're not going to see him as a witness for special counsel Robert Mueller.

SIMON: And let me ask you the question on millions of minds. Is Manafort's team hoping, by providing information, currying favor with the president in hopes to get a pardon for their client?

LUCAS: Well, we don't have a clear answer on that. That's not something that either side is answering in black and white. But the unusual nature of this information sharing certainly raises that question again with Manafort. And Manafort of course does face the possibility of spending the rest of his life in prison with the conviction in Virginia and then the plea deal in Washington. And the president certainly didn't do anything this week to try to head off talk of a possible pardon.

SIMON: No, he - in fact, he said that's still on the table. Why should I take it off the table, right?

LUCAS: Exactly. exactly.

SIMON: And a March 5 sentencing date for Paul Manafort, right?

LUCAS: That's right. And a lot has to happen before that. The government has to submit a document detailing how they say Manafort allegedly lied to investigators. And the government also has not ruled out in court yesterday - they didn't rule out the possibility of bringing more charges against him.

SIMON: NPR justice reporter Ryan Lucas, thanks so much for being with us.

LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.