Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Politics & Government

Former Trump Lawyer Michael Cohen Enters New Guilty Plea In Federal Court


Michael Cohen - that would be President Trump's former lawyer and fixer. He was back in federal court today. This time, the man who has also admitted to making a $130,000 payment to porn star Stormy Daniels, he was pleading guilty to something else - lying to Congress about a proposed Trump Tower in Moscow. And President Trump is dismissing these new developments and attacking Cohen.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Michael Cohen is lying, and he's trying to get a reduced sentence for things that have nothing to do with me.

KELLY: NPR justice reporter Ryan Lucas is here to help us try to make sense of this. Hi, Ryan.


KELLY: OK. So Michael Cohen says he pleaded guilty to lying to Congress. What exactly is he saying he lied to them about?

LUCAS: Well, he made this guilty plea at a - in a surprise appearance in federal court in Manhattan this morning. Court papers filed by the special counsel's office spell out a very kind of lengthy list of his lies to Congress about these negotiations for a Trump Tower in Moscow. Now, he originally told Congress that talks for that Trump Tower ended in January of 2016 and that the Moscow project was not really something that was discussed within the Trump Organization. Cohen now admits that those were lies. The truth, he says, is that work on the Moscow real estate project continued as late as June of 2016.

KELLY: So much deeper into the Trump presidential campaign.

LUCAS: Much deeper into the presidential campaign. He says he discussed the project with Trump himself on more than three occasions, and he also briefed Trump's family about it. The timeline is - of these talks, as you noted, is very important because of - it's so deep into the campaign. And also, remember, this is the same time as Russian operatives were hacking into the Democratic computer systems and waging an influence campaign on social media to try to help Trump win the election.

KELLY: And just to note, you described this as a surprise appearance. Nobody knew that Cohen was planning to make a guilty plea today on this?

LUCAS: It was not widely known. No.

KELLY: OK. You've been talking about the timing. What about just the significance of this? I mean, what else are we learning from the Cohen guilty plea?

LUCAS: Well, he had said that he never agreed to travel to Russia or ask Trump himself to travel there for the project. Now it turns out Cohen repeatedly discussed traveling to Moscow, and he talked to Trump about going. Ultimately, of course, neither went. And then there's a very fascinating bit about Cohen's contact with the office of Russian President Vladimir Putin's press secretary. Court papers say that - well, originally, Cohen emailed - said that he told Congress that he had emailed to get help on the project, and he said that he never heard back. It now turns out that he did hear back. Cohen spoke with an assistant from that office for about 20 minutes on the phone. Cohen asked for help securing land and financing for the project. The assistant took notes and said that she would follow up, so a very different story.

KELLY: OK. So Michael Cohen now saying he lied. We just heard the president say he agrees. They're in agreement on that point...

LUCAS: (Laughter) Right.

KELLY: ...That he lied. Did the president - is he offering an alternative version of these events?

LUCAS: Well, what Trump has said is that he didn't himself break any laws. He said he wasn't president at the time. He was still running his business during the campaign. That's all above board, he insisted. He also said that everybody knew about this Moscow real estate project. So much ado about nothing, right? Well, that's not true. Very few people, in fact, knew about this proposed project at the time. That's why it was a big deal when it finally did come out publicly. But again, Trump really zeroed in on Cohen's credibility. He repeatedly called him a liar. This is something that the president has done again and again for several months now in an attempt to discredit anything that Cohen says and tells prosecutors and the public.

KELLY: I'm thinking about this coming the same week as developments with Paul Manafort, the president's former campaign chairman. Does it seem as though the web - the Mueller special counsel web is tightening around the president?

LUCAS: Well, Cohen's plea today is certainly a very big deal. There's no doubt about that. His plea provides another couple of pieces to the puzzle of contacts between team Trump and Russia. A close reading of the court papers also suggests that prosecutors know a whole lot more than is in the public realm at this point. And Cohen's lawyer has also said that he will continue to cooperate. But again, Manafort's cooperation deal collapsing - that was a setback. So again, we're going to have to wait and see.

KELLY: NPR's Ryan Lucas, thank you.

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