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News Brief: Cohen's New Guilty Plea, G-20 Summit, And Mexico's New President


How does our understanding of the 2016 election change now that we know more of the truth?


President Trump's former lawyer, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty to a series of lies. He says he made false statements to Congress to cover up Trump Organization talks about a Trump Tower in Moscow. Cohen told Congress those talks ended just before the presidential primaries in January. Evidence now shows Donald Trump's company continued discussions much later, at least up until June of 2016, while Russia was meddling in the election.

INSKEEP: On the president's behalf. NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas is with us now to talk us through what happened.

Hey there, Ryan.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: OK, so Cohen has acknowledged what he was really doing in 2016. There does seem to be other evidence to back him up. There's reference to electronic communications in this federal document that came out yesterday so - so what was happening in 2016 in what order?

LUCAS: Well, in January of 2016, Cohen was working behind the scenes, reaching out to the Kremlin, for example, to try to get its help in moving the Trump Tower project forward. February 1, of course, the Iowa caucuses in the campaign take place. That really kicks off, in earnest, the Republican primaries.

INSKEEP: And they're still talking about a Trump Tower in Moscow at this point.

LUCAS: They're still talking about a Trump Tower in Moscow. A month later, Russian operatives hacked into the emails of Clinton campaign manager John Podesta. A month later, Trump delivers a foreign policy address calling for improved relations with Russia. This whole time, Cohen is talking to try to move this Moscow project forward. June 7 is the last big primary day. June 9, we had the fateful meeting at Trump Tower where Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort, Donald Trump Jr. meet with a Russian lawyer who's offering dirt on Hillary Clinton.

This whole time, Cohen is still conducting these talks to try to move the project forward. June 14, news breaks of two Russian hacks of the Democratic National Committee. Cohen meets with a business associate in Trump Tower that day to say that he won't be traveling to Moscow to try to push this project forward.

INSKEEP: Oh, because he'd been talking about a trip to Moscow, and he also, throughout this period, seems to have been informing individual one, as the document says - that's clearly the future president of the United States - about what he was doing.

LUCAS: Had been keeping him abreast the whole time, yes.

INSKEEP: OK, so now the president has said that Michael Cohen is a liar and is weak. Those are some of the words that he used yesterday. But he also appears to acknowledge the truth of everything that Cohen is now saying, at least in general terms. Here's what Trump does - says to explain what he was doing.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I was running my business while I was campaigning. There was a good chance that I wouldn't have won, in which case I would have gotten back into the business. And why should I lose lots of opportunities?

INSKEEP: OK, so he admits he was running his business while he was campaigning. He's tweeted again today saying that he was just having some discussions about a possible business deal in Moscow. But what does this plea deal mean for the president?

LUCAS: Well, this plea deal is a big deal. It is very significant. It provides a couple of new puzzle pieces to help fill in the picture about contacts between Trump and his associates with Russia. And if you look closely at the court papers, you definitely get the suggestion that prosecutors with the special counsel's office know a whole lot more than is currently public, and they aren't just relying on what Cohen told them.

There are electronic communications referenced in the core in - Cohen court papers as well. Cohen has met with Mueller's team at least seven times. He's had a lot to tell them. And remember, Cohen's lawyer, yesterday, said on the courthouse steps as they left that his client will continue to cooperate with investigators.

INSKEEP: Cohen, here, admits to lying before Congress. Do Democrats who are about to take charge of the House of Representatives think that other people lied to them?

LUCAS: They do. They certainly want to call in many of the witnesses that they spoke to previously when this investigation was going on that Republicans refuse to call back in. They want to bring them back in and see if what they have to say now has changed at all.

INSKEEP: OK. One other thing to look for. Paul Manafort, the president's former campaign chairman - he is back in court. Is that right?

LUCAS: His legal team is back in court today for a hearing after it appears that his plea agreement with the special counsel's office has collapsed.

INSKEEP: So much to keep following. Ryan, thanks so much.

LUCAS: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That is NPR's Ryan Lucas.

MARTIN: All right. So just after Michael Cohen's guilty plea was made public, President Trump then canceled a meeting with Vladimir Putin.

INSKEEP: Now, the president is in Argentina meeting with world leaders for the G-20 summit. Yesterday morning, he told reporters he would meet with Putin even though he was unhappy about some Russian actions in Ukraine. Then one hour later - which, as it happened, was after the guilty plea was revealed - the president tweeted the meeting was off. He said that was because Russian forces seized Ukrainian ships and sailors, and we'll - that's going to be the beginning of this next discussion here.

MARTIN: All right. So I'm joined now by Scott Horsley, who is covering the G-20.

Hey, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So pretty quick turnaround by the president on that meeting with Vladimir Putin. What do you think is really going on?

HORSLEY: Well, it certainly illustrates the challenge of trying to predict a leader as impulsive as President Trump. There was less than an hour between the time he told reporters, it's a good time for him and Putin to meet. And when that Twitter announcement came that the meeting was off, as you all mentioned, the stated reason is the Russian aggression towards Ukraine.

And we should say that the president had threatened earlier this week that he might cancel the meeting with Putin over that, but it's also certainly true that, had they met, any joint appearance would have been accompanied by awkward questions about this latest plea from Michael Cohen. The...

MARTIN: Not exactly...

HORSLEY: ...Special...

MARTIN: ...A great time to be seen meeting...


MARTIN: ...Close - face-to-face with Putin.

HORSLEY: I mean, the special counsel's Russia probe is always in the background anytime Trump and Putin meet, and Cohen's plea would have put it very much in the foreground.

MARTIN: Right. OK. So no one-on-one with the Russian president, but President Trump is going to be at this other big event, presumably - signing of a new NAFTA deal, right?

HORSLEY: That's right. But don't call it a NAFTA deal...

MARTIN: Oh, yeah. It's not a new NAFTA deal.

HORSLEY: ...Rachel. This is the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement.

MARTIN: Yes, rules off the table.

HORSLEY: It is, however, still, you know, a free trade agreement for all of North America, a North American free trade agreement, if you will. It makes some...

MARTIN: I will.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

HORSLEY: ...Incremental changes in U.S. access to the Canadian dairy market. It offers some new worker protections for workers in Mexico. The biggest change is its requirement for the auto industry that more of a vehicle's content has to come from North America to get duty-free status and that a significant chunk of that content has to come from factories with relatively high wages.

This is designed to encourage more production in the U.S. and Canada as opposed to Mexico. But as we've seen from General Motors' announcement this week of idle factories and worker layoffs, any expectation that there's going to be a flood of new auto production in the U.S. is probably exaggerated.

MARTIN: Plus, just signing the thing isn't the last step, right? It still has to be ratified by lawmakers in all three countries.

HORSLEY: That is right. This is going to be a ceremonial photo-op, but there's a lot of work to be done to ratify the USMCA. It's going to have to win support not only in the Republican Senate, but the new Democratic majority House. So that's going to be a bit of a tightrope.

We should say that U.S. trade representative Bob Lighthizer knew that was a possibility as this deal was being negotiated. And some provisions of the new USMCA will be more palatable to the Democrats in the House than the Republicans they would replace. We should also say, though, the tariffs on Canadians and Mexican steel and aluminum as well as the retaliatory tariffs from Canada and Mexico on U.S. exports - those remain in place, and that continues to be a source of friction between the countries.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Scott Horsley for us this morning. Thanks, Scott.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.


MARTIN: Mexico gets a new president tomorrow.

INSKEEP: His name is Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. He is populist, a leftist and has pledged to clean Mexico of corruption. His approach has gained him a loyal following but has rattled some international markets and could position Mexico in a standoff with the United States over migration.

MARTIN: NPR's Carrie Kahn joins us now from Mexico.

Good morning, Carrie.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So let's start with what Steve just said - that Obrador and his unorthodox approach has rattled - caused some economic jitters, right?

KAHN: Yes, definitely. During his campaign, there were a lot of questions about whether his leftist ideology would steer Mexico on a different economic path, but, you know, he was very pragmatic during the campaign in signaling there would be no major economic changes in Mexico, which has become a much more open economy with large foreign and U.S. investors here.

But in recent weeks, the markets have hit back, especially after he said he will cancel the $13 billion international airport being built here in the capital. His MORENA party, which is in control of the Congress, has introduced several bills aimed at regulating banking, mining and pensions. And that's just worried investors. And the peso is suffering. You know, since October, the stock market here has lost nearly a fifth of its value.

MARTIN: So it's real easy for Mexican politicians to say they want to tackle corruption. What's he actually going to do?

KAHN: What's his plan?

MARTIN: Right.

KAHN: Well, it's - tackling corruption is still the key, he says, to fixing all of Mexico's ills. The problem is he hasn't given a whole lot of details about he's - how he's going to do that. He says he's going to lead by example. He's going to rid the government of all its excesses and luxurious perks. He's cutting salaries and jobs. Politicians will no longer have cars, drivers, meals, private health insurance.

MARTIN: Is that him, too? Does he include himself in that?

KAHN: Oh, yeah. He's taking a 60 percent pay cut, and he says no one will make more than the president. But, you know, as for police corruption, the weakness in the judicial system, human rights abuses at the hands of state actors, those types of institutional problems that have plagued Mexico for years, he really comes up short on details.

And he's reversed some of his major promises like his pledged to remove the military from fighting crime and cartel violence. He recently said the military will maintain its role in this new crime-fighting national guard he's forming, and that's really not much of a change from his predecessors who've failed to bring down Mexico's alarming murder rate.

MARTIN: Yeah. So the big question from an American perspective is, what's going to be his posture towards the United States and the Trump administration? Especially when you think about the Trump administration, right now, is trying to get Mexico to agree to this deal where people who are seeking asylum in the U.S. have to stay in Mexico, right?

KAHN: Sure. It's going to be very interesting to watch these two presidents work together. So far, he - Lopez Obrador has been very careful not to ruffle any feathers with President Trump. But, you know, as you said, this is going to be the big issue sure to come up right away with these thousands of Central Americans amassing at Mexico's northern border. It does look like Mexico might just do as the U.S. wants and allow the migrants to stay in Mexico while their asylum cases wind through U.S. courts, and that's a big turnaround, too, from past administrations.

Trump, for his part, has had some nice words for Lopez Obrador. He's also sending his daughter Ivanka to the inauguration. So who knows, Rachel? Maybe these two very unconventional presidents might see eye-to-eye. I kind of have my doubts, but let's see what happens.

MARTIN: We'll wait and see. NPR's Carrie Kahn joining us from Mexico. Thanks so much, Carrie. We appreciate it.

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