Businessman Felix Sater with Donald Trump in Trump Tower. Sater worked with Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen in 2015-2016 for a Trump Tower in Moscow. (File)

A guilty plea by Michael Cohen, Donald Trump’s longtime lawyer and fixer, highlights Trump’s business links with Russian officials, up to and through the 2016 Presidential campaign.

Cohen, who pleaded guilty in August 2018 on eight counts of financial crimes and campaign finance violations, including payoffs to silence two women who claimed sexual encounters with Trump. On Thursday, he added a guilty plea on the charge of lying to Congress.

The plea specifically cited lies over discussions for a Trump Tower in Moscow. Cohen previously said the talks ended in January 2016, but yesterday’s statement said they were ongoing until June 2016 — when Trump was on the verge of the Republican nomination and as Russia was intervening, including the hacking of Democrat computers, in the election.

Read the plea agreement

Cohen said he made false statements to Congress out of loyalty to Trump and to align with his boss’s “political messaging”.

The lawyer said that negotiations with Russian interests lasted until at least June 14, 2016, when he met in New York with an “associate” who had been trying to arrange Cohen’s trip to Russia. The attorney saud he would not be traveling “at that time”, and he also discussed the deal in a 20-minute phone call with a Russian Government employee.

Five days earlier, three Kremlin-linked envoys met high-level Trump advisors — son Donald Trump Jr.; son-in-law Jared Kushner; and campaign manager Paul Manafort — to discuss the provision of material damaging to Democrat nominee Hillary Clinton.

On June 14, the same day Cohen discussed the trip to Russia, The Washington Post reported that Russian operatives had hacked the computer network of the Democratic National Committee.

Cohen said on Thursday that he discussed the status of the Trump Tower project with Trump on more than the three occasions that he had previously acknowledged. He also he briefed Trump’s family.

The briefings included Trump’s daughter Ivanka and son Donald Jr., both Trump Organization executives, up to at least January 2016.

Exposing Trump’s Lie

Up to Thursday, Trump had maintained that he had no business interests in Russia.

Responding to Cohen’s plea, Trump first called his former lawyer a “liar” and “weak”. He then dropped his lie, defending the pursuit of his business interests while he 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?

We decided — I decided ultimately — not to do it. There would have been nothing wrong if I did do it.

En route to the G20 summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Trump abruptly called off a planned meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. He claimed the decision was about Russia’s seizure of three Ukrainian ships and their personnel, rather than Cohen’s revelations.

“Our Boy Can Become President”

Investigative journalism last year established that Cohen pursued the Trump Tower deal from autumn 2015, working with his boyhood friend and Trump business associate Felix Sater, who boasted of extensive contacts with Russian officials.

The effort included a former Russian military intelligence officer, Gen. Evgeny Shmykov. By January 2016, it reached Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who said he would try to arrange a meeting with President Putin or Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.

Sater linked the venture to Trump’s political ambitions:

Our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it. I will get all of Putin’s team to buy in on this, I will manage this process; we will get Donald elected.