Robert Mueller has for the first time publicly connected Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and business to the Russian government, adding a significant new chapter to the special counsel’s ongoing investigation into Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 elections.
In a guilty plea Thursday, Trump’s former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen admitted that he spoke with Trump and Russian officials as late as June 2016—a month before Trump officially accepted the Republican presidential nomination—about a potential business deal in Moscow that Cohen told Congress had ended months earlier.
Here are the key takeaways from Cohen’s guilty plea for lying to Congress:
It ties Trump to Russia during the campaign
Mueller’s “criminal information” filing lays out multiple exchanges between Cohen, real estate developer Felix Sater and Russian government officials about a proposed Trump tower development in Moscow.
While the deal never went through, conversations about it between Cohen, Trump, his family and at least one campaign official came as Russia was in the midst of a sophisticated plan to meddle in the U.S. election that American intelligence agencies found was intended to hurt Democrat Hillary Clinton and ultimately to help Trump win.
“This is enormous,” said Mimi Rocah, a former federal prosecutor. “We’re seeing financial motives and financial entanglements with a foreign power who interfered in our elections.”
Cohen discussed the Moscow tower project with Trump at least four times, including the possibility that the presidential candidate would travel to Russia, according to the filing. Cohen also briefed Trump family members about it and discussed the possible travel with a senior campaign official.
On May 5, days after Trump had won the heavily contested Indiana primary and appeared all but certain to clinch the nomination, Cohen was invited by a Russian official to a conference in St. Petersburg with the offer of a possible meeting between Cohen and Russian President Vladimir Putin or Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.
Cohen was actively planning for the trip, including filling out relevant forms, until it was called off in mid-June for a reason the statement doesn’t specify. On June 14, 2016, the Washington Post reported that Russian government hackers had penetrated the network of the Democratic National Committee and gained access to the party’s opposition research file on Trump.
Cohen had told the House and Senate intelligence panels in a two-page statement in August 2017 that all talk of the Moscow project ended in January 2016, emphasizing that was before any of the presidential caucuses or primaries. He said he made the false statement, which is a crime, to help Trump and limit the ongoing Russia probes.
It’s not illegal for a presidential candidate to simultaneously explore possible business deals overseas, as Trump emphasized to reporters Thursday. But the ongoing contacts raise continuing questions about Trump’s attitude and motivations toward Russia.
As a candidate and as president, Trump has continued to say he wanted to get along with Putin, at times saying he believed the Russian leader’s assurances that his country didn’t meddle in the election despite the finding by U.S. intelligence agencies that it did.
Right about the time Cohen was in contact with Russian officials and discussing a possible Russia trip for Trump, campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos was doing the same.
The day before Cohen was invited to the St. Petersburg conference, possibly to meet Putin, a Russian contact emailed Papadopoulos saying his country was “open for cooperation” and offering to arrange a meeting with him in Moscow. Several weeks later, Papadopoulos emailed a senior campaign staffer trying to set up a Trump trip to Moscow, writing “Russia has been eager to meet Mr. Trump for quite sometime.”
On June 9, while Cohen was preparing paperwork for his trip to Moscow, a Russian lawyer visited Trump Tower in New York for a now infamous meeting with Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr, son-in-law Jared Kushner, and campaign chairman Paul Manafort. Cohen called off his trip to Moscow days later.
In early July, another Trump campaign adviser, Carter Page, traveled to Moscow where he gave a commencement speech and says he briefly interacted with Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich and had a meeting with Andrey Baranov, head of investor relations for oil giant Rosneft and an aide to Rosneft Chief Executive Officer Igor Sechin.
Trump has previously said that Mueller would be crossing a red line if he looked into his business dealings. But Cohen’s guilty plea could contribute to the special counsel’s rationale for delving more deeply into the Trump Organization.
Emails cited in the plea deal came from the Trump Organization, which turned them over to prosecutors.
Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s attorney, said the documents Mueller’s office “is using to show that Cohen lied to Congress were voluntarily disclosed by the Trump Organization because there was nothing to hide.” He also called Cohen a “proven liar who is doing everything he can to get out of a long-term prison sentence for serious crimes of bank and tax fraud that had nothing to do with the Trump Organization.”
It’s significant that Mueller negotiated the plea agreement with Cohen, rather than having another U.S. attorney’s office do so, as happened with the charges brought against Cohen earlier this year related to hush-money payments to adult performer Stormy Daniels, Rocah said.
It’s a strong indication that Cohen’s lies, as well as other information Mueller might have, is directly relevant to his investigation into whether Trump or any of his associates conspired with Russia.
“The walls are crumbling down on top of them from so many different directions,” Rocah said.
Trump has repeatedly denied having business ties to Russia during the presidential campaign and as president. While those statements appear to be accurate in regard to the Moscow tower project that never came to fruition, he appears to have been downplaying his business relationship.
He tweeted in July 2016—just a month after it’s now known that discussion on the Moscow development stopped—that he had “ZERO investments in Russia” and that accusations “Russia dealing with Trump” were “crazy.”
He has repeatedly said that his closest business tie with Russians was the purchase and sale of a Palm Beach mansion.
“I have had dealings over the years where I sold a house to a very wealthy Russian many years ago,” he said in an interview with NBC News. “I had the Miss Universe pageant, which I owned for quite a while, I had it in Moscow, long time ago. But other than that, I have nothing to do with Russia.”
At a February 2017 news conference at the White House, he expanded on that assertion, saying, “I have nothing to do with Russia. To the best of my knowledge, no person that I deal with does.”
Mueller struck an ongoing cooperation agreement with Cohen, which builds on meetings that have already taken place between Trump’s ex-fixer and federal and state prosecutors. Cohen first met with Mueller’s office Aug. 7 in a so-called proffer session and had six more debriefings, according to his plea agreement.
Cohen is scheduled to be sentenced in the hush-money matter Dec. 12. His lawyers asked the court to consolidate Thursday’s case with that and for the sentencing to proceed on schedule.
The timing suggests that Mueller might already have secured most of the information he wants from Cohen.
Trump has accused Mueller of forcing former aides and associates to lie—as he said Thursday about Cohen—or pay a heavy price for refusing to do so.
“Wait until it comes out how horribly & viciously they are treating people, ruining lives for them refusing to lie,” Trump tweeted this week.
But Rep. Jerrold Nadler, who’s in line to head the Judiciary Committee when Democrats take control of the House in January, said Thursday that the list of Mueller successes was long and damning.
“The special counsel has now secured guilty pleas from President Trump’s personal attorney, his campaign manager, his deputy campaign manager, a foreign policy adviser to his campaign, and his national security adviser,” Nadler said in a statement. “The president can pretend that this investigation has nothing to do with him and nothing to do with Russia, but these indictments speak for themselves.”
Republican lawmakers are considering passing a bill guaranteeing access to health insurance for people with pre-existing conditions as part of a lame-duck legislative session next week that could also include measures to weaken Wisconsin’s Democratic Gov.-elect Tony Evers.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos have been in discussions on exactly what will be taken up in the session, designed to give outgoing Gov. Scott Walker once last chance to sign bills into law.
In an emailed newsletter late Thursday, Vos confirmed that the pre-existing conditions issue would be on the agenda. He noted that the Assembly passed such a bill last year; it stalled in the Senate.
Vos didn’t specify what else would be part of the session.
Other ideas being considered include moving the 2020 presidential primary election, limiting Evers’ ability to appoint members of the state economic development agency, restricting the governor’s rule-making powers, enacting work requirements for Medicaid recipients and enshrining in law rules related to Wisconsin’s voter photo ID mandate.
Republicans want to move the presidential primary because of expected high Democratic turnout that would make it harder for conservative Supreme Court Justice Dan Kelly to win election, Fitzgerald said Tuesday. Kelly’s election is in April 2020, the same date as the presidential primary. Kelly was appointed by Walker and is part of a 4-3 conservative majority on the court.
Court spokesman Tom Sheehan said Kelly declined to comment.
Debate over protecting people with pre-existing conditions was central to Walker’s losing bid for re-election, Wisconsin’s U.S. Senate race and other campaigns this year. Walker said he favored enacting the same protections that are in federal law, which goes much further than what the Assembly approved earlier this year. That bill stalled in the Senate.
Evers supports the federal Affordable Care Act and its provisions guaranteeing insurance coverage for people with pre-existing conditions. He has said on his first day in office, he would withdraw Wisconsin from a federal lawsuit, authorized by Walker, seeking repeal of the law.
The lame-duck session could begin as soon as Tuesday, Fitzgerald told the Wisconsin State Journal. The bills would be made public Friday with a public hearing Monday, he said.
Fitzgerald’s chief of staff Dan Romportl said a public notice related to the lame-duck session was expected to come later Thursday. He said Fitzgerald and Vos were still negotiating details of what will be taken up.
Lawmakers are moving quickly to take action before the holidays and, more importantly, before Evers is sworn into office Jan. 7.
They originally discussed returning only to consider a tax incentive bill designed to keep consumer products giant Kimberly-Clark from closing an Appleton-area plant at the cost of about 390 jobs.
But Republicans still don’t have the votes for that bill, making it unlikely to be taken up.
Kevin “Louie” Alwin
James E. Brown
Ruth F. Collins
Joseph C. Greene
Gerald Keith “Jerry” Peckham
Jeanne T. Spoo
Jim Grafft has signed off on an agreement for repairs the city requires to bring the Monterey Hotel back from the brink of demolition.
According to documents obtained by The Gazette, Grafft on Wednesday signed a compliance agreement for repairs the city ordered to the iconic, six-story hotel downtown. The city placed the Monterey under a raze-or-repair order in September.
The city had given Grafft until Wednesday to agree to a six-month deadline to make a slew of fixes, including work to mend the building’s roof, fixes to the building’s crumbling exterior and repairs to internal structural supports in a one-story section of the building.
City property inspections suggest supports in the one-story section have been damaged by water infiltration to the point that part of the historic building could be at risk of collapse.
City inspections show the roof has leaked chronically, damaging the interior of the building, including metal structural supports. The roof must be repaired by May 31, according to the agreement.
Grafft has until July 31 to fix structural supports in the building, according to the agreement.
If Grafft makes good on the fixes and adheres to timelines the city has laid out, it would allay the city’s threat of demolition.
Tom Clippert, city building director, called Grafft’s signing of the repair agreement “a step in the right direction to bring the building into code compliance.”
Clippert signed off on the agreement Thursday, according to a copy The Gazette obtained. It was the culmination of three months of back-and-forth correspondence between the city and Grafft.
The city in recent weeks had sought detailed work plans and timelines from Grafft as well as financial assurances Grafft could tackle the work required.
Under the agreement, Grafft is required to attend monthly meetings with the city’s building department and give status updates on work at the Monterey. Under the agreement, Clippert said, the city has the right to inspect the hotel at any time during work.
Clippert said it’s not often the city puts properties under raze-or-repair orders, and it’s even less often the city requires an owner to meet with the city monthly for status reports after the owner agrees to repairs.
Clippert said the “scope of the projects” required to fix the hotel—which amount to at least $114,000, according to estimates Grafft submitted—seemed to require the city keeping close tabs on the process.
The city is awaiting a required report detailing the Monterey’s structural integrity. Grafft this month hired a local architect to check supports in the one-story section of the building the city had flagged in inspections. Clippert said he has not seen the structural report, but the agreement requires Grafft to supply the city copies of work contracts for required structural repairs by Feb. 1.
It’s not clear how much structural repairs might cost. In October, Grafft supplied the city a note from a local bank that said Grafft had “adequate funds” up to $250,000 for repairs to the Monterey Hotel.
Clippert said he has not talked with the Grafft family since Grafft submitted the signed agreement this week. Beyond monthly meetings, Clippert said he’s unsure how much dialogue the city and the Grafft might have over repairs.
“It depends on how the project is going, what the structural report shows, and what other plans they submit from the (structural) report. It’s hard for me to speculate at this point. Right now, (the focus) is just to try to keep the bridge of conversation open. Each of these (repair) projects can run different courses,” Clippert said.
In a notice Clippert sent Grafft earlier this month, he included the repair compliance agreement Grafft has since signed, but Clippert also supplied a draft raze order that could have gone into effect if Grafft had not agreed to the city’s required fixes and the deadlines.
Clippert said Grafft signing the agreement signals the Monterey is in line for fixes rather than demolition.
“As long as they meet the timelines set in the compliance agreement that has been agreed to and we have our monthly meetings and we see progress, that’s really what we’re looking for at this point,” Clippert said.
Britten Langfoss, who is the daughter of Jim Grafft, on Thursday told The Gazette the Grafft family plans to move forward on the fixes to the hotel as outlined in the city’s repair agreement.
“We’re working toward achievement of the goals set forth in the agreement,” Langfoss said.
Langfoss declined to comment further.