Cohen deal intensifies scrutiny on Trump business dealings

The decision by President TrumpDonald John TrumpHow to stand out in the crowd: Kirsten Gillibrand needs to find her niche Countdown clock is on for Mueller conclusions Omar: White supremacist attacks are rising because Trump publicly says 'Islam hates us' MORE's former personal attorney Michael Cohen to plead guilty and cooperate with special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE has intensified the focus on Trump’s business dealings.

Cohen on Thursday admitted to lying to Congress about his and Trump’s involvement in plans to build a Trump property in Moscow, which prosecutors signaled represented a deliberate effort to “minimize links” between Trump and the project and to limit the ongoing Russia investigations.

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The developments have raised new questions about Trump's business dealings in Moscow and whether they have any connection to Russia’s effort to interfere in the 2016 election, putting the president on defense amid a high-stakes trip to the Group of 20 summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina. And they’ve electrified Democrats in Congress who are readying themselves for new investigations into the Trump business apparatus in the new year.

There have long been expectations that Mueller would probe Trump’s business links to Russia in an effort to determine whether there was collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow. Mueller, who has been investigating Russian interference for more than 18 months, is equipped with a mandate to investigate any matters that arise directly from the investigation.

But Cohen’s admission has added a new wrinkle, suggesting that those close to the president were prepared to spread falsities in order to conceal links to Russia.

In Cohen, Mueller has a witness whose relationship with Trump stretched beyond a decade, including a powerful role at the Trump Organization and a stint as the president’s attorney. Legal analysts view Cohen as a valuable cooperator who can shed light on Trump’s business dealings as Mueller looks to better understand any ties he has to Russia.

“It does give an inroad to the president’s business dealings and in any white-collar investigation, which this really is, knowing how the money is deployed is very revelatory of peoples' intent,” said Jack Sharman, a former special counsel to Congress for the Whitewater investigation. “There is significant investigatory value in that by itself.”

Trump has lashed out at Cohen and questioned his credibility, arguing he is lying to win a more lenient sentence.

Cohen has reportedly sat for more than 70 hours of interviews with Mueller’s team, raising questions about what else he has told government investigators.

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Glenn Kirschner, who spent 30 years as a federal prosecutor with the U.S. attorney’s office in D.C., described it as “unprecedented” should Cohen match that length of testimony in the grand jury that the special counsel has convened in D.C.

According to a court filing unsealed Thursday, Cohen lied to the House and Senate Intelligence committees when he claimed last year that a Trump property in Moscow was under consideration between September 2015 and January 2016. In reality, prosecutors say discussions about it within the Trump Organization occurred as late as June 2016, at which point Trump was the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.

The filing also said that Cohen discussed the project repeatedly with “Individual 1” — widely accepted to be Trump — and briefed his family members about the project. Cohen has also admitted to lying about plans to travel to Russia and contacts with the Russian government in connection with the project.

Trump defended his business contacts and denied any wrongdoing early Friday, casting the Mueller investigation as a “witch hunt” in a presidential tweet from Buenos Aires. Trump wrote that he “lightly looked at doing a building somewhere in Russia” but that it never came to fruition and described his business dealings as “very legal” and “very cool.”  

Indeed, legal analysts note that talks over the prospective business deal would not constitute a crime. However, investigators would want to determine why Cohen and possibly others lied about the discussions and whether there was underlying criminal conduct, they said.

“The idea of doing a deal in Russia of course, is not in and of itself illegal,” Randall Eliason, a George Washington University law professor, said. “Is he lying about that for political purposes or to cover up some other underlying criminal conduct?”

Seth Waxman, a lawyer and former federal prosecutor, said he expects Mueller to be examining whether the Trump Moscow property proposal was part of a “quid pro quo” — a favor granted in exchange for something else — linked to Russia’s interference campaign.

Other legal analysts expect Mueller to examine whether Trump directed Cohen to lie to Congress. They also say he is likely comparing Cohen’s statements to those Trump submitted to the special counsel last week.

Separately, the revelations have opened up new avenues for congressional scrutiny, just a month before Democrats are set to take over control of the House of Representatives.

Rep. Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffCountdown clock is on for Mueller conclusions Schiff: 'Too early' to tell if Trump impeachment warranted by Mueller report Pelosi rejects any classified briefings on Mueller report MORE (D-Calif.), the House Intelligence Committee’s top Democrat, said Thursday that the panel would “continue to probe the Trump Organization’s financial links to Russia and determine whether the Russians sought financial leverage over Trump and his associates, or hold any such leverage today.” Both Schiff and the Republican leader of the Senate Intelligence Committee have signaled they want to interview Cohen again.

Other witnesses are also likely to attract renewed congressional scrutiny for their statements to Congress. Donald Trump Jr.Donald (Don) John TrumpFox's Chris Wallace challenges Nadler on whether no more indictments means no 'criminal collusion' Nadler willing to go to Supreme Court to obtain Mueller report Five things we know about Dems' sprawling Trump probe MORE, the president’s eldest son, told the Senate Judiciary Committee in September 2017 that the talks occurred in 2015 and 2016 but that he was only “peripherally aware” of them. It is unclear whether Trump Jr. was one of the family members briefed on the talks.

Cohen’s cooperation with Mueller, which could impact his sentence in the separate case, comes on the heels of other major developments in the special counsel investigation. On Monday, Mueller accused former Trump campaign Paul ManafortPaul John ManafortFox's Chris Wallace challenges Nadler on whether no more indictments means no 'criminal collusion' Nadler willing to go to Supreme Court to obtain Mueller report End of Mueller probe a boost for Trump, a warning for Democrats MORE of lying to investigators in breach of his plea deal, cutting off the cooperation of a witness who was once viewed as high interest the probe. 

Cohen entered his guilty plea on the same day as another curious development — a federal raid of the Chicago offices of Alderman Edward Burke, whose law firm once represented Trump. Sharman, now a defense attorney based in Alabama, said it’s possible but unclear whether the raid could be connected somehow to Mueller’s investigation.

“There seem to be several independent but somehow parallel investigation streams,” Sharman said. “You can’t easily know whether it was driven by the special counsel’s office or if it is just another fruit or a continuing step in another investigation.”

It is impossible to judge to what degree Mueller is examining Trump’s business dealings or finances because the special counsel is operating quietly behind closed doors. It is equally unclear when Mueller’s investigation will ultimately wrap up, though the White House and the president’s allies have long been calling for its swift end.

“It has the potential to be huge, given his former position. But what he’s actually able to provide, no one outside of Mueller’s team knows,” Eliason said of Cohen’s cooperation. “Manafort had the potential to be huge, too.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated Trump Jr.'s remarks to the Senate Judiciary Committee.