Michael D. Cohen, President Trump’s former lawyer and fixer, admitted in court on Thursday that he had engaged in negotiations to build a tower in Moscow for Mr. Trump well into the 2016 presidential campaign, far later than previously known.
Mr. Cohen said he discussed the status of the project with Mr. Trump on more than three occasions and briefed Mr. Trump’s family members about it. He also admitted he agreed to travel to Russia for meetings on the project.
The revelations, which came as Mr. Cohen pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about the project, were a startling turn in the special counsel’s investigation of Mr. Trump and his inner circle. Mr. Trump is referred to as “Individual 1” in the court documents.
Mr. Cohen’s guilty plea comes at a particularly perilous time for Mr. Trump, whose presidency has been threatened by Mr. Cohen’s statements to investigators.
In recent days, the president and his lawyers have increased their attacks on the Justice Department and the Russia investigation, including the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III. Earlier this week, the special counsel’s office accused Mr. Trump’s onetime campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, of repeatedly lying to investigators in breach of his plea agreement. The new revelations also come a week after Mr. Trump’s lawyers provided Mr. Mueller with written responses to a set of questions.
After Mr. Cohen appeared in court on Thursday, Mr. Trump abruptly canceled a planned meeting with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia while both leaders are in Argentina for a world economic summit meeting. The president said he called off the meeting because of Russia’s recent hostilities with Ukraine.
In remarks to reporters shortly after Mr. Cohen’s plea, Mr. Trump said his former fixer was once again lying in order to get a reduced sentence for the crimes he pleaded guilty to earlier this year. Under the earlier plea agreement, Mr. Cohen faced about four or five years in prison.
“He was convicted of various things unrelated to us,” Mr. Trump said, adding, “He’s a weak person and what he’s trying to do is get a reduced sentence.”
Mr. Trump made his comments to reporters as he left Washington for the Group of 20 meeting in Buenos Aires.
At a surprise federal court hearing in Manhattan, Mr. Cohen admitted that he had minimized Mr. Trump’s role in efforts to build a Trump Tower in Moscow and gave the false impression to Congress that the negotiations had ended in January 2016, just before the Iowa caucuses.
In fact, Mr. Cohen admitted, the negotiations continued for at least another five months, until June, which was just after Mr. Trump had clinched the Republican nomination. Mr. Cohen also admitted that he agreed in early May to travel to Russia for meetings on the project and that he spoke to Mr. Trump about Mr. Trump, himself, making a trip, despite telling congressional investigators that he had not done so. The trips never happened.
Mr. Cohen concluded his statement in court by saying that he made the false statements to Congress out of “loyalty” to the president and so that he would not contradict Mr. Trump’s “political messaging.”
Senator Richard M. Burr of North Carolina, the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, said, “There’s a reason people shouldn’t lie when they’re in front of a congressional investigation.”
Mr. Trump said on Thursday that discussions about the Moscow project took place in early 2016, but that he did not know the exact timing of when he decided to stop pursuing it.
“We decided — I decided ultimately — not to do it,” he said, adding, “There would have been nothing wrong if I did do it.”
The president suggested the Moscow business consideration was a byproduct of running a company while campaigning for president.
“In fact, I often joke about the fact that I was the only person who campaigned and simultaneously ran a business,” he said.
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“There was a good chance that I wouldn’t have won, in which case I would have gone back into the business,” he added. “And why should I lose lots of opportunities?”
The president has previously said there would be no problem if he continued to run his business while president.
“I have a no-conflict-of-interest provision as president,” Mr. Trump said in January 2017, adding, “I have no deals that could happen in Russia, because we’ve stayed away.”
Mr. Cohen’s new guilty plea in Federal District Court marks the first time the office of the special counsel has charged Mr. Cohen. In exchange for pleading guilty and continuing to cooperate with Mr. Mueller, he may hope to receive a lighter sentence than he otherwise would.
Mr. Cohen, 52, had already pleaded guilty to eight charges, including campaign finance, bank and tax crimes, brought by federal prosecutors in Manhattan. He is scheduled to be sentenced for those crimes in two weeks.
It was just three months ago that Mr. Cohen, pleading guilty for the first time, stood up in a different Manhattan courtroom and accused Mr. Trump of directing hush-money payments during the 2016 campaign to conceal potential sex scandals. Those payments formed the basis of the campaign finance charges against Mr. Cohen.
Although Mr. Cohen’s first plea agreement did not include a formal cooperation deal, he had sat for repeated interviews with Mr. Mueller’s investigators.
He also offered assistance to the office prosecuting him, the United States attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York, according to a person briefed on the matter. (Mr. Mueller’s investigators referred the investigation of Mr. Cohen to the Southern District earlier this year).
The Southern District said last month in a court filing that it was continuing to investigate “Michael Cohen and others.” While the filing did not identify other suspects, the prosecutors are expected to examine whether people in Mr. Trump’s circle were aware of Mr. Cohen’s criminal conduct.
President Trump disparaged his former lawyer, Michael Cohen, who pleaded guilty to lying to Congress regarding a proposal to build a Trump Tower in Russia.Published OnCreditCreditDoug Mills/The New York Times
In the Southern District case, Mr. Cohen already faced a potential prison sentence of about four to five years under the nonbinding federal sentencing guidelines, according to his plea agreement. It is unclear what additional time he could face with the new guilty plea.
During his plea hearing in August, Mr. Cohen admitted to making a $130,000 payment to an adult film actress, Stephanie Clifford, better known as Stormy Daniels, to keep her quiet about an affair she said she had with Mr. Trump.
The payment amounted to an illegal contribution to Mr. Trump’s campaign, prosecutors argued, since her silence bolstered his election hopes and campaign finance law prohibits individuals from donating more than $2,700 to a presidential candidate.
Mr. Cohen also pleaded guilty to arranging what amounted to an illegal corporate campaign donation when he helped to silence a former Playboy model, Karen McDougal. At Mr. Cohen’s urging, the tabloid publisher American Media Inc. bought the rights to Ms. McDougal’s story of an affair with Mr. Trump but did not publish a story.
He said that the payments to the women were made “in coordination with, and at the direction of, a candidate for federal office” — a reference to Mr. Trump.
The special counsel identified Mr. Cohen’s false statements to Congress in testimony Mr. Cohen provided to the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, which have been conducting their own, separate investigations into possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said on Thursday that the committee had made additional criminal referrals to Mr. Mueller, but he did not offer specifics.
Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said Mr. Cohen’s plea only added urgency for congressional investigators who plan to begin an inquiry into Mr. Trump’s foreign business dealings when Democrats take control of the House in January.
“If the president and his associates were being untruthful in real time as they were pursuing this deal, what does it mean now on how much we can rely on what the president is saying about any continuing Russian financial interest?” Mr. Schiff told reporters on Thursday.
He said the committee would seek to interview Mr. Cohen again, along with other witnesses Democrats on the committee think were also “untruthful” in their testimonies.