Mueller Weaves Trump, Manafort and Cohen Ever Closer
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- On Friday evening, Special Counsel Robert Mueller's Justice Department team and federal prosecutors in Manhattan offered a few reasons, perhaps, for why President Donald Trump went on the Twitter warpath Friday morning – including their apparent belief that the president himself is a primary architect of some of the troubling events they have been examining.
Our day began with the president populating his social feed with accusations that Mueller (and a host of other people and nefarious forces) had "big time conflicts of interest" and was "lying and leaking" in service of drafting a "final Witch Hunt Report" about the Trump campaign's possible collusion with the Kremlin to sabotage the 2016 presidential campaign.
Near the end of the day, Mueller and prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York filed three sentencing memorandums involving two prominent members of the president's troubled advisory board -- Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, and Michael Cohen, the president’s former lawyer and self-described "fixer.” (Mueller's team filed a memo for Manafort and one for Cohen; federal prosecutors in Manhattan filed one for Cohen.)
Let's turn first to Mueller's ten-page, partially redacted Manafort filing, which outlines why he and his team believe that Manafort lied to them even after he decided to cooperate with their investigation in September.
They accuse Manafort of breaching the plea agreement in two ways. First, he allegedly dissembled about contacts he had with members of the Trump administration. He’s also said to have conspired with Konstantin Kilimnik -- a Russian linked to his country's intelligence network -- between February and April to obstruct justice by shaping the testimony of two of Mueller's witnesses. (Pro tip: It's not a good idea to be in touch with a suspected Russian intelligence asset when you're being prosecuted by seasoned federal law enforcement officials probing your role in Russian efforts to sabotage a presidential election.)
The Mueller team's Manafort memo is embroidered with hard-earned confidence: "We are prepared to prove the basis for the defendant's breach at a hearing that will establish each false statement through independent documentary and testimonial evidence, including Manafort's subsequent admissions."
Trump's name isn't in any of the unredacted portions of the Manafort sentencing memo but his presence looms large in all of the court filings since both Manafort and Cohen worked for him. In a taste of what might still be coming, CNN reported earlier on Friday that one of the president's ersatz lawyers, Rudy Giuliani, said Mueller's team told Manafort that Trump was lying when he said he didn’t know about a 2016 Trump Tower meeting Donald Trump Jr. arranged with a Russian attorney offering compromising information about Hillary Clinton. Manafort was present at that meeting, along with the president's son-in-law and current White House adviser, Jared Kushner.
Another thing to consider: Manafort breached his plea agreement with Mueller after being indicted for money laundering, bank fraud, tax fraud and failing to register as an agent of the Ukraine government. He was found guilty of bank and tax fraud, witness tampering, and conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government. The money laundering and registration charges were never heard in a courtroom because he pleaded guilty to the other charges.
That is a lot of illegal and disreputable stuff, and Manafort's plea deal likely would have spared him a meaningful chunk of prison time. Yet he lied to Mueller's team and now faces the prospect of spending the rest of his life behind bars. Why? I'll venture to guess: He may be expecting a pardon from the president or he has been trying to protect third parties -- perhaps from his roster of rough-and-tumble Russian and Ukrainian clients -- who might represent a threat to his family.
In case any of this isn't enough to remind you of the quality of some of the advice and people who have circulated around the Trump Organization, the Trump presidential campaign, and the White House, consider Michael Cohen.
The sentencing memorandum federal prosecutors in Manhattan filed on Friday outlined in fresh detail previously reported acts of tax and bank fraud that Cohen committed during and after his service to the president (the memo also takes Cohen to task for trying to blame his accountant for elements of the tax fraud). It noted that Cohen lied to Congress about some of his actions, including the pursuit of a Trump project in Moscow that went on much longer than was previously known – and until well after it was clear that Trump would be the Republican nominee for president. “If the project was completed, the Company could have received hundreds of millions of dollars from Russian sources in licensing fees and other revenues,” prosecutors said.
It also offered a detailed description of Cohen's orchestration of hush-money payments to two alleged Trump paramours -- Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal -- to prevent them from publicly revealing details about their past encounters with Trump during the 2016 campaign. Prosecutors noted that Cohen "acted in coordination and at the direction of" a person they don't identify to arrange the payments, but that individual is clearly Trump (whom Cohen has recorded discussing the payments).
In addition to noting Cohen's willingness to sacrifice his accountant to save himself, the Manhattan prosecutors also take issue with the idea that Cohen's cooperation emerged from some a newfound sense of duty, "personal resolve" or a "selfless" and "unprompted about-face." They plainly state that Cohen cooperated to save his hide and avoid a harsher penalty. To that end, they asked that he get a "significant" prison sentence.
The Mueller team, while asking for greater lenience in Cohen's sentencing, also dropped this fun fact in its sentencing memo: In November 2015, a Russian citizen offered Cohen “synergy on a government level” between Russia and Trump’s nascent presidential campaign. The person pushed for a meeting involving Trump (who is identified throughout the document as “Individual 1”) and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Cohen didn't take up the offer, but it appears to significantly predate other previously reported overtures from Russians to Trump's advisors or family members.
Mueller’s Cohen memo also highlights Cohen’s actions and statements when he appeared before Congress and concludes that they “show a deliberate effort to use his lies as a way to set the tone and shape the course of the hearings in an effort to stymie the inquiries.” For that reason, prosecutors flagged their interest in the “circumstances” surrounding Cohen’s visit to Capitol Hill, suggesting that they want to nail down exactly how he crafted and distributed his “response to the congressional inquiries” – and, perhaps, if there was a guiding hand directing him. As the filing notes, Cohen “admitted he told these lies — which he made publicly and in submissions to Congress — in order to (1) minimize links between the Moscow Project and Individual 1 and (2) give the false impression that the Moscow Project had ended before the Iowa caucus and the first presidential primaries, in hopes of limiting the ongoing Russia investigations.”
All of this suggests, quite clearly, that federal law enforcement authorities believe that Cohen – at least when it came to paying hush money and lying about the significance and timeline of the Moscow project – was essentially Trump’s puppet. The Trump administration is having none of that, however.
On Friday evening, the White House dismissed the sentencing memos, with Trump's press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, specifically noting that the Cohen memos "tell us nothing of value that wasn't already known."
Trump concurred. He took to Twitter to offer the optimistic conclusion that everything filed by prosecutors today "Totally clears the President."
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Timothy L. O’Brien is the executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion. He has been an editor and writer for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, HuffPost and Talk magazine. His books include “TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald.”
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