It’s admittedly quite confusing to follow the machinations and complexities of the current round of updates regarding the Mueller special investigation on alleged 2016 campaign meddling by the Russian government. Still, an enormous amount of news has been breaking over the past 48 hours.
So, let’s try to separate the strands.
1. Michael Cohen Has Pled Guilty To Lying To Congress About A Trump Organization Russian Business Deal. On Thursday, Michael Cohen, President Trump’s personal lawyer, pled guilty to lying to Congress about the Russian investigation in a plea deal with Robert Mueller. Cohen already pled guilty in a Southern District of New York case regarding alleged campaign finance violations in making payments to former Trump paramour Stormy Daniels earlier this year. According to ABC News, Cohen admitted he lied to Congress when he said that the Trump Organization’s attempts to set up a Trump Tower in Moscow ended in January 2016. Cohen stated that he made the false statements “to be consistent with Individual 1’s political messaging and to be loyal to Individual 1,” presumably Trump. Cohen also admitted that the Moscow project was discussed all the way through June 2016, and that he communicated with the office of Vladimir Putin in January 2016. In September 2017, Cohen had explained that he “had nothing to do with any Russian involvement in our electoral process,” and “never saw anything – not a hint of anything – that demonstrated [Trump’s] involvement in Russian interference in our election or any other form of Russian collusion.” Trump, for his part, denies working on the Moscow deal, stating, “That was a project that we didn't do, I didn't do. That was a project that wasn't done for a lot of reasons ... I was focused on running for president. I wanted that to be my primary focus. Not running or building a building.” Ongoing business relationships with Russia, it should be pointed out, does not amount to collusion to affect an election outcome.
2. Mueller’s Team Is Looking Into Trump’s Phone Calls With Roger Stone. According to The Washington Post, infamous dirty trickster and Trump confidante Roger Stone spoke routinely with President Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign. Stone was also corresponding with conspiracy theorist and Trump friend Jerome Corsi, who had told Stone that he heard WikiLeaks, a Russian front organization, was planning to release “very damaging” material regarding Hillary Clinton and John Podesta. Stone reached out to Corsi during the campaign, emailing, “Get to (Assange) (a)t Ecaudorian Embassy in London and get the pending emails…they deal with the Foundation, allegedly.” Stone went on Twitter and claimed that it would soon be Podesta’s “time in the box.” Stone denies that any of his email conversations with Corsi came up with Trump, explaining, “I am able to say we never discussed WikiLeaks. I’m not sure what I would have said to him anyway because it’s all speculation. I just didn’t know if it’s true or not.”
3. Paul Manafort’s Plea Deal With Mueller Has Fallen Apart. Prosecutors now say that the plea arrangement with former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort has fallen apart. Manafort pled guilty earlier this year to crimes in connection with lobbying on behalf of a foreign government and avoiding taxes; that plea deal was contingent on him giving Mueller useful information. Now Mueller says Manafort lied to him. Furthermore, Manafort’s lawyers have been coordinating with Trump’s lawyers. This may, according to former prosecutor Ken White, open up to scrutiny conversations between Trump’s lawyers and Manafort’s, if Manafort’s plea agreement contained a provision destroying any joint defense agreement.
4. None Of This Proves “Collusion.” So, what does all of this mean? The original accusation was that Trump colluded with the Russian government to affect the election. That accusation has narrowed to the accusation that Trump coordinated with WikiLeaks to weaponize Hillary Clinton’s emails. To that end, the story about Roger Stone is the most damaging – and there are a few more dots that must be connected. We don’t know what Manafort told Mueller – and by the looks of it, it isn’t much, or Mueller would be happier with him. What of Trump’s business relationships with Russia? Mueller would presumably have to show a quid pro quo here – and that will be a lot harder to prove, although Trump’s constant refrain that he didn’t do business with Russia looks more suspicious if Cohen isn’t lying.
5. An Ancillary Criminal Charge Might Be The Easy Play For Mueller. The speculation has been rampant that President Trump will pardon Manafort, Corsi, or Stone. That would look a lot like obstruction of justice – an overt attempt to hinder an ongoing investigation. Also, as Ken White explains, if Cohen isn’t lying, “The conclusion that the President of the United States knew that his personal counsel was repeatedly lying to the Congress of the United States about the President’s business is inescapable under these circumstances.” But all of this has yet to be proven – and Trump knowing about his personal attorney’s lies doesn’t mean that Trump was responsible for those lies, either.