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What Michael Cohen's new guilty plea reveals: This is a bombshell that begins to get to the heart of a Russia-Trump conspiracy


Michael Cohen leaves the Thurgood Marshall Federal Courthouse after pleading guilty on Thursday in New York. Cohen admitted to lying to the FBI. (Alec Tabak for New York Daily News)

In the midst of the constant barrage of attacks on the Mueller investigation by the President and his chief defender, Rudy Giuliani, the guilty plea today entered by Trump’s former lawyer/fixer demonstrates that Mueller is laser-focused on proving that the Trump campaign conspired with the Russian government during the 2016 presidential election.

There was no reason for Cohen to plead guilty to lying to the Senate Intelligence Committee about his and Trump’s dealings on the proposed Trump Tower Moscow other than to set up Cohen as a knowledgeable witness on all things Trump and Russia to testify about the conspiracy between the Russian government and other members of the Trump campaign.

Based on the charging document, there can be little doubt that he had a unique window into the dealings of Donald Trump and members of his family with the Russian government. Cohen’s knowledge of the Russian dealings up through June 2016 is highly significant since it comes a few months after the Russians had hacked into the Democratic National Committee and had stolen emails and other documents. It includes the time of the meeting at Trump Tower with the Russians on June 9 and is immediately before WikiLeaks started releasing the stolen documents to the public.

While the court filing to which Cohen pled guilty is limited to his lies about Trump Tower Moscow, this new plea is just a means for Mueller to bolster Cohen’s credibility as being knowledgeable about Trump’s dealings with Russia. As it stood before this plea, Cohen had pled guilty to campaign violations relating solely to the payoffs prior to the election to silence women about their affairs with Trump. This new charge places Cohen right in the bullseye of Mueller’s central mission — to determine whether the Trump campaign had conspired with the Russian government to help Trump’s election effort.

Clues as to Cohen knows about the relationship between Russia and the Trump campaign are spelled out in the dossier of informant reports compiled by former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele. As to the connection between Trump Tower and Russia’s assistance on the campaign, Steele reported in June 2016 that “so far Trump has declined various sweetener real estate business deals offered him in Russia in order to further the Kremlin’s cultivation of him,” including the fact that “his inner circle have accepted a regular flow of intelligence from the Kremlin, including on his Democratic and other political rivals.” Cohen at the time was clearly a member of the Trump inner circle.

This flow of intelligence likely refers to the emails hacked from the DNC. In other words, Cohen likely has testimony directly relating to the Trump campaign side of the conspiracy charged against the 13 Russian intelligence operatives who perpetrated the hacking and theft of the emails and documents from the DNC, all of whom were indicted on July 13, 2018. The object of the conspiracy charged against these Russian operatives was not only the theft of the documents from the DNC but also the staging and releasing “of the stolen documents to interfere with the 2016 presidential election.”

What Cohen can likely testify to is his knowledge of which Trump campaign operatives were involved in the staging and releasing of the stolen emails during opportune moments. Based on the past statement of Cohen’s lawyer that Cohen knew that Trump had knowledge of the June 9 Trump Tower meeting with the Russians, it is highly likely that Cohen’s testimony will implicate his former client, Donald Trump.

According to a later Steele report, Cohen met with “Kremlin officials” after Manafort left the Trump campaign in August 2016. A Russian informant related to Steele that “Cohen now was heavily engaged in a cover-up and damage limitation operation in the attempt to prevent the full details of Trump’s relationship with Russian being exposed,” including a cover up of the hacking operations directed against Clinton. In other words, just as Cohen had helped Trump cover up two affairs, he was helping him cover up services rendered by Russia.

In sum, all indications point to Cohen’s guilty plea being the prelude to a legal bombshell indictment in the Trump-Russia conspiracy

Akerman, a former Watergate prosecutor, is a partner at Dorsey & Whitney LLP.