Trump ex-lawyer to plead guilty

Michael Cohen leaves courtImage copyright

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Michael Cohen ignored questions from reporters as he left court

US President Donald Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen has pleaded guilty to lying to Congress in relation to the Russia inquiry.

Mr Cohen, 52, admitted misleading lawmakers about a Trump real estate project in Moscow.

He appeared unexpectedly at federal court in Manhattan on Thursday morning.

In August, Mr Cohen pleaded guilty to violating finance laws during the 2016 presidential election by handling hush money for Mr Trump’s alleged lovers.

Thursday’s development is the latest twist in the US Department of Justice special counsel’s investigation into whether Mr Trump or his inner circle colluded with a Russian attempt to influence the 2016 presidential election.

As he left the White House for a G20 summit in Buenos Aires, Mr Trump told reporters that Mr Cohen was a “weak person and not a very smart person”, who was “lying” to seek a reduced sentence.

President’s political nightmare worsens

Analysis by Anthony Zurcher, BBC News, Washington

Up until now, Michael Cohen had been a tangential figure in Donald Trump’s Russia-related headaches. After his plea agreement with the special counsel’s office, however, he’s now smack dab in the middle of Robert Mueller’s probe.

In particular, Cohen is sharing information with the special counsel about Mr Trump’s Russian business interests – including efforts to build a Trump Tower in Moscow – which, according to the president’s former personal lawyer, continued well into Mr Trump’s presidential campaign.

That runs counter to the president’s continued insistence that he had no financial ties to Russia – an assertion he frequently made when questioned about his past praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin and efforts to improve US-Russian relations.

If Mr Cohen can provide evidence supporting his claims it would be a political nightmare for the president and, if Mr Trump made false claims in his recent written testimony to Mr Meuller, a legal one, as well.

The president has been tweeting furiously about the special counsel team in recent days, and given the steady drumbeat of news on Mr Mueller’s investigation, it feels as though a crescendo is approaching.

Mr Cohen pleaded guilty in court to one count of making false statements to Congress in its own investigation into whether Mr Trump’s campaign worked with Russia to sway the US election two years ago.

He said at the hearing that he had submitted a false written statement about a Trump Organization real estate project in Moscow.

“I made these misstatements to be consistent with individual 1’s political messaging and out of loyalty to individual 1,” Mr Cohen said in court, according to Reuters news agency.

He has previously identified “individual 1” as Mr Trump.

Mr Cohen – once a staunch Trump loyalist – was interviewed in October last year behind closed doors by congressional investigators.

Sources say that during his testimony he downplayed the extent of his contacts with Russian officials about the real estate project, which never resulted in any deal.

In a press scrum outside court moments after the hearing, Mr Cohen said nothing to reporters.

But his lawyer said: “Mr Cohen has co-operated. Mr Cohen will continue to co-operate.”

Mr Cohen once famously vowed he would take a bullet for Mr Trump, but a cloud of doubt hung over the pugnacious attorney’s loyalties after his home and office were raided by the FBI in April this year.

In August, Mr Cohen, who had been Mr Trump’s personal lawyer for more than a decade, pleaded guilty to eight criminal charges, including tax evasion, bank fraud and campaign finance violations.

He said he had paid hush money to two women who alleged they had affairs with Mr Trump, at the direction of “the candidate” – a clear reference to Mr Trump.

Undisclosed payments to bury embarrassing stories about a political candidate can be treated as a violation of US campaign finance laws.

In September, his lawyer said Mr Cohen had been providing “critical information” to special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.

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