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Michael Cohen’s new guilty plea should scare the pants off Donald Trump and the White House

Cohen pleaded guilty to lying before Congress about Donald Trump's real estate dealings in Russia.

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 29: Michael Cohen, former personal attorney to President Donald Trump, exits federal court, November 29, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 29: Michael Cohen, former personal attorney to President Donald Trump, exits federal court, November 29, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Longtime Donald Trump attorney Michael Cohen made a surprise appearance in a Manhattan federal court on Thursday, where he pleaded guilty to a federal crime as part of a new agreement with Special Counsel Robert Mueller in connection with his ongoing Russia investigation.

Cohen pleaded guilty to lying under oath before Congress when he testified in a closed-door hearing in the fall of 2017. According to the Associated Press, his false statements involved Donald Trump’s business dealings in Russia.

The financial ties between the Trump Organization and Russian investors has long been thought to be a central focus of Mueller’s investigation. A draft of questions Mueller’s team planned to pose to Donald Trump included a specific inquiry about any communication Trump had with Cohen regarding Russian real estate developments during the campaign. Trump reportedly submitted answers to Mueller’s team just last week.

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According to ABC News, Cohen’s has already provided roughly 70 hours of testimony to Robert Mueller’s investigators as part of his new deal with the special counsel’s office.

Cohen’s extensive cooperation agreement should be of grave concern for Donald Trump and his inner circle. Cohen was intimately involved in virtually every aspect of the Trump family’s business and political dealings stretching back decades, and he has already implicated Donald Trump in federal crimes.

Cohen first found himself at the center of controversy in January, when news first broke that he paid Stephanie Clifford — an adult film actress better known under her stage name Stormy Daniels — $130,000 to stay quiet about her alleged affair with Trump during the run-up to the 2016 election.

For many months thereafter, Cohen insisted that — acting simply from a desire to protect Trump and his family from scurrilous charges — he’d used his own money to pay Daniels, and that he’d done so without consulting Trump and without regard for the timing of the presidential election. Throughout March, Cohen and his legal team insisted that Trump had never reimbursed Cohen; Trump told reporters in April that he knew nothing about any such payment.

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However, in May, Trump acknowledged a substantial debt to Cohen on a financial disclosure form, and experts were quick to point out that the debt was improperly left off his June 2017 financial disclosure filing. This revelation triggered the Office of Government Ethics to refer the matter to the Department of Justice for a possible criminal violation.

But Cohen’s problems had only gotten worse in the meantime. In April, the FBI raided Cohen’s office, home, and hotel room after the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York obtained a search warrant for the properties following a referral from Mueller. There, federal agents recovered documents related to the payment to Daniels, as well as a separate contract negotiated with a second woman (Karen McDougal) who says she had an affair with Trump.

After the raid, Cohen made a furtive attempt to occlude details of his legal practices and prevent his client list from being disclosed. It was eventually revealed that Cohen, while doing very little in terms of ordinary legal work, served as a “fixer” for high-profile Trump associates. These included Elliott Broidy, a former RNC deputy finance chair and Trump donor, who Cohen helped negotiate a non-disclosure agreement with a Playboy Playmate he had impregnated. Cohen also got Us Weekly to kill a story about an alleged affair that Donald Trump Jr. had in 2013.

Compounding these problems, in early May, Daniels’ attorney, Michael Avenatti started steadily releasing emails of Cohen’s that contained further revelations, the most important being that Cohen had established a shell company named “Essential Consultants, LLC” to serve as a slush fund to bankroll these scandal-suppressing payments. According to documents released by Avenatti (and later corroborated by several news outlets), Essential Consultants received payments from such well known corporations as AT&T and Novaris — who attempted to argue that the payments were for legitimate consulting work.

The precariousness of Cohen’s legal situation gave rise to intense speculation that he might, at some point, flip on Trump, despite the latter’s assurances that he would never do that.

Cohen pleaded guilty to eight counts of criminal charges in August, including two counts of campaign finance violations related to the payment to Daniels, as well as another pay-out to Karen McDougal, with whom Trump was also alleged to have had an affair. Cohen said during his appearance in court that he violated campaign finance laws at the direction of a candidate — Donald Trump. Less than a day later, Cohen’s attorney, Lanny Davis, told ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos that Cohen would not accept a pardon from Trump. In late September, news broke that Cohen had begun cooperating with the Mueller probe.