- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 29, 2018

President Trump denied his longtime former lawyer’s claim Thursday that he pursued a real estate deal in Moscow in the midst of the 2016 presidential campaign, at a time when Russian operatives were meddling to try to influence the election in his favor.

Facing the most significant threat yet from special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of Russian collusion, the president blasted ex-lawyer Michael Cohen as a liar who is seeking a reduced prison sentence by “making up a story.”

“He’s a weak person, and not a very smart person,” Mr. Trump said as he departed Washington for the Group of 20 summit in Argentina. “He’s lying about a project that everybody knew about.”

But Cohen’s guilty plea in federal court put a dent in the narrative that the president has been telling — that he had no financial interest in Russia around the time of the presidential campaign. Mr. Trump abruptly canceled in-flight a scheduled meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G-20, saying it was a response to Russia’s latest military clash with Ukraine.

Democrats, who will take over the House majority in January, pounced on the Cohen development as proof of the need for more investigations by Mr. Mueller and congressional committees.

“Anyone who still believes that this is a ‘witch hunt’ must now face the reality that the investigation appears to be closing in on the president,” said Rep. Jerrold L. Nadler, the New York Democrat who will take over as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee on Jan. 3.

Noting that the special counsel has now charged more than 30 people, Mr. Nadler said, “The president can pretend that this investigation has nothing to do with him and nothing to do with Russia, but these indictments speak for themselves.”

Allies of the president expressed growing concern about the widening scope of the Mueller probe and the danger for Mr. Trump’s presidency.

“The president is ready for this investigation to end, but more important, our country is ready for it to end,” said Rep. Lee Zeldin, New York Republican and a former prosecutor. He said the probe is motivated by “those that want to take down the president, who are desperate, who are praying to take down the president.”

“Looking for facts and elements of a crime, I see so much of that is missing,” Mr. Zeldin said on Fox News. “Mueller’s star witness has now admitted to being a liar criminally.”

Cohen admitted in federal court Thursday that he lied to Congress last year on behalf of Mr. Trump about halting the deal to build a Trump Tower Moscow in January 2016, before the Iowa caucuses. He said the discussions actually lasted until June 2016, after Mr. Trump had wrapped up the GOP nomination.

And Cohen said his contacts with Russian officials, including Mr. Putin’s press secretary, and discussions with Mr. Trump were more extensive than he previously testified to lawmakers.

“I made these statements to be consistent with Individual-1’s political messaging and to be loyal to Individual-1,” Cohen said in court, referring to Mr. Trump.

Faced with Cohen’s new story, the president offered a new argument of his own. He said there “would have been nothing wrong” if the Trump Organization had struck a money-making deal with the Russians during the campaign.

“Even if he [Cohen] was right, it doesn’t matter, because I was allowed to do whatever I wanted to during the campaign,” Mr. Trump said. “I was running my business. We had a position to possibly do a deal to build a building of some kind in Moscow. I decided not to do it. The primary reason was very simple — I was focused on running for president. There would be nothing wrong if I did do it.”

The president said he has often “joked” about being the only presidential candidate in 2016 who was simultaneously trying to run a business. He said he had to consider the possibility that he might lose the presidential race.

“I was running my business while I was campaigning,” Mr. Trump said. “There was a good chance that I wouldn’t have won, in which case I would have gone back into the business. Why should I lose lots of opportunities?”

Legal analysts say Mr. Trump is correct, that nothing bars a business owner from operating his company while running for office. But the appearance of seeking a deal with Russia stands to be severely damaging to Mr. Trump politically, in light of the U.S. government’s conclusion that Moscow directed cyberattacks and a disinformation campaign to undermine the candidacy of Mr. Trump’s opponent, Democrat Hillary Clinton.

“While the Kremlin was in the middle of a major information warfare attack on America in support of Trump’s candidacy, Trump was trying to line his pockets in Moscow,” tweeted Evan McMullin, former independent candidate for president in 2016 and an ex-CIA officer. “This is the epitome of the type of corruption and betrayal that the Founders feared, a clear threat to the nation.”

Cohen’s new version of events also raised the possibility that his sworn statement conflicts with written testimony that Mr. Trump provided to Mr. Mueller before Thanksgiving.

Trump lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani told The New York Times that Mr. Trump’s memory of the Moscow deal matches Cohen’s version.

He said the president detailed his conversations with Cohen about the project in writing for Mr. Mueller, although apparently he wasn’t asked about the timing of when the deal fell through. Mr. Giuliani also said the Trump Organization has voluntarily provided documentation about the failed real-estate deal to Mr. Mueller’s investigators.

Rep. Adam Schiff, the California Democrat who will take over as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee in January, said the committee will try to bring back Cohen for questions about possible money-laundering by the Russians through the Trump Organization.

“The President’s own denials during the campaign were also false or misleading, and underscore the importance of investigating any financial entanglement between Trump and Russia,” Mr. Schiff tweeted.

Mr. Nadler noted that the special counsel “has now secured guilty pleas from President Trump’s personal attorney, his campaign manager, his deputy campaign manager, a foreign policy adviser to his campaign, and his national security adviser.”

“As the new Congress begins, these developments make clear that my colleagues and I must step in and provide accountability,” he said. “No one is above the law, not even the president, and our job will be to check his impulse to abuse his office to protect himself. We will do everything in our power to allow the special counsel to finish his work and follow the facts and the law to their conclusion.”

Sen. Mark R. Warner, Virginia Democrat and vice-chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Cohen’s guilty plea is one more reason why Mr. Mueller must be allowed to continue his investigation. He said acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker is biased and lacks “the temperament” to oversee the investigation.

He also said he wants to bring Cohen back to his committee for more questioning.

“If anything the president has said is true … why are all his close associates being found guilty of lying about their ties to Russia?” he asked.

Shortly before Cohen appeared in federal court Thursday morning, Mr. Trump took to Twitter to criticize the Mueller probe again.

“When will this illegal Joseph McCarthy style Witch Hunt, one that has shattered so many innocent lives, ever end-or will it just go on forever? After wasting more than $40,000,000 (is that possible?), it has proven only one thing-there was NO Collusion with Russia. So Ridiculous!” he tweeted.

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