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Why Cohen’s new admission is ‘incredibly significant’ for the Mueller investigation

Michael Cohen now admits he lied to Congress to obscure contacts with Russia during the presidential campaign. John Yang reports, and Judy Woodruff speaks with Garrett Graff, Wired magazine contributor and author of "The Threat Matrix: Inside Robert Mueller's FBI and the War on Global Terror," about what the new development could mean for the Mueller investigation.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    There was a signal development in special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation today, with these elements, a lawyer's lies, Russian real estate, and a president's protest.

    John Yang begins our coverage.

  • John Yang:

    Outside federal court in New York, Michael Cohen had nothing to say. Inside, he told a judge he had lied to Congress about his role in negotiations during the 2016 campaign for then-candidate Donald Trump to build a Trump Tower in Moscow.

    Leaving the White House about an hour later, President Trump slammed his former trusted personal lawyer and fixer.

  • President Donald Trump:

    He is a weak person. And what he's trying to do is get a reduced sentence.

    So he's lying about a project that everybody knew about. When I run for president, that doesn't mean I'm not allowed to do business.

  • John Yang:

    During the campaign, Mr. Trump repeatedly denied having any business ties with Russia.

  • President Donald Trump:

    I have nothing to do with Russia, folks, OK? I will give you a written statement. Nothing to do.

  • John Yang:

    Cohen admitted lying when he told the House and Senate Intelligence Committees that the Moscow tower project, which began in 2015, had ended in January 2016, just before the Iowa caucuses. He acknowledged that discussions actually went on until at least June 2016, the month before the Republican Convention.

    Court documents said Cohen made the false statements to minimize links between the Moscow project and Individual 1, whom Cohen identified in court as President Trump, and in hopes of limiting the ongoing Russia investigations. Prosecutors also said Cohen briefed Trump family members about the project.

    Cohen, who once said he put the interests of the president and his family above those of his own, worked for the Trump Organization for a decade. While he had earlier pleaded guilty to other federal offenses, today's charges came from special counsel Robert Mueller and included an agreement to cooperate in his probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

    This week, Mueller also ratcheted up pressure on former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, alleging that he breached his plea deal by repeatedly lying to investigators. Even as the president vilified Cohen, he said a presidential pardon for Manafort is not out of the question.

  • President Donald Trump:

    It's very sad what's happened to Paul, the way he's bring treated. I've never seen anybody treated so poorly.

  • John Yang:

    On Capitol Hill, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee said he's concerned about the testimony of other witnesses.

  • Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif.:

    Michael Cohen's guilty plea also underscores the importance of something else, and that is, we believe other witnesses were untruthful before our committee. We want to share those transcripts with Mr. Mueller.

  • John Yang:

    Some Republicans, like Louisiana Senator John Kennedy, said the Mueller investigation shouldn't drag on.

  • Sen. John Kennedy, R-La.:

    We do need to wrap it up. It's been, what, 17 months now? And the American people are entitled to know what happened and who, if anybody, broke the law.

  • John Yang:

    This week, the Senate blocked legislation to protect the Mueller investigation.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    To help explain what Cohen's plea agreement could tell us about the Mueller investigation, we're joined now by Garrett Graff. He's a contributor to "Wired" magazine and the author of "The Threat Matrix: Inside Robert Mueller's FBI and the War on Global Terror."

    Garrett Graff, welcome back to the program.

    What does all this add up to, what we learned today from what Robert Mueller said?

  • Garrett Graff:

    Yes, this is an incredibly significant development, and it becomes more significant sort of as the day passes and its true meaning sets in.

    Robert Mueller in his investigation has uncovered two separate criminal conspiracies that aided Donald Trump's election in 2016. One was run by the Russian government involving the hacking attacks on the DNC and information operations on Facebook and Twitter.

    And the other was a criminal conspiracy around campaign finance violations led by Michael Cohen himself. Today, what this guilty plea means is that the central figure in one of those criminal conspiracies reached out to and sought the aid of the central figure, Vladimir Putin, in the other criminal conspiracy.

    So this is beginning to paint a picture of a coordinated effort that is exactly what we have been wondering about all along.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, this goes beyond, Garrett Graff, what people were thinking was the main focus of the Mueller investigation, and that is Russian interference in the U.S. election?

  • Garrett Graff:

    Well, it's not — this is the central focus. It doesn't go beyond that. It's that this is — this is getting to the core of that question, sort of, what did Russia do, who helped them, and what Americans participated in the Russian criminal conspiracy?

    And, obviously, the Michael Cohen charges thus far seem unrelated, but what we are beginning to see is that the Trump Organization was trying to engage in direct conversation with the office of Russian President Vladimir Putin well into the 2016 presidential campaign.

    And, notably, one of the things that Bob Mueller highlights in his documents, sort of one of those dates that he presents without comment in the charging documents, but it seems significant, this deal only died on June 14, 2016, which was the day that the DNC hacks became public.

    That's the day that Michael Cohen decided he was no longer pursuing the Trump Tower project in Moscow.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, how close is President Trump now identified as being to whatever went on between his campaign — or apparently went on between his campaign and the Russian government?

  • Garrett Graff:

    Well, what we do know is that Donald Trump has now been named twice in court documents, and they are both related to Michael Cohen, that Michael Cohen has gone out of his way in both his plea agreement in August and in today's court appearance to make the point that he was acting under the orders of and at the direction of President — of then candidate Donald Trump.

    Additionally, in the court documents today, we see that Michael Cohen is saying that he kept the Trump family up to date about the progress of this project. So, presumably, that includes potentially Donald Trump Jr., perhaps Eric Trump, perhaps even Jared Kushner.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What does it tell you, Garrett Graff, that Robert Mueller signed today's agreement, announcement?

  • Garrett Graff:

    Yes, I mean, we sort of have to read the tea leaves of every action in this investigation, because we are not getting any leaks from inside Robert Mueller's team.

    So I think that there are a couple of things to read into today's criminal filing. One is, Robert Mueller sees someone lying to Congress about Russia as under his purview. That's potentially very bad news for anyone else who was involved in testifying before the House or the Senate over the last two years who lied in their testimony.

    You heard in that tape package that there's potentially others who are exposed in that realm. And this is also a case — you remember, all of the other Michael Cohen prosecutions up until this point have been handled by prosecutors in New York, in the Southern District of New York.

    So this is the first time that Robert Mueller is stepping in and putting his own stamp on the case against Michael Cohen and saying, we intend to have Michael Cohen as a cooperator going forward. He's given about 70 hours of testimony and meetings with Robert Mueller's team so far.

    This is the first time we're seeing any public evidence of it. I don't think it's going to be the last time we see Michael Cohen appearing in court evidence.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And so what do you make me — just quickly, I mean, last Friday, President Trump — it was announced that President Trump had submitted his answers to Robert Mueller, to the special counsel.

    And then, over the past period of days, almost every day, there's been another development out of the Mueller office. Where do you see this going right now?

  • Garrett Graff:

    Well, I think what we're seeing is that Mueller very carefully wasn't rocking the boat until he had those Trump written answers in hand.

    Now, though, he's charging forward on a variety of fronts. We have seen tremendous movement this week also around sort of this nexus of Roger Stone, Jerome Corsi, and Julian Assange, and the questions of WikiLeaks' role in releasing those Democratic stolen e-mails.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Garrett Graff, joining us once again, thank you very much.

  • Garrett Graff:

    My pleasure.

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