President Donald Trump's ex-lawyer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty Thursday to lying to Congress about a Trump real estate project in Russia, and the extent of the president's involvement in and knowledge of that deal.
Cohen's plea in federal court in Manhattan, his second in four months, came as part of a new deal with special counsel Robert Mueller.
Prosecutors said Cohen lied in order to minimize links between Trump and his Moscow building project, and to give the false impression that the project had died before the Iowa caucuses in February 2016, the first contest on the path toward a presidential nomination.
On the White House's South Lawn after Cohen's court appearance, the president accused his former fixer of lying about his most recent admissions in order to "get a reduced sentence."
"He's a weak person and not a very smart person," Trump said.
Trump's lawyer, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, attacked Cohen's credibility: "Michael Cohen is a liar."
Cohen, 52, did not previously have a formal cooperation agreement with Mueller, but it is known that he has been speaking for the past several months to the special counsel's office and other law enforcement entities. Mueller is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and possible coordination between Trump campaign-related figures and the Kremlin, as well as possible obstruction of justice by Trump.
Cohen told a judge Thursday that he lied in 2017 to the Senate Intelligence Committee about a proposed Trump Tower development in Moscow in order to be consistent with Trump's political messages and out of loyalty to the president.
Cohen's violation carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison, a fine of up to $250,000 and three years of supervised release, according to his plea agreement.
Giuliani said in a statement that "It's no surprise that Cohen lied to Congress":
"Michael Cohen is a liar. It's no surprise that Cohen lied to Congress," Giuliani said. "He's a proven liar who is doing everything he can to get out of a long-term prison sentence for serious crimes of bank and tax fraud that had nothing to do with the Trump Organization. It is important to understand that documents that the Special Counsel's Office is using to show that Cohen lied to Congress were voluntarily disclosed by the Trump Organization because there was nothing to hide. It is hardly coincidental that the Special Counsel once again files a charge just as the President is leaving for a meeting with world leaders at the G20 Summit in Argentina. The Special Counsel did the very same thing as the President was leaving for a world summit in Helsinki. With regard to the hotel proposal in Moscow, the President has been completely open and transparent."
A court document laying out the special counsel's allegations refer to Trump and his company, the Trump Organization, through the respective pseudonyms "Individual 1" and the "Company."
The special counsel in a court document said Cohen "knowingly and deliberately" lied when he told the Senate committee that the Moscow proposal "ended in January 2016 and was not discussed extensively with others" in the Trump Organization.
In fact, Cohen discussed the Moscow project with another individual as late as about June 2016, and briefed Trump on it more times than he had claimed to the Senate committee, the special counsel wrote. Mueller's team adds that Cohen "briefed family members of [Trump] within the Company about the project."
Cohen had made the false claim in a letter to the Senate Intelligence Committee in September 2017.
"I assume we will discuss the rejected proposal to build a Trump property in Moscow that was terminated in January of 2016; which occurred before the Iowa caucus and months before the very first primary," Cohen said in that letter. "This was solely a real estate deal and nothing more. I was doing my job. I would ask that the two-page statement about the Moscow proposal that I sent to the Committee in August be incorporated into and attached to this transcript."
The special counsel also writes that Cohen lied when he told lawmakers that he didn't recall hearing a response about the project from Russia.
Cohen's appearance in court was a surprise. He is due to be sentenced Dec. 12 on his prior guilty plea of eight criminal counts related to tax fraud, excessive campaign contributions and making false statements to a financial institution. Those charges came in a separate federal case not directly lodged by the special counsel.
In that hearing in August, Cohen said he paid two women at the request of a political candidate later confirmed to be Trump "for the principal purpose of influencing the election." The women, Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal, claimed they had had affairs with Trump. The White House denies the allegations.
At the courthouse on Thursday, Cohen pleaded to a single count of making false statements to Congress.
Cohen attorney Lanny Davis declined CNBC's requests for comment. The White House had no immediate comment when asked about Cohen's guilty plea. Trump was preparing to travel to Buenos Aires for the G-20 summit as Cohen pleaded guilty. In a tweet shortly after his comments outside the White House on Thursday, Trump announced that he had canceled his planned meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Argentina summit.
Trump said his decision was based on Russia's seizure of Ukrainian ships in the Kerch Strait of the Black Sea.
Neither Cohen nor his criminal defense lawyer Guy Petrillo had any comment for a horde of reporters confronting them as they exited the lower Manhattan courthouse about 50 minutes after the plea hearing began.
After Trump won the 2016 election against Democrat Hillary Clinton, the then-president elect denied having anything to do with Russia.
The Washington Post reported in August 2017 that Cohen had emailed Putin's personal secretary during the 2016 presidential campaign to request assistance in moving along a stalled Trump Tower development project in Moscow.
The development in Cohen's legal saga came shortly after Trump sent multiple tweets raging against the Russia investigation.
Read Cohen's plea agreement and criminal information below: