Robert Mueller's Russia probe is red hot again after midterm election quiet period 

Key Points
  • Special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia probe comes roaring back to life in November.
  • Michael Cohen, Trump's former personal lawyer and former executive vice president of the Trump Organization, pleads guilty to one count of lying to Congress about the timeline surrounding a project to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, Russia.
  • Mueller's prosecutors allege in a court document that former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort violated his own plea agreement by lying to the FBI.
Michael Cohen pleads guilty to lying to Congress about Trump Tower project in Moscow
Cohen pleads guilty to lying to Congress

After a hibernation period during the midterm elections, special counsel Robert Mueller's sprawling criminal investigation roared back into the public eye in November.

The month was marked by a series of bombshell developments for a handful of key players in the investigation, all of whom have connections to President Donald Trump.

They include Trump's former campaign chairman, his former personal lawyer and fixer, a former campaign advisor and his longtime confidant.

Trump has certainly taken notice. And he ramped up his already hostile attitude toward the probe — which he has called corrupt, illegal and a "witch hunt" — as new details emerged.

Trump tweet While the disgusting Fake News is doing everything within their power not to report it that way, at least 3 major players are intimating that the Angry Mueller Gang of Dems is viciously telling witnesses to lie about facts & they will get relief. This is our Joseph McCarthy Era!

"So much happening with the now discredited Witch Hunt," Trump tweeted Wednesday night — just hours before a key figure in the case pleaded guilty to new charges lodged by the special counsel.

Mueller since last year has been investigating Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, possible coordination between Russia and Trump campaign-related people, and potential obstruction of justice by the president himself.

Trump's legal team insists the president is cooperating with the Mueller probe to an unprecedented degree.

But the president continues to rail against the special counsel, recently claiming, "Mueller is a conflicted prosecutor gone rogue."

He and one of his lawyers also continue to publicly suggest that presidential pardons for some of Mueller's targets may not be off the table.

A month earlier, it was widely speculated that the Russia probe might be wrapping up its final stages. Now, the investigation appears to be hitting its stride.

Here's what happened to some of its most high-profile figures this month:

Michael Cohen

On Thursday, Cohen, Trump's former personal lawyer and former executive vice president of the Trump Organization, pleaded guilty to one count of lying to Congress about the timeline surrounding a project to build a Trump Tower in Moscow.

The special counsel's office said Cohen "knowingly and deliberately" lied when he told the Senate Intelligence Committee that the Moscow real estate proposal "ended in January 2016 and was not discussed extensively with others" in the Trump Organization.

But Cohen, 52, actually had discussed the Moscow project as late as June 2016 — well into the 2016 presidential campaign — the lawyer admitted in Manhattan federal court.

Cohen also had briefed Trump himself on the project more times than he claimed to the committee, and had "briefed family members of [Trump] within the Company about the project," according to Mueller.

In court Thursday, Cohen said he lied to the Senate Intelligence Committee "to be consistent with [Trump's] political messaging and out of loyalty" to Trump.

Michael Cohen is lying about Moscow project, says President Trump
Michael Cohen is lying about Moscow project, says President Trump

Prosecutors also wrote in Cohen's criminal complaint that he misled the lawmakers to give the false impression that plans for the Russian Trump Tower had died before the Iowa caucuses in February 2016, the first contest on the path toward a presidential nomination.

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. He has agreed to cooperate with the special counsel as part of the deal. But the plea agreement provides an estimated sentencing range of between zero and six months in jail.

Cohen already had pleaded guilty in August to eight criminal counts in a separate federal case. During that court appearance, Cohen said he had paid two women at the request of a political candidate, later confirmed to be Trump, "for the principal purpose of influencing the election."

Before leaving for the G-20 summit in Argentina on Thursday, Trump told reporters outside the White House that Cohen is "lying, very simply, to get a reduced sentence."

Paul Manafort

Cohen wasn't the only former Trump associate to be accused by Mueller of making false statements.

Mueller's prosecutors alleged in a court document filed Monday that former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, 69, violated his own plea agreement by lying to the FBI. Manafort had pleaded guilty in September to criminal charges related to his work for a pro-Russia political party in Ukraine, which occurred before he joined Trump's campaign in 2016.

Manafort since has lied "on a variety of subject matters," Mueller's prosecutors wrote in the document, filed in federal court in Washington, D.C. The alleged false statements were not detailed in that filing.

Manafort "believes he has provided truthful information and does not agree with the government's characterization or that he has breached the agreement," the filing also said.

The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday that Manafort's alleged lies are related to statements he made about Konstantin Kilimnik, his former Ukraine associate who is charged by Mueller with trying to interfere with witnesses in Manafort's case.

Manafort's alleged behavior in respect to his plea deal has baffled some legal experts and raised suspicions that Manafort may be hoping to receive a pardon from the president.

"It was never discussed, but I wouldn't take it off the table," Trump told The New York Post in an interview published Wednesday.

Attorneys for Manafort and the special counsel are set to appear Friday morning in the D.C. court, where Judge Amy Berman Jackson could set a sentencing date for Manafort.

The accusation against Manafort came days after Trump's legal team announced that they had submitted written answers to questions sent by Mueller. "The questions presented dealt with issues regarding the Russia-related topics of the inquiry," said Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow.

The gist of two of those answers has come to light so far.

Trump told Mueller that he didn't know in advance about a June 2016 meeting in New York's Trump Tower with a Russian lawyer, during which campaign officials including Donald Trump Jr. and Manafort expected to hear damaging information about Hillary Clinton.

He also told Mueller that he was not tipped by longtime Trump confidant Roger Stone ahead of WikiLeaks' dump of emails allegedly stolen by Russians from the Democratic National Committee that same year.

Jerome Corsi and Roger Stone

Also in November, right-wing conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi told NBC News that he expected he would be indicted by Mueller.

It was "one of the most confusing and frightening things I've experienced," he told NBC. "I'm 72 years and I'm afraid they're going to lock me up and put me in solitary confinement."

Corsi is best known as one of the leading advocates of the false "birther" conspiracy theory that claimed former President Barack Obama was not born in the U.S. Trump adopted the view publicly in 2011, becoming the most prominent public figure to endorse what was considered by many to be a racist attack on the first black president.

After Corsi was subpoenaed by Mueller, his lawyer David Gray said "we suspect that the focus of the questions will be about my client's communications with Roger Stone."

Stone, a Republican operative, is a longtime associate of Trump's.

Mueller's team reportedly wants to know if Corsi knew in advance that WikiLeaks had received Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta's emails, which U.S. intelligence services have concluded were stolen by Russian intelligence officers.

WikiLeaks published troves of Democratic National Committee emails in 2016 during the presidential campaign.

Corsi had sent emails to Stone suggesting he knew when WikiLeaks planned to release more documents, NBC reported.

"Word is friend in embassy plans 2 more dumps," Corsi wrote on Aug. 2, 2016, according to the draft court papers viewed by NBC. "One shortly after I'm back. 2nd in Oct. Impact planned to be very damaging."

The term "friend in embassy" is believed to refer to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who has taken refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London for years to avoid criminal prosecution.

Corsi maintains that he had no direct or indirect contact with WikiLeaks but merely deduced when the site would leak more emails. He said he has rejected the special counsel's plea deal offer because "I did not intentionally lie to [the] special counsel."

Corsi and Stone both worked for the far-right conspiracy website Infowars.

In his interview with the Post, Trump also said that it was "very brave" for Corsi to refuse "to say what they demanded" in his interviews with the special counsel.

George Papadopoulos

George Papadopoulos, the former Trump campaign foreign policy aide, reported to a prison in Oxford, Wisconsin, on Monday to begin his 14-day sentence on charges of lying to the FBI brought by the special counsel.

Papadopoulos, 31, was the first person to be charged in the Russia probe. He will also pay a $9,500 fine, serve 200 hours of community service and remain under supervised release for a year after his discharge from prison.

His attorneys filed two requests in November to delay the start of his sentence. But U.S. District Court Judge Randolph Moss declined to push the start date forward.

As a foreign policy advisor to then-candidate Trump's presidential campaign, Papadopoulos met in early 2016 with professor Joseph Mifsud, who had ties to Russia. In late April 2016, Mifsud told Papadopoulos that Russians had "dirt" on Trump's opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, including "thousands of emails," according to the special counsel's court filings.

Papadopoulos admitted to lying to the FBI about the date and nature of his interactions with Mifsud. At his sentencing, Papadopoulos said, "I am deeply embarrassed and personally ashamed" for lying to the federal agents.