United States President Donald Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen has pleaded guilty to lying to Congress in relation to the Russia inquiry.
Cohen admitted misleading lawmakers on talks during the presidential race about a Trump property deal in Moscow.
Mr Trump said his former right-hand man was “lying” to seek a reduced sentence.
In August, Cohen pleaded guilty to violating finance laws during the 2016 presidential election by handling hush money for Mr Trump’s alleged lovers.
Thursday’s hearing was the latest twist in the US Department of Justice special counsel’s investigation into whether Mr Trump or his inner circle colluded with an alleged Russian attempt to influence the 2016 presidential election.
As he left the White House for a G20 summit in Buenos Aires, Mr Trump told reporters of Cohen: “He’s a weak person and not a very smart person.
“He’s got himself a big prison sentence. And he’s trying to get a much lesser prison sentence by making up this story.”
Mr Trump told reporters of the Moscow real estate project, which never came to fruition: “When I’m running for president that doesn’t mean I’m not allowed to do business.”
He added: “He’s lying about a project that everybody knew about. I mean, we were very open with it.”
Soon after those remarks, Mr Trump abruptly cancelled a scheduled meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Argentina, citing the current Ukraine crisis.
Up until now, Michael Cohen had been a tangential figure in Donald Trump’s Russia-related headaches. After his plea agreement with the special counsel’s office, however, he’s now smack dab in the middle of Robert Mueller’s probe.
In particular, Cohen is sharing information with the special counsel about Mr Trump’s Russian business interests – including efforts to build a Trump Tower in Moscow – which, according to the president’s former personal lawyer, continued well into Mr Trump’s presidential campaign.
That runs counter to the president’s continued insistence that he had no financial ties to Russia – an assertion he frequently made when questioned about his past praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin and efforts to improve US-Russian relations.
If Cohen can provide evidence supporting his claims it would be a political nightmare for the president and, if Mr Trump made false claims in his recent written testimony to Mr Meuller, a legal one, as well.
The president has been tweeting furiously about the special counsel team in recent days, and given the steady drumbeat of news on Mr Mueller’s investigation, it feels as though a crescendo is approaching.
Appearing unexpectedly before a federal judge in Manhattan on Thursday morning, Cohen, 52, pleaded guilty to one count of making false statements to Congress.
He said at the hearing that he had submitted a false written statement about a Trump Organization plan to build a skyscraper in the Russian capital.
“I made these misstatements to be consistent with individual 1’s political messaging and out of loyalty to individual 1,” Cohen said in court.
He has previously identified “individual 1” as Mr Trump.
Cohen was interviewed in October last year behind closed doors by lawmakers conducting their own investigation into whether Mr Trump’s campaign worked with Russia to sway the US election two years ago.
He told the Senate and House intelligence committees that talks over the Moscow project had lasted from September 2015 until January 2016, while Mr Trump was running for the White House.
But the criminal complaint says that “as Cohen well knew” negotiations over the Moscow project continued until June 2016.
Cohen also told lawmakers he had had limited contact with Mr Trump about the project, when in fact it had been “more extensive”.
Prosecutors said Cohen had tried to give a false impression that the Moscow project ended before the Republican presidential campaign properly began in 2016 with the Iowa caucus. BBC