Donald Trump’s former lawyer has pleaded guilty to lying to Congress in charges brought against him by the team investigating alleged interference by Russia in the 2016 presidential election.
Michael Cohen made a surprise appearance at a court in New York after reaching a plea deal with Robert Mueller, the special counsel leading the probe, which saw him admit to lying over the Trump company’s links to Russia.
Shortly after Cohen made his appearance, Mr Trump accused him of “lying” and called him “weak”, suggesting he had entered the plea solely to get a shorter sentence.
The case in court centred around a letter he wrote to Congress and subsequent statements he made to the House and Senate intelligence committees about the Trump company’s dealings with Russia when they were considering building a Trump Tower in Moscow.
Cohen previously told Congress the discussions ended in January 2016, said that he had never spoken with Russian officials about it and had no plans to visit the country.
But he admitted in court that he had continued discussions into June 2016, recalled emails and phone calls with the office of Vladimir Putin’s press secretary and also admitted he was intending to visit Moscow as the press secretary’s guest.
He also said he spoke to Mr Trump about going to Russia on a trip related to the Moscow project, and asked a senior campaign official about “potential business travel” to Russia.
In May 2016, Cohen received a letter from someone who had spoken to Mr Trump about travelling to Russia and whether it should happen before or after a convention in Cleveland.
The plea deal means he will be charged on those offences alone and will not face any further convictions of lying to Congress. He will face up to five years in prison and a fine of as much as $ 250,000 (£195,000).
Cohen’s decision to plead guilty and cooperate with what the president has called a “witch-hunt” marks a turnaround for a man who once said he would take a bullet for Mr Trump.
Mr Trump pulled no punches in his response to Cohen’s decision, saying: “He was given a fairly long jail sentence and he’s a weak person and by being weak – unlike other people that you watch – 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. I mean, we were very open with it.
“If I did do it, there would have been nothing wrong. That was my business.”
Cohen’s latest guilty plea follows his admission in August to breaking campaign finance laws, charges which were brought by federal prosecutors in New York.
He is expected to be sentenced for that in the next two weeks.
Special counsel Mr Mueller is investigating whether the Trump election campaign colluded with Russian efforts to damage his opponent, Hillary Clinton, and whether Mr Trump sought to illegally obstruct the investigation.
The probe is also looking at Mr Trump’s business dealings, which Cohen has an inside track on as a senior executive in the president’s real estate business.
These are the first charges brought against Cohen by Mr Mueller’s team, and one of the lawyers was in the court with him as he entered his plea.
Meanwhile, after boarding Air Force One to fly to Argentina for the G20 summit, Mr Trump tweeted that he was cancelling his meeting with Mr Putin, citing ongoing involvement in Ukraine as the reason.