Cohen confesses to lying about Trump Tower Moscow deal
By ERIC TUCKER, LARRY NEUMEISTER and CHAD DAY
Friday, November 30
WASHINGTON (AP) — The surprise plea agreement with President Donald Trump’s former lawyer made clear that prosecutors believe Michael Cohen was continuing to pursue the Trump Tower Moscow project weeks after his boss had clinched the Republican nomination for president and while investigators believe Russians were meddling in the 2016 election on his behalf.
Cohen confessed in his guilty plea that he lied to Congress about the Moscow real estate deal he pursued on Trump’s behalf during the heat of the 2016 Republican campaign. He said he lied to be consistent with Trump’s “political messaging.”
Cohen said he discussed the proposal with Trump on multiple occasions and with members of the president’s family, according to documents filed by special counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating Russian interference in the presidential election and possible coordination with the Trump campaign. Cohen acknowledged considering traveling to Moscow to discuss the project.
There is no clear link in the court filings between Cohen’s lies and Mueller’s central question of whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia. And nothing said in court on Thursday, or in associated court filings, addressed whether Trump or his aides had directed Cohen to mislead Congress.
Still, the case underscores how Trump’s business entity, the Trump Organization, was negotiating business in Moscow well beyond the point that had been previously acknowledged and that associates of the president were mining Russian connections during the race.
Trump, who’s in Argentina for the Group of 20 summit, on Friday blasted the investigation in which Cohen pleaded guilty. In a tweet, Trump recalled “happily living my life” as a developer before running for president after seeing the “Country going in the wrong direction (to put it mildly).”
“Against all odds,” he continued, “I decide to run for President & continue to run my business-very legal & very cool, talked about it on the campaign trail. Lightly looked at doing a building somewhere in Russia. Put up zero money, zero guarantees and didn’t do the project. Witch Hunt!”
The Cohen revelation comes as Mueller’s investigation is showing fresh signs of aggressive activity. Earlier this week, Mueller’s team accused Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, of lying after his own guilty plea, which Manafort denies. The special counsel continues to investigate whether campaign associates had advance knowledge of hacked emails becoming public. Another potential target, Jerome Corsi, has rejected a plea offer and faces a possible indictment. Last week, Trump for the first time provided Mueller with responses to written questions.
Cohen is the first person charged by Mueller with lying to Congress, an indication the special counsel is prepared to treat that offense as seriously as lying to federal agents and a warning shot to dozens of others who have appeared before lawmakers.
Cohen told two congressional committees last year that the talks about the tower project ended in January 2016, a lie he said was an act of loyalty to Trump. In fact, the negotiations continued until June 2016, Cohen acknowledged.
His court appearance Thursday marked the latest step in his evolution from trusted Trump consigliere to prime antagonist. Prosecutors say Cohen is cooperating with Mueller and has met with his team at least seven times. It is the second time the lawyer’s legal woes have entangled Trump, coming months after Cohen said the Republican president directed him to make hush money payments to two women who said they had sex with Trump.
Trump on Thursday called Cohen a “weak person” who was lying to get a lighter sentence and stressed that the real estate deal at issue was never a secret and never executed. His lawyer Rudy Giuliani said that Cohen was a “proven liar” and that Trump’s business organization had voluntarily given Mueller the documents cited in the guilty plea “because there was nothing to hide.”
“There would be nothing wrong if I did do it,” Trump said of pursuing the project. “I was running my business while I was campaigning. There was a good chance that I wouldn’t have won, in which case I would have gone back into the business, and why should I lose lots of opportunities?”
He said the primary reason he didn’t pursue it was “I was focused on running for president.”
About an hour later, Trump canceled a planned meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Group of 20 summit.
During the campaign, while publicly espousing a conciliatory relationship with Putin, Trump was repeatedly dismissive of claims that he had connections to the Kremlin, an issue that flared as especially sensitive in the summer of 2016 after the Democratic National Committee and a cybersecurity company asserted that Moscow was behind a punishing cyberattack on the party’s network.
“I have a great company. I built an unbelievable company, but if you look there you’ll see there’s nothing in Russia,” Trump said at a July 2016 news conference.
“But zero, I mean I will tell you right now, zero, I have nothing to do with Russia,” he said.
Mueller’s team included a question about Russian real estate deals in a list of queries presented earlier this year to Trump’s lawyers, but it was not immediately clear whether it was among the questions Trump answered last week. If he did answer questions on the topic, Trump could have problems if the responses deviate from prosecutors’ factual narrative.
The Cohen case in New York is the first charge filed by the special counsel since the appointment of Matthew Whitaker, who has spoken critically about the investigation, as acting attorney general with oversight of the probe. Whitaker was advised of the plea ahead of time, according to a person familiar with the investigation.
The nine-page charging document traces behind-the-scenes communication about a project that had first been discussed more than 20 years ago. It almost became reality in October 2015 when an obscure Russian real estate developer signed a letter of intent sent by Cohen for a 15-floor hotel, condominium and retail complex in Moscow.
Cohen looped in Trump’s adult children Donald Trump Jr. and Ivanka Trump, copying them on emails about it in late 2015, according to a person close to the Trump Organization. In one email, Ivanka Trump even suggested an architect for the building, the person said. The company’s email traffic about the project ends in January 2016, said the person, who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
On Jan. 14, 2016, just weeks before the Republican party caucuses in Iowa, Cohen emailed the office of Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov asking for help getting the Trump Tower Moscow project off the ground. He later had a 20-minute phone call with one of Peskov’s assistants and asked for help “in securing land to build the proposed tower and financing the construction,” prosecutors say.
The dialogue continued over the next several months with the Republican primaries in full swing.
In early May, prosecutors say, Cohen and Felix Sater, an executive who worked on and off for the Trump Organization, discussed having Trump visit Russia after the Republican National Convention. They also discussed the possibility of Cohen meeting in June with Putin and Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.
On June 9, 2016, Trump Jr., Manafort and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, met with a Kremlin-connected lawyer at Trump Tower in New York about getting “dirt” on Democrat Hillary Clinton. Around that time, prosecutors say, Sater sent Cohen several messages about the project and Cohen said he wouldn’t be traveling then to Russia.
On June 14, the DNC announced that its computer networks were penetrated by Russian hackers.
Cohen and prosecutors referred to Trump as “Individual 1” throughout Thursday’s proceedings. Cohen said he lied out of loyalty to “Individual 1.”
Cohen said he also lied about his contacts with Russian officials and lied when he said he never agreed to travel to Russia in connection with the project and never discussed with Trump plans to travel to Moscow to support the project.
Thursday’s charges were handled by Mueller, not the federal prosecutors in New York who handled Cohen’s previous guilty plea in August to other federal charges involving his taxi businesses, bank fraud and campaign work for Trump. Cohen is to be sentenced Dec. 12. Guidelines call for little to no prison time on the new charge.
Neumeister reported from New York. Associated Press writers Jim Mustian in New York and Stephen Braun in Washington contributed to this report.
How mainstream media helps weaponize far-right conspiracy theories
November 30, 2018
Heather Woods, Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Technology, Kansas State University
Leslie Hahner, Associate Professor of Communication, Baylor University
Disclosure statement: The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Once an anti-Semitic rumor moved from fringe to the mainstream, it took less than two weeks for violence to erupt. The false allegation that liberal philanthropist George Soros was funding or supporting a caravan of Honduran refugees heading to the U.S. spread wildly from a single tweet posted on Oct. 14.
Along with far-right memes, that allegation helped motivate both an alleged mail-bomber and a mass shooter at a Pittsburgh synagogue. The way these messages traveled across the internet in this short time span is just one example of how extremist messages and memes circulate with incredible speed across mainstream social media platforms.
From our vantage point as researchers of visual and digital communication, memes – short, often image-based forms of communication – are powerful engines of persuasion, even though they can appear innocuous or even humorous. Perhaps the best known examples are LOLCats memes, pairing funny pictures of cats with customizable phrases or sentences. Memes can disseminate information quickly because they invite people to share or remix content with little effort required, making widespread dispersal more likely.
Memes need not be humorous or factual to be functional. All they need to do is attract attention online, which often translates into mainstream media coverage. That makes memes potent tools for distributing disinformation. Moreover, the online and mainstream platforms that amplify memes’ circulation can weaponize false claims and encourage conspiracy theorists – sometimes toward violence.
Memes move conspiracies
Understanding how these messages embolden anti-Semitism and other forms of terrorism involves grappling with how white supremacists use digital media. As we detail in our forthcoming book “Make America Meme Again,” messages and memes weaponized in far-right networks are deft political tools that move swiftly across social and traditional media. Because memes are stealthy political messages that usually offer rebellious or irreverent humor, they can be easily retweeted, shared or even pasted to the side of a van.
Before the dawn of today’s social media network, right-wing extremists were more difficult to find, often gathering in local communities and later discreetly in online forums unknown to the vast majority of internet users. Paranoid, rabid discourses of this ilk still boil around those darker corners of the internet. Today, memes help right-wing extremists communicate with one another and with mainstream audiences.
Soros has been demonized by right-wing activists for years, if not decades. Long before the Pittsburgh attack and the mail bombings, conspiracy theories about him were common on all sorts of right-wing discussion areas – including on Infowars, 4chan, Reddit and Gab. Starting in March 2018, the terms “caravan,” “immigrants” and “Soros” were frequently posted together on Twitter and Facebook. Memes depicting Soros as an evil fascist facilitating an invasion were commonplace.
The alleged mail bomber covered his van with “images and slogans often found on fringe right-wing social media accounts.” But the suspect didn’t find them on radical sites where white supremacists hide. Instead, based on his social media activity, he likely was radicalized in the same place most people look at cute photos of friends’ kids and check up on Aunt Beatrice – Facebook.
From fringe to network
Social media platforms have tried to push hate speech and uninformed conspiracy theories off their sites, but that’s a difficult task both technologically and ethically. Often, conspiracy promoters find ways to get their ideas into well-trafficked social media, where algorithms promote posts that garner lots of responses – whether appreciative or outraged.
Despite repeated fact checking, the conspiracy grew. Bots and other automated accounts drove roughly 60 percent of online talk about the caravan – but people were part of it too, often sharing posts without doing any sort of verification. Ultimately, these messages and memes may have inspired terrorism.
By October, discussions of the “caravan of immigrants” had grown beyond social media. Within a week of that Oct. 14 tweet alleging Soros was funding a group of refugees seeking asylum, far-right commentator Alex Jones broadcast the conspiracy on Infowars, to his audience of over 1 million daily visitors.
The conspiracy grew from there, with the video or related images popping up on nearly every platform. Eventually the conspiracy reached hundreds of thousands of potential viewers – including the men who would allegedly become the mail bomber and the synagogue shooter.
The two men may never have known of each other or the other’s plans. But their actions intertwined with a viciously networked conspiracy theory.
Connecting to mainstream media
Once there is enough social media attention on a topic or claim, it may be covered in more traditional news outlets. That can spread the idea even more widely, and lend credence to inaccuracies and lies. Politicians may also notice online discussion and join in, as U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and a clerk for Texas’ Harris County did with the purported Soros connection to the migrant caravan.
Conspiratorial ideas often become an echo chamber, in which each post draws more attention than the last, generating stronger outrage and escalating the conspiracy. The average user who looks at a conspiratorial meme may not believe its message, but many users may. Even people who don’t believe it initially might come to assume it’s true after seeing an idea several times from different sources. Still others might spread the conspiracy just for amusement in the distress of others.
Demonize, divide, conquer
Memes, tweets and other forms of propaganda are designed to rile up constituents. Scaring voters with purported invasions was one way to infuriate voters as they headed to vote in the midterm elections.
President Donald Trump has historically spread far-right conspiracy theories with little regard for the truth. Just before the election – after the mail bomb attempts and the tragedy in Pittsburgh – Trump himself explicitly repeated the conspiracy about Soros.
When anti-Semitic, racist and xenophobic ideas spread through social media networks, they can infect a host of mainstream information sources – and make fear and violence more likely. That broadens the picture of a dangerous world from which people need protection. Fear appeals of this sort can influence voting, and even push people to take matters into their own violent hands. Until social media platforms or federal agencies find ways to diminish extremism, the proliferation of far-right memes, videos and texts will continue to imperil the citizenry.
The Vince Wylde Show, logged in via Twitter: This doesn’t bring to light any new information. Instead, it makes the exact opposite opinion. Just as riddled with misinformation. This isn’t a “conversation”, it’s left wing trash. You can’t claim moral high ground when you copy what you claim to despise.
Gene H. Bell-Villada: Before the rise of social media, print and TV had editors who could filter out dangerous statements (e.g.in the letters to the editor section) or dismiss patently false claims. I know of no comparable, broad enough mechanism at Facebook or other such entities.
In the old days, the best that a right-wing crackpot could hope for was to hand out leaflets on the street or maybe, if he had the money, start his own newspaper or radio station. The First Amendment protected him.
Today, any crazy Joe can spew his nonsense on Facebook and thereby reach millions at the push of a button. In principle, the First Amendment protects him–and Facebook–too.