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What You Need To Know About Another Wild Week In The Russia Investigation

Michael Cohen, President Trump's former personal attorney and fixer, exits federal court after his sentencing hearing Wednesday in New York City.
Michael Cohen, President Trump's former personal attorney and fixer, exits federal court after his sentencing hearing Wednesday in New York City.
Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images

Each new dawn seems to bring a major new headline in the Russia investigation, including a number of important courtroom developments this month.

Here's what you need to know about what's happened so far this week in this often complex and fast-moving saga.

Michael Cohen is going to prison, but he says he isn't finished yet

President Trump's former personal lawyer was sentenced to three years in federal prison on Wednesday following guilty pleas to a number of crimes, including two that bear on Trump.

Cohen has admitted arranging payments to two women ahead of Election Day in 2016 to keep them from making politically damaging allegations against Trump about sexual relationships they say they had with him years before his presidential bid — allegations that Trump denies.

Cohen also admitted that he lied to Congress about the negotiations that Trump's business conducted with powerful Russians in 2016 over a possible deal to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. Cohen had told lawmakers those talks ended in January 2016, but then he said as part of a recent plea deal that those talks lasted well into the campaign until June 2016, including after Trump had become the GOP front-runner.

Cohen then suggested that he has still more to say about Trump, when the time is right. In a sometimes emotional courtroom speech in Manhattan Wednesday, he made clear that he feels he has broken free from the thrall under which Trump once held him.

"Blind loyalty to this man," he said, "led me to choose a path of darkness, not light."

Now, Cohen said, he has his "freedom back," notwithstanding the prison term, and his adviser vowed that Cohen isn't finished talking publicly about what he knows about Trump.

"At the appropriate time, after [special counsel Robert] Mueller completes his investigation and issues his final report, I look forward to assisting Michael to state publicly all he knows about Mr. Trump – and that includes any appropriate congressional committee interested in the search for truth and the difference between facts and lies," said Lanny Davis in a statement after the sentencing hearing.

Meaning what? Cohen has created legal and political peril for Trump already: He said in his guilty plea in August that Trump directed him to make the payments to the two women that prosecutors call a breach of federal campaign finance law. That raises questions about Trump's culpability in those actions.

But what Cohen also did on Wednesday was make clear that even though he has reached the end of his road legally, he has yet more to say about Trump and he could continue to pose political problems for the president.

A tabloid publisher has admitted its role in the hush-money scheme

Cohen didn't make direct payments to adult film actress Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal in 2016 to silence their stories about Trump.

He created an intermediary shell company to transfer the funds to Daniels. In the case of McDougal, he worked with the tabloid publisher American Media, Inc., which owns the National Enquirer and other magazines.

The company earlier denied that it paid anyone to keep quiet about Trump, but now it admits that it did.

AMI signed a deal with the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York in which it got immunity from prosecution in exchange for admitting that, yes, it had worked with Cohen to pay McDougal for the purpose of keeping her story out of the press ahead of Election Day 2016.

The CEO of American Media, David Pecker, met with Cohen in August of 2015 and "offered to help deal with negative stories about [Trump's] relationships with women by, among other things, assisting the campaign in identifying such stories so they could be purchased and their publication avoided," according to documents released Wednesday by prosecutors.

Pecker and AMI won't face criminal charges but they have been cooperating with prosecutors, and the materials released by the U.S. Attorney's Office suggested that cooperation could continue going forward.

Meaning what? Were there other "negative stories" that Pecker helped smother for Trump's 2016 campaign? If so, that information could be in the hands of federal authorities.

The agreement also says AMI has agreed to "implement specific improvements to internal compliance to prevent future violations of the federal campaign finance laws," which suggests that other celebrities or politicians may no longer be willing to use publishers in this same way to catch and kill damaging stories.

A Russian agent is set to plead guilty Thursday

Action in the Russia imbroglio shifts back to Washington, D.C., Thursday, when the Russian woman who's been accused of serving as a clandestine foreign agent is expected to plead guilty in federal court.

Maria Butina was arrested over the summer and linked with a scheme to try to build back-channel ties between the Russian government and the Trump campaign and conservative organizations.

Butin has become a cause celebre for Russia's foreign ministry since her arrest and she has been visited by Russian consular officials in jail, but Russian President Vladimir Putin said this week that his intelligence agency bosses don't know anything about her.

Butina and her boyfriend, sometime GOP fundraiser Paul Erickson, reached out to Donald Trump's presidential campaign in 2016 to try to set up a meeting between between the campaign's leaders and powerful Russians; although at least one brief encounter followed, the effort did not ultimately connect Trump and Putin.

Butina and Erickson, however, continued to move in political circles after the election, including with the National Prayer Breakfast.

Her hearing on Thursday could reveal more about how the pair cultivated those relationships in circles of influence with conservatives, including the ones they also had with the National Rifle Association.

Trump sanguine

President Trump said he was unconcerned about the week's developments.

He told Reuters in an interview Tuesday that the campaign finance laws involved Cohen's case don't apply because the payments aren't "campaign contributions," and even if the law had been broken it's a civil violation, not a criminal matter.

Trump also argues that if Cohen did break the law, that responsibility stops with him. Trump said he isn't liable.

"Michael Cohen is a lawyer. I assume he would know what he's doing," Trump told Reuters.

The president also said the focus on campaign finance violations represent his opponents grasping at straws because they've been unable to prove that his campaign might have conspired with the Russians who attacked the 2016 election.

Investigators won't find any such evidence, Trump says, and the contacts between his aides and Russians that have come to light are "peanut stuff."

Flynn to learn his fate

Another big pending milestone is the sentencing scheduled for next week in the case of former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn.

Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to investigators about his negotiations with Russia's then-ambassador to the United States and then turned state's evidence. The government has suggested he's a star witness – it said in an earlier filing that a judge might even consider giving him no prison time.

That sounded good to Flynn and his attorneys, who said in their own brief on Tuesday that in view of Flynn's decades of Army service, his 62 hours of meetings with investigators and other cooperation, he should get no more than a year of probation and 200 hours of community service.

A federal judge is scheduled to decide Flynn's fate on Dec. 18.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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