Michael Cohen, the former lawyer of Donald Trump, made a surprise appearance in a New York court on Thursday and pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about the US president's erstwhile plan to build a skyscraper in Moscow, deepening the legal troubles around the White House incumbent's election inner circle and its possible ties to the Russian government.
Mr Cohen, who appeared around 9a.m. in federal court in Manhattan, admitted that he had played down his links to the Kremlin and made false statements in a written submission last year to the Senate Intelligence Committee about efforts to build a Trump Tower in the Russian capital. He said he did so to protect the president.
Mr Trump reacted on Thursday by saying his former lawyer was a “weak person” who is “lying” to try and get a reduced sentence. The president’s lawyer-spokesman Rudy Giuliani called Mr Cohen a “proven liar”.
The Moscow property deal has been a focus of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into possible collusion between Mr Trump's 2016 election campaign team and the Russian government. Mr Cohen is a central figure in the probe, having already plead guilty in August to multiple criminal charges including tax evasion, bank fraud and the breaking of election campaign rules.
However, Thursday's guilty plea was the first charge brought by lawyers working on Mr Mueller's inquiry who were in court when the defendant said that his work on the Moscow Trump Tower, never eventually built, had lasted until June 2016, rather than January that year as he told Congress.
That admission places his involvement in the project much further into the presidential election campaign, which culminated in Mr Trump's unexpected defeat of Hillary Clinton in November of that year.
Mr Cohen said that contrary to his original statement of having limited contact with Mr Trump concerning the Moscow tower project, it had in fact been "more extensive".
"I made these misstatements to be consistent with individual 1's political messaging and out of loyalty to individual 1," Mr Cohen said in court of his lies to Congress. He previously identified individual one as Mr Trump.
Mr Cohen, 52, said he also falsely told Congress he never took any steps towards travelling to Russia, when in reality he had. Although, in the end, he never did go there.
By pleading guilty and cooperating with prosecutors Mr Cohen is likely hoping for less jail time. He is due for sentencing in the first case – brought by federal prosecutors in Manhattan – within two weeks.
Thursday's guilty plea comes at a time of renewed pressure for Mr Trump over the Russia probe. In recent days the president and his lawyers have stepped up their attacks against the Justice Department and Mr Mueller's inquiry.
Earlier this week, Mr Mueller accused Mr Trump's former election campaign manager Paul Manafort of repeatedly lying to investigators, in breach of a plea deal previously struck to try and limit his sentence over criminal charges.
The decision of Mr Manafort to do so has raised speculation that he is continuing to feed information on the probe to Mr Trump's aides in exchange for an eventual pardon from the president.
However Mr Cohen's case is the most notable example of the collapse in relations between Mr Trump and a former acolyte.
Having once said he would “take a bullet” for the president the New York born lawyer stood up in court three months ago and confessed to directing hush-money payments for his idol during the 2016 campaign to conceal sex scandals involving adult actress Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal. Ms Daniels was given $130,000 and Ms McDougal was paid $150,000.
Mr Trump has since sought to distance himself from Mr Cohen, despite their long association. The latter testified in August that Mr Trump directed him to commit a crime by arranging the payments to the two women who alleged before the election that they had affairs with him.
Mr Trump in October said that Mr Cohen's testimony was "totally false," downplaying their relationship and describing his former lawyer as "a PR person who did small legal work".