Pressure on Michael Cohen intensifies as Mueller stays focused on Trump attorney

Washington Post

Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump's personal attorney, is facing mounting pressure from two active federal investigations, contending with skyrocketing legal bills and planning to change lawyers in the near future, according to people familiar with the situation.

Amid his escalating legal concerns, Cohen is feeling neglected by the president, his longtime patron for whom he has long professed his loyalty, the people said.

Cohen is under intensifying scrutiny from federal prosecutors in Manhattan who are examining his business practices, as well as special counsel Robert Mueller III, who is continuing to investigate episodes involving Cohen, according to a witness who testified in front of a grand jury in Washington last week.

Andrii Artemenko, a former member of the Ukrainian parliament, said in an interview that many of the questions he faced during several hours of testimony Friday were focused on his interactions with Cohen. Artemenko met with Cohen in January 2017 to discuss a back-channel peace initiative for Ukraine.

"I realized that Michael Cohen is a target" of special interest to Mueller, Artemenko told The Washington Post this week, days after he was questioned.

A spokesman for Mueller declined to comment.

The special counsel's ongoing questions about Cohen's activities indicate that Mueller remains intently focused on Trump's attorney, even after referring a separate probe into Cohen's business practices to federal prosecutors in Manhattan months ago.

The dual investigations of Cohen are fueling anxiety inside the White House. After working for a decade as Trump's personal attorney, Cohen has extensive knowledge of the president's personal dealings and the Trump family business.

The president's allies are worried that prosecutors in Manhattan are attempting to build a criminal case against Cohen to push him to cooperate with the special-counsel probe - a prospect they see as potentially dire.

For his part, the Trump attorney has been frustrated by the lack of outreach by the president, whom Cohen has vowed to defend, according to people with knowledge of the situation.

Cohen, who is now in a dispute with his attorneys about some of his legal bills, plans to seek new representation soon, the people said. He wants to find a New York lawyer more familiar with the U.S. attorney's office in Manhattan, they said.

Cohen declined to comment, referring questions to the attorney currently leading his defense, Stephen Ryan. Ryan, a Washington-based criminal defense lawyer who has represented Cohen in both of the federal investigations, did not respond to requests for comment.

Cohen has not been charged and has not indicated to associates whether he would take a plea deal and share information with prosecutors, according to a person familiar with his views.

But he is facing legal worries on two fronts.

In New York, federal investigators are investigating Cohen for possible bank fraud, wire fraud and campaign finance violations as they examine his efforts to squelch damaging information about Trump in the run-up to the 2016 election. A special master who was named to review possibly privileged materials seized from Cohen's office and residences in April is scheduled to file a report Friday on the status of that process.

In Washington, Mueller has been examining Cohen's role in at least two episodes involving Russian interests, as The Post has previously reported.

One area of interest to the special counsel is negotiations Cohen undertook during the 2016 campaign to help the Trump Organization build a tower in Moscow, according to people familiar with the probe. Cohen brought Trump a letter of intent in October 2015 from a Russian developer to build a Moscow project. Later, he sent an email to Russian President Vladimir Putin's chief spokesman seeking help to advance the stalled project. He has said he did not recall receiving a response.

Another area that Mueller's team has explored is a proposal to end tensions in Ukraine, viewed by some as a plan that would benefit Russia, the people said. The plan was delivered to Cohen by Artemenko one week after Trump took office, in a meeting at a Manhattan hotel.

Artemenko told The Post that he first received a subpoena from Mueller's office in late April. Since then, he said, he has provided extensive documentation to prosecutors, including emails and text messages, and was interviewed informally in recent weeks before appearing before the grand jury Friday.

"I provided a lot of documents, a lot of information," Artemenko said. "Everything they asked me about . . . I'm very open. I have nothing to hide."

He declined to offer a full description of the questions he was asked when he appeared before the grand jury. But heconfirmed that he was questioned extensively about a Jan. 27, 2017, meeting he held with Cohen to present a back-channel peace proposal for Ukraine that he hoped Cohen would ferry to the White House.

The meeting was organized by Felix Sater, a Trump business partner who had also worked to broker the deal to build a Trump Tower in Moscow during the presidential campaign.

The back-channel proposal offered a pathway for resolving the Ukrainian dispute that could have eventually led to the lifting of U.S. sanctions on Russia, a top goal of Putin.

Sater and Artemenko disputed the notion that the proposal was Russia-friendly. Artemenko told The Post that his interest was only to bring peace to Ukraine and that he was not working to advance the interests of Russia or Trump.

Artemenko, Cohen and Sater have offered divergent public accounts of their brief meeting.

Sater said he gave the plan to Cohen in a sealed envelope. Sater told The Post last year that Cohen said at the time that he would pass the plan to then-national security adviser Michael Flynn but that Flynn was ousted before he could do so.

"I was with Artemenko when Michael told us he would pass it along to Flynn, but I did not know that he did that for a fact," Sater said in an interview Wednesday.

The New York Times has reported that Cohen told the news outlet that he took it to Washington and left it in Flynn's office days before Flynn was fired.

Butin interviews last year with The Post, Cohen called that account "fake news" and denied that he gave the proposal to Flynn or that he had ever said he had done so. Instead, Cohen told The Post he threw away the unopened envelope in a trash can at his New York apartment.

"I never looked at it," Cohen said. "I never turned it over to anyone."

Cohen also told The Post that Artemenko indicated to him that his peace initiative for Ukraine came with Russian support. "He said Russia was on board - the Russian government," Cohen said.

Artemenko denied this week thatthe Russian government was involved, although he said he had briefed some Russian officials on the peace initiative during trips to Moscow in the year before the Cohen meeting.

"They said: 'Listen, we need the confirmation. We need the confirmation that you have authorization from both sides, from Ukraine and from United States,' " he said. "That was the answer from Russia. That's all. I shared this information to Michael."

Asked whether Mueller's prosecutors inquired about Russian support for his proposal, Artemenko replied, "Obviously."

After news of his meeting with Cohen became public, Artemenko was expelled from the Ukrainian parliament and stripped of his citizenship. He is now living in Canada and insisted his intentions in meeting with Cohen have been misinterpreted.

"My destiny, my main goal, is to bring peace to Ukraine," he said.

Artemenko said he was also asked at the grand jury about an effort he and Sater were involved with in recent years to refurbish Ukrainian nuclear power plants.

Artemenko said he met repeatedly with U.S. officials, including members of Congress, to promote the proposal in Washington. The meetings, he said, he were set up by Curt Weldon, a Republican former congressman from Pennsylvania. Artemenko said the proposal did not involve members of the Trump administration.

Weldon did not respond to requests for comment.

Sater, who tried to arrange financing for the project, said he was not involved in the lobbying. He said he shared all he knew about the plan with government investigators months ago but declined to say whether he spoke to Mueller's office.

He said the nuclear power plan would have been a blow to Russia because it would have provided independent power to neighboring states that had been dependent on Russian energy sources. "Since this was an anti-Russia energy development proposal, it was no surprise to me that U.S. officials would support this project," Sater said.

The Washington Post's Josh Dawsey and Carol D. Leonnig contributed to this report.

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