EXT. WHITE HOUSE SOUTH DRIVEWAY — MID-MORNING
From the White House driveway, US PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP (early 70s, white, over six feet tall and over 220 pounds, wearing an ill-fitting suit) strains to be heard over the whir of a HELICOPTER waiting to whisk him and his family to Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. From there, they’ll board Air Force One, and on to a crucial meeting with other world leaders in Argentina. Trump wears a thick red tie, and the sun shines on the left side of his face. His spun-sugar hair barely moves in the breeze as he addresses a phalanx of microphones on a just-emerged crisis: Former Trump Organization attorney Michael Cohen, just minutes earlier, had pleaded guilty in a New York federal court to lying to Congress about a Trump tower deal in Moscow.
(to the press)
He is a weak person and not a very smart person.
(the HELICOPTER whir gets louder.)
He has got himself a big prison sentence and he’s trying to get a much lesser prison sentence by making up a story. Now here is the thing…
(he holds his palms up and stretches out fingers)
…even if he was right, it doesn’t matter because I was allowed to do whatever I wanted during the campaign. I was running my business, a lot of different things, during the campaign. So very simply, Michael Cohen is lying and he’s trying to get a reduced sentence for things that have nothing to do with me.
As Trump speaks HIS DAUGHTER (mid-to-late 30s, long blonde hair, also tall—though not as tall as her father—wearing a trenchcoat and calf-length boots) and SON IN LAW (also mid-to-late 30s and also tall, but with dark hair, wearing a well-tailored navy suit) cross the lawn to the helicopter holding hands, avoiding the press.
This was the scene Thursday morning (Nov. 29) at the White House, minutes after the FBI’s special counsel Robert Mueller announced the latest surprise from his 18-month-long investigation into ties between the Trump campaign and Russian interference in the 2016 election. It was the latest moment of cinematic drama courtesy of the former FBI director, who is leading an airtight investigation in a normally leaky city, punctuated by public announcements seemingly timed for maximum effect.
Cohen’s guilty plea comes days after Trump submitted answers, in writing, to Mueller’s questions about his business dealings with Russia, among other topics. As legal experts including former New York district attorney Preet Bharara point out, if Cohen’s plea is corroborated and contradicts Trump’s written answers, the US president could be found guilty of making a false statement to the FBI, undermining Trump’s long-standing argument that he is innocent of any collaboration with Russia.
The plea arrived just before Trump was set to embark on a 10-hour plane ride to meet Russian president Vladimir Putin, among other leaders of the world’s most powerful nations at the G20 summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Soon after boarding Air Force One, Trump scrapped the Putin meeting. The president said the decision was made because of the “ships and sailors” that Russia has not returned to Ukraine, a reference to three ships Russia seized Nov. 25. The seizure was part of spreading Russian aggression in the Crimean peninsula, and it’s not clear why president Trump would wait to cancel his meeting with Putin for this reason until the last second.
Earlier this week, Mueller accused Trump’s 2016 presidential-campaign manager Paul Manafort of lying to the FBI, and tore up the plea deal the US Department of Justice had made with Manafort. Lawyers representing Trump and Manafort have been quietly comparing notes on the investigation, to the amazement of the DC legal community. Manafort’s alleged untruthfulness and his lawyers’ coordination with Trump’s raises more questions about how accurate Trump’s written answers to the FBI actually are.
Norm Eisen, who served as an ambassador and unofficial “ethics czar” under the Barack Obama administration, notes that this is the second time Mueller has unexpectedly released news ahead of planned meeting between the US president and Putin.
This July, as Trump was awaiting tea with Britain’s Queen Elizabeth at the UK royal family’s Windsor Castle home, US deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein announced findings from the Mueller investigation indicating that a dozen Russian military intelligence officers had been indicted for stealing emails from the Democratic Party. Days later, Trump flew to Helsinki for an awkward meeting and press conference with Putin that was widely pilloried by Republicans and Democrats alike.
Correction: Preet Bharara was misidentified in an earlier version of this article as a former New York attorney general.