MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
President Trump has dismissed a new guilty plea made by his former lawyer Michael Cohen in federal court today. Cohen admitted he lied to Congress about negotiations he had in 2016 on behalf of the Trump organization aimed at building a Trump Tower in Russia. Trump's take - that Cohen is a liar.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: He's a weak person. And what he's trying to do is get a reduced sentence. So he's lying about a project that everybody knew about.
KELLY: The president speaking there to reporters as he left the White House for G-20 meetings in Argentina. And speaking of the White House, that is where we find NPR's Mara Liasson. Hey, Mara.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi there.
KELLY: So you were there for that session as the president was taking questions on Michael Cohen today. Did he have any other choice words for his longtime, now-former lawyer other than calling him weak and a liar?
LIASSON: Well, he clearly wants to discredit Cohen in general. But what's interesting is Trump didn't deny Cohen's new assertions. He didn't say those were a lie, the fact that The Trump Organization's negotiations about a potential Trump Tower project in Moscow continued well into 2016 during the presidential campaign. Trump says there was nothing wrong about him exploring this deal.
But it's also true that during that time, candidate Trump was attacking NATO, praising Putin, asking the Russians to hack Hillary's emails. His son and other campaign staffers were meeting with Russian government intermediaries. And all along, Trump was denying that he had any business dealings with Russia. Asked why he denied that, he said, well, this deal didn't happen. It was just an option. Is an option a business dealing? Clearly Trump doesn't think so.
But what's interesting is in his plea deal today, Cohen says the reason he lied was to be consistent with Trump's political messaging. The messaging of course was that there were no Trump-Russian dealings at all - as Trump used to say, zero.
KELLY: So how does this latest twist contribute to our understanding of what happened back in 2016? I mean, President Trump and Michael Cohen seem in agreement that he lied. And you're saying they seem in agreement about the timing. What are we learning?
LIASSON: Well, they're not in disagreement on the potential Trump negotiations for a Trump Tower in Russia. So he's not - Trump isn't contradicting the timeline that Cohen is now putting forward.
LIASSON: He says nothing happened with that. But we do know that Cohen is cooperating with Robert Mueller. He has spent many, many hours with him. And Trump doesn't know what else Cohen might be telling Mueller, and that might worry Trump. That's one of the reasons he has to undermine Cohen's credibility. Also what might be significant is if in his written answers to Mueller Trump answered questions about this Russian Trump Tower negotiations in a way that either contradicted Cohen or contradicted Trump's own public statements, that could be a potential problem.
KELLY: One sign of what is on the president's mind is of course what he's tweeting. And he has been ramping up his attacks on Mueller's investigation. That's the backdrop for this.
LIASSON: Right, an increased number of attacks on Mueller, and they've been increasingly aggressive. He's clearly anticipating more action from Mueller now that the midterms are over. And of course look what happened today. And Trump is continuing to do what he's done for a very long time, which is to try to discredit Mueller and the investigation so that he can dismiss whatever Mueller comes up with in the end as a partisan witch hunt.
KELLY: Meanwhile, Mara, we mentioned that President Trump is spending the next two days in Argentina for this G-20 gathering. He was supposed to be having a sit-down with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, a sit-down that is now no longer happening.
LIASSON: That's right. He's canceled it. I did ask him at the White House this morning whether he was going to meet with Putin, and he said he probably would. He said it's a very good time to have a meeting. The Russians want it. But just less than an hour later, he tweeted he was canceling the meeting because Russia had not returned those Ukrainian sailors and their ship.
KELLY: NPR's Mara Liasson at the White House - thank you, Mara.
LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.