Michael Cohen’s guilty plea in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation on Thursday provided new details about why President Donald Trump pursued friendly ties with Russia during the 2016 campaign: He tried to secure a lucrative real estate deal in Moscow.
Cohen told Congress that negotiations to build the tower stopped in January 2016. But Cohen now admits those talks continued into at least June 2016, well into the presidential campaign and even after Trump became the GOP’s nominee. There were also plans to give the building’s $50 million penthouse to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
All of this puts Trump’s praise of Putin during the campaign in a whole new — and disconcerting — light.
Since 1987, Trump has wanted to build — or at least put his name on — a luxury building in Russia. His latest effort came in 2015, when Cohen and Felix Sater, a Russian-born businessman who was Trump’s company liaison on a potential Moscow deal, worked their contacts in Moscow to try to make a deal happen.
On October 28, 2015 — the same day as the third Republican presidential debate — Trump signed a letter of intent allowing Cohen to negotiate the licensing deal with the Russians. Ultimately, the deal fell through, and the project never broke ground.
After the revelations that Russia had interfered in the 2016 election while favoring Trump, the negotiations took on new significance. Cohen told Congress three lies about them:
- The Trump Tower Moscow project ended in January 2016 and was not discussed extensively with others in the Trump Organization.
- Cohen “never agreed” to travel to Russia in connection with the Moscow project and “never considered” asking Trump to travel for the project.
- Cohen “did not recall any Russian government response or contact about the Moscow Project.”
Here’s what Cohen says now:
- Discussions about the Trump Tower Moscow project went on at least until June 2016 — not January of that year as Cohen previously stated. He also admitted to speaking with Trump about the project more than three times.
- Cohen considered traveling to Russia and taking Trump with him. Cohen also asked a senior campaign official about the possibility for Trump to go to Russia.
- Russian officials did respond to Cohen’s inquiries about the Moscow project. Around January 14, 2016, Cohen emailed the office Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s press secretary and trusted adviser, seeking help with the tower deal. About six days later, a Peskov assistant and Cohen had a 20-minute call.
This is bad for Trump. Cohen says he aimed to secure a lucrative business deal with Russians closely linked with Putin on Trump’s behalf during the 2016 presidential election — all while Trump was repeatedly championing better Washington-Moscow ties in campaign speeches.
What’s worse, it’s entirely possible Trump knew a close confidant willingly lied to Congress.