Asked to comment on his former lawyer’s confession in federal court on Thursday that the Trump Organization had secretly negotiated with the Russian government during the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump attempted to sell the American people an outrageous lie.
Michael Cohen’s secret negotiations with Russian officials and their proxies to arrange financing and permits for a Trump Tower in Moscow — conducted as Trump was publicly heaping lavish praise on President Vladimir Putin — had never been secret at all, the president told reporters outside the White House.
“Everybody knew about it, it was written about in newspapers, it was a well-known project,” Trump claimed, falsely, about his company’s covert effort, “during the early part of ’16 and I guess even before that,” to develop a luxury skyscraper with help from Putin’s office and a former general in Russia’s military intelligence service.
In fact, the existence of such a project, which was being negotiated in secret during the entire span of the Republican primary campaign — from at least October 2015, when Trump signed a letter of intent with a Russian developer, through January 2016, when Cohen called an aide to Putin’s spokesperson, until some time after Trump secured the nomination in June — was not known about or reported at the time. There was no indication in the outline of Cohen’s confession sketched out by Special Counsel Robert Mueller on Thursday as to why the proposed deal was dropped, but the timeline might offer a clue. Cohen suddenly backed out of a trip to Russia arranged by the Kremlin on the afternoon of June 14, 2016 — about three hours after the Washington Post revealed that Russian hackers had penetrated the servers of the Democratic National Committee and stolen documents related to the election.
The Moscow project only became public knowledge the following year, after Trump’s inauguration as president. It was briefly mentioned in a 2017 New York Times report about another covert scheme also involving Cohen and Felix Sater, a convicted former FBI informant and longtime fixer for the Trump Organization with deep ties in Russia.
More details about the Moscow tower project Trump’s company secretly pursued as he ran for president — including some of the same messages between Cohen and Sater used by Mueller to charge Cohen with lying to Congress about the deal in a 2017 statement — were revealed in subsequent reports from the New York Times and BuzzFeed News.
After Cohen’s confession during a surprise appearance in federal court in Manhattan on Thursday, Anthony Cormier and Jason Leopold of BuzzFeed News published Sater’s screenshots of a 2016 text exchange with Cohen, in which the two men agreed to accept an invitation from Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesperson, to the St. Petersburg Economic Forum that June for a possible meeting with the Russian president. Sater also told BuzzFeed that Cohen had offered to give Putin the $50 million penthouse apartment at the top of Trump Tower Moscow as a gift during his telephone conversation with Peskov’s English-speaking assistant that January.
Trump’s effort to downplay the seriousness of these revelations could be helped by the fact that he did speak openly about a previous attempt to strike a deal for Trump Tower Moscow in 2013, when he visited the city for the Miss Universe pageant and talked about a partnership with the well-connected Russian oligarch Aras Agalarov, and his son Emin.
Although that effort eventually fizzled out, and the letter of intent Trump signed in 2015 was with a different Russian developer, as the secret talks progressed in 2016, the Agalarovs passed on the offer of dirt on Hillary Clinton — described as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump” — that led to the June 9, 2016 meeting in Trump Tower between a Russian lawyer and Trump’s campaign chair Paul Manafort, his son-in-law Jared Kushner, and his son Donald Trump, Jr.
In his remarks to reporters on Thursday, Trump insisted, against all evidence, that the secret deal had been public all along and claimed that Cohen’s initial statement to Congress in 2017, in which he downplayed the extent and duration of the talks, had been accurate. Trump called his former aide’s confession to the special counsel — in which he said that he had lied to Congress to protect the president — false.
“What he’s trying to do, because he’s a weak person and not a very smart person,” Trump said, “it’s very simple, he’s got himself a big prison sentence, and he’s trying to get himself a much lesser prison sentence by making up a story.”
Before leaving for the Group of 20 summit in Argentina, where he was scheduled to meet Putin — a plan abandoned after takeoff — Trump avoided questions about the lie he repeated again and again during the 2016 general election campaign: that he had no business interests in Russia at all.
For the record, I have ZERO investments in Russia.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 26, 2016
Trump also told reporters that while he had elected not to pursue the Moscow project in the end, there would’ve been nothing wrong with him doing so while running for president. “There was a good chance that I wouldn’t have won,” he argued, “in which case I would have gotten back into the business, and why should I lose lots of opportunities?”
The president elaborated on that theme in a tweet posted early Friday morning from Argentina, in which he described his secret pursuit of a business deal with officials in Putin’s office during the 2016 campaign as “very legal & very cool.”
Attention will now turn to who else might be in legal jeopardy for lying to Congress or federal investigators about what they knew about the talks between the Trump Organization and Russian officials over the proposed Trump Tower Moscow deal. The president’s lawyers said on Thursday that Trump had submitted written answers to questions from the special counsel about his personal knowledge of the deal, and there was widespread speculation that Trump Jr. might also have lied about it during his sworn testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Update: November 30, 2018, 7:25 a.m. ET
This post was updated to reflect the new allegation, made by Donald Trump’s business associate Felix Sater to BuzzFeed News on Thursday, that Michael Cohen offered to give Vladimir Putin a luxury apartment worth $50 million, in return for help in financing the construction of a Trump Tower in Moscow, and to report that Trump described his secret pursuit of a business deal with Kremlin officials as “very legal & very cool.”