Special counsel Robert Mueller revealed Thursday that Michael Cohen said he repeatedly briefed Trump about a potential business deal in Russia during the 2016 campaign. In response, Trump’s legal team has tried to distance the president from a project that literally had his name on it.
Cohen, the president’s former lawyer and fixer, worked with real-estate developer Felix Sater on a proposal to develop a Trump Tower in Moscow beginning in 2015 and continuing well into 2016—contrary to what he told Congress. Cohen admitted this morning that he lied when he told a Senate panel that conversations with Sater ended that January. Cohen also said he did, in fact, brief Trump and family members repeatedly about the proposal.
The business deal was one of the written questions asked by Mueller and answered by Trump, according to Rudy Giuliani, the president’s lead attorney for the Russia probe. Giuliani said that Trump answered that, “as far as he knew, there was a proposal, he knew about the proposal, he had discussions with Michael Cohen about it, and a non-binding letter of intent was issued, and the proposal...never got beyond that. It was discontinued, they withdrew from it.”
Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr. told the Senate Judiciary Committee last year his father signed the letter of intent. ABC News and BuzzFeed also reported the same, with BuzzFeed saying Trump signed it “on the day of the third Republican presidential debate,” meaning the primary debate, October 28, 2015.
When asked if Trump had indeed signed the letter for “Cohen’s deal,” Giuliani simply wrote back, “Don’t know!?! But it was submitted for [the Trump] Organization.”
“It was abandoned—from the president's point of view—[in mid-2016] before he was elected,” Giuliani said, adding Trump doesn’t know when, exactly, Cohen “or others” ditched it, as well. He said his client's position in the written response is that Trump's contacts on the Russia dealing “were within his organization, and the primary guy was Michael Cohen.”
“This was Cohen’s deal,” Giuliani stressed.
Trump’s lawyer said the president and his legal team weren’t asked about specific dates for Trump’s conversations with Cohen and did not provide them. Giuliani said the legal team would not rule out any dates the two may have talked, including up until Trump was elected in November 2016. Giuliani said that Trump told him that he “remembers talking to Cohen about it in 2015 and 2016,” but not exactly when or how many times.
Sater told The Daily Beast that efforts to develop a Trump Tower Moscow project died because Trump secured the Republican presidential nomination in July 2016.
“Right after the Republican convention, it became obvious—obvious to me,” he said. “It was obvious that a candidate couldn’t be doing a business deal simultaneously to run for president.”
Sater, who previously had an office in Trump Tower and helped arrange financing for Trump Tower SoHo, pleaded guilty 20 years ago to fraud linked to Russian criminals. He subsequently helped the FBI with major criminal investigations, and future Attorney General Loretta Lynch praised his cooperation before Congress in 2015.
“It was like, ‘OK, shit, he got the nomination, it’s not happening, it’s not happening now’—that was the idea,” he added.
Sater said he stopped working on the deal after the convention, and that Cohen didn’t tell him to keep pursuing it. (An attorney for Cohen did not immediately respond to a request for comment on this story.)
Cohen also spoke to Trump about “traveling to Russia in connection with the Moscow Project, and asked a senior campaign official about potential business travel to Russia,” the criminal information states. In May 2016, Cohen discussed the possible Trump trip with Sater, according to the documents, as well as a personal trip he did not take.
Giuliani said he did not dispute that Trump and Cohen discussed a trip to Russia in the first half of 2016, but said that he simply couldn’t confirm it.
Thursday’s news was the latest legal bombshell to emerge from the rapid disintegration of Trump and Cohen’s once close relationship. Earlier this year, when Trump’s former fixer and outspoken loyalist began publicly turning against Trump, virtually the entirety of Trumpworld trained its sights on Cohen. In August, Cohen named Trump as the person directing him in a scheme to pay off his alleged mistresses, which violated federal campaign-finance law.
On Thursday, Trump told reporters at the White House that Cohen is a “weak person” just hours after his former fixer and legal pitbull admitted in federal court to making false statements to Congress about Trump’s real-estate dealings. Trump also slammed Cohen as a “liar” and “not a very smart person.”
—With additional reporting by Erin Banco