Lies! And if not, so what?
The "America First" candidate now says he was hedging his bets in case he lost. While Donald Trump was wrapping up the Republican nomination, the Trump Organization was pushing until at least June 2016 to get a project for a Trump Tower in Moscow off the ground and lobbying aides to Vladimir Putin for assistance.
That revelation comes in shock plea deal obtained by special counsel Robert Mueller with former Trump lawyer/fixer Michael Cohen, who admitted lying to Congress when he testified that the Moscow project was shelved in January 2016. Cohen also confessed his past stories that he never heard back from the Kremlin on a pitch for the luxury development were false.
Cohen said he concealed the truth to back up Trump’s “political messaging” and claims that he had no commercial or political contacts with Moscow after the Iowa caucuses. The drive to do the deal was still alive as Trump espoused a Russia-friendly, Putin-admiring policy.
Trump's response? Cohen's "lying, very simply, to get a reduced sentence," he said on his way from the White House to fly to the G-20 summit in Argentina. But Trump also said, in essence: If Cohen's story is true, so what?
"There would be nothing wrong if I did do it. I was running my business while I was campaigning. There was a good chance that I wouldn't have won, in which case I would have gotten back into the business. And why should I lose lots of opportunities?" Meaning there's nothing wrong, according to Trump, with secretly looking to do a private business deal with a foreign government while running for president, the decider of U.S. foreign policy.
Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani chimed in that Cohen is a "liar" — but also admitted in a New York Times interview that Trump's recollections about the Moscow project discussions align with Cohen's new version. Somehow, Trump hadn't bothered to set the record straight before. So what then makes Cohen a liar? "Given the fact that he’s a liar, I can’t tell you what he’s lying about,” Giuliani said.
For more on Cohen and Trump, see John Riley's story for Newsday. To read the court filing by Mueller, click here. For video on Trump's reaction, click here. For a Washington Post timeline of Trump's Russia business ambitions, click here.
Janison: A big step for Mueller
Trump warned last year that he would draw a red line against Mueller going beyond the Russia "collusion" question to scrutinize the president's past business dealings. Mueller has firmly stepped across that line, while drawing connections between the two sides of it, writes Newsday's Dan Janison.
The special counsel prosecutors said Cohen lied on behalf of Trump "in hopes of limiting the ongoing Russia investigations."
What matters less for Mueller, though of interest to Trump watchers, is that the Moscow project joined a long list of Trump ventures that bit the dust. It doesn't appear to have come as close to fruition as even his ill-fated plan a few years back to build a catering hall at Jones Beach.
Did Trump's recent written response to Mueller's questions contradict what Cohen says? Giuliani said Trump didn't go into details about when he heard what. But even if Trump avoided getting caught in a lie in his answers, there could still be trouble close to home.
Cohen's confessions raise questions about whether Donald Trump Jr. misled Congress while under oath. During his appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee in September 2017, the president's eldest son testified the idea of building a Trump Tower in Moscow "sort of faded away I believe at the end of '14” and he had little to do with it. Yahoo News reports Ivanka Trump's role in the project is also under scrutiny.
But Cohn said via Mueller’s filing that he regularly updated family members on the status of the project — more often than he had said in his own earlier, now-disavowed testimony.
The new spotlight on the Moscow project, a Trump dream for decades, also is a reminder of strands shared with the collusion components of the Russia investigation. It involved, at least at one point, the same Russian oligarch family — Aras Agalarov and his son Emin — who orchestrated the June 2016 meeting hosted by Donald Jr. for a Russian lawyer offering derogatory information on Hillary Clinton.
The Agalarovs were Trump's partners at the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow.
Mueller's filing shed new light on the role of ex-Long Islander Felix Sater, a Russian-born onetime FBI informant and ex-con who became a Trump collaborator for a number of business ventures.
Cohen's statement described an individual he worked with — identified by news reports as Sater — as a major mover behind the Trump Tower Moscow effort.
A 2015 email from Sater to Cohen said: "Our boy [Trump] can become president of the USA and we can engineer it. . . . I will get all of Putins team to buy in on this, I will manage this process. . . . I will get Putin on this program and we will get Donald elected."
For more about Sater, see Newsday's story by Yancey Roy and Michael Gormley.
Free $50M pad for Vlad?
The Trump Organization offered to give away to Putin a $50 million penthouse at Trump Tower Moscow, BuzzFeed News reports, citing four sources, including Sater.
“My idea was to give a $50 million penthouse to Putin and charge $250 million more for the rest of the units. All the oligarchs would line up to live in the same building as Putin,” Sater said.
Law enforcement officials told BuzzFeed News that Cohen discussed the idea with a representative of Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s press secretary.
Now I'll see him, now I won't
When Trump spoke to reporters outside the White House Thursday after Cohen appeared in court, his summit meeting with Putin during the G-20 summit in Argentina was "probably" still on. "I think it's a very good time to have the meeting," he said.
But soon after he boarded Air Force One for the flight to Buenos Aires, the meeting was called off. Trump tweeted that he won't meet with the Russian leader until Moscow releases the ships and sailors seized in Sunday's clash along Crimea's coast, reports Newsday's Candice Ferrette. Unmentioned was the political awkwardness of being seen with Putin after Cohen's bombshell.
A Trump critic, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), said Trump should have gone ahead with the meeting and told off the Russian. “I would have liked him to meet Putin and challenge Putin, to find his spine as it relates to Putin’s violation of the international order,” Menendez, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, told CNN.
Trump also abruptly called off formal meetings planned with the leaders of Turkey and South Korea. Does something else have him preoccupied?
Cohen, who once professed to be so loyal to Trump that he'd "take a bullet" for him, turned on the president months ago after the feds raided his office and residence. Cohen pleaded guilty to charges arising from the hush-money payoff to porn star Stormy Daniels and accused Trump of directing him to make the deal in violation of campaign finance law.
As Trump ripped Cohen Thursday as a "weak person and not a very smart person," a reporter asked: "If Cohen is such a bum, why did you hire him, have him on your payroll for 12 years, and have him do so much of your dirty work?"
Trump answered: "Because, a long time ago, he did me a favor."
He didn't explain what the favor was. But past reports have said Cohen caught Trump's attention while serving on the condo board of a Trump building during a dispute between management and tenants.
What else is happening:
- Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker, a past critic of Mueller, was notified in advance about the Cohen plea, The Washington Post reports, and evidently didn't get in the way. That might not sit well with Trump.
- Trump's nomination of Thomas Farr to be a federal judge from North Carolina appeared doomed after the Senate's lone black Republican, Tim Scott of South Carolina, came out against him. Farr was tied to efforts since 1990 to suppress turnout of African-American voters and defended a car rental company that set discriminatory terms for black customers. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) is opposing all nominees unless the Senate votes on a bill to protect Mueller.
- House Speaker Paul Ryan, like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, insists the protection for Mueller isn't necessary. "I believe he will be left to do his job," Ryan said Thursday. "If I were really, really stressed about Bob Mueller, I'd do something. I'm not,"
- Labor Secretary Alex Acosta is out of the running to be Trump's next attorney general after a Miami Herald report detailed how, as a federal prosecutor, he helped grease a secret plea deal with convicted billionaire pedophile Jeffrey Epstein to cut short a wide-ranging federal sex trafficking investigation, the McClatchy papers reported.
- Trump is considering choosing the Iranian-born assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Antitrust Division, Makan Delrahim, to become the next attorney general, CNN reported.
- Federal agents raided the offices of a Chicago alderman, Edward Burke, who represented Trump for more than 10 years on local tax matters, but it wasn't known whether the investigation involves work done for the president.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story described Trump's responses to Mueller's questions as sworn answers. They were not described as such in the statement by Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow on the submission.