Discussions within the Trump Organization during the 2016 presidential campaign about a proposal to build a real estate development in Moscow are a key component of the events being investigated by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
The Washington Post first reported on the business proposal, which ultimately fell through, back in August 2017, but more has since come to light as a result of the special counsel’s investigation.
Michael Cohen’s November guilty plea revealed that the talks lasted until June 2016 – six months longer than he had previously claimed — at which point Donald Trump was the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.
The revelations have put Trump and his allies on defense and invigorated House Democrats hoping to probe the president’s past business dealings. Here is a more in-depth look at the Trump Moscow property proposal, and why it matters in the context of Mueller’s broader investigation.
Cohen, at the time Trump’s personal lawyer, told the House and Senate Intelligence Committees in 2017 that discussions about the project took place between September 2015 and the end of January 2016.
But in November, Cohen admitted that the talks extended into June 2016, a major disclosure that revealed Trump was actively pursuing a business deal in Russia at the same time he was speaking positively of Russian President Vladimir Putin and future U.S.-Russia relations on the campaign trail.
According to court filings, Cohen and an unnamed “Individual 2” – widely believed to be Russian-born businessman Felix Sater — discussed efforts to gain approval from the Russian government for the project as late as June 2016.
While Trump has called Cohen a liar willing to say anything to get a reduced prison sentence, he has not explicitly accused his former confidant of fudging the timeline. Mueller’s prosecutors have signaled in subsequent court filings that they have other evidence to back up Cohen’s account.
Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani has said in recent media appearances that Trump himself isn’t certain when the discussions ended, noting his written answers to Mueller say the talks could have occurred as late as November 2016.
“The simple fact is he doesn’t remember how long it went,” Giuliani told Fox News Radio’s Brian Kilmeade in an interview Wednesday. “And he says as far as he’s concerned, it could be anywhere up to November of 2016. But if you ask him to pinpoint the dates, he’d say to me 2015 and 2016 merged together.”
The other players
Cohen’s plea shed new light on others involved in the discussions about the property. For one, Cohen admitted that he discussed the status and progress of the project with “Individual 1” — Trump — on more than three occasions.
According to court documents, Cohen also briefed Trump family members within the Trump Organization on the project. But the timing of those conversations remains unclear.
Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son, acknowledged that the proposal was discussed in 2015 and 2016 but said he was only “peripherally aware” of it in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in fall 2017.
It has long been known that Sater, who served as managing director for the New York-based real estate firm the Bayrock Group, worked with Cohen to move the project forward. The New York Times reported in August 2017 that Sater wrote of his ties to Putin in emails to Cohen and said the real estate deal would help elect Trump to the presidency.
“Our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it,” Sater wrote in November 2015. “I will get all of Putins team to buy in on this, I will manage this process.”
Court filings unsealed in November revealed that the two discussed Cohen traveling to Russia in connection with the project in May and June 2016, during the heat of the campaign. At one point, Sater passed along an invitation from a Russian official for Cohen to attend an annual business forum held in St. Petersburg. Ultimately, Cohen decided against traveling to Moscow.
Cohen was also in contact with an aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin about the project in January 2016, he admitted.
Cohen lied to ‘minimize links’ between Trump, Russia
Prosecutors say that Cohen knowingly lied to Congress in order “minimize links” between Trump and the project and to give the “false impression” that the talks ended before the Iowa caucus and the first presidential primary.
That nugget has raised questions about the extent to which Trump or others knew about, or played a role in, Cohen’s lies. Cohen’s defense attorneys said in a November memo in his case that he was “in close and regular contact with White House-based staff and legal counsel to [Trump]” when preparing his testimony.
If Cohen claims that White House officials had knowledge of his lies, Mueller is likely already aware of that. The special counsel wrote in a filing last month that Cohen “provided relevant and useful information concerning his contacts with persons connected to the White House during the 2017-2018 time period” and “described the circumstances of preparing and circulating his respond to the congressional inquiries.”
The ‘letter of intent’
The Moscow talks resulted in what is known as a letter of intent – a nonbinding agreement that laid the groundwork for formal discussions about the project.
CNN published a copy of that document, signed by Trump on Oct. 28, 2015, that stipulated that the property would include condominiums, a hotel, and commercial and office space in Moscow City. The document was also signed by Andrey Rozov, CEO of I.C. Expert Investment Co., the Russian firm that would have developed the property.
Trump and his attorneys have sought to minimize the discussions about the real estate project, saying there was never a formal, binding agreement and that the deal never came to fruition. After Cohen’s guilty plea, Trump tweeted that his business dealings were “very legal” and “very cool” and that he “lightly” explored building a complex in Russia but didn’t put any money toward it.
Giuliani has also said the document does not show that Trump had business dealings in Russia.
“I consider it a letter of intent without any money ever being put up, nonbinding, which is the earliest stage of, you know, taking a look at a project,” Giuliani said earlier this week. “He wasn’t doing business in Moscow.”
Trump denied having business dealings with Russia on the campaign trail and in early 2017, before details surfaced about the proposal.
“Russia has never tried to use leverage over me. I HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH RUSSIA – NO DEALS, NO LOANS, NO NOTHING!” Trump tweeted in January 2017, shortly before taking office.
How it fits into the broader Russia investigation
Trump, who wore the dual-hat of businessman and candidate in the run up to the 2016 vote, and his company were actively pursuing a real estate project in Russia at the same time the Russian government undertook a campaign to interfere in the election.
Mueller was tasked with investigating Russian interference and any links or coordination between the Trump campaign and Moscow. Probing the Trump Moscow discussions is viewed as crucial to understanding those connections in full.
Trump has insisted there was no collusion between his campaign and Moscow and described Mueller’s investigation as a partisan “witch hunt” in search of a crime.
“I didn’t need Russians to help me win Iowa,” the president told reporters Friday.
Legal analysts expect Mueller to be looking into whether the real estate discussions played a role in a larger pact between Trump and Russia that involved the promise for future steps by his administration.
“That could be a part of a quid pro quo whereby things of value are given to Trump and his associates potentially in exchange for promises of future government action,” said Seth Waxman, an attorney and former federal prosecutor with the U.S. attorney’s office in D.C.
In Cohen, Mueller has acquired a witness with insights into the Trump business apparatus and unique access to the president at the time of his candidacy. Mueller wrote in a December filing that Cohen offered information about the timeline and his contacts and “explained financial aspects of the deal that would have made it highly lucrative for the Company and himself.”
The same filing states Cohen gave the special counsel “useful information concerning certain discrete Russia-related matters core to its investigation that he obtained by virtue of his regular contact with Company executives during the campaign,” where “Company” refers to the Trump Organization.