For two years, Donald Trump has repeated a simple defense when faced with questions about Russia: He has no personal business with it. But dramatic testimony from his former lawyer Thursday shows that he’s been carefully hedging those statements.
On Thursday morning, longtime Trump lawyer Michael Cohen told a Manhattan courtroom that he was pursuing a potential development in Moscow through June of 2016, weeks after Trump had effectively sewn up the Republican presidential nomination. According to an updated plea agreement with federal prosecutors, Cohen discussed the project with Trump and his family members on multiple occasions, emailed and talked with Russian officials about it and made plans for both himself and Trump to visit Russia to advance it.
What’s more, Cohen admitted that he had lied in a letter to the House and Senate intelligence committees and in testimony to the Senate committee about his work on the development, falsely claiming that the deal fell through months earlier, in January of 2016 — before the Iowa caucuses — and that Trump had never considered traveling to Russia to work on it.
“I made these statements to be consistent with [Trump’s] political messaging and to be loyal to [Trump],” Cohen reportedly told the court.
And they were consistent. In tweets, interviews, press conferences, a presidential debate and a letter from a law firm released publicly since the summer of 2016, Trump has repeatedly claimed that he and the Trump Organization “have” — note the verb tense — no loans, business deals, real estate investments or professional contacts with Russia. But those statements did not include the fact that his business had been in discussions about a potential development in Moscow just weeks earlier.
Trump began arguing that he had no business relations with Russia in late July of 2016, around the time that reports surfaced that Russian government hackers were responsible for breaking into the Democratic National Committee servers and the same month of the infamous Trump Tower meeting with a Kremlin-connected lawyer.
Questions about Russia led conservative pundit George Will to speculate on Fox News that Trump’s unreleased tax records might show business ties to the country, provoking Trump to respond.
“For the record,” he tweeted on July 26, “I have ZERO investments in Russia.”
Trump elaborated in an interview with CBS Miami the next day. “I mean I have nothing to do with Russia,” he said. “I don’t have any jobs in Russia. I’m all over the world but we’re not involved in Russia.” And when Hillary Clinton brought up the DNC hack that fall at the second presidential debate, Trump reiterated the point. “I know nothing about the inner workings of Russia,” he said. “I don’t deal there. I have no businesses there. I have no loans from Russia.”
The arguments continued after Trump became president, as the investigation into Russian meddling heated up.
“I have no loans and I have no dealings,” said Trump in a press conference as President-elect in January of 2017. “We could make deals in Russia very easily if we wanted to, I just don’t want to because I think that would be a conflict.” And again at a February press conference: “I own nothing in Russia. I have no loans in Russia. I don’t have any deals in Russia.” In March, he had lawyers with Morgan Lewis review his tax returns and write him a letter — later forwarded to Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham — certifying that they show no income, debt or investments with Russia.
In an interview with the New York Times in July of 2017, Trump noted that Russians may have bought a condo from him from time to time, adding that he had considered developments there, but he again repeated that he had no business deals in the country.
“They said I own buildings in Russia. I don’t. They said I made money from Russia. I don’t. It’s not my thing. I don’t, I don’t do that,” he said. “Over the years, I’ve looked at maybe doing a deal in Russia, but I never did one.”
Trump has pursued real estate developments in Russia for so long that they’re even mentioned in his 1987 book, “The Art of the Deal.” Describing his talks with a Soviet ambassador in 1986 in the book, Trump boasted: “One thing led to another, and now I’m talking about building a large luxury hotel across the street from the Kremlin in partnership with the Soviet government.”
The talks went nowhere, but Trump apparently kept trying.
According to CNN, he hired the Russian law firm Sojuzpatent to file at least eight trademarks between 1996 and 2008, including “Trump,” “Trump Home” and “Trump Tower.” After the 2013 Miss Universe pageant, he tweeted at a Russian developer that “Trump Tower-Moscow is next,” likely a reference to the deal that Cohen later pursued.
And Trump has long worked with Russians on U.S. projects. From 2002 to 2011, the Trump Organization partnered with the Bayrock Group, run by Russian immigrants, to develop properties in Florida and New York. In a discussion of New York real estate in 2008, Donald Trump Jr. said that Russians made up a “disproportionate cross-section” of the family business’ investors. “We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia,” he said. Golf reporter James Dodson said that Trump’s son, Eric, once told him the family’s golf courses get all their funding from Russia. (Eric Trump denied saying this.)
Cohen’s testimony, then, should not be surprising, but the timing he describes adds another layer of nuance to discussions about Trump and Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
As the former Trump lawyer all-but acknowledged in court, running for president while attempting to broker a major investment with a foreign power is, at best, unseemly — otherwise, why would he have lied about it falling through before voting started in the Iowa caucuses? And Trump himself said in January of 2017 that making a deal with Russia as president “would be a conflict.”
The biggest sign that Trump knows the Cohen testimony is damning was his response.
Shortly after Cohen’s courtroom appearance, Trump spoke with reporters on the South Lawn of the White House before boarding Marine One. He charged that his former longtime lawyer was lying in order to reduce a potential prison sentence on unrelated federal charges, even though Trump’s own lawyers later told the New York Times that he gave similar answers to Cohen in his responses to special counsel Robert Mueller. Trump then debuted an entirely new set of arguments about his potential business dealings with Russia.
In short order, Trump argued that: 1) everyone knew that there was a potential Trump project in Moscow, 2) the negotiations didn’t last very long, 3) he was never very enthusiastic about the proposal, 4) Trump was the one who decided not to do the project, 5) the primary reason for ending it was to focus on his presidential campaign, 6) it would have been foolish not to look into a money-making project in case he ended up losing and going back to his business, and 7) there would be nothing wrong with pursuing an overseas development while running for president.
“He’s lying about a project that everybody knew about. I mean we were very open about it. We were thinking about building a building,” Trump told reporters. “We decided — I decided ultimately not to do it. There would have been nothing wrong if I did do it.”
As more details come out about the Trump Tower Moscow proposal, those claims may or may not hold up to scrutiny. But one thing is clear: They are very different arguments than simply stating that he has no business with Russia.