Congressional investigators are reportedly exploring any connections between two deals brokered by Donald Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen and Felix Sater which directly raised Russian interests. The timeline for one of these arrangements is potentially very different than what has been reported widely in the news media. Discussions of the two deals appear to have occurred closer together in time and discussion on both began during the presidential race. The timing is sure to raise the interest of investigators looking into possible links between Trump associates and Russian election interference.
The first arrangement involving Cohen and Sater was a proposal to build a Trump Tower in Moscow on terms that would be highly lucrative for Donald Trump. Those discussions reportedly began in September 2015 and led to Trump signing a 17-page letter of intent in late October 2015. Cohen said he discussed the project with Trump three times. The project went so far as to include soliciting building designs from architects and preliminary discussions about possible financing. According to Cohen, he personally decided to end the deal in late January 2016. [Update: The Moscow Trump Tower plan reached as late a July 2016, and Sater may have resolved to give up on it only in December 2016.]
The second dealing with Cohen and Sater involved a back channel plan for handling Ukraine and Russia. Most all news outlets and analysis start the timeline for this plan in January 2017, but there is reason to believe it began much earlier.
The Ukrainian proposal has been called a “peace plan” by some, but that is a misnomer. The proposal involved unwinding Russian sanctions on favorable terms to Moscow, and the use of derogatory information against the current Ukrainian leadership. The idea was hatched by Ukrainian politician Andrii Artemenko, who told the Times that he received encouragement for his plans from Putin’s top aides. Discussing the terms of the proposal, Ukraine’s Ambassador to the United States, Valeriy Chaly said, “Such ideas can be pitched or pushed through only by those openly or covertly representing Russian interests.” Cohen reportedly hand delivered the Ukraine dossier to then-National Security Advisor Michael Flynn in the White House in the week before Flynn’s resignation.
The question is even if Cohen delivered the dossier in early 2017, when did the discussions of the Ukraine plan involving Cohen, Sater, and Artemenko begin?
The New York Times reported, “it was late January  when the three men associated with the proposed plan converged on the Loews Regency, a luxury hotel on Park Avenue in Manhattan” to discuss Artemenko’s ideas. Cohen later acknowledged to Business Insider that he met with Artemenko in New York to discuss the plan but said it was only “under 10 minutes.”
(Cohen has told many different and conflicting stories about the Ukraine dossier.)
The discussions between Artemenko, Sater, and Cohen began long before January 2017, according to Artemenko. In an interview with a Ukrainian news outlet, Artemenko said that he began discussions with Cohen and Sater “at the time of the primaries, when no one believed that Trump would even be nominated.” Talking Point Memo reported on this interview in February 2017 (see also Josh Marshall’s assessment that the Ukrainian news outlet is a legitimate publication).
It would surely be significant for the special counsel and congressional investigations if Cohen’s discussions involving the Ukraine plan began during the presidential election season. It is even more significant if, indeed, the plan came with Russian backing, as Artemenko and Ambassador Chaly both suggest. Even Cohen, in explaining the reason he met with Artemenko in January said Artemenko told him the proposal “was acknowledged by Russian authorities would create world peace.”
It would also be significant that both deals involved Cohen and Slater in this time period. If the discussions on the Ukraine plan occurred during “the primaries, when no one believed that Trump would even be nominated,” that would be much closer in time to the emails between Cohen and Sater on Trump Tower in Moscow. Those emails include Sater telling Cohen, “I will get Putin on this program and we will get Donald elected. … Buddy our boy 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.”
If the Ukraine discussions began in early 2016, other parts of the timeline also become significant. Those include bringing Paul Manafort onto the campaign in March 2016, with his ties to Ukraine including his work on the behalf of the same pro-Kremlin political group to which Artemenko belongs. The Trump team then changed the Republican party platform on Ukraine in July 2016, which they later denied. On July 30, Trump told ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos that he was open to recognizing Russia’s control of Crimea.
Finally, it is worth considering why exactly the deal involving Trump Tower in Moscow discontinued.
Cohen has insisted that the reasons for pursuing the deal and for abandoning it were unrelated to the campaign and involved purely business determinations. In a two-page statement to the House Intelligence Committee on August 28, 2017, Cohen said:
“The Trump Tower Moscow proposal was not related in any way to Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign.”
“The decision to pursue the proposal initially, and later to abandon it, was unrelated to the Donald J. Trump for President campaign. Both I and the Trump Organization were evaluating this proposal and many others from solely a business standpoint, and rejected going forward on that basis.”
Sater tells a different story. According to the New York Times, Sater “said he had been working on a plan for a Trump Tower in Moscow … one that he said had come to a halt because of Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign.” Sater also told Talking Points Memo: “Once the campaign was really going-going, it was obvious there were going to be no deals internationally.” Sater said, “It didn’t go through because obviously he became President.” Sater’s statements suggest the plan may have only been temporarily suspended due to the campaign and would have potentially proceeded if Trump had not been elected.
The Ukraine project was different. The Trump team was able to shift the Republican party in the direction of the Kremlin’s interests on Ukraine during the campaign itself. Almost as soon as they came into office, Trump’s team then began unusual efforts to unwind Russian sanctions.
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