One of the chief questions in the Trump-Russia scandal has been whether Vladimir Putin has leverage over the president of the United States, and, if so, what that leverage looks like. The significance of the fabled “pee tape,” after all, is not that it would reveal Donald Trump to be a pervert bent on defiling the place where Barack Obama slept. Rather, the tape matters because, if real, it would show the president to be vulnerable to Russian blackmail.
That’s also why evidence of Trump’s business involvement with Russia would be significant, as Trump himself acknowledged shortly before his inauguration, when he tweeted, “Russia has never tried to use leverage over me. I HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH RUSSIA — NO DEALS, NO LOANS, NO NOTHING!”
We still don’t know for certain if Russia has used leverage over Trump. But there should no longer be any doubt that Russia has leverage over him.
On Thursday morning, Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen — the former executive vice president of the Trump Organization — pleaded guilty to making false statements to Congress about efforts to build a Trump-branded property in Moscow that extended into the 2016 presidential campaign.
In an August 2017 letter to the House and Senate intelligence committees, Cohen said that the Moscow project ended in January 2016. He claimed not to recall contacts with Russian government officials about a potential deal. Cohen told Congress that he spoke about the project with Trump — identified as “Individual 1” in the criminal information document that Robert Mueller, the special counsel, filed Thursday — only three times. He said he never briefed Trump’s family.
According to Mueller’s filing, all of this was false. Efforts to obtain Russian government approval for a Trump-branded development in Moscow went on until “approximately June 2016,” after Trump had effectively secured the Republican nomination for president. Cohen, Mueller’s document said, “discussed the status and progress of the Moscow project with Individual 1” more than three times. He also “briefed family members of Individual 1 within the company about the project.”
In January 2016, according to Mueller’s document, Cohen had a 20-minute conversation with the assistant to a Russian official in which he sought Russia’s help moving the project forward. The next day, Felix Sater, a Trump associate identified in the court filing as “Individual 2,” wrote Cohen to tell him he’d heard from Putin’s office. Cohen made plans to travel to Russia, calling them off only on June 14, which happened to be the day that The Washington Post first reported that Russian government hackers had penetrated Democratic National Committee computers. At one point, Cohen and Sater were also coordinating with figures in Moscow about a potential Trump visit in connection with the project.
So we now know that Trump lied to the American people about at least one part of his business relationship with Russia, a geopolitical foe that interfered in our election process on his behalf.
In a Jan 11, 2017, news conference, Trump said that the “closest I came to Russia” was in selling a Palm Beach mansion to a Russian oligarch in 2008. While we’re just learning precisely how dishonest this was, Putin has known it all along. That means that throughout Trump’s campaign and presidency, Putin has had the power to plunge him into political crisis.
“If the Russians are aware that senior American officials are publicly stating things that are not true, it’s a counterintelligence nightmare,” Rep Adam Schiff, D-Calif, who is in line to take over the House Intelligence Committee, told me.
As he points out, this issue contributed to former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s downfall. Flynn, you might remember, appeared to have lied to Vice President Mike Pence about his conversations with the Russian ambassador. This alarmed Sally Yates, then the acting attorney general, because the Russians would have known that Flynn was deceiving Pence, and could have used that knowledge against him. “Logic would tell you that you don’t want the national security adviser to be in a position where the Russians have leverage over him,” Yates told the Senate last year.
The same, said Schiff, “is true in spades for the president of the United States.”
Speaking to reporters before flying to Argentina on Thursday, Trump justified his pursuit of a Moscow project this way: “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?” This could be read as a confession of motive. In the 2016 campaign, Russia wanted to humiliate Hillary Clinton and delegitimise America’s election. Trump wanted help building his brand.
In light of some other recent revelations in the Mueller inquiry, we can even see Trump getting talking points, albeit indirectly, from Moscow.
This week, Jerome Corsi, a right-wing conspiracy theorist who appears to have been a conduit between the Trump campaign and WikiLeaks, released a copy of what he said was a draft statement of offense against him, given to him during plea negotiations with Mueller. On Aug 2, 2016, Corsi wrote to Roger Stone, the political dirty trickster in frequent contact with Trump, about the “word” on coming document dumps from WikiLeaks. “Would not hurt to start suggesting HRC old, memory bad, has stroke,” wrote Corsi.
Shortly afterward, Trump started making sustained attacks on Clinton’s purported lack of “mental and physical stamina.” (Corsi has since said, on MSNBC, that his apparent foreknowledge of WikiLeaks’ plans came through a flash of divine intervention on a trans-Atlantic flight.)
There are still many shoes to drop in this scandal. “Given the extraordinary obsequiousness the president has shown in his relationship with Putin, it begs the question of whether there’s more leverage than this,” said Schiff. “That’s one of the reasons why we’re so determined to make sure that we look into any credible allegations of financial entanglements, whether that involves potential Russian money laundering in the Trump Organization or anything else.”
But even before those inquiries begin, we can see that Putin has been in possession of crucial information about Trump’s business interests that the president deliberately hid from the American people. In a normal political world, Republicans would have enough patriotism to find this alarming and humiliating. Every day of the Trump presidency is a national security emergency. The question now is whether Senate Republicans, who could actually do something about it, will ever be moved to care.
© 2018 New York Times News Service