Latest On Trump Tower Moscow Revelations
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This morning, President Trump is in Argentina meeting with world leaders at the G-20 summit. But the president clearly has the Russia probe on his mind and in his Twitter feed. He's responding to new revelations from his former lawyer Michael Cohen, who pleaded guilty to a series of lies this week. Cohen says he made false statements to Congress to cover up Trump Organization talks about a Trump Tower in Moscow and about when those talks ended. This morning, the president tweeted the following defense. Quote, "against all odds, I decide to run for president and continue to run my business. Very legal and very cool. Talked about it on the campaign trail. Lightly looked at doing a building somewhere in Russia. Put up zero money, zero guarantees and didn't do the project. Witch hunt," exclamation point.
Evidence now shows Donald Trump's company continued those discussions about a Moscow Trump Tower at least up until June 2016 while Russia was interfering in the U.S. election to benefit Donald Trump. BuzzFeed News published a report back in May about the Trump Organization's plans in Russia. Anthony Cormier was one of those reporters. And he's been following this story this week, and he joins us now. Thanks for being here.
ANTHONY CORMIER: Hi. Thanks, Rachel.
MARTIN: So has Michael Cohen, this week, just confirmed your reporting from last spring?
CORMIER: Essentially, yeah. The special counsel did, anyway.
MARTIN: Tell us what you found back then.
CORMIER: Well, essentially, they had publicly - the Congress, Michael and others from the Trump Organization had said that they had sort of broken off negotiations far earlier - at least January - and that they were no longer sort of negotiating this deal, you know, as Trump was running for president. And that turned out to be simply just false. We obtained text messages and emails that showed Mr. Cohen and a business associate, Felix Sater, had been deep into negotiations behind the scenes at least into June. They were considering a trip for the president himself to Russia with to meet with Vladimir Putin following the GOP convention in Cleveland.
MARTIN: So these are all things the special counsel has now confirmed via this admission by Michael Cohen. You mentioned the name Felix Sater. That will be familiar to some in our audience but not all. Can you place him in the Trump universe for us?
CORMIER: Sure. Absolutely. Felix Sater is a businessman. He's a convicted stock swindler and has for at least a decade been one of the U.S. government's most important cooperators. He helped intelligence agencies and law enforcement officials on everything from terrorism, to money laundering to potential assassination attempts. He worked with the Trump Organization on a number of deals, was very close to Michael Cohen. The two of them grew up together here at Brooklyn. Excuse me. Brooklyn, Queens. And he was sort of the main protagonist here to getting this deal done in Russia. He had contacts there and was hoping that Michael could help convince Trump this was, you know, finally that the time to do a deal in Russia that they had been pursuing for at least three decades.
MARTIN: In the course of your investigation back then what did you discover about how much Donald Trump knew about all of these plans, even as he ran his presidential campaign?
CORMIER: Right. Well, in the text messages and the emails, it became clear that Michael was telling Felix Sater that the president was on board, that he was briefing him and the president knew that these were progressing. And in fact in a subsequent report that we wrote, we had Ivanka Trump pushing behind the scenes in emails to Mr. Cohen, as well. So we knew both from the messages and from our own sort of individual reporting that Trump and the family - at least, Ivanka - knew that this was an ongoing deal and they were actively seeking him - or actively pushing him to close it.
MARTIN: But we should be clear. Even with all that and Michael Cohen's admission of lying to Congress, there is still no evidence that Trump has broken any laws. Right? Even if this is true.
CORMIER: Absolutely not. Absolutely. At the moment, we are not alleging that the president of the United States did anything illegal. I'll leave it to others to judge whether or not it's a good thing for the president or a candidate to be negotiating behind the scenes with the head of a foreign state. But at the moment, absolutely not. This story they're reporting now does not indicate any kind of collusion, any kind of illegality.
MARTIN: Right. At most, it would be an ethical violation, which is, we should say, it's not insignificant. But it doesn't meet the threshold of breaking laws at this point. I want to ask you about another detail of all this that has emerged. And again, it involves Felix Sater, whom you spoke with again this week about a promise of a penthouse related to Vladimir Putin. What can you tell us there?
CORMIER: So a number of sources told us yesterday that as part of these negotiations, Felix Sater proposed to Michael, and Michael Cohen agreed, that they would build this tower, or license the Trump name to the tower, get it built. And, through some mechanism that we haven't fully understood yet, they would give the penthouse, a $50 million penthouse, directly to Vladimir Putin as a way to entice other oligarchs and wealthy businesspeople to buy units there. It's our understanding from two different sources and U.S. law enforcement that Mr. Cohen broached this subject with government officials during a phone call.
MARTIN: Russian government officials.
CORMIER: Russian government officials during a phone call with the assistant to - you know, the Kremlin press secretary, a rather important figure in Russia. So we understood that this was more than just a simple, you know, fly-by-night sort of idea, that Michael at least broached it with Kremlin officials.
MARTIN: And you don't know whether Vladimir Putin was actually even made aware of this, but clearly, there were people on his behalf who were at least interested.
CORMIER: Absolutely not. We have no confirmation that this went any further than a simple phone call between Michael Cohen and a Kremlin official. There's no indication at all at this point that either President Trump or President Putin knew that this was on the table.
MARTIN: Buzzfeed reporter Anthony Cormier sharing his reporting on the Trump Tower plans in Moscow. Thank you so much. We appreciate it.
CORMIER: Thanks again. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.