After a brief respite, no less than three separate media stories dropped on Monday afternoon shedding new light on the nature of President Donald Trump’s ties to the Russian Government during the presidential campaign. Over the past year, as stories have slowly dribbled out, we have come to learn that – initial protestations and denials notwithstanding – there was far more to the president’s connections to Russia than that which he or his associates were originally admitting. Monday’s stories were no different in that regard. While appropriate caution should still be applied, and no one should jump to conclusions based on these fragmented pieces of the puzzle, there are three essential things we learned about the Russia investigation on Monday that will be material to the ongoing inquiry.
First, the fallacy that President Trump did not have any type of financial connection to Russia has been definitively exposed as, at best, a nuanced and misleading statement. The President, his family and his aides have repeatedly stated that the Trump Organization has no business involvement in Russia, and had not had any since the Miss Universe Pageant in 2013. These claims were made despite well-publicized efforts by the Trump Organization, dating back to the 1980s, to establish a foothold in Russia. Monday’s stories demonstrated that the truth was that in October 2015 President Trump had gone so far as to sign a “letter of intent” to license his name to a prospective Trump Tower project in Moscow. This type of document is admittedly a preliminary procedural step, and one that is easily dissolved if favorable conditions render the proposition infeasible (as is now being claimed). That said, it renders the defiant and categorical denials made by the president in the past as disingenuous at a minimum. He may not have had any finalized business in Russia, but he certainly had been trying to create some and had been doing so while simultaneously running for president of the United States.
Second, these new stories made a mockery of past denials by the president and his associates that they did not have any and had no interest in having contacts with the Russian Government during the campaign. In November 2015, Felix Sater, a Trump Organization business associate at the time, boasted to Michael Cohen, the president’s personal attorney, that they could engineer the election of President Trump and that Mr. Sater could “get all of Putin’s team to buy in on this”. Two months later, Mr. Cohen directly e-mailed President Putin’s personal spokesperson for assistance in getting things moving with respect to the Trump Tower project in Moscow. Mr. Sater is known for self-serving and grandiose puffery, and Mr. Cohen insists the Trump Tower project was dissolved for business reasons unrelated to the campaign, but the emergence of more and greater coincidences cannot be ignored. For a presidential campaign that absolutely and positively had no interest in nor ties to the Russian Government, the candidate’s associates and advisors sure were privately expressing confidence in how they could secure assistance from the Russian Government and at least attempting to engage in discussions with senior Russian officials (including President Putin himself).
Third and last, this additional information has brought into sharp relief why President Trump and some of his current personal attorneys, such as Jay Sekulow, have been so defensive about Special Counsel Robert Mueller exploring the details of the president’s past financial and business interactions. Prior to becoming president, Donald Trump operated in a business environment with far less public scrutiny, and in which he co-existed by arguable necessity with various business associates of questionable repute. It borders on axiomatic that in order to understand the nature of any possible criminal collusion that may have occurred between the Trump campaign and Russian officials, Mr. Mueller will have to explore the details of those past business interactions. If in fact there was any inappropriate – to say nothing of criminal – coordination between the Russian Government and the Trump campaign, it would have been due to relationships and business ties that pre-dated President Trump’s announcement of his presidential campaign.
We now know that there were at least semblances of pre-existing relationships; whether there was more to those relationships, and if they ultimately resulted in criminal behavior on the part of campaign aides or the president himself, remains to be seen. Is it just a coincidence that six months after Mr. Cohen e-mailed President Putin’s senior aide there was the now-infamous meeting between Donald Trump, Jr., Paul Manafort, Jared Kushner, and Russian nationals to discuss promised opposition research on Hillary Clinton that allegedly was being provided by the Russian Government? It certainly may be the case but before any definitive conclusions can be reached it will be necessary for Mr. Mueller to investigate the full spectrum of information.
That means the Russia investigation will likely continue to drag on for many more months at least. And the beat will play on.