If you’ve been reading Political Animal, it probably seems like the New York Times is pretty late to the party in finally explaining what it means that Donald Trump spent all of the 2016 campaign in pursuit of a mammoth real estate deal in Moscow. The archives here are chock full of articles on Trump’s efforts to construct Europe’s tallest skyscraper in the Russian capital. One example, from August 28, 2017, was titled Trump Has Been Lying About Russia and Felix Sater All Along. In that piece, I summarized the situation by recapping why Trump had been asked about his possible business interests in Russia in the first place, and why he had felt compelled to deny that he had any.
For now, let’s just try to remember why Trump denied having business deals in Russia. He denied it because he demonstrated an abnormal tendency to praise Vladimir Putin that was hard to understand absent some financial incentive for doing so. That he either had Russian deals that were vulnerable or wished to pursue Russian deals and didn’t want to jeopardize them was such an obvious inference that it didn’t need to be explained to anyone. He was asked if these were the explanations for his behavior and he said the whole idea was made up and ludicrous.
But people’s suspicions were 100 percent accurate. He was lying the entire time.
I wrote that a year and a half ago, but only today is the New York Times really getting to the point where they’re willing to make the same flat assertions of fact. The delay seems to be explained by some strange reticence that was only overcome when the president’s television-lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani, admitted that the negotiations for a tower in Moscow only truly ended when his client was elected president.
The comments by his lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani indicated that Mr. Trump’s efforts to complete a business deal in Russia waned only after Americans cast ballots in the presidential election.
The new timetable means that Mr. Trump was seeking a deal at the time he was calling for an end to economic sanctions against Russia imposed by the Obama administration. He was seeking a deal when he gave interviews questioning the legitimacy of NATO, a favorite talking point of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. And he was seeking a deal when, in July 2016, he called on Russia to release hacked Democratic emails that Mr. Putin’s government was rumored at the time to have stolen.
The Trump Tower Moscow discussions were “going on from the day I announced to the day I won,” Mr. Giuliani quoted Mr. Trump as saying during an interview with The New York Times.
For me, it has never particularly mattered much when or if Trump may have given up on the Moscow Tower idea. What was significant was that he had been pursuing it at all. The significance went far beyond what it could tell us about Trump’s motivations for taking pro-Putin positions. It went beyond what it told us about his honesty. The main problem was that the Russians not only knew that Trump was lying but that they could expose his lies at any time. In the end, CNN wound up obtaining a copy of the letter of intent Donald Trump personally signed on October 28, 2015. It was an agreement with the Kremlin. Had news of the existence of that agreement come out during the primaries or the general election, it likely would have ended any chance Trump had of winning the presidency.
Here’s one reminder of how the allegations about Trump looked in 2016.
A month before Donald Trump clinched the Republican nomination, one of his closest allies in Congress — House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy — made a politically explosive assertion in a private conversation on Capitol Hill with his fellow GOP leaders: that Trump could be the beneficiary of payments from Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“There’s two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump,” McCarthy (R-Calif.) said, according to a recording of the June 15, 2016, exchange, which was listened to and verified by The Washington Post.
Here’s another reminder, from the third and final presidential debate. Hillary Clinton told the moderator, Chris Wallace of Fox News, that “the most important question of the evening” was whether or not Donald Trump would “admit and condemn” that the Russians were interfering in the election on his behalf. She said Putin preferred Trump because he was a puppet. She told Trump that the problem was “that you encouraged espionage against our people, that you are willing to spout the Putin line, sign up for his wish list, break up NATO, do whatever he wants to do.”
Here’s most of the segment that followed:
CLINTON: …So I think that this is such an unprecedented situation. We’ve never had a foreign government trying to interfere in our election. We have 17 — 17 intelligence agencies, civilian and military, who have all concluded that these espionage attacks, these cyberattacks, come from the highest levels of the Kremlin and they are designed to influence our election. I find that deeply disturbing.
WALLACE: Secretary Clinton…
CLINTON: And I think it’s time you take a stand…
TRUMP: She has no idea whether it’s Russia, China, or anybody else.
CLINTON: I am not quoting myself.
TRUMP: She has no idea.
CLINTON: I am quoting 17…
TRUMP: Hillary, you have no idea.
CLINTON: … 17 intelligence — do you doubt 17 military and civilian…
TRUMP: And our country has no idea.
CLINTON: … agencies.
TRUMP: Yeah, I doubt it. I doubt it.
CLINTON: Well, he’d rather believe Vladimir Putin than the military and civilian intelligence professionals who are sworn to protect us. I find that just absolutely…
TRUMP: She doesn’t like Putin because Putin has outsmarted her at every step of the way.
That exchange makes a lot more sense in retrospect. Everything Clinton alleged was correct, and we saw the most egregious example of Trump believing Vladimir Putin over his own military and civilian intelligence professionals in Helsinki in June 2018.
In the third debate, Trump was denying Russia’s role in the hacking and praising Putin’s savvy and intelligence for two reasons. The first was that he did not expect to win the election and was more interested in getting a real estate deal in Moscow which Giuliani has now admitted he was still actively pursuing at the time. The second reason was that Putin had controlled him since at least the moment he signed a letter of intent to build the tower.
That second reason did not go away when Trump won the presidency. During the campaign, there were people behind the scenes who had read parts of the Steele Dossier and wondered if Putin might have embarrassing sex tapes that explained Trump’s behavior. But Putin didn’t need any sex tapes. He had a letter of intent.
Trump spent the entirety of 2016 susceptible to Russian blackmail. This vulnerability certainly increased throughout the year, especially after the now infamous Trump Tower meeting where Trump Jr., Manafort, and Kushner met with Kremlin emissaries offering dirt on Clinton. But Putin held Trump’s fate in his hands from no later than October 2015.
This has been known (or at least knowable) since the summer of 2017 when I began writing about it. Nothing about what I’ve been writing has changed in any meaningful way since that time.