I’ve written about the lengths the Trump Organization went to to build Europe’s tallest skyscraper in Moscow during the 2016 campaign, and about why those efforts (and the lies they told about them) constitute impeachable offenses. I don’t want to rehash all of that here. Instead, I just want to paint a portrait that I hope will illustrate my point.
The president’s attorney Michael Cohen is going to jail in part because he lied to committees in both the House and Senate about the details and timing of the Moscow Trump Tower deal. Thanks in large part to electronic records obtained by BuzzFeed, we have an extraordinary amount of detail about the work Cohen and his childhood friend Felix Sater did in an effort to make a tower deal happen. In fact, we even have some insight into how much effort the Trump Organization put into it, including detailed architectural plans and a lot of man-hours from their legal department as they hammered out the contractual language.
A key part of Cohen’s perjury has to do with his false claim that he decided to shut down the project in January, 2016, “before the Iowa caucus and months before the very first primary.” In truth, the effort continued on much later into the year. One major reason Cohen initially thought he could get away with this lie is that in January Sater and Cohen stopped using regular chat and email to correspond with each other.
Sater has told investigators that during the first months of 2016, he and Cohen were using Dust, at Cohen’s suggestion, to communicate secretly about the Moscow project. Those messages, which were encrypted and are deleted automatically, have disappeared forever, Sater told BuzzFeed News.
Presumably, it’s true that Cohen and Sater’s communications in the late winter and early spring of 2016 have been lost forever. But there are other records from the time period that demonstrate that Sater was still working feverishly to make a deal, and as part of that he was trying to get both Cohen and Trump to travel to Russia to meet with top Kremlin officials, possibly including Vladimir Putin himself.
By May, with the Republican nomination all but secured for Trump, Cohen and Sater were back to communicating on unencrypted channels. They discussed whether Trump should travel to Russia before or after the July 18-21 Republican National Convention in Cleveland. Cohen said he would travel prior to the convention but that Trump’s trip would have to wait until after “he becomes the nominee after the convention.”
Working, he claimed, with Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov, Sater won Cohen an invitation to attend the June 16-18 St. Petersburg International Economic Forum. However, he ran into a snag trying to get Cohen a visa in time for the trip. On June 13, he received the documents he needed Cohen to fill out, but realized that it would take Russia five days to process the application. On June 14, he received a “visa support letter” from someone at the Roscongress Foundation who was helping to organize the forum and was assured that he could use it to get an expedited visa within 24 hours. Early that morning, he began texting Cohen to let him know that they needed to take care of the visa that day, but Cohen did not immediately respond. It wasn’t until shortly after noon that Cohen finally got back to him.
Around 11:35 am, approximately a half hour before Cohen told Sater he would call him in two minutes, the Washington Post broke the story that Russian hackers had broken into the DNC and stolen documents, including the Democrats’ opposition research file on Trump. If Cohen was not aware the story had been published at 12:06 pm, he certainly was aware of it by 2:41 pm when Sater arrived at Trump Tower to pick Cohen up to deal with the visa issue.
Cohen marched down from his office high up in Trump Tower to meet with Sater in the atrium snack bar. It was there that he explained to Sater that he would not be making the trip to St. Petersburg after all. Here is how the meeting is described in the Office of Special Counsel’s indictment of Cohen, in which Sater is referred to as “Individual 2.”
The Russians were trying to be clever when they made the first thing they released from the stolen documents the opposition research file on Trump. This made it look like Trump was the one being harmed by the breach. But no one was fooled for very long, and certainly within the Trump Organization it was immediately understood that the Moscow Trump Tower project was going to have to be shelved. That explains why Cohen did an abrupt about-face and cancelled his plans to get a visa that day.
Yet, Sater did not give up.
Sater kept holding out hope — working his sources in Russia right through the convention — until July 26, 2016, when Sater, while relaxing in the backyard of his Long Island home, read a tweet by Trump and knew right then that the deal was dead.
For the record, I have ZERO investments in Russia.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 26, 2016
“Fuck me, I thought to myself. All that work for nothing,” Sater told BuzzFeed News.
He poured himself a big glass of scotch, he recalled, and lit a cigar.
What finally convinced Sater that the Moscow Trump Tower deal was dead was seeing Donald Trump explicitly deny on July 26, 2016 that he had any investments in Russia. It was far from the first time that Trump had made that kind of denial, but the context was now different. On July 22, WikiLeaks did their first major dump of DNC files, timed to prevent the unification of the Clinton and Sanders camps at the Democratic National Convention and leading to the immediate resignation of DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
Sater knew that there was no longer any way that Trump could be seen as seeking a business deal with Moscow.
What he also knew is that he and the Russians now had absolute leverage over Trump and his campaign. At any time, they could reveal all the work they had been doing on the tower during the primaries while Trump was denying that he had financial ties or interests in Russia.
Ending the effort to build the tallest skyscraper in Europe didn’t make the candidate’s vulnerability go away in the least. The vulnerability did not disappear when he won the election or when he became the president. Trump was compromised and would never actually escape from the net he had created for himself.
It’s hard to envision anything that would be more of an impeachable offense.