Lawyer Admits Trump Contacted Russia For Help With Building Project During Campaign

Aug 29, 2017
Originally published on August 29, 2017 6:06 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Now an update on the investigation into Russia's meddling in last year's presidential election. New bits of information keep trickling out. The latest - one of President Trump's personal lawyers has acknowledged that he reached out to the Russian government during the presidential campaign. He says he wanted help with a building project, and he says nothing ever came of that request. NPR's national security editor Phil Ewing joins us now with more. Hi, Phil.

PHILIP EWING, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Tell us about who this attorney is and what exactly happened when he reached out to Moscow.

EWING: His name is Michael Cohen. As you mentioned, he's one of Trump's personal lawyers, and he's worked for Trump and the Trump Organization for a long time. He also did some campaign appearances for him on TV and other work during the campaign last year. He's acknowledged that he sent a statement to congressional committees that are investigating the Russia matter, and NPR has obtained a copy of the statement.

And Cohen describes how at the time that Trump started his presidential run in 2015, the company had already been working for some months to try to start a project to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. This is something they've been trying to do for several years. And another guy in Trump's orbit, a deal broker named Felix Sater, sent an email to Cohen and said he could use his connections with the Russian government to make this happen. There were some good stories on this in The New York Times this week and The Washington Post.

The Times had a story that quoted from Sater's email, and I'm just going to read to you one of the things he said. He said this. Quote, "I know how to play it, and we will get this done. Buddy, our boy can become president of the USA, and we can engineer it. I will get all of Putin's team to buy in on this." That's, again, from this Trump aide, Felix Sater. So at his recommendation, Cohen, the attorney, sent an email to Dmitry Peskov, who's a spokesman for Putin, asking for help with this Trump Tower project in Moscow.

SHAPIRO: And did they hear back from the Russians?

EWING: Cohen says no, that nothing came of this and that even though they've been trying to do this building project in Moscow, they eventually decided not to do it for, as he says, business reasons.

SHAPIRO: You describe this guy Felix Sater as a dealmaker and a Trump aide. Who is he?

EWING: He's a very interesting character. He's kind of a bit of a ne'er-do-well according to the accounts about him. He's been involved with alleged financial scams, criminal behavior, according to the allegations. And he also served time in jail for assaulting a man in a bar fight. But he's also described himself as a special assistant to Trump, somebody the company could go to to help make deals and make connections. Cohen says Sater was not on the Trump payroll at this time either for the campaign or the company, and he only would have gotten paid if they had done this deal in Moscow to build this building.

But let me read you another pitch that Sater made, again, according to The New York Times, for the kind of access that he said he could deliver. Quote, "Michael, I've arranged for Ivanka" - this is Trump's daughter - "to sit in Putin's private chair at his desk and office in the Kremlin. I will get Putin on this program, and we will get Donald elected."

SHAPIRO: Situate this in the context of what we've been learning about Trump and Russia particularly given Trump's repeated insistence that he and his team had nothing to do with Russia.

EWING: That's exactly right. They've said they were running the business and they were running the campaign, and the two things didn't have anything to do with each other. But on the inside, one lesson that these emails provide is that they were making these connections on their own internally. They were saying, if we can do this big deal in Moscow and get help from the Russian government, that in turn will help us with the campaign that Trump was running inside the United States.

SHAPIRO: And with these investigations ongoing, are we likely to be getting more information like this in the weeks to come?

EWING: Yeah, I think there's a very good chance that the Trump Organization has given thousands and thousands of documents to these congressional committees. The Justice Department continues its investigations. There could be more hearings that take place next month when Congress comes back. So the chances are very good that September on this story, anyway, is going to be a very busy month.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Phil Ewing, thanks a lot.

EWING: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.