All about the money
From the beginning of special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe, I have believed that Donald Trump’s greed would provide the key to his relationship with Russia. It never made sense that Trump was a Manchurian candidate intent on betraying America’s interests for ideological reasons. Trump has no ideology as usually understood, his “America first” pronouncements notwithstanding. Trump is all about the money, accumulating it any way he can, whether through defrauding wannabe real estate moguls at Trump University, slapping his name on mediocre steaks and vodka or building and licensing glitzy hotels and golf courses around the world. Now it turns out that what Trump wanted from Russian President Vladimir Putin well into the presidential election in 2016 was a Moscow Trump Tower he’d been dreaming about since the 1980s.
On Thursday, Trump’s longtime fixer, Michael Cohen, testified that contrary to everything Trump has said until that point and despite Cohen’s sworn testimony to Congress, Trump was trying to secure a deal until the eve of his nomination. Cohen admitted that he was in contact with Russians on Trump’s behalf as late as June 14, 2016, even though then-candidate Trump said repeatedly he had no business dealings with Russia. But Cohen may not be the only person in Trump’s circle who was pursuing Trump Tower Moscow. Trump’s children Don Jr. and Ivanka were also involved in trying to realize their father’s dream.
Now that Cohen has admitted to lying to Congress about Trump’s Russia dealing, the next logical question is, Who else lied? The president’s eldest son also testified at length before Congress and was asked about his dealings with Russia. Both Don Jr. and Ivanka worked on an earlier attempt to secure a Trump Moscow property in 2013, which involved some of the same people Cohen worked with in 2016, specifically Felix Sater but also Aras and Emin Agalarov, who were key figures in the infamous Trump Tower meeting set up by Don Jr. and attended by Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner, among others. But did Don Jr. claim, as Cohen had until his appearance in court this week, that the Trump Organization had abandoned its plans for a Moscow hotel in January 2016? Perhaps more importantly, did the ultimate decision to abandon the deal after June 14, 2016, have anything to do with Don Jr.’s meeting at Trump Tower with a group of Russians a week earlier? That meeting, Don Jr.’s emails show, was set up to discuss promised “dirt” on Hillary Clinton that Russia claimed was about to drop.
Until the Trump Tower meeting, Trump’s aim may well have been simple: use his candidacy to get Putin to agree to a lucrative business deal. Trump seems to have tried everything else, including dangling a $50 million penthouse suite for Putin as part of a Moscow hotel, according to BuzzFeed News. But after the Trump Tower meeting, things changed, and Cohen dropped the hotel project.
We know now that Russian agents hacked not only Clinton’s email account, the contents of which WikiLeaks released early in the presidential campaign, but also the Democratic National Committee’s, news of which was reported June 14, the very day Cohen had his last communication on the Moscow deal. Don Jr. claims he doesn’t remember much about the Trump Tower meeting, and his father says he knew nothing about it until it became public in July 2017. But if Don Jr. lied to Congress when he testified about the meeting, he is in real legal jeopardy. The same holds for Kushner.
It is altogether possible that Donald Trump believes neither he nor anyone close to him “colluded” with the Russians. His initial aim was to get his longed-for hotel in Moscow, a deal that would have made him millions. He did what he always did in business: He courted, flattered and offered inducements while chasing the deal. If he said some nice things about Putin, softened the tone regarding Putin’s abuses in Ukraine and changed a little wording in the Republican platform, well, so what? But then he realized he might actually become president of the United States — or so the Russians were promising Don Jr. and Cohen. What could be better than a Trump Tower in Red Square? The White House. There will be plenty of time for the hotels and the millions, even billions, later.
Linda Chavez is chair of the Center for Equal Opportunity and a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center.