- Stephanie Keith/Reuters
A former associate of President Donald Trump’s boasted in emails to Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, that a proposed Moscow real-estate deal would “get Donald elected.” Cohen then wrote an email to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, asking for his “assistance” in the project. The emails were exchanged between November 2015 and January 2016, months into Trump’s presidential campaign.
The Russian-born businessman who pushed for the Trump Organization to pursue a massive real-estate deal in Moscow during the 2016 presidential election was spotted at Trump Tower months after the deal fell apart.
The businessman, Felix Sater, told Politico at the time that the purpose of his visit last July was “confidential.” But his presence there seven months after the Moscow real-estate deal fell through, and less than three months before Election Day, raises questions about who in President Donald Trump’s orbit he was still in touch with – and why.
Some answers could lie in a referral from the White House on Sunday night. Asked to comment on reports that the Trump Organization had pursued this deal, a senior administration official first directed questions to Trump’s lawyer in the Russia investigation, Ty Cobb.
Minutes later, the official backtracked and referred questions to Stephen Ryan, the lawyer for Michael Cohen – Trump’s personal attorney at the time the Moscow deal was pursued. Ryan did not respond to a request for comment.
Cohen, who was the executive vice president of the Trump Organization until he resigned in January to serve as Trump’s personal lawyer full time, had been in touch with Sater about the Moscow deal, according to The Washington Post.
Emails exchanged between Sater and Cohen – who have known each other since they were teenagers – in November 2015 indicate that they were preparing to celebrate not only Trump’s election victory, but also the potential Russia deal. Sater boasted of his ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin in the emails, which were obtained by The New York Times on Monday, telling Cohen that he would “get all of Putins team to buy in” on the Moscow deal.
“Our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it,” Sater wrote, according to The Times. “I will get Putin on this program and we will get Donald elected.”
Two months later, Cohen emailed Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, asking for his “assistance” in pushing the deal through, according to emails submitted to congressional investigators and read to The Post on Monday.
“Over the past few months I have been working with a company based in Russia regarding the development of a Trump Tower – Moscow project in Moscow City,” Cohen wrote Peskov, The Post reported. “Without getting into lengthy specifics the communication between our two sides has stalled.”
Cohen continued: “As this project is too important, I am hereby requesting your assistance. I respectfully request someone, preferably you, contact me so that I might discuss the specifics as well as arranging meetings with the appropriate individuals. I thank you in advance for your assistance and look forward to hearing from you soon.”
The Times’ Maggie Haberman said on Twitter that Cohen sent the email to a generic Kremlin email address that was not Peskov’s. Cohen told The Post that he never heard back from Peskov and that the deal was scrapped by late January 2016.
‘I’m not that familiar with him’
Sater told Talking Points Memo earlier this month that the Russia deal “didn’t go through because obviously he became president.” The Trump Organization, which employed Cohen at the time, had signed a letter of intent to pursue the deal, according to The Post.
Cohen told The Times that Sater “sometimes used colorful language and has been prone to ‘salesmanship,'” adding that he “ultimately determined that the proposal was not feasible and never agreed to make a trip to Russia.”
But that Cohen, who has been called Trump’s “pit bull,” was in touch with Sater as late as November 2015 indicates that the Trump Organization’s relationship with Sater went deeper than Trump let on that December.
“Felix Sater, boy, I have to even think about it,” Trump told The Associated Press at the time. “I’m not that familiar with him.”
- Getty/Drew Angerer
Sater, who was accused nearly two decades ago of being a conspirator in a $40 million fraud and money-laundering scheme involving four Mafia families, began advising the Trump Organization while he was an executive at the real-estate firm Bayrock in the early 2000s. He began scoping out deals for the Trump Organization in Russia in 2005 and accompanied Trump’s daughter Ivanka and son Donald Jr. to Moscow in 2006.
Trump testified under oath in 2007 that Bayrock frequently brought Russian investors to his Trump Tower office to discuss deals in Moscow, and when Sater joined the Trump Organization in 2010, he was given a business card that said “senior advisor.”
By 2013, however, Trump was denying having any close ties to Sater at all. Trump said in a sworn deposition that year that he wouldn’t recognize Sater if they were in the same room, and he bristled when a BBC reporter asked him about his connection to the Russian-born businessman.
“I know who he is. I know of him, and I know who he is,” Trump said before walking out of the interview.
‘Interesting as it relates to Michael Cohen’
The revelations are likely to give the FBI and the House and Senate intelligence committees more reason to dig into Cohen’s past. The congressional committees asked Cohen in May to provide information about his contacts with Russian officials, and he is reportedly under scrutiny by the FBI.
Renato Mariotti, a former assistant US attorney who’s a longtime federal prosecutor, said Sunday night that he thought the report about the Trump Organization pursuing the Moscow deal was “interesting as it relates to Michael Cohen, who allegedly had unusual contacts with Russia much later on.”
Mariotti said he wasn’t surprised that the Trump Organization had a potential investment in Russia, and that whether Robert Mueller, the special counsel leading the FBI’s investigation into Russia’s election interference, finds the information relevant would depend on whether Trump knew anything about the deal.
But given that the deal “got scuttled,” Mariotti said, “it’s mostly relevant for giving context to what people like Cohen did later.”
Cohen evidently maintained contact with Sater through at least January of this year. One week after Trump was inaugurated, Cohen and Sater met with a Ukrainian lawmaker, Andrey Artemenko, at a New York City hotel to discuss a potential Russia-Ukraine peace plan that would involve lifting sanctions on Russia.
Both Cohen’s and Sater’s wives are Ukrainian, and Artemenko told Business Insider in interviews earlier this year that he felt it was his patriotic duty to find a peaceful solution to the war.
Cohen previously acknowledged in a series of text messages to Business Insider that he met with Sater and Artemenko in New York for “under 10 minutes” to discuss a proposal that Artemenko had said was “acknowledged by Russian authorities that would create world peace.”
Cohen was mentioned in an explosive but unverified collection of memos detailing the Trump campaign’s ties to the Kremlin that was published in full by BuzzFeed in January. The memos – which cited high-level Kremlin officials whom Christopher Steele, a British spy, said he cultivated during his time on MI6’s Moscow desk – alleged that Cohen served as a go-between for the campaign and Moscow during the election.
Cohen has denied the charge and insists he has never been to Prague, where the dossier said he met with “Kremlin representatives” in “August/September 2016.”
But the revelation about the Moscow deal “looks very bad for team Trump,” said Andrew Wright, a professor at Savannah Law School who served in the White House as an associate counsel to President Barack Obama.
“It stands in stark contrast to all Trump’s blanket denials about contacts with Russia,” Wright said.
“If true, these contacts demonstrates a nexus between Trump Organization business dealings and US policy toward Russia and Ukraine,” Wright said. “It also presents a number of further evidence trails that Mueller’s team will feel compelled to pursue.”