Michael Cohen outside the federal courthouse in Manhattan on Thursday. (Julie Jacobson/AP)
Opinion writer

Thanks to a new plea agreement that Michael Cohen has reached with the special counsel, we now know that Donald Trump and his company were pursuing a real estate deal in Russia up until June 2016 — around the time he clinched the Republican nomination for president.

Cohen, who was formerly Trump’s lawyer and all-around fixer, lied about this to Congress, originally claiming that discussions about the project broke off in January 2016. He did this, according to the plea filing, in order to “minimize links” between the Trump Tower Moscow project and Trump himself, and to create the “false impression” that the talks with Russia had ended before the “first primary.”

That’s because it would look a lot worse if discussions about the project had been taking place while primary voting was underway. Well, it now looks as though that’s exactly what happened.

We now know that, according to Cohen, the negotiations with Russia went on long after the “first primary.” The efforts to secure this deal continued, unbeknownst to just about everyone, throughout the first half of 2016, while Republican primary voters chose their nominee for president — who turned out, of course, to be Trump.

From the plea filing, we also now know that Cohen admits to having briefed Trump himself on the progress of the project more times than previously disclosed. It also tells us that, according to Cohen, the talks involved Russian President Vladimir Putin’s office. Cohen discussed the project with a Putin aide, and someone close to Putin eventually became involved. Cohen also revealed that he and Trump discussed the possibility of a Trump trip to Russia related to the project.

As David Corn of Mother Jones sums it up: “Trump was secretly interacting with Putin’s office in order to make money while he was campaigning for president.”

Indeed, this continued through the period during which Trump’s nomination became inevitable. Conservative writer David French put it this way:

For sure, but I submit that the revelations are actually worse than this. Here’s why: Throughout this whole period, Trump the presidential candidate repeatedly talked up Putin and stated in many different ways that as president, he’d pursue good relations with him and Russia.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with arguing for better relations with Russia. But the point is that this was repeatedly presented to voters as a good-faith declaration of what Trump intended to do as president, in keeping with his vision of what would be good for the United States. Yet voters were not told that Trump’s business organization was trying to negotiate a major real estate deal in Moscow at the same time.

Here’s a rundown of some of Trump’s statements along these lines, per compilations by CNN and Foreign Policy:

  • In January 2016, Trump tried to absolve Putin of blame after a British inquiry found that Putin had probably ordered the 2006 poisoning of a Russian dissident. “I don’t think they’ve found him guilty,” Trump said, adding that “he hasn’t been convicted of anything,” as well as “he says he didn’t do it” and “who knows who did it.”
  • In February 2016, Trump said it would be “good if we actually got along” with Russia, adding: “I think I’d have a good relationship with Putin.”
  • In April 2016, Trump said that Putin had been “very nice to me,” adding that if we can “get along with Russia, that would be a tremendous thing. I would love to try it.”
  • Also in April 2016, Trump said: “We’re going to have a great relationship with Putin and Russia.”
  • In May 2016, Trump said that Russia wants “to be friendly with the United States. Wouldn’t it be nice if we actually got with somebody?”

Trump also repeatedly praised Putin throughout 2015, during the earlier period of negotiations over the project (which we now know continued deep into 2016).

It is, of course, possible that Trump would have said all these things even if there were no business dealings with Russia underway. But either way, voters deserved to know those discussions were happening. And now, with the new revelations, that whole display from Trump looks potentially more conflict-ridden and corrupt than it did at the time.