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Opinion After the latest Mueller news, these corrupt Trump moves look much worse

(Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

The latest revelations in the Russia saga should refocus our attention on a critical period during the 2016 presidential campaign. I’m talking about the seven weeks or so that began in June 2016, when Donald Trump Jr. planned the infamous Trump Tower meeting with Russians, and ended in late July, with GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump publicly calling on Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails.

What we now know is this. During much of that period, the Trump Organization was secretly pursuing a business deal in Russia that required Kremlin approval — even though the most senior members of Trump’s own campaign, and possibly Trump himself, knew at the time that Russia was waging an attack designed to sabotage our democracy on Trump’s behalf, which they eagerly sought to help Russia carry out.

On at least one occasion, Trump publicly absolved Russia of any blame for this attack — while apparently carrying on private financial dealings that involved the office of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Two stunning developments in the special counsel's investigation shed light on investigators' focus on President Trump as a main subject of interest. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Over the weekend, the legal team working for Michael Cohen, President Trump’s estranged fixer and personal lawyer, filed a new document requesting leniency, now that Cohen has pleaded guilty to lying to Congress to conceal efforts to build a Trump Tower in Moscow that continued at least into June 2016, around when Trump clinched the nomination. The new filing says Cohen was in “close and regular contact” with White House advisers and Trump’s legal team while he prepared to lie to Congress — raising the possibility that they were actively consulted on this plan.

Why would Cohen want to conceal that timeline, which Trump, too, lied about? Because as Democrats pointed out on the Sunday shows, revealing it would show that Trump was likely compromised, because the Russians knew that Trump had concealed that he had pursued lucrative financial dealings with Russia even as he publicly called for an end to sanctions on them, giving them potential leverage over him.

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To get a sense of just how corrupt this really was, we need to look at those seven weeks. With the help of this great new timeline of the Russia scandal by The Post’s fact-checking team, I’ve isolated these key occurrences:

  • June 3, 2016: Donald Trump Jr. learns by email that Russians want to give the Trump campaign “very high level and sensitive information,” provided by the Russian government, that could “incriminate Hillary.” He responds: “If it’s what you say I love it.”
  • June 7: Donald Trump promises a “major speech” about “all of the things that have taken place with the Clintons.” Trump sets the speech for the following week.
  • June 9: The meeting takes place, but by most accounts, nothing of value on Clinton is offered. Still, the fact that it did take place — and was attended by Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort — confirms the campaign’s eagerness to conspire with Russian attempts to interfere in the election on Trump’s behalf.
  • June 14-15: It becomes public, thanks to reporting in The Post and a statement from the cyber-sleuth firm hired by the Democratic National Committee, that Russian government hackers penetrated the DNC’s network.
  • June 15: Trump puts out a statement claiming that the DNC faked the hacking — in effect absolving Russia of any role.
  • July 22: WikiLeaks releases the stolen emails, shedding light on all sorts of embarrassing internal details involving Clinton and the DNC.
  • July 24-25: Donald Trump and Donald Trump Jr. both once again absolve Russia of any blame for the hack. Trump Jr. dismisses the idea as a “lie,” and his father dismisses it as a “joke.”
  • July 26: Donald Trump tweets that he has “ZERO investments in Russia.” According to BuzzFeed News, the Russian-born developer working on the project takes this as the signal that the deal isn’t going to happen.
  • July 27: Trump says this about Clinton’s emails: “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.” By coincidence or not, that same day, according to an indictment filed by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, Russian intelligence tried to hack Clinton’s personal servers.
Acting attorney general Matthew Whitaker is more constrained than you might think, says Post contributor and law expert Randall D. Eliason. (Video: Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

One of the big unknowns of this whole affair remains whether Trump himself was informed of the Trump Tower meeting at the time. His vow of a “major speech” suggests he might have been. This is now potentially more serious: Trump might have known that the Russian government was trying to sabotage our election and then after this kept up his pursuit of a lucrative real estate deal in Moscow (one that according to Cohen’s plea agreement involved direct talks with Putin’s office) that he kept concealed.

At a minimum, Trump’s family members and top campaign officials knew of this sabotage effort. And according to Cohen’s plea deal, he kept them abreast of the real estate deal.

The new revelations also make Trump’s statement absolving Russia of any blame for the DNC hack look much worse. Trump had self-interested political reasons for absolving Russia of this blame, obviously, but now we learn he appears to have had self-interested financial reasons for doing so — again, which he concealed from American voters.

Finally, in light of the new revelations, Trump’s exhortation to Russia to hack Clinton’s emails becomes an even more emphatic exclamation point on this stretch of events. His openly proclaimed desire to politically benefit from a hostile foreign power’s efforts to undermine our democracy was bad enough. In retrospect, it looks even worse, now that we learn that up until that point, he’d been trying to reach a lucrative deal with that foreign power — while keeping that effort hidden from the voters.

All of these things “look a lot less random against a backdrop where there was this ongoing negotiation over the Trump Tower Moscow,” Stephen Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin, told me. “They certainly look more corrupt. It’s increasingly difficult to believe that this was all a coincidence.”

It remains to be seen whether Mueller will establish a conspiracy between Russia and the Trump campaign that amounts to criminality. But whatever is to be on that front, we now know that not only does this confluence of political and financial self-dealing with a foreign adversary appear much worse than we thought, but also Trump actively tried to keep it concealed by denying its existence.

As Vladeck put it: “If there are innocuous explanations for why these things were all happening at the same time, what are they?”

Read more:

Randall D. Eliason: Mueller may uncover a conspiracy — or just a coverup

The Post’s View: The Mueller investigation keeps offering important revelations. It must continue.

Jennifer Rubin: Manafort’s plea deal collapse isn’t the biggest development in Mueller’s probe

Nelson W. Cunningham: If Matthew Whitaker hinders the Mueller inquiry, would we even know?

Jennifer Rubin: Trump should be freaked out right about now