President Trump was involved in discussions to build a skyscraper in Moscow throughout the entire 2016 presidential campaign, his personal lawyer said on Sunday, a longer and more significant role for Mr. Trump than he had previously acknowledged.The comments by his lawyer [Giuliani] indicated that Mr. Trump’s efforts to complete a business deal in Russia waned only after Americans cast ballots in the presidential election.The new timetable means that Mr. Trump was seeking a deal at the time he was calling for an end to economic sanctions against Russia imposed by the Obama administration. He was seeking a deal when he gave interviews questioning the legitimacy of NATO, a favorite talking point of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. And he was seeking a deal when, in July 2016, he called on Russia to release hacked Democratic emails that Mr. Putin’s government was rumored at the time to have stolen.The Trump Tower Moscow discussions were “going on from the day I announced to the day I won,” Mr. Giuliani quoted Mr. Trump as saying during an interview with The New York Times.
We’ll try to sort through the changing stories about the Trump Organization’s efforts to put together a deal to build a Trump Tower in Moscow while Trump was running for president, but here’s what’s most vital to understand: You don’t have to believe the absolute worst version of this scandal, where every accusation reveals an actual crime, to admit that Trump was and is both deeply corrupt and utterly dishonest.
That is the thread that binds nearly every element of the sprawling Russia scandal: corruption and dishonesty, over and over again.
With this statement by Giuliani (which, who knows, he might contradict by day’s end), we now have four different versions that the president and his representatives have told about his pursuit of a Moscow deal during the campaign.
First we have the version Trump offered during the campaign and after, in which he repeatedly claimed that he had no business interests in Russia whatsoever. “I don’t know Putin, have no business whatsoever with Russia, have nothing to do with Russia,” he said during an October 2016 rally in North Carolina, just one of many such statements. As he reiterated in January 2017, “I have no dealings with Russia. I have no deals that could happen in Russia because we’ve stayed away.”
These were lies; In fact, in October 2015, while the primary campaign was heating up, he signed a letter of intent for the Moscow deal Michael Cohen was pursuing on his behalf with Russian officials, setting out some preliminary terms for the project (there’d be an Ivanka Trump-branded spa!), and Cohen continued to keep him apprised of the deal’s progress as he pursued it.
The second version of the story is the one Michael Cohen testified to Congress, which said that while there were some attempts to arrange a deal, they were abandoned by January 2016. Cohen has now admitted that his testimony was false; in fact, the discussions were more extensive than he originally said and they went on until June 2016, deep into the campaign. That’s the third version of the story. Giuliani’s statement that discussions for the Moscow project continued through November 2016 is Version 4.
Sometimes a politician might lie to cover up a crime, but in this case it appears that Trump simply thought, no doubt correctly, that if the public knew he was pursuing a major business opportunity in Russia while praising Putin and offering up policy pronouncements to warm the dictator’s heart, it would have looked very, very bad — almost as if he couldn’t be trusted to do what was in the best interest of the United States but instead was only pursuing his own financial gain. Imagine that.
Trump is blessed with a preternatural shamelessness; while ordinary people would ask themselves, “What will happen if I get caught in this lie?” Trump never seems to. He simply updates the old lie with a new one, and when that one is exposed, he offers up yet another. Now that he can no longer deny that he was pursuing a deal with the Russian government while running for president, he argues that of course it happened, and it was completely appropriate. After issuing denial after denial, in November 2018 he finally fessed up, sort of. “We were thinking about building a building” in Moscow, he told reporters. “I decided ultimately not to do it. There would have been nothing wrong if I did do it.”
You’ll recall that this is the same evolution he underwent on that infamous June 2016 Trump Tower meeting: First he lied and said the meeting was just to discuss adoptions, then when the lie was exposed he admitted it was in fact for getting dirt on Hillary Clinton from the Russians, and claimed it was “totally legal and done all the time in politics.” So why would there be nothing wrong with pursuing a lucrative business deal in a country hostile to the United States while running for president, praising that country’s dictator and floating policy changes that would be favorable to the dictator’s goals? “There was a good chance that I wouldn’t have won,” he said, “in which case I would have gone back into the business, and why should I lose lots of opportunities?”
This is the approach Trump has taken to the presidency as well: Why should I lose opportunities to make money just because I’m president?
The full story of the Moscow deal is still coming into focus, but the things we know already that are no longer in dispute are spectacularly damning. To repeat: Trump was running for president and proposing to change U.S. policy in ways favorable to Russia while simultaneously seeking the Russian government’s help to arrange a business deal that could have made him hundreds of millions of dollars. And he lied again and again to conceal that fact from the American public.
Did he also commit crimes along the way? Maybe, maybe not. But even if it turns out that he didn’t, Trump’s profound corruption is not in question.