This post has been updated.
After Michael Cohen disclosed in a plea deal Thursday that he had pursued a Trump Tower Moscow project even during the 2016 primaries, President Trump shrugged it off. “My focus was running for president,” Trump said, “but when I run for president, that doesn’t mean I’m not allowed to do business.”
But if it’s really no big deal, he might want to tell that to 2016 Trump.
“I have nothing to do with Russia,” Trump assured in July 2016.
“Russia has never tried to use leverage over me. I HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH RUSSIA - NO DEALS, NO LOANS, NO NOTHING!” he tweeted in January 2017.
“I don’t deal there,” he said in an October 2016 debate, after Hillary Clinton suggested he was praising Russia because he wanted to do business there.
These comments may be defensible and even technically true — there was no ultimate deal, after all — but they were clear attempts to mislead by a candidate who just that year had been pushing for a big deal in Moscow. The statements suggest, at the very least, that Trump was trying to obscure his longing to do business in Russia. As The Post’s Rosalind Helderman and Tom Hamburger have detailed, Trump has been trying to build properties in Russia for more than 30 years. He knew this would be a problem. It was all a coverup, as Cohen’s plea deal makes clear.
In tweeting early Friday morning from Argentina, where he’s attending the G20 summit, Trump echoed the defense he gave Thursday that since he wasn’t guaranteed to win the presidency, why would he stop his personal business dealings?
The problem for Trump is that this tweet reads more like an admission than a defense, after years of his claiming he had no ties to Russia.
And more than just about anything before it, the whole situation betrays Trump’s brazen and perhaps legally problematic shrugging off of the political and ethical rules that govern American elections and government. Trump has flouted those rules before, to be sure, but rarely has it been so obvious that he simply doesn’t care about appearances or about meandering into the gray areas between personal enrichment and public service.
It’s not just that he was pursuing Trump Tower Moscow during the 2016 primaries; he was also doing it with the assistance of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s office. According to Cohen’s plea deal — and contrary to the Kremlin’s previous denials — an assistant to Putin’s top spokesman spoke with Cohen, an attorney for Trump at the time, for 20 minutes after Cohen reached out in January 2016.
By May 2016, after Trump was the presumptive GOP nominee, a Russian associate of Cohen’s relayed an invitation from that top Putin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, that included a potential introduction to Putin or Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. This was an effort that was clearly serious and involved the Russian government, and Trump did nothing to rein it in. It was only shelved the day The Washington Post reported that the Russians had hacked the Democratic National Committee.
(Trump’s lawyers have confirmed Cohen’s new timeline, for what it’s worth.)
This is a massive appearance problem, at best. Here was a man running to become U.S. president — and actually winning — who was apparently seeking, through an emissary, to leverage that to secure favors from a foreign government. Even if you accept that Cohen might have been freelancing, the fact that he was briefing Trump would seem to suggest he told Trump about these contacts and even about possibly traveling to Russia at Peskov’s invitation.
But it’s also pretty par for the course for Trump. Besides shrugging off political decorum — including attacking war heroes, alluding to his genitalia at a primary debate and generally running headlong into every controversy he can — he has regularly flouted ethics rules and good-government best practices. He hired family for key White House jobs, shunning anti-nepotism laws. He declined to release his tax returns, as every president for decades has. He didn’t put his assets in a blind trust, as ethics groups demanded. And he faces a lawsuit alleging he is violating the emoluments clause of the Constitution by accepting money from foreign governments at Trump International Hotel, just blocks from the White House.
At almost every major turn, Trump has decided he doesn’t care about the old rules — or the rules, period. It hasn’t cost him yet, but that doesn’t mean it never will.