President Trump’s former business associate Felix Sater clashed with congressional investigators Tuesday after refusing to address whether he knew that the president’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, planned to lie under oath about a failed Trump Tower project in Moscow.
Sater met privately with House Intelligence Committee staffers investigating interference in the 2016 presidential election and questions surrounding Trump’s business interests in Russia in 2016. At issue is Cohen’s false testimony before the same committee in 2017 and whether Trump was compromised by his organization’s effort to build in Moscow.
When pressed Tuesday to provide information about his knowledge of Cohen’s testimony, Sater at one point cited lawyer-client privilege and declined to respond, according to accounts of the exchange described by Sater’s attorney and a spokesman for the committee.
In an unusually harsh public statement, the committee’s spokesman, Patrick Boland, said that Sater asserted a “baseless” claim of attorney-client privilege and that the committee would continue to pursue documents and testimony from him.
Sater’s attorney, Robert Wolf, rejected Boland’s characterization, saying his client had cooperated.
“Mr. Sater spent most of the day patiently responding to the same questions and topics he was previously asked about when he voluntarily testified before the committee in December 2017,” Wolf said.
“We have objected to and do not accept the committee’s wholesale rejection of the attorney client privilege, which has long been recognized by the Supreme Court,” Wolf said.
The committee’s chairman, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), has been focused on the Trump Tower Moscow discussions, saying that “the idea that a president of the United States was seeking a multimillion-dollar deal in Moscow — a deal that would have been the most lucrative of his life — at the same time he is running for president just screams of compromise.”
Sater appeared Tuesday under a subpoena issued after he failed to show up for a scheduled interview last month. He blamed his no-show on unspecified health complications and stressed that he was willing to appear before the panel voluntarily, pledging to “answer every question.”
Boland said Sater has not fully cooperated and will remain under subpoena “until he does so.”
Sater, a Russian-born real estate developer who is an American citizen, drew the attention of several investigations into Trump and his alleged Moscow ties, including that of former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
He was involved for over a decade in discussions about building Trump-branded skyscrapers in the former Soviet Union. None of those projects came to fruition, though some involving Sater and Trump in the United States did go forward. Sater has a criminal record — for a 1991 assault and involvement in a mafia-backed stock scheme in the late 1990s — but he also has a remarkable record as a government cooperator.
Initially, Sater said, Tuesday’s closed-door staff interview went well, with the former stockbroker discussing a two-decade-long history of assisting the FBI, the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency on highly sensitive investigations, including efforts to locate Osama bin Laden. But his efforts to promote himself as a cooperator fell flat with the committee as staff pressed for information on Cohen’s testimony and requested phone records and documents that Sater had not yet provided.
Wolf rejected the staffers’ complaints and said the committee’s document demands were made with little notice.
“Before issuing the subpoena the committee requested one month of telephone records, which were voluntarily provided,” Wolf said. “The subpoena then requested an additional 11 months of telephone records be produced in seven days, which Mr. Sater does not possess and has ordered from AT&T. The committee was told last week that these records won’t be received until later this month and will be promptly produced.’’
Text messages and other records obtained by investigators showed that efforts by Sater and Cohen to advance the idea of a Moscow Trump Tower continued well into the 2016 presidential campaign — a timeline that Cohen misrepresented to lawmakers. Cohen originally testified that discussions within the Trump Organization ended in January of that year. He later pleaded guilty to perjury and said Trump kept tabs on the Moscow project for several more months.
Cohen, who is serving a three-year prison sentence for lying to Congress and for financial crimes, started working with Sater on the project in 2015, and both seemed aware that Trump could stand to benefit from it politically as well as financially.
“Our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it,” Sater wrote to Cohen in a 2015 email. “I will get all of Putins team to buy in on this, I will manage this process.”
According to an assessment from the intelligence community and the report detailing Mueller’s findings, the Kremlin orchestrated a multifaceted effort to interfere in the 2016 election with the aim of benefiting Trump.
Trump has repeatedly denied that he sought any assistance or colluded with the Russian government in any way — though in a recent interview with ABC News, he would not rule out accepting foreign assistance if offered to his 2020 campaign.
The House Intelligence Committee has devoted significant attention to Trump’s foreign ventures, seeking among other things to determine whether money laundering or influence trading played a role in any of Trump’s overseas investments.