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The Disinformation that Got Told: Michael Cohen Was, in Fact, Hiding Secret Communications with the Kremlin

CJR was kind enough to invite me on to discuss media accountability and the Steele dossier with Erik Wemple last week.

On the show, I made the argument that it’s not enough to identify the things that didn’t, but should have, shown up in the dossier: like George Papadopoulos getting advance warning of the Russian operation not far from Christopher Steele’s office, or a dirt-for-sanctions-relief meeting in Trump Tower attended by a client of Fusion GPS, or a deputy for Steele client Oleg Deripaska, Konstantin Kilimnik, trading Trump’s campaign manager $19 million in debt relief to obtain the campaign’s strategy.

Given the way that, on July 30, 2016, Deripaska used Steele (via his lawyers) to make Manafort more vulnerable just days before, on August 2, 2016, Deripaska used that vulnerability to carry out a key step in the election operation, it is reasonable to consider whether any disinformation in the dossier became a key part of the Russian operation. That makes it important to look at the stories that did get told in it, to understand how they related to other aspects of the operation.

In the CJR podcast, Erik Wemple was — as he has been in the past — skeptical.

Wheeler: If, in fact, the dossier is full of disinformation, which is what every Republican in Congress believes and what I think is largely the case, then the question is not, what was the access. The question was, why did Oleg Deripaska learn about it, as the DOJ IG Report suggests happened, why did he learn about it before the second report? Why did two Russian intelligence people learn about it before the second report, and why did the stories that get told get told? So, yes, there’s the absence of, you know, Papadopoulos in London, but the stories of Michael Cohen in Prague which are the, the, the most easily debunked, do, are near misses on things that were really happening in the Russian operation. Michael Cohen was in fact covering up stuff about Russia at the time — he was covering up the Trump Tower deal. Michael Cohen was also covering stuff having to do with sex at the time. You put those two together and you’ve got the Prague thing. That’s a pretty near miss.

Wemple: Is it though? The allegation in the dossier was that he was meeting with Kremlin representatives — as I recall — to —

Wheeler: And he called up the Kremlin and got Putin’s involvement in the Trump Tower deal.

Wemple: But he met in Prague to cover up or figure out how to pay hackers, if I recall the allegation.

Wheeler: Yeah yeah yeah. Yup.

Wemple: I don’t know. I don’t see it as being that close to what Michael Cohen actually did but we can —

Wheeler: Right, but do you deny that Michael Cohen was covering up stuff about Russia that involved, actually, the Kremlin?

Wemple: Well, it’s clear that he was involved in keeping quiet the Trump Tower —

Wheeler: Okay. Which involved the Kremlin. And involved a GRU officer.

Wemple: Unquestionably, no question.

Wheeler: Okay. So that’s my point. Russia knew that. Russia knew that when Trump made a statement in July of 2016 that he had no business in Russia — which by the way, Durham is reacting against; he’s trying to claim it was unreasonable for cybersecurity researchers to respond to that and say, that’s very alarming, which was very alarming. As soon as Trump made that comment, in July of 2016 (and he had made it a bunch of times before that), Russia knew that Michael Cohen and Donald Trump and a number of other people were lying, publicly, about this ridiculously lucrative deal that involved the Kremlin and involved a GRU officer. And so the Prague story is absolutely garbage. And that came from Olga Galkina, right?

Wemple: It did. Who’s a middle school friend of Danchenko

Wheeler: Right. She’s central to the Danchenko indictment. One of the things that Durham charges Danchenko with is trying to hide how obvious, how much Galkina knew about that. And he didn’t hide it at all. I think that allegation is completely, is completely easily debunked if you actually read the interview. But my point is that, in fact, Michael Cohen was covering up communications with the Kremlin and with a GRU officer. And Russia knew that. And if those Michael Cohen reports which, by January 2017, the FBI believed to be disinformation, so if those were disinformation, why did we get that form of disinformation, when in fact Michael Cohen — and if you read Danchenko, Galkina knew, right away, Michael Cohen’s name. She was ready for it, so those questions. If you want to talk about media accountability, those questions have to be asked as well.

The details of any disinformation in the dossier — the possibility that Russian intelligence deliberately planted false stories about secret communications Michael Cohen had with the Kremlin — are important because they may have served the overall Russian operation. In some cases, such as the claim that Carter Page was Paul Manafort’s purported go-between with Russia rather than Konstantin Kilimnik, might have provided cover. The claims that Russia had years old FSB intercepts of Hillary they planned to release as kompromat, rather than recently stolen emails from John Podesta, would similarly provide cover. In others, disinformation might have worked in the same way Oleg Deripaska’s double game did, increasing the vulnerability of Trump’s people even while making it more likely they’d do what Russia wanted.

I have argued in the past that the Trump Tower deal wasn’t important because it showed that Trump was pursuing a real estate deal while running for President. Rather, it was important to the success of the Russian operation because it gave Russia proof, before any hint of the Russian operation became public, that Donald Trump would be willing to work, in secret, with sanctioned banks and a GRU officer to make an impossibly lucrative real estate deal happen.

[T]here is a piece of the Cohen statement of the offense the significance of which hasn’t gotten sufficient attention. That’s the detail that Dmitry Peskov’s personal assistant took detailed notes from a 20-minute January 20, 2016 phone call with Cohen, which led to Putin’s office contacting Felix Sater the next day.

On or about January 16, 2016, COHEN emailed [Peskov]’s office again, said he was trying to reach another high-level Russian official, and asked for someone who spoke English to contact him.

On or about January 20, 2016 , COHEN received an email from the personal assistant to [Peskov] (“Assistant 1 “), stating that she had been trying to reach COHEN and requesting that he call her using a Moscow-based phone number she provided.

Shortly after receiving the email, COHEN called Assistant 1 and spoke to her for approximately 20 minutes. On that call, COHEN described his position at the Company and outlined the proposed Moscow Project, including the Russian development company with which the Company had partnered. COHEN requested assistance in moving the project forward, both in securing land to build the proposed tower and financing the construction. Assistant 1 asked detailed questions and took notes, stating that she would follow up with others in Russia.

The day after COHEN’s call with Assistant 1, [Sater] contacted him, asking for a call. Individual 2 wrote to COHEN, “It’s about [the President of Russia] they called today.”

Cohen had lied about this, claiming that he had emailed Peskov’s public comment line just once, but gotten no response.

This language is important not just because it shows that Cohen lied.  It’s important because of what Cohen would have said to Peskov’s assistant. And it’s important because a written record of what Cohen said got handed on to Putin’s office, if not Putin himself.

[snip]

[W]hen Cohen called Peskov’s assistant, he would have told her that he was speaking on behalf of Donald Trump, that Trump remained interested in a Trump Tower in Moscow (as he had been in 2013, the last time Putin had dangled a personal meeting with Trump), and that on Trump’s behalf Cohen was willing to discuss making a deal involving both a sanctioned bank (whichever one it was) and a former GRU officer.

The impossibly lucrative real estate deal was useful to the Russian operation because it ensured that, even before GRU hacked the DNC, Putin had collected receipts showing that Trump’s personal lawyer had secretly been in discussions about a deal brokered by a GRU officer and sanctioned banks for Trump’s benefit. Trump would want to (and in fact did) keep this fact from voters because it would have proven he was lying about having business interests in Russia. The attribution of the DNC hack to the GRU made Trump’s secret more inflammatory, because it meant Trump stood to benefit personally from the same people who hacked his opponent. Trump and Cohen couldn’t have known all that when Cohen called Peskov in January. But Russia did. Indeed, that may well have been the entire point.

The Cohen-in-Prague story includes outlines of Trump’s real secret: contact by Trump’s personal lawyer with the Kremlin and those who conducted the DNC hack. But the Cohen-in-Prague story displaced the key details of that secret, providing a place and personal details that would be even more damning, but also easier to debunk.

In fact, when Michael Cohen broke the law (by lying to Congress) to cover up this secret, when the Trump Organization withheld from Congress the most damning documents about it, when Trump told his most provable lie to Mueller about it, they (along with Felix Sater and others) used the Cohen-in-Prague story as an easy way to issue true denials while limiting admissions (and lying) about the extent of the Trump Tower deal. Here’s what I described, in August 2017, about the way Cohen used Prague denials to pre-empt his limited (and therefore false) admissions of his pursuit of the Trump Tower deal.

There are real, unanswered questions about the provenance of the document as leaked by BuzzFeed. Some of the circumstances surrounding its production — most notably its funders and their claimed goals, and Steele’s production of a final report, based off voluntarily provided information, for free — raise real questions about parts of the dossier. I think it quite likely some parts of the dossier, especially the last, most inflammatory report (which accuses Cohen of attending a meeting where payments from Trump to the hackers that targeted the Democrats were discussed), were disinformation fed by the Russians. I believe the Intelligence Community is almost certainly lying about what they knew about the dossier. I believe the Russians know precisely how the dossier got constructed (remember, a suspected source for it died in mysterious circumstances in December), and they expect the exposure of those details will discredit it.

So while I think there are truths in the dossier, I do think its current form includes rumor and even affirmative disinformation meant to discredit it.

With that said — and remembering all the time that shortly after this letter got written, documents were disclosed showing Cohen was involved in brokering a deal that Sater thought might get Trump elected — here’s my analysis of the document.

[Cohen’s letter to Congress] is pitched around the claim that HPSCI “included Mr. Cohen in its inquiry based solely upon certain sensational allegations contained” in the Steele dossier. “Absent those allegations,” the letter continues, “Mr. Cohen would not be involved in your investigation.” The idea — presented two weeks before disclosure of emails showing Cohen brokering a deal with Russians in early 2016 — is if Cohen can discredit the dossier, then he will have shown that there is no reason to investigate him or his role brokering deals with the Russians. Even the denial of any documents of interest is limited to the dossier: “We have not uncovered a single document that would in any way corroborate the Dossier’s allegations regarding Mr. Cohen, nor do we believe that any such document exists.”

With that, Cohen’s lawyers address the allegations in the dossier, one by one. As a result, the rebuttal reads kind of like this:

I Did Not Go to Prague I Did Not Go to Prague I Did Not Go to Prague I Did Not Go to Prague

Cohen literally denies that he ever traveled to Prague six times, as well as denying carefully worded, often quoted, versions of meeting with Russians in a European capital in 2016. Of course that formulation — He did not participate in meetings of any kind with Kremlin officials in Prague in August 2016 — stops well short of other potential ties to Russians. And two of his denials look very different given the emails disclosed two weeks later showing an attempt to broker a deal that Felix Sater thought might get Trump elected, including an email from him to one of the most trusted agents of the Kremlin.

Mr. Cohen is not aware of any “secret TRUMP campaign/Kremlin relationship.”

Mr. Cohen is not aware of any indirect communications between the “TRUMP team” and “trusted agents” of the Kremlin.

The Cohen-in-Prague story provided an easy way for Cohen to issue true denials. But it also magnified the risk of the secret — a secret Russia knew — they were keeping, because they committed crimes to keep the secret.

There can be little doubt that, if the Cohen-in-Prague story was deliberate disinformation, it was wildly successful. Indeed, most Trump supporters — including many of the people debunking the dossier full time — seemed to believe that if they could prove that Cohen never went to Prague, that by itself would amount to proof that Trump had no ties with Russia in 2016, a claim every bit as outlandish as the pee tape.

If the Cohen-in-Prague story was deliberate disinformation, it was spectacularly successful, both for obscuring the Trump Tower discussions and for creating an easily debunked stand-in for Trump’s real cooperation, distracting from Manafort’s role.

Years later, we now know there were reasons to think the Cohen-in-Prague story was deliberate disinformation from the start. A declassified DOJ IG footnote describes that, even before the Igor Danchenko interviews in January 2017, FBI had received intelligence suggesting that was the case.

In addition to the information in Steele’s Delta file documenting Steele’s frequent contacts with representatives for multiple Russian oligarchs, we identified reporting the Crossfire Hurricane team received from [redacted] indicating the potential for Russian disinformation influencing Steele’s election reporting. A January 12, 2017, report relayed information from [redacted] outlining an inaccuracy in a limited subset of Steele’s reporting about the activities of Michael Cohen. The [redacted] stated that it did not have high confidence in this subset of Steele’s reporting and assessed that the referenced subset was part of a Russian disinformation campaign to denigrate U.S. foreign relations. [italicized language declassified]

If it was disinformation, Danchenko’s source for it, his childhood friend Olga Galkina, seems to have been prepared. When Danchenko described the sourcing of the report, he explained that that Galkina was “almost immediately” familiar with Cohen when he asked.

[Danchenko] began his explanation of the Prague and Michael Cohen-related reports by stating that Christopher Steele had given him 4-5 names to research for the election-related tasking. He could only remember three of the names: Carter Page, Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen. When he talked to [Galkina] in the fall of 2016 — he believes it was a phone call — he rattled off these names and, out of them, he was surprised to hear that [Galkina] immediately [later [Danchenko] softened this to  “almost immediately”] recognized Cohen’s name.

[snip]

Danchenko believes he had 2, maybe even 3, conversations with [Galkina] on this topic later in October. Nothing on Prague and Cohen was collected during the [redacted] trip in [redacted]. The first conversation is the one during which he believes [Galkina] noted her recognition of Cohen’s name. The second conversation is the one in which she discussed Prague, the visit of Cohen plus three other individuals, and the meeting with the Russia side. There may have been a third conversation on the topic, but [Danchenko] could not recall exactly and said that they had also talked about “a private subject.”

Several details in the Danchenko indictment explain why Galkina might be prepared.

Charles Dolan, the PR Executive whom Danchenko introduced to Galkina that spring, had worked directly with Dmitry Peskov for years and remained in touch with Putin’s Press Secretary in conjunction with an event he was helping plan in October 2016. During the summer, Dolan recommended Galkina to Peskov for a job in the Presidential Administration.

[F]rom in or about 2006 through in or about 2014, the Russian Federation retained PR Executive-I and his then-employer to handle global public relations for the Russian government and a state-owned energy company. PR Executive-I served as a lead consultant during that project and frequently interacted with senior Russian Federation leadership whose names would later appear in the Company Reports, including the Press Secretary of the Russian Presidential Administration (“Russian Press Secretary-I”), the Deputy Press Secretary (“Russian Deputy Press Secretary-I”), and others in the Russian Presidential Press Department.

[snip]

In anticipation of the June 2016 Planning Trip to Moscow, PR Executive-I also communicated with Russian Press Secretary-I and Russian Deputy Press Secretary-I, both of whom worked in the Kremlin and, as noted above, also appeared in the Company Reports.

[snip]

Additionally, on or about July 13, 2016, Russian Sub-Source-I sent a message to a Russia-based associate and stated that PR Executive-I had written a letter to Russian Press Secretary-I in support of Russian-Sub-Source-I’s candidacy for a position in the Russian Presidential Administration.

As it was, Danchenko attributed of any mention of Peskov in the dossier to Galkina. But Galkina’s real ties to Peskov, the person who knew more about Michael Cohen and Trump’s secret than anyone else in Russia — who knew they were pursuing an impossibly lucrative real estate deal involving sanctioned banks and a retired GRU officer with Peskov’s help — had been enhanced in months leading up to that reporting. Galkina’s ties to Peskov would had been enhanced in a way that may have made her source relationship with Danchenko even more evident to Russian spooks (though it would always have been easy to discover).

That is, Dolan’s business relationships with the Russian government may not be important because Galkina appeared to share his enthusiasm for Hillary — the reason Durham included garden variety business networking in the midst of the Danchenko indictment. Rather, it may be important because it made her a much more lucrative target for disinformation.

Olga Galkina was in a position where, if Russia had wanted to tell the secret they knew Trump was keeping from voters, she might have learned the truth behind Cohen’s real, hidden communications with the Kremlin, a truth that voters had a right to know. Instead, she told a false story that mirrored certain aspects of the story that Cohen would do prison time in a failed attempt to hide, but which instead became an easily debunked stand-in for the real story of Trump’s enthusiasm for Russia’s efforts to tamper in America’s democracy.

If the dossier was significantly disinformation, then all Americans were victims of it. It turned a legitimate concern about real Russian interference into American elections into one of the biggest sources of political polarization in recent history. Like the social media trolling from Internet Research Agency, it stoked divisions, with the added benefit that it led significant numbers of Trump voters to trust the Russians who were feeding that disinformation more than they trust the current President. One viral Twitter thread earlier this year even claimed that the dossier (and therefore any Russian disinformation in it) led directly to and justified the attack on the Capitol on January 6. As such, disinformation injected into the dossier should increasingly be treated as a potential central part of the 2016 Russian influence operation — perhaps its most successful and lasting part.

Erik Wemple has spent a lot of time pushing CNN into committing the same reporting failures with the Danchenko indictment as they did on the dossier itself. But that has left largely unexamined the question of why the stories that did get told got told, which may be far more important to understanding how Russia was willing to screw both Paul Manafort and Hillary Clinton.


Danchenko posts

The Igor Danchenko Indictment: Structure

John Durham May Have Made Igor Danchenko “Aggrieved” Under FISA

“Yes and No:” John Durham Confuses Networking with Intelligence Collection

Daisy-Chain: The FBI Appears to Have Asked Danchenko Whether Dolan Was a Source for Steele, Not Danchenko

Source 6A: John Durham’s Twitter Charges

John Durham: Destroying the Purported Victims to Save Them

John Durham’s Cut-and-Paste Failures — and Other Indices of Unreliability

Aleksej Gubarev Drops Lawsuit after DOJ Confirms Steele Dossier Report Naming Gubarev’s Company Came from His Employee

In Story Purporting to “Reckon” with Steele’s Baseless Insinuations, CNN Spreads Durham’s Unsubstantiated Insinuations

On CIPA and Sequestration: Durham’s Discovery Deadends

The Disinformation that Got Told: Michael Cohen Was, in Fact, Hiding Secret Communications with the Kremlin

The Guardian “Scoop” Would Shift the Timeline and Bureaucracy of the Known 2016 Russian Operation

Luke Harding has a story based on alleged Russian documents that show that Vladimir Putin personally approved of the 2016 Russian operation on January 22, 2016.

In advance of a known meeting — which Russia claimed at the time was convened to talk about Moldova — the Guardian claims Putin was presented with a plan on how an influence operation might work. Putin purportedly approved the operation at the publicly announced meeting. And then all three intelligence agencies implemented it.

The author appears to be Vladimir Symonenko, the senior official in charge of the Kremlin’s expert department – which provides Putin with analytical material and reports, some of them based on foreign intelligence.

The papers indicate that on 14 January 2016 Symonenko circulated a three-page executive summary of his team’s conclusions and recommendations.

In a signed order two days later, Putin instructed the then chief of his foreign policy directorate, Alexander Manzhosin, to convene a closed briefing of the national security council.

Its purpose was to further study the document, the order says. Manzhosin was given a deadline of five days to make arrangements.

What was said inside the second-floor Kremlin senate building room is unknown. But the president and his intelligence officials appear to have signed off on a multi-agency plan to interfere in US democracy, framed in terms of justified self-defence.

[snip]

After the meeting, according to a separate leaked document, Putin issued a decree setting up a new and secret interdepartmental commission. Its urgent task was to realise the goals set out in the “special part” of document No 32-04 \ vd.

Members of the new working body were stated to include Shoigu, Fradkov and Bortnikov. Shoigu was named commission chair. The decree – ukaz in Russian – said the group should take practical steps against the US as soon as possible. These were justified on national security grounds and in accordance with a 2010 federal law, 390-FZ, which allows the council to formulate state policy on security matters.

According to the document, each spy agency was given a role. The defence minister was instructed to coordinate the work of subdivisions and services. Shoigu was also responsible for collecting and systematising necessary information and for “preparing measures to act on the information environment of the object” – a command, it seems, to hack sensitive American cyber-targets identified by the SVR.

The SVR was told to gather additional information to support the commission’s activities. The FSB was assigned counter-intelligence. Putin approved the apparent document, dated 22 January 2016, which his chancellery stamped.

Because the analysis presented in this story says things that many people now believe — that Trump was unstable, that he harmed the US, that Russia’s operation sowed division in the US — it had been uncritically embraced by many.

But experts are raising some cautions. Thomas Rid raises cautions here (not all of which I agree with). Matt Tait raises more cautions here (not all of which I agree with). Craig Unger quotes more experts raising questions about the document.

What few are doing, however, is comparing the claims in the Guardian document to what we (think we) know about the 2016 operation, which not only is a good way to test their accuracy but also might answer the question Douglas London raised with Unger: “‘Coincidence and convenience are red flags in espionage,’ he told SpyTalk. ‘So why now?'”

If these documents are disinformation, they would change the known story in at least two ways. The resulting story would sustain a claim that both key events and key players in the 2016 Russian operation weren’t really part of that operation. That is, if this is disinformation, it likely was told to try to obscure who were the most important players in the 2016 operation and what events were part of it.

A January 22 approval would suggest presumed parts of the 2016 operation weren’t actually part of it

If the Russian operation weren’t approved until January 22, then events believed to be part of the operation that happened before that might be dissociated from it.

Perhaps the most important temporal conflict these documents would introduce would be the Trump Tower Moscow dangle. That effort — floated by Felix Sater and relying on a former GRU officer as a broker — started in fall 2015 and ratcheted up in December 2015. Importantly, a key call Michael Cohen had with Dmitri Peskov’s assistant took place before Putin allegedly approved the operation, on January 20.

On January 20, 2016, Cohen received an email from Elena Poliakova, Peskov’s personal assistant. Writing from her personal email account, Poliakova stated that she had been trying to reach Cohen and asked that he call her on the personal number that she provided.350 Shortly after receiving Poliakova’s email, Cohen called and spoke to her for 20 minutes.351 Cohen described to Poliakova his position at the Trump Organization and outlined the proposed Trump Moscow project, including information about the Russian counterparty with which the Trump Organization had partnered. Cohen requested assistance in moving the project forward, both in securing land to build the project and with financing. According to Cohen, Poliakova asked detailed questions and took notes, stating that she would need to follow up with others in Russia.352

The next day — so still one day before, according to the Guardian document, Putin approved the 2016 operation — Sater responded to Cohen claiming that Putin’s office had called.

However, the day after Cohen’s call with Poliakova, Sater texted Cohen, asking him to “[c]all me when you have a few minutes to chat .. . It’s about Putin they called today.”353 Sater then sent a draft invitation for Cohen to visit Moscow to discuss the Trump Moscow project, 354

If Putin didn’t approve the 2016 operation until January 22, Russia and Trump might claim, this effort wasn’t really an attempt to offer Trump financial salvation in exchange for policy considerations and other quid pro quo that became part of the operation, but instead was a viable (albeit ridiculously lucrative) real estate offer. Indeed, if Russia wanted to bail Trump out of the financial difficulties created by the prosecution of Trump Organization now, they might want to launder this earlier real estate dangle so as to dissociate it with any attempt to buy a president, or else any deals from this point forward might be deemed a continuation of an earlier conspiracy or even an effort to keep Trump afloat long enough to run again in 2024.

Similarly, also before the purported January 22 approval date, Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Prikhodko started a several month outreach to Trump, one that would be sustained through March.

Trump received and turned down an invitation to the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum. In late December 2015, Mira Duma-a contact oflvanka Trump’s from the fashion industry-first passed along invitations for Ivanka Trump and candidate Trump from Sergei Prikhodko, a Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian Federation.377 On January 14, 2016, Rhona Graff sent an email to Duma stating that Trump was “honored to be asked to participate in the highly prestigious” Forum event, but that he would “have to decline” the invitation given his “very grueling and full travel schedule” as a presidential candidate.378 Graff asked Duma whether she recommended that Graff “send a formal note to the Deputy Prime Minister” declining his invitation; Duma replied that a formal note would be “great.”379

It does not appear that Graff prepared that note immediately. According to written answers from President Trump,380 Graff received an email from Deputy Prime Minister Prikhodko on March 17, 2016, again inviting Trump to participate in the 2016 Forum in St. Petersburg.381 Two weeks later, on March 31, 2016, Graff prepared for Trump’s signature a two-paragraph letter declining the invitation.382 The letter stated that Trump’s “schedule has become extremely demanding” because of the presidential campaign, that he “already ha[ d] several commitments in the United States” for the time of the Forum, but that he otherwise “would have gladly given every consideration to attending such an important event.”383 Graff forwarded the letter to another executive assistant at the Trump Organization with instructions to print the document on letterhead for Trump to sign.384

We don’t know what this outreach might have entailed, but like the Trump Tower deal, Trump Organization appears to have withheld evidence about this outreach from one or another investigator, in this case any evidence that Trump declined Prikhodko’s invitation.

Finally there’s the weird way this fits Mike Flynn’s known timeline. To be clear, Flynn was not a full-time part of the Trump campaign when he and his son went to Moscow for the RT Gala in December 2015 and, before he went, he met with Sergei Kislyak in the US. While Flynn was sharing some advice with Trump (as well as some of the other Republican candidates), he would only join Trump’s campaign full time months later. But when Flynn visited Russia, he had prior ties with the GRU. He would later tell the FBI he believed then-GRU head Igor Sergun could work with the US. Days after Flynn’s visit, Sergun died unexpectedly in Syria, and Flynn called Kislyak on January 5 to offer his condolences, the first of Flynn’s 2016 calls with Kislyak picked up on FISA intercepts. Sergun’s death was only widely made public weeks later, after this purported meeting, and there were questions about the circumstances of the death. Those things are probably unrelated, but days after the head of GRU died seems curious timing to put GRU in charge of a risky operation.

The described organization shifts the existing understanding of the 2016 operation

The timing of this meeting, just days after the death of Sergun, is important to explain a claim made in it: that Sergei Shoigu was purportedly put in charge of the GRU part of the operation, its most important part. A January 22 meeting would take place before Sergun’s replacement, Igor Korobov, was appointed (and the suggestion of the story is that Shoigu remained in charge after the later appointment).

And under Shoigu, everything was all tidy and bureaucratic.

According to the document, each spy agency was given a role. The defence minister was instructed to coordinate the work of subdivisions and services. Shoigu was also responsible for collecting and systematising necessary information and for “preparing measures to act on the information environment of the object” – a command, it seems, to hack sensitive American cyber-targets identified by the SVR.

The SVR was told to gather additional information to support the commission’s activities. The FSB was assigned counter-intelligence.

For a lot of reasons I find the designation of FSB for counterintelligence weird, because that’s what they would always be doing and that effort would necessarily (and presumed aspects of which did) long precede any individual operation. Plus, by the end of the year, Putin had taken out two top FSB officers for treason, a prosecution that was later used to offer counter-narratives to the 2016 operation.

But it’s the rest of this narrative that would be intriguing, if true. It would seem to offer an explanation that has never publicly been answered by the US: what the relationship was between the DNC hack by the SVR that started in 2015 to the DNC hack by the GRU that started in 2016. That said, SVR is not known to have hacked several other targets of the 2016 operation: John Podesta individually, state election infrastructure, election vendors, and Hillary’s analytics hosted on an AWS server.

The narrative would be particularly interesting, if true, in the wake of the Solar Winds hack, because it might suggest there will be a GRU sabotage operation following on the entities targeted by SVR. Or maybe Russia wants the west to think that to be true.

That said, there’s a huge part of this neat bureaucratic description not mentioned: The central role of Oligarchs in the 2016 operation.

One might discount the need to include specific instructions for Yevgeniy Prigozhin, as his Internet Research Agency was already engaged in sowing division. But you’d think a description of the bureaucratic structure of the 2016 operation would at least note that a big part of the operation would be accomplished by a known private entity. Furthermore, there are redacted hints in public filings both that Prigozhin’s team interacted with GRU, and that he and Putin had specific conversations about the operation. None of that is accounted for (or arguably, even consistent with) this story.

And that’s the thing: if testimony that Alfa Bank’s Petr Aven gave to the Mueller team is accurate, his role in the 2016 operation got tasked both individually and more generally in quarterly Oligarch meetings with Putin, not through intelligence agencies.

Aven told the Office that he is one of approximately 50 wealthy Russian businessmen who regularly meet with Putin in the Kremlin; these 50 men are often referred to as “oligarchs.”977 Aven told the Office that he met on a quarterly basis with Putin, including in the fourth quarter (Q4) of 2016, shortly after the U.S. presidential election.978 Aven said that he took these meetings seriously and understood that any suggestions or critiques that Putin made during these meetings were implicit directives, and that there would be consequences for Aven if he did not follow through.979 As was typical, the 2016 Q4 meeting with Putin was preceded by a preparatory meeting with Putin’s chief of staff, Anton Vaino.980

According to Aven, at his Q4 2016 one-on-one meeting with Putin,98 1 Putin raised the prospect that the United States would impose additional sanctions on Russian interests, including sanctions against Aven and/or Alfa-Bank.982 Putin suggested that Aven needed to take steps to protect himself and Alfa-Bank.983 Aven also testified that Putin spoke of the difficulty faced by the Russian government in getting in touch with the incoming Trump Administration.984 According to Aven, Putin indicated that he did not know with whom formally to speak and generally did not know the people around the President-Elect.985

Aras Agalarov played a partly successful role in the 2016 operation (in fact, Rob Goldstone offered Trump help from Vkontakte before the January 22 meeting, on January 18). Oleg Deripaska played a wildly successful role (a role that included manipulating Harding’s known source, Christopher Steele). A credible story that their roles got tasked through intelligence agencies and not via meetings directly with Putin might insulate them from responsibility, particularly as the US focuses more explicitly on Konstantin Kilimnik’s role, and particularly for things like sanctions adjudications. But it’s far more credible that something similar to what happened with Aven happened, and happened before the January 22 meeting in question.

Russian kompromat on Trump was never going to be a pee tape

In addition to shifting the timing and presumed bureaucratic structure of the 2016 operation, this story seems to reinflate the expectation of a goddamned pee tape.

There is also apparent confirmation that the Kremlin possesses kompromat, or potentially compromising material, on the future president, collected – the document says – from Trump’s earlier “non-official visits to Russian Federation territory”.

The paper refers to “certain events” that happened during Trump’s trips to Moscow. Security council members are invited to find details in appendix five, at paragraph five, the document states. It is unclear what the appendix contains.

The SSCI Report laid out three different rumors about sexual kompromat, on top of the Steele dossier. But every time someone focuses on a goddamn pee tape, they ignore several details. First, Per his own testimony, Cohen learned of such alleged kompromat shortly after 2013. Even if it existed, it would have far less impact than the many other allegations of sexual abuse that actually did come out in 2016, or the allegations that Trump was cheating on Melania shortly after she gave birth with high profile sex workers. Plus, such stories would have been easily accessible for anyone who wanted to outbid Trump for them.

A pee tape was never going to be the most effective kompromat on Trump, no matter how much people still wish to see humiliating pictures of Trump with sex workers. Financial ties would be.

Importantly, given the way this story would shift the operative start date after much of the discussion about the Trump Tower, Trump hid the Trump Tower Moscow dangle the way he would a pee tape, lying both in real time and to Mueller about it. That is, Trump treated the Trump Tower Moscow dangle as kompromat, which likely was part of the point.

Sure, it’s possible that these documents that magically appear are authentic. It’s also possible that Russia has reasons they want to tell a new story about the timing and key players in the known 2016 operation. Why they would want to do that may be the most interesting aspect of this story.

The Quid Pro Quo Was Even Tighter Than I Imagined

Way back in May, I did a six part series on what the questions (as imagined by Jay Sekulow) that Mueller wanted to ask to Trump said about his investigation.

Part One: The Mueller Questions Map Out Cultivation, a Quid Pro Quo, and a Cover-Up

Part Two: The Quid Pro Quo: a Putin Meeting and Election Assistance, in Exchange for Sanctions Relief

Part Three: The Quo: Policy and Real Estate Payoffs to Russia

Part Four: The Quest: Trump Learns of the Investigation

Part Five: Attempting a Cover-Up by Firing Comey

Part Six: Trump Exacerbates His Woes

I gotta say, I’m quite proud of the way the series has held up: while there’s a bunch I’d add to the series if I rewrote it today, there’s little that I’d retract.

And from the very start, I argued that the election conspiracy involves a quid pro quo. The second post described how, “over the course of the election, the Russians and Trump appear to have danced towards a quid pro quo, involving a Putin meeting and election assistance in exchange for sanctions relief if Trump won (as noted, the Russians dangled real estate deals to entice Trump based on the assumption he wouldn’t win).”

I still stand by the series, but recent developments in the case make it clear the quid pro quo is even tighter than I thought because of the way the Trump Tower Moscow dangle, which we now know was the payoff that required a meeting with Putin, hung over it all.

Consider this passage in the Mueller Cohen sentencing memo.

The defendant’s false statements obscured the fact that the Moscow Project was a lucrative business opportunity that sought, and likely required, the assistance of the Russian government. If the project was completed, the Company could have received hundreds of millions of dollars from Russian sources in licensing fees and other revenues. The fact that Cohen continued to work on the project and discuss it with Individual 1 well into the campaign was material to the ongoing congressional and SCO investigations, particularly because it occurred at a time of sustained efforts by the Russian government to interfere with the U.S. presidential election. Similarly, it was material that Cohen, during the campaign, had a substantive telephone call about the project with an assistant to the press secretary for the President of Russia.

Cohen’s lies, aside from attempting to short circuit the parallel Russian investigations, hid the following facts:

  • Trump Organization stood to earn “hundreds of millions of dollars from Russian sources” if the Trump Tower deal went through.
  • Cohen’s work on the deal continued “well into the campaign” even as the Russian government made “sustained efforts … to interfere in the U.S. presidential election.”
  • The project “likely required[] the assistance of the Russian government.”
  • “Cohen [during May 2016] had a substantive telephone call about the project with an assistant to the press secretary for the President of Russia [Dmitri Peskov].”

Now consider the line Rob Goldstone used to entice Don Jr into taking a meeting — a meeting that, Rudy Giuliani says Paul Manafort says prosecutors know Trump knew about — to hear about dirt on Hillary Clinton.

Less than three years after Trump’s ability to get a meeting with Putin during the Miss Universe contest had been portrayed, by Goldstone himself, as entirely reliant on the efforts of Aras Agalarov, Goldstone packaged this meeting as “part of  Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”

And while Goldstone testified that he didn’t mean anything specific about that phrase, he also testified that among the bare facts that Emin wanted conveyed in that message is that this meeting would benefit the Trumps — not the campaign, but the Trumps.

Q. — you talked about with my colleague, I know we have asked you a lot of questions. I just want to have you explain. When you say there — you wrote the statement “based on the bare facts I was given,” exactly what were the bare facts that you were given?

A. So, to the best of my recollection, when I spoke to Emin, he said to me: I would like you to set up a meeting. A Russian attorney met with my — a well-connected Russian attorney met with my dad in his office, and she appears to have or seems to have damaging information on the Democrats and its candidate, Hillary Clinton. And I think it could be useful to the Trumps.

He talked about the Trumps rather than the campaign. And he would like us to get a meeting. To me, that was it. That’s when I started pushing for more information. But those would be the bare facts: attorney, damaging information, Democrats, Hillary Clinton. [my emphasis]

Goldstone was just a go-between in efforts, going back to 2013 and involving Dmitri Peskov, to set up a meeting between Trump and Putin. And Emin was clearly not sharing everything with Goldstone. But Emin was more centrally involved, even in 2013, and (his comments to Goldstone make clear) remained so in 2016 and 2017. So Emin’s emphasis on the benefit for Trump is striking.

And whether or not that language about “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump” was as innocent as Goldstone makes out, in context, it would have clear meaning for Don Jr, whom we know Cohen kept apprised of the efforts to renew the Trump Tower Moscow deal. The Trumps were monetizing this running-for-President thing, and they were happy to make campaign promises to Russians bearing dirt, because the point wasn’t to actually win the election. It was about the hundreds of millions they stood to gain.

And the very day of that June 9 meeting, Michael Cohen started making his travel plans to go meet top Russian officials in St. Petersburg, possibly even Putin himself, plans that were only scuttled when the Russian hack of the DNC got exposed.

Consider one more detail about this quid pro quo. We’ve already seen how broke Trump’s working for “free” campaign manager, Paul Manafort, was at the time (though yesterday’s Manafort filing makes it clear that Tom Barrack had a much bigger role in this than previously known, and may have been — may even still be! — the one paying Manafort’s bills). The SDNY Cohen filing describes why he had to use a HELOC to pay off Trump’s former sex partners.

In December 2015, Cohen contacted a bank (“Bank-3”) to apply for a home equity line of credit (“HELOC”). In his application for the HELOC, Cohen made false statements about his net worth and monthly expenses. Specifically, Cohen failed to disclose more than $20 million in debt he owed to another bank (“Bank-2”), and also materially understated his monthly expenses to Bank-3 by omitting at least $70,000 in monthly interest payments due to Bank-2 on that debt. (PSR ¶ 34). These statements were the latest in a series of false statements Cohen made to financial institutions in connection with credit applications.

While elsewhere, SDNY makes clear that Cohen has been hiding some liquid assets … somewhere, the amount of fraud he was conducting to keep his finances in order (to say nothing of his refusal to fully cooperate with SDNY’s investigation) suggest they may be the wrong kind of liquid.

An updated financial statement Cohen provided at closing reflected a positive $17 million net worth in addition to previously undisclosed liquid assets, a nearly $20 million increase from the false financial information Cohen had provided to Bank-2 just weeks earlier in the negotiations.

So Manafort was underwater and Cohen was underwater. How badly underwater do you expect we’ll learn Trump Organization is and was?

The Russians exploited Trump’s most venal instincts and those of all the people around him. And all the election help and policy payoffs were just side shows to Trump. So long as he showed a willingness to damage Hillary Clinton in any way available, the Russians were happy to have him believe this was just about a silly tower in Moscow.

As I disclosed in July, I provided information to the FBI on issues related to the Mueller investigation, so I’m going to include disclosure statements on Mueller investigation posts from here on out. I will include the disclosure whether or not the stuff I shared with the FBI pertains to the subject of the post. 

Michael Cohen and Felix Sater’s Evolving Cooperation against Trump

Among the things I remain most amazed by, in the Russian investigation, is that even while Trump and the GOP are trying to discredit the Mueller investigation by claiming, without evidence, that the Deep State had a bunch of informants infiltrate Trump’s campaign, no one has ever alleged that Felix Sater had been sent by the Deep State, even though he had a known background of being an informant for the Deep State before this whole thing began. And while Trump has attacked Michael Cohen viciously since he discovered (after his personal lawyer got raided by the Feds), that Cohen had recordings that exposed Trump personally, it still seems that Cohen and Sater may be shading their coordinated testimony to protect Trump from the worst implications of the Trump Tower deal. I’ve even heard chatter that Cohen remained in touch with Trump as recently as September.

I argued back in August 2017 that Mueller had seemed to form a prosecutorial team with the lessons his FBI learned via Felix Sater. That was before BuzzFeed reported in March that Sater actually had ties to six of Mueller’s prosecutors, starting with Andrew Weissmann.

Today, as he is being questioned about Trump’s business deals and ties to Russia, he has built relationships with at least six members of special counsel Robert Mueller’s team, some going back more than 10 years.

[snip]

Signing Sater’s cooperation agreement for the Department of Justice was Andrew Weissmann, then an assistant US attorney and now a key member of the special counsel’s team. Mueller himself would be the FBI director for most of the time Sater served as a source.

Even given the extensive background Mueller’s team has with Sater, they seem to have delayed interviewing him until fairly late in the process: December 2017. And it looks like Sater was no more forthright when he first met with Congress (and therefore possibly even Mueller’s team) than Cohen was.

In anticipation of today’s sentencing filings, I’d like to track the evolving stories on the Trump Tower deal, because I’m genuinely curious whether Cohen has now been more forthcoming than Sater.

May 31, 2017: Cohen and his lawfirm subpoenaed by HPSCI. Facing the problems with the Trump Tower story would have come up within weeks of Jim Comey’s firing, when the House Intelligence Committee — which was still conducting a marginally credible investigation — first asked and then subpoenaed him for documents. Ironically, they were likely after documents pertaining to the Steele dossier allegations, which may have been why Devin Nunes so readily assented to a subpoena. Those allegations have amounted to nothing, thus far.

July 8, 2017: First report on June 9 meeting creates a rush for testimony on that topic.

July 19, 2017: SJC requests documents from Trump organization. The request was written targeted specifically to the influence campaign, not ties with Russia generally, though it should have at least obligated Trump Organization to preserve the company’s contacts with Russian government officials.

If this has not yet been done, we ask that you immediately take steps to preserve all relevant documents in the possession, custody, or control of the Trump Organization related to Russian interference in the 2016 election, including documents related to the Trump Organization’s or Trump campaign’s3 contacts with: Russian government officials, associates, or representatives; any individuals who purported to act or whom were believed to be acting on behalf of Russian government officials, associates, or representatives; anyone who might have been involved in or in receipt of information obtained as a result of Russia’s influence campaign

But Sater was not among those it included in the communication list.

all communications to, from, or copied to the Trump Organization relating to Rob Goldstone, Emin Agalarov, Aras Agalarov, Natalia Veselnitskaya, Rinat Akhmetshin, Anatoli Samochornov, Irakly (Ike) Kaveladze, Christopher Steele, Aleksej Gubarev, Webzilla B.V., XBT Holdings S.A., Alfa Group, Dmitry Peskov, Vladimir Putin, the Ritz Carlton Moscow Hotel, Paul Manafort, Carter Page, Igor Sechin, Sergei Ivanov, Igor Divyekin, Sergei Millian, Dmitry Medvedev, Michael Flynn, Jill Stein, Michael Cohen, Konstantin Kosachev, Viktor Yanukovych, Corey Lewandowski, Sergei Kislyak, Yuri Ushakov, Anton Vaino, Mikhail Kalugin, Andrei Bondarev, Mikhail Fridman, Petr Aven, German Khan, Oleg Govorun, Sergey Lavrov, Rosneft, Sergei Kiriyenko, Oleg Solodukhin. This shall include any documents referring to any of the aforementioned using alternate spellings, pseudonyms, nicknames, abbreviations, or codes;

The very same day SJC submitted a document request that would not cover Trump’s business ties to Russia, the NYT published the interview in which it obediently set a “red line” on Trump’s businesses that Mueller should not cross.

August 27-28, 2017: Probably because of the way the June 9 meeting was disclosed, Congress more aggressively pursued testimony on it than on other issues. As a result, Don Jr got a request — and an early hearing date — for testimony from the Senate Judiciary Committee. In the lead-up to that (and to his own SSCI interview), Michael Cohen conducted a preemptive limited hangout on the Trump Tower story. It started with a WaPo scoop that cited several people familiar with the proposal when telling Cohen’s partial version, one of whom must be Cohen.

Trump never went to Moscow as Sater proposed. And although investors and Trump’s company signed a letter of intent, they lacked the land and permits to proceed and the project was abandoned at the end of January 2016, just before the presidential primaries began, several people familiar with the proposal said.

The next day, the Trump Organization turned over [some, but obviously not all of the] emails on the deal to Congress, leading to more reporting on it. At the same time, Cohen turned over a statement on the projected project, the following parts of which got quoted in his statement of the offense.

The proposal was under consideration at the [Company] from September 2015 until the end of January 2016 . By the end of January 2016 , I determined that the proposal was not feasible for a variety of business reasons and should not be pursued further . Based on my business determinations, the [Company] abandoned the [Moscow Project] proposal . To the best of my knowledge , [Individual l] was never in contact with anyone about this proposal other than me on three occasions . I did not ask or brief [Individual l] , or any of his family , before I made the decision to terminate further work on the proposal.

I primarily communicated with the Moscow- based development company . through a U. S . citizen third- party intermediary , [Individual 2] . [ Individual 2] constantly asked me to travel to Moscow as part of his efforts to push forward the discussion of the proposal . I ultimately determined that the proposal was not feasible and never agreed to make a trip to Russia . Despite overtures by [Individual 2] , I never considered asking [Individual l] to travel to Russia in connection with this proposal .

In mid- January 2016 , [Individual 2] suggested that I send an email to [Russian Official l] , the Press Secretary for the President of Russia , since the proposal would require approvals within the Russian government that had not been issued . Those permissions were never provided . I decided to abandon the proposal less than two weeks later for business reasons and do not recall any response to my email , nor any other contacts by me with [Russian Official l] or other Russian government officials about the proposal

Also that day, WSJ reported another part of the cover story: that Cohen had talked to Trump about it, but just three times. Later that day, WSJ published an interview with Cohen who described, in helpful detail for anyone trying to coordinate stories, the three contacts with Trump about it he admitted to.

In 2015, Mr. Cohen said, he informed the then-candidate that he was working on a licensing deal for a Trump Tower in Moscow. He subsequently asked for and received Mr. Trump’s signature on a nonbinding letter of intent for the project in October 2015. And in January 2016, he said, he informed the then-candidate that he had killed the proposal. Mr. Cohen said each conversation was brief.

NYT, too, picked up the story, even republishing fragments of emails sent during 2015. It did repeat Felix Sater’s boast that by building a Trump Tower it could get Trump elected. However, it quotes Sater seemingly backing the shortened (September 2015 through January 2016) timeline of the deal.

“During the course of our communications over several months, I routinely expressed my enthusiasm regarding what a tremendous opportunity this was for the Trump Organization,” Mr. Sater said.

By August 28, all media outlets had focused on the January 2016 Cohen email to the general press line for Dmitri Peskov, which was attention getting (because it involved Putin’s close aide) but could also be pitched to show (because Cohen used the general press line rather than a more direct line to Peskov) how few contacts with Russia Cohen purportedly had. Trump Organization provided a statement that mirrored Cohen’s lie that the deal had died in January 2016. It is clear that Cohen and Trump Organization coordinated this roll-out. Yet Cohen has not yet publicly disclosed that coordination.

August 30, 2017: On August 30, Dmitri Peskov substantially backed Cohen’s story. Notably, he denied knowing either Cohen or Sater and said that Vladimir Putin had never known about the deal. It’s possible — likely, even — that Peskov was just taking cues from Cohen’s public leaks of his cover story, though it would awfully damning if this coordination went further.

August 31, 2017: Then, Cohen released the letter his attorney had sent — two weeks earlier — along with two earlier tranches of documents for Congress. Having done his limited hangout of the Moscow deal, releasing the letter that focused entirely on his denials with respect to the Steele dossier shifted the focus back on that.

September 7, 2017: SJC interviews Don Jr. While he didn’t tell huge lies, he nevertheless claimed to know “very little” about the 2015-2016 Trump Tower Moscow deal, being only “peripherally aware” of the negotiations. Perhaps his most specific lie was that he did not know of Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s outreach to the Kremlin seeking President Vladimir Putin’s help on the deal until that news had been reported by the press just weeks earlier.

September 19, 2017: Cohen attempts to preempt an interview with SSCI by releasing a partial statement before testifying, only to have SSCI balk and reschedule the interview. The statement alluded to, but did not incorporate, the statement on the Trump Tower deal he had released on August 28, though even his allusion to it included lies.

I assume we will discuss the rejected proposal to build a Trump property in Moscow that was terminated in January of 2016; which occurred before the Iowa caucus and months before the very first primary. This was solely a real estate deal and nothing more. I was doing my job. I would ask that the two-page statement about the Moscow proposal that I sent to the Committee in August be incorporated into and attached to this transcript.

October 24, 2017: HPSCI interviews Cohen. The timing of the interviews of the three players in the Trump Tower deal is rather curious, especially given Richard Burr’s recent suggestions the committee is working closely with Mueller. SSCI got Cohen and Don Jr on the record during the same period HPSCI was getting all three on the record. But SSCI doesn’t yet get Sater on the record, and it’s not until that same time period (presumably after the HPSCI interview) until Mueller gets Sater, even with his long relationship with six of Mueller’s team members, on the record. As the HPSCI report makes clear, however, as late as December 14, Sater was still telling a story that conflicts with the story both he and Cohen are currently telling.

October 25, 2017: SSCI interviews Cohen.

December 6, 2017: HPSCI interviews Don Jr. Of the three men, Don Jr gets closest to the truth in his interview with HPSCI, but in ways that conflict with his September SJC testimony.

December 13, 2017: SSCI staff interviews Don Jr.

December 14, 2017: HPSCI interviews Felix Sater in his lawyers’ NYC office.

December 2017: Mueller interviews Sater.

March 5, 2018: Mueller adds questions about the Trump Tower deal to those he wants Trump to answer. Note, this comes in the wake of Rick Gates’ cooperation deal; we still do not know what senior campaign official knew of Cohen’s attempts to travel to Russia as part of the Trump Tower deal but it’s possible Gates was in the loop on it.

March 12, 2018: BuzzFeed’s first long piece relying on Felix Sater focuses (like his statement to HPSCI) on his time as an informant, not the Trump Tower deal. It does, however, provide an unsatisfying explanation for why he thought building a Trump Tower would help Trump get elected.

Did he think the Trump Moscow deal could get Trump elected?

Even Trump “is fucking surprised he became the president.”

Then why send that email?

“If a deal can get done and I could make money and he could look like a statesman, what the fuck is the downside, right?”

It also includes details on the Ukrainian deal, and ends with Sater’s insistence (among comments explaining why he won’t say mean things about Trump) that once Trump leaves office he intends to build Trump Tower.

“First thing I plan to do when Trump leaves office, whether it’s next week, in 2020 or four years later, is march right into his office and say, ‘Let’s build Trump Moscow.’

“I’m serious.”

It also shows that the statement Sater gave to HPSCI doesn’t address his involvement with Trump at all, but instead focuses on his service as an informant. Which may explain the gratuitous statement on those activities in HPSCI’s report.

March 15, 2018: NYT reports that Mueller has subpoenaed Trump Org for documents relating to Russia, which it uses to suggest Mueller is inching closer to the false red line the NYT so obediently set in August 2017. Keep in mind: by this point the known witnesses on Trump Tower had claimed there was no follow-up on the Peskov email, which suggests they had reason to believe the discovery shared with Congress (which is what Mueller got in the first round) did not tell the complete story. If Gates was in the loop on the Cohen negotiations, Mueller would have known by that point that Trump Organization had withheld responsive documents.

March 22, 2018: HPSCI releases Russia Report. It shows that both Sater and Cohen were telling the same cover story when they met with the committee in October and December 2017, respectively, Don Jr’s December testimony was closer to the truth (and as such probably in conflict with his September testimony to SJC). But as the bolded passages make clear, HPSCI had a pretty good idea they were being lied to.

In approximately September 2015, he received a separate proposal for Trump Tower Moscow from a businessman named [Sater] According to Cohen, the concept of the project was that “[t]he Trump Organization would lend its name and management skills, but It was not going to borrow any money and it would not have any resulting debt for the purchase of the land and the building of the facility.”;~ Cohen worked on this idea with [Sater] and his company, the Bayrock Group, a real estate consultancy that had previously worked with the Trump Organization.

[gratuitous paragraph on what a colorful fellow Sater is — see note on statement, above]

(U) After signing a letter of intent with a local developer in October 2015,36 Cohen and [Sater] exchanged a number of emails and text messages in late 2015 detailing their attempts to move the project forward. For instance, in December 2015, [Sater] tried to get Cohen and candidate Trump to travel to Russia to work on the project.

(U) Several of [Sater’s] communications with Cohen involved an attempt to broker a meeting or other ties between candidate Trump and President Putin, and purported to convey Russian government interest in the project. Perhaps most notably, [Sater] told Cohen in a November 3, 2015, email, “[b]uddy our boy can become President of the USA and we can engineer it.” 39 [Sater] continued that if “Putin gets on stage with Donald for a ribbon cutting for Trump Moscow, . .. Donald owns the republican nomination.” 10 This assertion apparently arose from [Sater’s] rather grandiose theory that cementing a deal with a hostile U.S. adversary would increase candidate Trump’s foreign policy bona fides.41

(U) Sater testified that his communications with Cohen regarding President Putin were ”mere puffery,” designed to elicit a response from the · Trump Organization to move the project along.42 [Sater] explained that “[u]ntil the bank writes the check, it’s all salesmanship and promotion to try to get many, many, many parties towards the center to try to get the deal done.” 43 Cohen similarly characterized [Sater] as “a salesman” who “uses very colorful language.”44

(U) When the project started proceeding too slowly for the Trump Organization,45 Cohen and [Sater] began to exchange acrimonious text messages. 46 As part of those text messages [Sater] told Cohen that President Putin’s people were backing the deal, including “this is thru Putins [sic] administration, and nothing gets done there without approval from the top,” as well as meetings in Russia with “Ministers” and “Putins [sic] top administration people.”] [Sater] also mentioned Dmitry Peskov (President Putin’s spokesman) would “most likely” be included. 48

(U) Cohen thus attempted to reach out to members of the Russian government in an attempt to make the project proceed, but apparently did not have any direct points of contact. for example, Cohen sent an email to a general press mailbox at the Kremlin in an effort to reach Peskov.49 Cohen’s message notes that he has been working with a local partner to build a Trump Tower in Moscow and that communications have stalled with the local partner.50 The email further seeks contact with Peskov so they may ” discuss the specifics as well as arrang[e] meetings with the appropriate individuals.”51 Based on the documents produced to the Committee, it does not appear Cohen ever received a response from anyone affiliated with the Russian government.

(U) [Sater’s] testimony likewise made clear that neither President Putin nor any element of the Russian government was actually directly involved in the project. For instance, in one exchange, [Sater] testified he was offering the Trump Organization access to one of his acquaintances. This acquaintance was an acquaintance of someone else who is “partners on a real estate development with a friend of Putin’s.” 52

[Sater] testified that he was unaware of “any direct meetings with any [Russian] government officials” in connection with the Trump Tower Moscow project.53 In addition, neither candidate Trump nor Cohen traveled to Russia in support of the deal.54

[U] It appears the Trump Tower Moscow project failed in January 2016.57 Trump Jr. testified that, as of early June 2016, he believed the Trump Tower Moscow project was dormant.53 The project failed because “[t]he due diligence did not come through” and the Trump Organization’s representative “lost confidence in the licensee, and [he] abandoned the project.”59 In fact, the Trump Organization did not have a confirmed site, so the deal never reached the point where the company was discussing financing arrangements for the project.60 The Committee determined that the Trump Tower Moscow project did not progress beyond an early developmental phase, and that this potential licensing deal was not related to the Trump campaign.61

So by March 22, at least some of the people with influence over the HPSCI report (it’s unclear whether Democrats had any influence on the final product at this point at all) had doubts about whether Cohen got a response from the Kremlin, used hedged language about whether either candidate Trump or Cohen planned on traveling to Russia (a particularly important hedge, as Cohen appears to have made plans to do so specifically in response to the June 9 meeting), and didn’t entirely believe the deal failed in January. Indeed, Don Jr’s language suggested it continued afterwards.

April 4, 2018: SSCI interviews Felix Sater. Given that Sater almost certainly lied in his Mueller interview — given its proximity to the interview with HPSCI where he told the cover story — this may have been an attempt to see what the interim story would be. Note that it immediately precedes the Cohen raid. The BuzzFeed story published the following month, which noted discrepancies between Sater’s then currently operative story and Cohen’s, suggests that Sater did provide more of the truth to SSCI, noting, for example, that Trump got regular updates.

Last month, Senate Intelligence Committee staffers peppered Sater for hours with questions about the Trump Moscow project. Sater testified that Cohen acted as the “intermediary” for Trump Moscow and was eager to see the deal through because he wanted to “score points with Trump.”

Sater also testified that Trump would regularly receive “short updates about the process of the deal.”

And it revealed the plans went on into “at least” June.

[N]ew records show he was still working on it with Sater at least into June. In May, six weeks before the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Sater asked Cohen when he and Trump would go to Moscow. In a text message, Cohen replied: “MY trip before Cleveland. Trump once he becomes the nominee after the convention.”

April 9, 2018: Cohen raided by SDNY, based on a subpoena that names “many” people. In litigation that follows, SDNY made several claims about Cohen’s cooperation to this point, including fact-checking whether or not he has been fully cooperative with Mueller’s inquiry. Key to that was Cohen’s efforts to limit what Trump Organization turned over.

Cohen also states that the SCO “had requested that the Trump Organization produce all of Mr. Cohen’s communications that were within the Trump Organization’s custody, possession, or control,” and that Cohen objected “on the grounds that [the request] called for production of privileged communications, among other things.” (Br. 8-9). Although in the ordinary course, the USAO-SDNY would not comment on investigative requests or demands made to third parties, particularly those from a separate office undertaking its own, independent investigation, in light of the representations made by Cohen’s counsel, USAO-SDNY contacted the SCO about these representations and understands they are not accurate. In particular, the SCO did not request that the Trump Organization produce “all communications” by Cohen in the Trump Organization’s possession or control irrespective of subject matter or privilege. Indeed, the request made by the SCO was considerably narrower, and specifically omitted, among other things, any documents that were protected by privilege or of a purely personal nature. Cohen nonetheless objected to that request for documents and, after discussions between Cohen’s counsel and the SCO, the SCO decided not to seek production at that time. That Cohen sought to preclude the Trump Organization from producing these third party communications belies both (i) his general assertion of cooperation, and (ii) his stated principal interest in protecting attorney-client communications. Indeed, a careful review of Cohen’s motion papers reveals that he does not purport to have personally produced any documents to the SCO.

The SDNY statement also included a redacted passage suggesting that Cohen (or perhaps Trump Organization?) may have already destroyed evidence.

Elsewhere, the filing notes that “USAO-SDNY has already obtained search warrants – covert until this point – on multiple different email accounts maintained by Cohen,” which may by why they knew he might delete things.

For its part, Trump Organization tried to demand every single thing written between Cohen and the Trump Organization to be treated as privileged.

We consider each and every communication by, between or amongst Mr. Cohen and the Trump Organization and each of its officers, directors and employees, to be subject to and protected by the attorney- client privilege and/or the work-product privilege.

May 17, 2018: BuzzFeed presents what it calls the definitive story on Trump Tower deal, relying on “emails, text messages, congressional testimony, architectural renderings, and other documents.” As noted above, in the guise of telling BuzzFeed what his April testimony had been to SSCI, Sater admitted that Trump had gotten regular updates and that the deal went on into at least June.

But there were details that, the story made clear, Sater was still hiding. That includes the name of someone Sater and the developer, Andrey Rozov, met in early November 2015, in the Bahamas.

About a week after Trump signed the document, Sater and Rozov, the developer, went on vacation to the Bahamas. Rozov rented Little Whale Cay, a private island, for $175,000, and the two men went diving and spearfishing. In an email, Sater told Cohen that another, unidentified friend was flying in to join them. This mystery individual, who is not named in the documents and whom Sater would not identify, knew two of the richest and most powerful men in Russia, the Rotenberg brothers.

And there are differences between what Sater said publicly and what Cohen said. Sater focuses on this follow-up in the wake of Cohen’s attempt to reach Peksov.

Four days later, Cohen received a letter from Andrey Ryabinskiy, a Russian mortgage tycoon and boxing promoter. “In furtherance of our previous conversations regarding the development of the Trump Tower Moscow project,” Ryabinskiy wrote, “we would like to respectfully invite you to Moscow for a working visit.” The meeting would be to tour plots of land for the potential tower, to have “round table discussions,” and to coordinate a follow-up visit by Trump himself. Ryabinskiy did not return a message left with his attorney.

It is not clear how Cohen responded, but Sater asked Cohen for travel dates for both Cohen and Trump the same afternoon Ryabinskiy sent the letter. “Will do,” Cohen wrote.

Sater’s story doesn’t reflect the discussion with Peskov’s assistant that Cohen’s current story does.

Perhaps most remarkably, Sater seems to telegraph to Cohen a story about messages from between January and May being lost.

Sater has told investigators that during the first months of 2016, he and Cohen were using Dust, at Cohen’s suggestion, to communicate secretly about the Moscow project. Those messages, which were encrypted and are deleted automatically, have disappeared forever, Sater told BuzzFeed News. But on May 3, the day Trump won the Indiana primary and his top opponent Ted Cruz suspended his campaign, Sater sent Cohen an ordinary text message: “Should I dial you now?”

The claim that Sater and Cohen shifted to Dust and then shifted back to iMessage to plan travel in May doesn’t make any sense, and suggests something else is going on.

Finally, Sater’s story makes no mention of what Sater was doing in Trump Tower on July 21, ending instead with a dubious story about seeing a July 26 Trump tweet denying any business deals in Russia and realizing the deal was over. Anyone who knows Trump as well as Sater must, has to know that a public statement from Trump as often as not means the opposite of what he says. As I’ve suggested, it seems that the deal didn’t die, it just moved under a Sergei Millian and George Papadopoulos carried rock.

June 20, 2018: Cohen steps down from RNC position.

July 27, 2018: Sources claim Cohen is willing to testify he was present, with others, when Trump approved of the June 9 meeting with the Russians.

August 7, 2018: First Cohen proffer to Mueller.

August 21, 2018: Cohen pleads guilty to SDNY charges. Warner and Burr publicly note that Cohen’s claim to know about the June 9 meeting ahead of time conflicts with his testimony to the committee.

September 12, 2018: Second proffer.

September 18, 2018: Third proffer.

October 8, 2018: Fourth proffer.

October 17, 2018: Fifth proffer.

November 12, 2018: Sixth proffer.

November 20, 2018: Seventh proffer.

November 29, 2018: Cohen pleads guilty to false statements charge. In his statement to the court, he does not say that Trump (or anyone else at Trump Organization) ordered him to lie. Rather, he said that he did so to be consistent with Trump’s messaging.

I made these statements to be consistent with Individual-1’s political messaging and out of loyalty to Individual-1,

In his official statement, Rudy claims that Trump Organization turned over the documents underlying Cohen’s plea, which is almost certainly a lie.

It is important to understand that documents that the Special Counsel’s Office is using to show that Cohen lied to Congress were voluntarily disclosed by the Trump Organization because there was nothing to hide.

After the plea, Rudy gives an unbelievably hedged statement about whether the Trump Tower deal ever really died.

“The president, as far as he knows, he remembers there was such a proposal for a hotel,” Giuliani said. “He talked it over with Cohen as Cohen said. There was a nonbinding letter of intent that was sent. As far as he knows it never came to fruition. That was kind of the end of it.”

The day of Cohen’s plea, Sater provided BuzzFeed with materials and describes that he suggested giving Vladimir Putin a penthouse to make Trump Tower more lucrative. But he describes that as a marketing gimmick, not a FCPA-prohibited bribe that would further compromise Trump in his relationship with Putin.

Sater told BuzzFeed News today that he and Cohen thought giving the Trump Tower’s most luxurious apartment, a $50 million penthouse, to Putin would entice other wealthy buyers to purchase their own. “In Russia, the oligarchs would bend over backwards to live in the same building as Vladimir Putin,” Sater told BuzzFeed News. “My idea was to give a $50 million penthouse to Putin and charge $250 million more for the rest of the units. All the oligarchs would line up to live in the same building as Putin.” A second source confirmed the plan.

Given that BuzzFeed says this involved a Peskov representative, Sater may have been trying to hide this detail when he provided a different emphasis on the negotiations in the interviews leading up to the May story than Cohen did in his false statements admission (that is, Sater may have responded to seeing Cohen admit that detail by calling up BuzzFeed to provide a new limited hangout).

December 5, 2018: In his sentencing memorandum, Cohen repeats his line, from the oral statement he gave during his guilty plea, that he lied of his own accord.

Michael’s false statements to Congress likewise sprung regrettably from Michael’s effort, as a loyal ally and then-champion of Client-1, to support and advance Client-1’s political messaging. At the time that he was requested to appear before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Michael was serving as personal attorney to the President, and followed daily the political messages that both Client-1 and his staff and supporters repeatedly and forcefully broadcast. Furthermore, in the weeks during which his then counsel prepared his written response to the Congressional Committees, Michael remained in close and regular contact with White House-based staff and legal counsel to Client-1.

As such, he was (a) fully aware of Client-1’s repeated disavowals of commercial and political ties between himself and Russia, as well as the strongly voiced mantra of Client-1 that investigations of such ties were politically motivated and without evidentiary support, and (b) specifically knew, consistent with Client-1’s aim to dismiss and minimize the merit of the SCO investigation, that Client-1 and his public spokespersons were seeking to portray contact with Russian representatives in any form by Client-1, the Campaign or the Trump Organization as having effectively terminated before the Iowa caucuses of February 1, 2016.

Seeking to stay in line with this message, Michael told Congress that his communications and efforts to finalize a building project in Moscow on behalf of the Trump Organization, which he began pursuing in 2015, had come to an end in January 2016, when a general inquiry he made to the Kremlin went unanswered. He also stated that his communications with Client-1 and others in the Trump Organization regarding the project were minimal and ceased at or about the same time. In fact, Michael had a lengthy substantive conversation with the personal assistant to a Kremlin official following his outreach in January 2016, engaged in additional communications concerning the project as late as June 2016, and kept Client-1 apprised of these communications. He and Client-1 also discussed possible travel to Russia in the summer of 2016, and Michael took steps to clear dates for such travel.

In the heated political environment of the moment and understanding the public message that Client-1 wished to propagate, Michael, in his written statement to Congress, foreshortened the chronology of events and his communications with Client-1 to characterize both as having terminated before the Iowa caucuses. At the time, Michael justified his false summary of the matter on the ground that the Moscow project ultimately did not go forward. He recognizes that his judgment was fundamentally wrong, and wishes both to apologize and set the record straight.

Of course, this statement depends on the truth of the claim that the deal did not go forward — something about which Trump’s lawyer seems unconvinced and about which there is some evidence to the contrary. That is, this seems to be an effort to shift the date of the agreement to June or maybe July, when the deal was still active in January 2017 when Papadopoulos lied to try to keep his hand in that deal or even still active (as Sater said for the May story) for when Trump leaves office.

But the other problem with it is that Cohen’s explanation that he made up this cover story on his own, as a kind of mirror of Trump’s concerns rather than specifically conspiring to do so, only makes sense if he was the only person to tell this lie. But, at a minimum, Sater did, and Don Jr appears to have told a version of it. Now, it’s certainly possible that Cohen and Sater coordinated their story by leaking to the press; that’s the purpose the BuzzFeed stories seem to serve.

But if, as seems virtually certain, Trump Organization didn’t turn over any communications that would conflict with that cover story, then Cohen must have coordinated with Trump Organization, at a minimum. And given how Cohen stops short of attributing this move to Trump’s orders, whereas on the Stormy payoff he does attribute it to Trump, it seems to shy away from implicating Trump as much as must have happened.

Far more importantly, Russia seemed to know the outlines of the cover story, with Peskov matching what Cohen was saying (and Peskov has now matched Cohen’s currently operative story).

Given their past clear efforts to craft a joint limited hangout, and given a lot of other details about this story that don’t make sense, it seems that Cohen and Sater may still be working Mueller’s prosecutors (whom Sater knows as well as anyone).

That’s one thing we may get a sense of from the sentencing memo due by 5PM today. In any case, Cohen won’t get a 5K letter like Mike Flynn did. He still has some cooperating to do before Mueller will give him that. So if I’m right, he may still be caught in a dangerous game.

As I disclosed in July, I provided information to the FBI on issues related to the Mueller investigation, so I’m going to include disclosure statements on Mueller investigation posts from here on out. I will include the disclosure whether or not the stuff I shared with the FBI pertains to the subject of the post.