The Mueller investigation into possible Russia - Trump campaign connection
Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigators this week questioned an associate of the Trump Organization who was involved in overseas deals with President Donald Trump’s company in recent years.
Armed with subpoenas compelling electronic records and sworn testimony, Mueller’s team showed up unannounced at the home of the business associate, who was a party to multiple transactions connected to Trump’s effort to expand his brand abroad, according to persons familiar with the proceedings.
Investigators were particularly interested in interactions involving Michael D. Cohen, Trump’s longtime personal attorney and a former Trump Organization employee. Among other things, Cohen was involved in business deals secured or sought by the Trump Organization in Georgia, Kazakhstan and Russia.
The move to question business associates of the president adds a significant new element to the Mueller investigation, which began by probing whether the Trump campaign and Russia colluded in an effort to get Trump elected but has branched far beyond that.
It’s unclear how many properties or deals the Mueller team might be looking at; the Trump Organization’s foreign business relationships span the globe from properties in Panama, Brazil and Uruguay to Azerbaijan and Georgia. Trump’s children — Ivanka, Don Jr. and Eric — were parties to talks involving many of the dealings. Generally, the discussions revolved around licensing fees for use of the Trump name.
Prior indictments and guilty pleas secured by the Mueller team to date have focused on campaign personnel such as ex-campaign chief Paul J. Manafort, his aide Richard Gates and former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.
The New York Times reported on March 15 that Mueller had subpoenaed unspecified records from the Trump Organization. Days before that, the Washington Post reported that Mueller’s team was looking into a Moscow hotel deal for which Cohen brought to Donald Trump a letter of intent from a Moscow developer during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Cohen left the Trump Organization in January 2017, and has been front-page news of late because of his acknowledgement that he paid $130,000 to porn star Stormy Daniels shortly before the November 2016 elections through a company established for the purpose of buying her silence with a non-disclosure agreement. Daniels has sought to toss out that agreement, appearing last month on a 60 Minutes broadcast to describe her alleged 2006 extramarital affair with then-businessman Trump. Speaking to reporters on Air Force One Thursday, Trump denied knowledge of the payment to Daniels, deferring to Cohen.
“You’ll have to ask Michael Cohen. Michael is my attorney,” Trump said. “You’ll have to ask Michael.”
Cohen and Trump Organization attorney Alan Garten did not respond to requests for comment.
Before the Daniels flap, which includes a defamation suit she brought against him on March 26, Cohen was headline fodder because of revelations that he pursued a hotel deal for Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign.
His partner in that effort was Russian émigré and former Trump Organization associate Felix Sater, whose involvement in the pursuit of a Moscow-area hotel became public last year at a time when n ow-President Trump was insisting that he had no business interests in Russia.
The two men have said they teamed with a Russian group called I.C. Expert Consulting, and Cohen last year provided a detailed letter to congressional investigators about the deal and why it did not come to fruition. Appearing on MSNBC last month, Sater said that the local developer had sought financing from the Russian bank VTB, a big lender in Russia but one sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department in September 2014, with its subsidiaries added to the list the following year.
Sater is cooperating with Mueller’s investigation and provided more than six hours of closed-door testimony on Wednesday to the Senate Intelligence Committee, which also focused heavily on the deals involving Cohen, according to multiple people with knowledge of the hearing. Sater previously provided similar closed-door testimony to the House Intelligence Committee in December 2017.
President Trump has repeatedly said he has no business deals with Russians or Russian companies, and that he had no knowledge of any campaign collusion with Russia. Reports last year about the Moscow hotel served only to raise more questions, however.
McClatchy reported last year that Trump sought to splash his name across a giant glass obelisk-shaped hotel in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, and that he had taken out copyrights on everything from vodka to hotels across the former Soviet empire and even in Iran.
An in-depth investigation by the New Yorker magazine last year spotlighted the Trump Tower Baku in Azerbaijan, where the Trump Organization’s partners on the deal were relatives of a rich government minister whose family had business entanglements with a people tied to Iran’s notorious military unit, the Revolutionary Guards.
Shortly before that report came out, the Trump Organization in December 2016 said it was walking away from a deal to have his name atop a planned hotel, condo and casino development in Batumi, a Black Sea city that leaders of the former Soviet republic of Georgia said would become a regional destination. Trump lawyers originally blamed their Georgia partners before changing their tune to say the Trump empire was stepping away from foreign entanglements with Trump about to take office.
This week’s subpoenas by the Mueller team are in line with a lengthening list of potential crimes that have surfaced during his investigation of Russia’s election meddling. That became clearer in a court filing on Monday in Mueller’s related prosecution of former Trump Campaign Chairman Paul Manafort.
In a memo last May, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein gave Mueller authority to investigate, with his approval, unrelated crimes that surface during his inquiry. A Monday court filing by Mueller included an Aug. 2, 2017, memo in which Rosenstein listed allegations now within the scope Mueller's investigative authority. Except for Manafort's alleged financial crimes related to his Ukrainian political consulting, the remainder of the one-page list of suspected criminal activity by other figures was blacked out.
Michael Zeldin, a former top official of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, said Mueller could have grounds to investigate Trump’s overseas dealings to see whether those transactions led to relationships with Russians and election-related crimes.
Mueller also is searching for witnesses in his investigation of possible collusion. When he finds solid documentary evidence of crimes involving figures being questioned, those cases can be easy to prosecute, Zeldin said.
“And incidental to that, it might provide you leverage” to cut a deal in which those individuals become cooperating witnesses in the core investigation, he said.
Peter Stone contributed in Washington