If Trump really did tell Cohen to lie to congress, impeachment will be the least of his problems

What we are talking about here is not Russian hacking of Democratic party emails; not whether Trump is furthering the Kremlin’s interests, or undermining Nato to please Putin. What we could have is direct commercial links to Moscow and alleged criminality

Kim Sengupta
Friday 18 January 2019 17:47 GMT
Donald Trump denies involvement in Moscow project claiming Michael Cohen 'lying'

The tenets of the Moscow rules include “everything can potentially be under opposition control”, “always keep your options open” and “do not openly harass your adversaries”. Donald Trump is now discovering how the strategic tradecraft of western intelligence agencies in the Cold War is going to impact on the Russiagate inquiry.

The latest allegations regarding whether the US president was the Muscovian candidate for the White House are particularly damning even in the context of the stream of highly damaging material which has been emerging in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.

Trump, according to a report published by BuzzFeed, personally directed Michael Cohen, his long-term lawyer, confidante and fixer, to lie to congress about the Moscow Trump Tower project being discussed with the Russians during the 2016 presidential campaign. It is also alleged that while running for the presidency, Trump wanted to meet Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin to finalise the deal: “Make it happen,” he allegedly instructed Cohen.

What we are talking about here is not Russian hacking of Democratic party emails; not whether Trump is furthering the Kremlin’s interest in his dramatic shifts in American foreign policy, or undermining Nato and the European Union to please Putin.

If true, what we have is direct commercial links to Moscow and alleged criminality, developments that support the view of many tracking the Mueller probe, that “at the end, like Al Capone, Trump will be got on the money”.

If Trump did, indeed, ask Cohen to perjure himself, the consequences seem to be clear. As William Barr, the man the president has nominated to replace Jeff Sessions, who was sacked from the post of attorney general because he refused to interfere in the Mueller inquiry stated: “If a president knowingly … suborns perjury, or induces a witness to change testimony … Then he, like anyone else, commits the crime of obstruction.”

This is also the broad view of most jurists and, unsurprisingly, the Democrats, who also see this as further grounds for impeachment proceedings to begin.

Cohen, regarded as the man who knows where any Trump family skeletons are rattling away, is a cooperating witness in the special counsel’s investigation, an example of how “everything”, as the Moscow rules hold, “can potentially be under opposition control”. Trump appears to have ignored the risks this could entail as he cut his former lawyer adrift and then regularly, and publicly, insulted him.

If true, what makes all this even more difficult for Trump is that he had repeatedly denied, more than a dozen times, of having or seeking any commercial dealings with Russia. Most have been through tweets: “I HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH RUSSIA – NO DEALS, NO LOANS, NO NOTHING!” and “A COMPLETE AND TOTAL FABRICATION, UTTER NONSENSE. Very unfair!!”

He stressed to reporters that he has “no deals that could happen in Russia because we’ve stayed away,” adding that he could “make deals in Russia very easily”, but “I just don’t want to because I think that would be a conflict”.

There is no ambiguity in this, no wriggle room about perhaps seeking business deals in Russia before he realised he was a serious contender for the presidency. Trump seems to have boxed himself into a corner and not kept “options open” – as the Moscow rules advise.

All of this is not just of interest to Mueller. The House Intelligence Committee, now Democrat-controlled and under the chairmanship of Representative Adam Schiff, has expressed its keenness to follow this through.

The House Intelligence Committee inquiry into Kremlin interference in the US election was one among the three – the Mueller and Senate Select Committee on Intelligence inquiries the other two – which was accused of attempting to sabotage the inquiry on behalf of Trump.

The previous chairman, Devin Nunes, was investigated and cleared by the House Ethics Committee for secret trips to the White House and said officials were sent to London in an alleged attempt to entrap Christopher Steele, the former MI6 officer who produced the highly critical dossier on Trump and Russia.

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Schiff, the new chairman after the Democrats obtained control of the House, said he wanted to reopen the inquiry. He was now in a position to do the president some damage. Trump, in one of his tweets called him “Adam Schitt”, a rather juvenile insult, but generally in line with his constant disparagement of perceived enemies including America’s intelligence and law enforcement agencies.

It is hardly surprising, in light of this, that there has been a deluge of unfavourable leaks about him from officials, including those pertaining to the latest Cohen claims. The president obviously does not follow the Moscow rules advice “do not openly harass your adversaries.”

Schiff commented: “The allegation that the president of the of the United States may have suborned perjury before our committee in an effort to curtail the investigation and cover up his business dealings with Russia is among the most serious to date. We will do what’s necessary to find if it’s true.”

The president’s daughter, Ivanka, and son Donald Jr are said to have received regular updates from Cohen about Moscow Tower. A spokesman for Ivanka Trump said she was “only minimally involved” in the project. Trump Jr had told the House Judiciary Committee that he was “peripherally aware of it”.

Trump Jr’s testimony was in September 2017. Around the same time details were emerging about the involvement in the Trump family saga of Felix Sater, an interesting character.

Sater (aka Felix Sheferovsky) is a Russian-born criminal who was once jailed for stabbing a man in the face with a broken cocktail glass (he was drinking a margarita), and prosecuted again, in 1998, for his role in an investment scam in which Russian and American organised crime targeted the elderly, some of them Holocaust survivors.

Sater avoided prison and a potential sentence of 20 years by becoming an FBI informer, eventually paying a $25,000 fine. According to prosecution papers he became a font of information including on the mafia and al-Qaeda.

Sater later went into business with Trump and became a partner of the future president through a company called Bayrock, in connection with the construction of the Trump Soho hotel. The two men appeared at ribbon-cutting ceremonies for joint projects and went on business trips together.

Sater boasted that he was so close to the Trump family that he was asked by Donald to squire Donald Jr and Ivanka on a trip to Moscow, and that during it he arranged for Ivanka to sit in Putin’s chair in the president’s office in the Kremlin. Ivanka says that her trip to Moscow included “a brief tour of Red Square and the Kremlin”, and this may have involved sitting at Putin’s desk; although she could not quite remember whether she had done so.

Sater, whose family had emigrated from Russia when he was six, had been a friend of Cohen since they were teenagers. Sater was convinced that Putin would help Trump to get to the White House and he and Cohen would receive the due credit. “Can you believe two guys from Brooklyn are going to elect a president?” was the excited email he sent to Cohen at one stage.

He had stated, in earlier messages, that Putin would back the development of Trump Tower in Moscow and that this would be part of a grand plan. “Our boy can become President of the USA and we can engineer it … I will get Putin on this programme and we will get Trump elected.”

The federal prosecutor who signed the plea-bargaining deal with Sater on the racketeering charges all those years ago, Andrew Weissmann, has been a member of the Mueller team from June 2017. Sater has appeared in court documents relating to the Mueller investigation and as “Individual 2”. Trump appears in another set of papers as “Individual 1”.

It remains to be seen if Sater, the lauded federal informer, has provided further incriminating information about Trump. The US president may reflect as faces from the past crops up, about the problems the Moscow rules warn about keeping secrets: “You are never completely alone...”

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