“The President was dishonest when he said during the campaign that he had no business in Russia, was pursuing no business in Russia,” Schiff told Dana Bash on CNN’s “State of the Union.” He added that the proposed project or any others like it could have spurred the Trump campaign to take a more favorable stance toward Moscow.
“If they were pursuing business in Russia during the campaign, that might have influenced the positions that the candidate took in a more pro-Russian direction,” Schiff said. “After all, if they were going to be criticizing Putin, criticizing Russia, that would diminish the chances that this deal would go through.”
Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen, has told CNN
that he emailed a top aide of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, about the proposed building, saying the message “went unanswered” and “was solely regarding a real estate deal and nothing more.” Cohen also said he contacted Peskov after it was suggested that the proposal would require approval by the Russian government, but that approval was never provided.
Cohen added that he discussed the proposal with Trump three times, saying he “never considered asking Mr. Trump to travel to Russia in connection with this proposal” and did not brief on him on his decision to terminate the development.
Trump has denied any financial connection to Russia, which US intelligence agencies allege meddled in the 2016 election in an effort to help Trump win. Lawyers for Trump have said
the President’s tax returns showed few dealings with Russia, although Trump has refused to release his tax returns.
Schiff, the top Democrat involved in the House investigation into Russia’s efforts to influence last year’s election, characterized the news about Cohen’s efforts on the potential Moscow project as “yet another” misleading statement from the Trump administration about Russia.
He said the House intelligence committee, of which he is the ranking member, would likely question Cohen and Russian-born developer Felix Sater, who communicated with Cohen about the proposal. The Democratic congressman noted the committee had already subpoenaed Cohen for documents.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Schiff’s remarks.
Previous reports have indicated that efforts to build a Trump Tower in Moscow were underway during the presidential campaign in 2015, but it had not been reported that those efforts continued into 2016.
In a written statement, Cohen characterized the proposal as “simply one of many development opportunities that the Trump Organization considered and ultimately rejected.”
“In late January 2016, I abandoned the Moscow proposal because I lost confidence that the prospective licensee would be able to obtain the real estate, financing and government approvals necessary to bring the proposal to fruition,” he added. “It was a building proposal that did not succeed and nothing more.”
Cohen’s own attorney provided documents to the House intelligence committee that included a reference to the Moscow project. Cohen also said in a statement that the proposal “was not related in any way to Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign. The decision to pursue the proposal initially, and later to abandon it, was unrelated to the Donald J. Trump for President campaign. Both I and the Trump Organization were evaluating this proposal and many others from solely a business standpoint, and rejected going forward on that basis.”
Cohen told CNN that his three conversations with Trump about the proposed construction project were “short.” The first was to inform him about negotiations happening for a possible deal, the second time was to sign a letter of intent, and the third time was to let Trump know that the deal was off.
Cohen said the proposal was under consideration from September 2015 until the end of January 2016 and progressed to soliciting building designs and negotiations over financing.
The Washington Post, citing several people familiar with the proposal and new records reviewed by Trump Organization lawyers, first reported the proposed project
was under consideration well into Trump’s campaign.
Trump’s involvement and awareness of the negotiations remains unclear and there is no public record that Trump has ever spoken about the effort to build a Trump Tower in 2015 and 2016.
Trump denied having any business interests in Russia in July 2016, tweeting, “for the record, I have ZERO investments in Russia.” He then reiterated that point again at a news conference the following day, telling reporters “I have nothing to do with Russia.”
However, Trump has spoken out in news interviews and in sworn depositions about his previous efforts to develop properties in Russia, which date back decades, praising the market there as ripe for investment.
Sater has confirmed to CNN that he put together a real estate proposal for the development of “the world’s tallest building in Moscow” in the latter half of 2015, and presented the development to Cohen, which resulted in a signed Letter of Intent for the project. Cohen was the only member of the Trump Organization he communicated with on the project, Sater said, adding that he would not have been compensated by the Trump Organization if the project had been successful.
While Cohen was working on the Trump Tower deal, Trump was speaking positively about working with Putin and also minimizing Russia’s aggressive military moves around the world. His openness to Putin, and his willingness to accept narratives favored by the Kremlin, contrasted strongly with not only his Republican opponents but also with the Obama administration.
“I would talk to him, I would get along with him,” Trump said about Putin at a Republican primary debate in September 2015. “I would get along with a lot of the world leaders that this country is not getting along with.”