Mueller is drilling down on 2 pivotal events in the Russia investigation involving Trump's longtime personal lawyer

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Mueller is drilling down on 2 pivotal events in the Russia investigation involving Trump's longtime personal lawyer

Michael Cohen

Stephanie Keith/Reuters

  • Special counsel Robert Mueller is reportedly homing in on two key events in which President Donald Trump's personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, was extensively involved.
  • The first relates to the Trump Organization's push to secure a Trump Tower deal in Moscow in late 2015 and early 2016.
  • The second relates to a Russia-friendly "peace plan" that Cohen and two others were reportedly instrumental in pushing for in early 2017.

Special counsel Robert Mueller is digging into two episodes involving President Donald Trump's longtime personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, as he investigates Russia's interference in the 2016 US election, The Washington Post reported this week.

The first relates to the Trump Organization's effort in late 2015 to secure a Trump Tower deal in Moscow, and Cohen's subsequent contact with a top Kremlin official at the height of the presidential election.

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The second relates to a "peace plan for Russia and Ukraine" that Cohen was reportedly instrumental in developing and hand-delivering to former national security adviser Michael Flynn before Flynn was forced to resign last year.

Cohen's lawyer, Stephen Ryan, denied that his client was under Mueller's scrutiny.

"Unsourced innuendo like this succeeds only because the leakers know the Special Counsel will not respond to set the record straight," he said in a statement to The Post.

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Trump Tower Moscow

Cohen was in touch with a Russian-born businessman, Felix Sater, about the Trump Tower deal in October and November 2015 when Trump was a candidate.

Sater first sent a letter of intent to Cohen outlining the terms of the "Trump World Tower Moscow" deal on October 13, 2015, according to The New York Times. Russian investor Andrey Rozov had already signed the letter by the time Sater forwarded it to Cohen for then-candidate Trump's signature.

Sater attached a personal note to the letter that was addressed to Cohen. The Times' Maggie Haberman shared the note on Twitter last year.

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"Lets make this happen and build a Trump Moscow," Sater wrote. "And possibly fix relations between the countries by showing everyone that commerce & business are much better and more practical than politics. That should be Putins message as well, and we will help him agree on that message. Help world peace and make a lot of money, I would say thats a great lifetime goal for us to go after."

Weeks later, the two men exchanged a series of emails gearing up to celebrate the Moscow deal, as well as Trump's election victory, which would come a year later. In the emails, which The Times obtained, Sater bragged about his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin and told Cohen that he would "get all of Putins team to buy in" on the Trump Tower Moscow deal.

"Our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it," Sater wrote, according to The Times. "I will get Putin on this program and we will get Donald elected."

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Sater told Talking Points Memo last August that his "last Moscow deal [for the Trump Organization] was in October of 2015" but that it "didn't go through because obviously he became president."

"Once the campaign was really going-going, it was obvious there were going to be no deals internationally," Sater said. "We were still working on it, doing something with it, November-December."

In fact, Cohen was advocating for the project as late as January 2016, when he contacted Dmitry Peskov, a top aide to Putin, about pushing the Trump Tower Moscow deal through.

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"Over the past few months I have been working with a company based in Russia regarding the development of a Trump Tower-Moscow project in Moscow City," Cohen wrote to Peskov, according to The Washington Post. "Without getting into lengthy specifics the communication between our two sides has stalled."

Cohen continued: "As this project is too important, I am hereby requesting your assistance. I respectfully request someone, preferably you, contact me so that I might discuss the specifics as well as arranging meetings with the appropriate individuals. I thank you in advance for your assistance and look forward to hearing from you soon."

Cohen later told Vanity Fair last year that the proposal from Sater was "business as usual and nothing more … just another project, another licensing deal." He added that he had "really wanted to see this building go up, because the economics were fantastic."

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A Russia-friendly 'peace plan' for Russia and Ukraine

trump rally

Reuters/James Glover II

Then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Sparks, Nevada on October 29, 2015.

Meanwhile, Mueller is also probing Cohen's role in reportedly delivering a Russia-Ukraine "peace plan" that appeared to favor Moscow to Flynn last year.

Flynn was forced to resign in February 2017 after it emerged that he misled Vice President Mike Pence about his conversations with Sergei Kislyak, then Russia's ambassador to the US.

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According to The New York Times, Cohen, Sater and Ukrainian politician Andrii Artemenko were the key figures involved in pushing for the proposal. While Cohen and Sater are both long-time Trump associates, Artemenko reportedly met with the Trump campaign during the election and has signaled an opposition to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.

Poroshenko assumed the presidency in 2014, following the ouster of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, and has demonstrated more affinity toward the West than his predecessor did.

Yanukovych, a prominent figure in Ukraine's pro-Russia Party of Regions, fled the country amid widespread protests against his Russia-friendly positions and his decision to back out of a deal that would have promoted closer ties between Ukraine and the West, and distanced it from Russia. He was closely associated with former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who is widely credited with helping Yanukovych win the election in 2010.

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The plan Artemenko, Sater, and Cohen pushed would have the US lift sanctions on Russia in exchange for Moscow withdrawing its support for pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine. It would also allow Russia to maintain control over the territory of Crimea, which it annexed in 2014.

Cohen's account of his involvement in the conception and delivery of the peace plan evolved following The Times' report.

"Mr. Cohen told The Times in no uncertain terms that he delivered the Ukraine proposal to Michael Flynn's office at the White House," The Times' deputy managing editor said in a statement following its story. "Mr. Sater told the Times that Mr. Cohen had told him the same thing."

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Cohen confirmed certain details of the Times story to the Washington Post, telling the outlet that he met with Sater and Artemenko at a hotel in Manhattan in late January 2017 to discuss the plan. He added that the meeting lasted less than 15 minutes and that he left with the plan in hand.

Then, he told Business Insider in February 2017 that he did not "even [know] what the plan is." His story shifted again when he said in another text message that he met with Artemenko for less than 10 minutes in New York to discuss a proposal Artemenko said "was acknowledged by Russian authorities that would create world peace."

"My response was, 'Who doesn't want world peace?'" Cohen said.

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Later, Cohen told NBC News that even if he had delivered the peace plan to the White House, it wouldn't be a big deal.

"So what? What's wrong with that?" Cohen said.

Trump has suggested on multiple occasions that he would consider easing sanctions on Russia if the country cooperated with the US on issues like counterterrorism. The Trump White House has also espoused a softer stance toward Moscow than the previous administration did.

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Russia's economy was dealt a stinging blow in 2014, when the former President Barack Obama imposed sweeping sanctions to punish Russia for its aggression toward Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea.

The Obama administration announced another round of sanctions in December 2016, as penalty for Russia's election meddling. The US government also shuttered two Russian diplomatic facilities in the country and expelled 35 Russian diplomats.

After Obama left office, Congress overwhelmingly voted to impose new sanctions on Russia last summer, which Trump signed into law after facing public pressure from lawmakers and critics who accused him of catering to Putin's wishes.

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But the White House declined to enforce that law this year. The State Department said the law's mere existence was enough to penalize Russia, because it had already made a dent in Russian defense sales.

"From that perspective, if the law is working, sanctions on specific entities or individuals will not need to be imposed because the legislation is, in fact, serving as a deterrent," a State Department spokesperson said.

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