Four months into his campaign for president of the United States, Donald Trump signed a “letter of intent” to pursue a Trump Tower-style building development in Moscow, according to a statement from the then-Trump Organization Chief Counsel Michael Cohen.
The involvement of then-candidate Trump in a proposed Russian development deal contradicts repeated statements Trump made during the campaign, including telling ABC News Chief Anchor George Stephanopoulos in July 2016 that his business had “no relationship to Russia whatsoever.”
The disclosure from Cohen, who has described himself as Trump’s personal lawyer, came as Cohen’s attorney gave congressional investigators scores of documents and emails from the campaign, including several pertaining to the Moscow development idea.
“Certain documents in the production reference a proposal for ‘Trump Tower Moscow,’ which contemplated a private real estate development in Russia,” Cohen’s statement says. “The decision to pursue the proposal initially, and later to abandon it, was unrelated to the Donald J. Trump for President Campaign.”
In a separate statement texted to ABC News, Cohen added that “the Trump Moscow proposal was simply one of many development opportunities that the Trump Organization considered and ultimately rejected.”
Cohen specifically says in his statement that Trump was told three times about the Moscow proposal.
“To the best of my knowledge, Mr. Trump was never in contact with anyone about this proposal other than me on three occasions, including signing a non-binding letter of intent in 2015,” his statement says.
Cohen also makes clear that he himself engaged in communication directly with the Kremlin about the proposal during the ongoing 2016 presidential campaign. His statement says he wrote to the press secretary for Russian President Vladimir Putin at the request of Felix Sater, a frequent Trump Organization associate who had proposed the Trump Moscow development.
“In mid-January 2016, Mr. Sater suggested that I send an email to Mr. Dmitry Peskov, the Press Secretary for the President of Russia, since the proposal would require approvals within the Russian government that had not been issued,” Cohen’s statement says. “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 Mr. Peskov or other Russian government officials about the proposal.”
The Trump Moscow development proposal, which was first reported Monday by The Washington Post, provides a new look at the relationship between the president’s real estate firm and Sater, a convicted felon who served a year in New York state prison for stabbing a man during a bar fight.
Sater is a controversial figure who served for many years as a federal government cooperating witness on a host of matters involving organized crime and national security. Sater had also traveled in Moscow with Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., in the mid-2000s and handed out business cards identifying himself as a “senior adviser” to Donald Trump Sr.
Trump had taken pains to distance himself from Sater. In one sworn deposition, regarding a Trump development in Florida on which Sater had worked, Trump said “I don’t know him very well … if he were sitting in the room right now I really wouldn’t know what he looked like.”
The emails show Sater and Cohen – friends since their teenage years growing up in Brooklyn – sharing their dreams of a Trump presidency.
In one, made public Monday by The Washington Post and New York Times, Sater writes: “I know how to play it and we will get this done. Buddy, our boy can become President of the USA and we can engineer it.”
And Sater adds, pointedly: “I will get all of Putins team to buy in on this.”
On Sept. 30, 2015, Trump Organization officials told ABC News that Sater had inflated his connections to the company. Alan Garten, a senior Trump Organization attorney, told ABC News that “there’s really no direct relationship” between Sater and the real estate firm.
“To be honest, I don’t know that he ever brought any deals,” Garten said.
That was the same month Sater brought the company the Trump Moscow development proposal, according to Cohen’s statement. Cohen’s statement notes that he did not share the proposal with others in his firm.
“Mr. Sater, on occasion, made claims about aspects of the proposal, as well as his ability to bring the proposal to fruition. Over the course of my business dealings with Mr. Sater, he has sometimes used colorful language and has been prone to ‘salesmanship,’” Cohen wrote. “As a result, I did not feel that it was necessary to routinely apprise others within the Trump Organization of communications that Mr. Sater sent only to me.”
Garten and an attorney for Sater did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
For five months, the Trump Organization gave serious consideration to the Moscow development idea. But Cohen told ABC News he scuttled the plan in January 2016, one year before Trump was sworn in as president.
“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,” Cohen said. “It was a building proposal that did not succeed and nothing more.”