U.S. President Donald Trump has insisted on numerous occasions that his 2016 presidential campaign had nothing to do with Russia.
“Time for the Witch Hunt to END!” Trump said in a message on Twitter last Saturday. “After two years and millions of pages of documents (and a cost of over $30 million) no collusion!” Trump tweeted earlier.
But the special counsel investigating Russian meddling in Trump's victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton has unearthed plenty of evidence connecting Trump associates with Russia.
In the year and a half since Robert Mueller took over the investigation into possible collusion, charging documents have alleged that more than a dozen Trump associates – from former campaign manager Paul Manafort to son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner – communicated with Russians, in one form or another, during and after the election.
While the Mueller investigation operates under grand jury secrecy, the evidence the special prosecutor has referenced in court documents points to deeper and broader than previously thought contacts between people in Trump’s orbit and Russian operatives who sought to gain influence with the Republican president.
The latest revelation on the nexus between Trump and Russia appeared in a sentencing memo for former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen who pleaded guilty last week to lying to Congress about Trump's efforts, during the campaign, to build a Trump tower in Moscow.
Last year, Cohen told lawmakers that his efforts on behalf of Trump to win Russian approval and build a new high rise in Moscow ended in January 2016, just as the campaign was heating up, whereas in fact they continued through June 2016, shortly before Trump secured the Republican presidential nomination.
In the memo, Mueller’s prosecutors wrote that Cohen, who once said he would "take a bullet” for Trump but subsequently turned on his former boss, has provided “information about his own contacts with Russian interests during the campaign and discussions with others in the course of making those contacts.”
Cohen, who broached the possibility of a meeting in New York between Putin and Trump during the U.N. General Assembly in September 2015, has told prosecutors that he had "conferred" with Trump about the idea before “reaching out to gauge Russia’s interest in such a meeting," according to the memo.
The meeting did not take place for reasons that prosecutors did not reveal.
Russian attempts to set up such a meeting persisted, however. In November 2016, Cohen spoke with a Russian who offered "political synergy" with the campaign and "repeatedly proposed a meeting between Putin and Trump.
“The person told Cohen that such a meeting could have a ‘phenomenal’ impact ‘not only in political but in a business dimension’… because there is ‘no bigger warranty in any project than consent of [the President of Russia,]’” according to the memo.
Cohen did not follow up on the invitation, according to the court filing, explaining to prosecutors that “he was working on the Moscow Project with a different individual who Cohen understood to have his own connections to the Russian government.”
The unidentified individual is believed to be Felix Sater, a Russian-born real estate developer who worked as an adviser for the Trump Organization.
Trump's interest in doing business with Russia goes back decades. In 2013, he brought the Miss Universe beauty pageant to Moscow. Throughout the 2016 campaign Trump repeatedly praised Putin and reveled in the Russian president's compliments before the relationship soured after the election.
The latest filings came at the end of a whirlwind week in the Russia investigation that saw similar documents filed in criminal cases involving Manafort and former Trump National Security Advisor Michael Flynn.Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI in denying he had conversations with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. shortly after the election and before Trump took office, at a time Russia was trying to get out from under U.S. sanctions.
The Cohen sentencing memo represents the first time the special counsel has alleged a discussion between Trump and his lawyer about a meeting with Putin during the 2016 election.It suggests that Trump remained focused on his business interests even as he was running for the White House.
“If the project was completed, the Company could have received hundreds of millions of dollars from Russian sources in licensing fees and other revenues,” the Cohen sentencing memo says.
Other Trump associates accused of interacting with Russia during and after the 2016 campaign include former attorney general Jeff Sessions who met with former Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the campaign and former campaign foreign policy advisor George Papadopoulos who tried to set up a meeting between Trump and Putin during the campaign.