Over and over in the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump denied any contacts with Russia or Russians.
“I have nothing to do with Russia,” he said. “I have no relationship with Russia whatsoever.”
Trump denied it during the primaries; he denied it into the general election. He denied it in interviews, in debates, in speeches and rallies. He denied it before winning the presidency, and he denied it after winning the presidency.
But now that his one-time private attorney, Michael Cohen, has revealed Trump’s effort to build a 100-story Trump Tower in Moscow — it would have been the tallest in Europe, had it been built — Trump has taken that entire history and run it through his magic distortion machine, trying to wipe all of those previous denials out of our minds.
“Everybody knew about it. It was written about in newspapers. It was a well-known project,” Trump now claims. “So (Cohen) is lying about a project that everybody knew about. I mean, we were very open with it.”
Trump hadn’t been alone in those repeated, comprehensive denials. His sons had denied any contacts with Russians; his campaign manager had denied it as well. Kellyanne Conway had denied it, emphatically and completely.
“It never happened,” insisted aide Hope Hicks. “There was no communication between the campaign and any foreign entity during the campaign.”
Trump’s running mate also denied it.
“Of course not,” Mike Pence said. “Why would there be any contacts?”
That question — “Why would there be any contacts?” — has bothered me ever since Pence posed it back in January of 2017, because the logic behind it ought to be compelling. Why would a U.S. presidential campaign be in regular, secretive, widespread contacts with an adversary government? Pence wanted us to believe that the whole idea was too crazy to be true, when in fact it was crazy AND true.
We now know that even as Trump campaigned for president, even as he argued that we should cancel economic sanctions against Russia and re-establish friendly relations with Vladimir Putin, he was privately courting Putin for permission and even financing to build a huge luxury apartment building in Moscow.
Thanks to Cohen’s account — an account bolstered by emails, phone records and other documents — we now know that the Trump Organization was aggressively pursuing the project, with Trump’s full knowledge and participation. Cohen had even been invited to Moscow to meet with Putin or his second-in-command in June of 2016. Plans were also underway for Trump himself to travel to Moscow to nail down the negotiations once he accepted the GOP nomination. (Those plans were understandably derailed once news broke that Russians had hacked the Democratic National Committee.)
But the potential rewards, as described in court documents filed last week by special counsel Robert Mueller, had been tantalizing:
“… the Moscow Project was a lucrative business opportunity that sought, and likely required, the assistance of the Russian government. If the project was completed, (Trump’s company) could have received hundreds of millions of dollars from Russian sources.”
So, to resurrect Pence’s question: “Why would there be any contacts?” There are hundreds of millions of reasons.
Mueller’s investigation is going to take its course, but look at what we already know: While campaigning for president, Trump pursued a highly lucrative deal with a foreign foe, for his own personal benefit, while lying about it repeatedly to the voters whom he was asking to serve. That’s a grave betrayal of trust.
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