Just so there's no confusion: Donald Trump's longtime personal lawyer emailed Vladimir Putin's personal spokesman? Seeking help from the Kremlin on a deal to build a Trump Tower in Moscow? During the presidential campaign?
Yes, this really happened. While most attention was rightly focused on the devastating flood in Houston, there was quite a bit of news on the Russia front – all of it, from Trump's perspective, quite bad.
The revelations begin with a Trump business associate named Felix Sater. A Russian emigre who bragged about his Kremlin connections, Sater was a principal figure in development of the Trump Soho hotel and condominium project in lower Manhattan. Sater wrote a series of emails to Trump's lawyer, Michael Cohen, touting the Moscow Trump Tower project as a way to help Trump win the presidency.
In November 2015 – five months after Trump had entered the race for the Republican presidential nomination – Sater wrote to Cohen that he had "arranged" for Trump's daughter Ivanka, during a 2006 visit to Moscow, "to sit in Putins private chair at his desk and office in the Kremlin."
The email went on, "I will get Putin on this program and we will get Donald elected. We both know no one else knows how to pull this off without stupidity or greed getting in the way. 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. I will get all of Putins team to buy in on this."
Could Sater be just a blowhard who exaggerated his influence with the Russian president? Perhaps. But Ivanka Trump did tell The New York Times that she took a "brief tour of Red Square and the Kremlin" during that 2006 visit. The Times reported she said that "it is possible she sat in Mr. Putin's chair during that tour but she did not recall it."
There is no evidence that Cohen, one of Trump's closest associates, found anything improper in Sater's pledge to get Putin "on this program." Nor did Cohen or anyone in the Trump Organization bother to disclose the emails – or the Trump firm's effort, even during the campaign, to profitably emblazon the Trump name on the Moscow skyline – until the correspondence was turned over to the House Intelligence Committee on August 28.
And there's more: In January 2016, with the Moscow project apparently stalled, Cohen went straight to the top to get it back on track – or at least tried to. He sent an email to Dmitry Peskov, Putin's longtime personal spokesman, "hereby requesting your assistance."
Peskov confirmed that the email was received but said he did nothing about it and that it was not given to Putin.
So Trump was lying when he tweeted, shortly before his inauguration, that "I HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH RUSSIA – NO DEALS, NO LOANS, NO NOTHING!" The truth is that in October 2015, on the same day he participated in a GOP candidates' debate, he signed a letter of intent for the Moscow Trump Tower project.
That is a "deal," and Trump's hunger to keep it alive may explain his reluctance to say anything critical about Putin. Or it may tell just part of the story.
The other part involves the whole question of collusion between Russian officials and the Trump campaign to meddle with the election and boost Trump's chances. Sater's boasts, by themselves, are hardly definitive. But of course there is the larger context, which includes the infamous meeting that Donald Trump Jr. convened in New York at which he hoped to receive dirt, courtesy of the Russian government, on Hillary Clinton.
Thus far we have the president's son, his son-in-law Jared Kushner (who was at that meeting), his then-campaign manager Paul Manafort (also at the meeting), and now his personal lawyer all seemingly eager for Russian help in the election. Who in the campaign wasn't willing to collude?
All of this is under scrutiny by special counsel Robert Mueller and the various congressional committees that are conducting investigations. Some have suggested that Trump's pardon of Joe Arpaio, the unrepentant "birther" and racial profiler, might have been a message to Trump associates facing heat from prosecutors: Hang tough and don't worry, you'll get pardons.
But there was more bad news for the president: Politico reported that Mueller is now cooperating and sharing information with New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. Presidents can only issue pardons for federal offenses, not state crimes. Uh-oh.