Contrary to media speculation that Robert Mueller is closing in on President Trump, the special prosecutor’s plea deal with Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen offers further evidence that the Trump campaign did not collude with Russians during the 2016 election, according to congressional investigators and former prosecutors.
Cohen pleaded guilty last week to making false statements in 2017 to the Senate intelligence committee about the Trump Organization’s failed efforts to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. Discussions about the so-called Moscow Project continued five months longer in 2016 than Cohen had initially stated under oath.
The nine-page charging document filed with the plea deal suggests that the special counsel is using the Moscow tower talks to connect Trump to Russia. But congressional investigators with House and Senate committees leading inquiries on the Russia question told RealClearInvestigations that it looks like Mueller withheld from the court details that would exonerate the president. They made this assessment in light of the charging document, known as a statement of “criminal information” (filed in lieu of an indictment when a defendant agrees to plead guilty); a fuller accounting of Cohen’s emails and text messages that Capitol Hill sources have seen; and the still-secret transcripts of closed-door testimony provided by a business associate of Cohen.
On page 7 of the statement of criminal information filed against Cohen, which is separate from but related to the plea agreement, Mueller mentions that Cohen tried to email Russian President Vladimir Putin’s office on Jan. 14, 2016, and again on Jan. 16, 2016. But Mueller, who personally signed the document, omitted the fact that Cohen did not have any direct points of contact at the Kremlin, and had resorted to sending the emails to a general press mailbox. Sources who have seen these additional emails point out that this omitted information undercuts the idea of a “back channel” and thus the special counsel's collusion case.
Page 2 of the same criminal information document holds additional exculpatory evidence for Trump, sources say. It quotes an August 2017 letter from Cohen to the Senate intelligence committee in which he states that Trump “was never in contact with anyone about this [Moscow Project] proposal other than me.” This section of Cohen’s written testimony, unlike other parts, is not disputed as false by Mueller, which sources say means prosecutors have tested its veracity through corroborating sources and found it to be accurate.
Also notable, Mueller did not challenge Cohen’s statement that he “ultimately determined that the proposal was not feasible and never agreed to make a trip to Russia.”
“Though Cohen may have lied to Congress about the dates,” one Hill investigator said, “it's clear from personal messages he sent in 2015 and 2016 that the Trump Organization did not have formal lines of communication set up with Putin’s office or the Kremlin during the campaign. There was no secret ‘back channel.’”
“So as far as collusion goes,” the source added, "the project is actually more exculpatory than incriminating for Trump and his campaign.”
Mueller’s office declined comment to RealClearInvestigations.
Cohen’s dealings with a go-between, New York real estate developer Felix Sater, bear some resemblance to the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting between Trump campaign officials and Russian figures – a meeting arranged by a British concert promoter. Both instances indicate that no one on the Trump side, including the candidate, enjoyed special access to the Russian government. Cohen’s emails and text messages indicate he failed to establish communications with the Russian leader’s spokesman, although he eventually was able to make contact with a desk secretary in the spokesman’s office.
In the end, neither Putin nor any Kremlin official was directly involved in the scuttled Moscow project, sources say. Moreover, neither Cohen nor Trump traveled to Moscow in support of the deal, as Sater had urged. No meetings with Russian government officials took place.
It was Sater, a Russian immigrant with a checkered past, representing the Bayrock Group and not the Trump Organization, who came up with the tower project idea in 2015. His pitch had more to do with branding than real estate: Trump would lend his name to the tower project and share in the profits, but not actually build it or go into debt for it.
But the project never went anywhere because Sater didn’t have the pull with Putin he claimed to have. Emails and texts indicate that Sater could only offer Cohen access to one of his acquaintances, who was an acquaintance of someone else who was partners in a real estate development with a friend of Putin’s.
Talks broke off in June 2016. Trump publicly stated seven months later, just days before his inauguration, that his company has never had any real estate holdings in Russia. Nothing in Mueller’s latest filings disputes that assertion.
Sources say Sater, whom Cohen described as a “salesman," testified to the House intelligence panel in late 2017 that his communications with Cohen about putting Trump and Putin on a stage for a "ribbon-cutting" for a Trump Tower in Moscow were “mere puffery” to try to promote the project and get it off the ground.
Also according to his still-undisclosed testimony, Sater swore none of those communications involved taking any action to influence the 2016 presidential election. None of the emails and texts between Sater and Cohen mention Russian plans or efforts to hack Democrats’ campaign emails or influence the election.
Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, a government watchdog group, said the criminal-information statement of offense against Cohen reflects political bias. He said the special counsel appears more interested in trying to draw connections to Russia than highlighting exculpatory evidence.
"Mueller seems desperate to confuse Americans by conflating the cancelled and legitimate Russia business venture with the Russia collusion theory he was actually hired to investigate,” Fitton said. “This is a transparent attempt to try to embarrass the president.”
He added: "The plea deal is weak tea and I suspect, given Mueller’s track record, that there’s even less here than meets the eye."
The actual texts of the plea deal and related materials filed last week in federal court do not jibe with reports and commentary given on several cable news outlets and comments of Democrat leaders.
CNN said the charging documents, which reference the president as “Individual 1," suggest Trump had a working relationship with Russia’s president and that "Putin had leverage over Trump" because of the project.
“Well into the 2016 campaign, one of the president’s closest associates was in touch with the Kremlin on this project, as we now know, and Michael Cohen says he was lying about it to protect the president,” said CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer.
“Cohen was communicating directly with the Kremlin,” Blitzer added.
CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin said the development was so “enormous” that Trump “might not finish his term.” At MSNBC, pundits maintained the court papers prove “Trump secretly interacted with Putin’s own office."
“Now we have evidence that there was direct communication between the Trump Organization and Putin’s office on this. I mean, this is collusion,” said David Corn of Mother Jones, co-author of “Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump.”
Adam Schiff, the incoming Democratic chairman of the House intelligence committee, said Trump was dealing directly with Putin on real estate ventures, and Democrats will investigate whether Russians laundered money through the Trump Organization.
But further dousing such speculation that the Cohen confession puts Trump in legal peril, former federal prosecutors said Mueller's filing does not remotely incriminate the president in purported Russia collusion. It doesn’t even imply he directed Cohen to lie to Congress.
“It doesn’t implicate President Trump in any way,” said former independent counsel Solomon L. Wisenberg, now with Nelson Mullins LLP in Washington. “The reality is, this is a nothing-burger."
Criminal attorney Alan Dershowitz agreed, arguing that Mueller is resorting to false-statement prosecutions in lieu of prosecutions related to his mandate of investigating the Trump campaign’s alleged participation in a Russian plot to interfere in the election — signaling he lacks the evidence to support such a criminal conspiracy.
“We are seeing many of these cases being built around false statements,” Dershowitz pointed out, not the underlying crime that has been alleged by Democrats and the media.
Though Mueller has now, in his 18-month probe, nabbed several Trump associates for process crimes, such as making false statements, and other felonies, such as tax fraud, no evidence has surfaced in any of the cases indicating that Trump colluded with Russia to steal the 2016 election.
FBI agents raided Cohen’s office early this spring to seize evidence, and prosecutors have spent the last several months sifting through his emails, texts and phone and travel records, as well as audio recordings he allegedly made of conservations with Trump.
Notably absent from the criminal-information document is any corroboration of the highly inflammatory, though oft-cited allegation made in the so-called Steele dossier, funded by the Clinton campaign, that Cohen visited Prague to clandestinely meet with Kremlin officials in August 2016 to arrange “deniable cash payments to hackers who had worked in Europe under Kremlin direction against the Clinton campaign.”
Cohen has strenuously denied the allegation and offered his passport to show “I have never been to Prague in my life.”