There’s More to the Michael Cohen Story

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I was intrigued to learn a few days ago that President Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, once founded an ethanol business in Ukraine. It’s referred to as a family business. So presumably he set it up with relatives of his wife, who is Ukrainian. This isn’t any big scoop I uncovered with my masterly reporting skills. It’s referenced right in one of the biggest stories of the last week in The New York Times, the one about Cohen, Felix Sater and Andrii V. Artemenko, the renegade Ukrainian MP who pitched Cohen (and, he hoped, Mike Flynn and Donald Trump) on his ‘peace plan’ for Russia and Ukraine and who is now being investigated by the government of Ukraine for treason.

Now, to be clear, there’s nothing wrong or suspicious about setting up a business in the energy sector in Ukraine. But it did make me see Cohen’s role in all of this in something of a new light. In most of the coverage of Cohen’s not infrequent appearances in the Russia/Trump saga, he is presented as a blunt-affect New York City lawyer who seldom makes it east of Queens. That’s one of the things that has always made his cameos in these stories a bit odd and hard to figure. But if he’s set up a family business in Ukraine, it seems like this terrain and the cast of characters and politics might not be so foreign to him after all.

Then there are some more details.

This article in the English language section of the Urkainian news website Hromadske International has more details. Now, before discussing this I should say that I always try to be cautious dipping into the press of a country I don’t know in some detail. It’s hard to know the difference between The New York Times and the National Enquirer without your linguistic and cultural-political bearings. However, in this case I spoke to a good friend who is part of the Ukrainian-American community. She is familiar with the publication and the people who run it. So while I cannot specifically confirm the details of this article, I’m confident it is a legitimate publication. The article I’m referencing is an English translation of the original in Ukrainian. The usage is a little rough in places. But it’s clear enough.

In any case, the article is a backgrounder on Artemenko, pivoting off the original story in the Times. It goes into various details about Artemenko’s background. Then it gets to Cohen. In an interview at Strana.ua, he says that while Sater is a recent acquaintance, he’s known Cohen since back when Cohen was setting up the ethanol business in Ukraine. So at least according to to Artemenko, he and Cohen have known each other for some time. This wasn’t just a courtesy meeting Cohen took with a stranger as a favor to Sater.

And then there’s this.

Artemenko told Strana.ua that this wasn’t the first time they’d talked about the “peace plan.” He says that he was discussing the peace plan with Cohen and Sater “at the time of the primaries, when no one believed that Trump would even be nominated.”

So at least according to Artemenko, discussions about the “peace plan” go back to the first half of 2016.

That’s interesting.

I should note this caution. Artemenko seems like a pretty shady character, based on this article and the other write-ups over recent days. He could certainly be lying about his contacts with Cohen before February 2017 for any number of reasons. This whole story is a swirl of confusion, lies and misinformation. So this isn’t just a perfunctory caveat. It’s a real possibility. But given the demonstrable lack of credibility of Cohen and the rest of the players on the Trump side, I see no reason to dismiss his claims out of hand. After all, in a period of 48 hours Cohen gave four different versions of his side of the story about this meeting, successively dismissing each of his previous stories as “fake news.”

We should ask Artemenko for more details and ask Cohen whether these new details are true.

It has always struck me as highly odd that, in the current climate of suspicion over Russia’s ties to Trump, Cohen would take that moment to meet with Sater – a former business associate who Trump now claims he wouldn’t recognize – and a Ukrainian with a pro-Russian peace plan. It makes a bit more sense if the relationship goes back before this year.

We shouldn’t take any of this at face value. But it seems like there’s a lot more here than one meeting.

More reporting on this is required.

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Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.
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