As Donald Trump was surging to the top of the Republican presidential primary field on a wave of insults and bombastic statements in fall 2015, his longtime personal attorney and friend, Michael Cohen, was giving frequent on-camera and print interviews boosting his boss’ candidacy.
During that same period, as we learned from documents turned over to congressional investigators this week, Cohen was serving as the “lead negotiator” on efforts to construct a Trump-branded tower in Moscow.
Cohen and the Trump campaign have insisted he never had a formal role with it. Yet in the months that he was working the Moscow deal for the Trump Organization, he was also giving regular interviews to the press on the campaign issues of the day, firing off campaign-related tweets, giving comment on Trump’s behalf, and organizing events with and outreach to constituent groups.
A review of Cohen’s interviews and tweets between October 2015, when Trump signed a letter of intent to build in Moscow with a firm tied to banks under U.S. sanctions, and January 2016, when the prospective deal was abandoned, makes it clear that Cohen was advancing Trump’s business interests in Russia at the same time he was selling his boss to voters in the U.S.
Cohen first made waves as a surrogate for candidate Trump in July 2015, when he threatened a pair of Daily Beast reporters asking about Ivana Trump’s since-retracted allegation that her then-husband raped her, falsely asserting that “you cannot rape your spouse.” As the campaign picked up, so did Cohen’s comments on behalf of the GOP frontrunner.
He frequently weighed in on Trump’s gaffes, 2016 rivals, tax plan and thoughts on foreign leaders. In one September 2015 interview on Sean Hannity’s radio show, Cohen said that Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin would likely meet in person during the United Nations General Assembly in New York City. Cohen’s comment came one day after Trump said from the stage of a GOP debate that he would “get along with Putin.”
“Russia, there’s a better than likely chance Trump may even meet with Putin when he comes here for the United Nations,” Cohen told the Fox News host. “People want to meet Donald Trump. They want to know Donald Trump.”
Cohen appeared on-air, particularly on CNN, to talk about the campaign throughout fall 2015. The Washington Post reported Trump signed a letter of intent with a Moscow-based business called I.C. Expert Investment to explore developing a tower in Moscow on Oct. 25, 2015.
It’s unclear when Cohen first discussed the project with Trump. In a statement provided to Congress, Cohen said the two discussed it on three separate occasions; he insisted in a separate statement to Bloomberg that it “was not related in any way to Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign.” Various congressional committees and a special counsel are probing the business dealings of Trump and several associates as part of their investigations into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.
On Nov. 3, soon after Trump signed the letter of intent, his longtime business associate Felix Sater sent Cohen an email boasting about his line to Putin and arguing that a Moscow deal would help Trump win the election.
“Our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it,” Sater wrote in the email, which was obtained by the New York Times. “I will get all of Putins team to buy in on this, I will manage this process.”
Cohen characterized that note to the Times as bombast on the part of Sater, a colorful character who was once jailed for slashing a banker’s face with a martini glass and was secretly convicted of securities fraud.
While Sater and Cohen explored financing for the Moscow project and solicited architectural blueprints, Cohen continued acting as a Trump campaign booster, defending some of the candidate’s most inflammatory claims and proposals. Only once Cohen made a gaffe of his own or issued a statement that contradicted an official campaign aide’s would statements fly about how he didn’t speak for the Trump campaign or the candidate.
In November 2015, Cohen voiced support for a “deportation force” that would forcibly remove millions of undocumented immigrants from the U.S.; referred to a black protester shoved by Trump supporters at an Alabama rally as an “agitator” deserving of punishment; and said that Trump was “probably right” about his thoroughly debunked claim that American Muslims cheered the 9/11 attacks from rooftops in New Jersey.
He also argued in a CNN interview that month that Trump wasn’t likely to involve himself in “an issue between Vladimir Putin and Turkey” after Turkey shot down a Russian aircraft near its border with Syria.
Five days later, the surrogate tweeted out a photo of himself standing behind a Trump campaign lectern with a row of American flags behind him.
“There is only one candidate who can #MakeAmericaGreatAgain and that’s clearly @realDonaldTrump#Trump2016 #Trump,” the accompanying caption read.
— Michael Cohen (@MichaelCohen212) November 29, 2015
Another notable tweet came in December, when Cohen shared a link to a story from a site called The Political Insider about Putin telling reporters that Trump was a “really brilliant and talented person.” The article also noted Putin said his government would “welcome” Trump’s promise to create a “deeper relationship with Russia.”
“@realDonaldTrump, the best person to be our next #POTUS. Even Vladimir Putin agrees he will #MakeAmericaGreatAgain,” Cohen wrote.
— Michael Cohen (@MichaelCohen212) December 17, 2015
In January 2016, right before voting began in the GOP primary, Cohen made a final stab at moving forward with the Moscow deal, which had stalled. He reportedly emailed Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s personal spokesman, to ask for the Russian government’s “assistance” in acquiring the land permits needed to move forward with this “important” project.
Cohen has since told congressional investigators that no deal ever came to fruition and that he unilaterally decided to “terminate further work on the proposal” that same month.
With the Moscow deal out of the picture, Cohen moved on to his next project: helping Trump prepare for a campaign speech that he helped organize at the evangelical Liberty University.