The Hotel Deal Is Really All That Matters

President-elect Donald Trump greets his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, at the clubhouse at Trump National Golf Club Bedminster on Nov. 20, 2016. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

I still do not think we have a clear read of just what happened or is happening with that disputed Buzzfeed story about President Trump telling Michael Cohen to lie to Congress. My best guess is that it is some dispute about Trump ‘directing’ Cohen to lie versus simply having him, allowing him to lie, having his lawyers concoct a false story line with Cohen, etc. If you listen to Giuliani’s words today it sounds like he’s trying to pry open the possibility that Trump knew Cohen was telling Congress things we now know were lies but simply didn’t remember or didn’t realize they were lies. Those can be meaningful distinctions as far as Trump’s criminal liability goes. They are not terribly important distinctions in terms of our getting to the heart of what happened in the 2016 election or Trump’s relationship with Russia. None are as important as what Rudy Giuliani again freely admitted today, which is that throughout 2016 Trump was trying to finalize a deal to build a Trump Tower in Moscow from which he believed he’d reap hundreds of millions in profits over the coming years.

Again, whether and how he lied about it is legally interesting. But that’s the cover-up rather than the thing itself. That deal was with sanctioned individuals and sanctioned banks. Whether it was even legal to be entering into the negotiations is not clear to me. But certainly the post-2014 sanctions against Russia had to be lifted before the deal could be finalized. That is the central issue. It’s not simply that Trump had “business” with Russia and deceived the public about it during the campaign and after. It’s more specific and direct. Why was Trump so solicitous of Russia and Vladimir Putin during the campaign? Well, a lot of possible reasons. But a major and likely the major reason was because Putin was dangling a multi-hundreds of millions of dollars payday in front of him. That’s a big incentive, especially for Donald Trump.

To get that money, Trump had to court Putin and he’d eventually need to lift sanctions against him.

It’s also important to understand the pretended legal theory Giuliani is operating in when he makes these statements. He continues to say that the negotiations continued through the campaign period. That sounds like it means that the negotiations at least stopped when Trump was elected President. But that’s likely not what it means. The President’s legal team claims that executive privilege kicks in not when he was sworn in in January 2017 but when he was elected in November 2016. Few if any legal experts seem to buy that argument. But Giuliani appears to be relying on it to simply exclude discussion of anything that happened after the election. In other words, there’s no reason to think the discussions ended after the election either.

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