Sometimes the importance, import and context of a story is only revealed by subsequent events. The Michael Cohen ‘peace plan’ story from early February is one of those cases. As Allegra Kirkland explains here, back in early February, Cohen and mafia-linked Trump Organization associate Felix Sater met at the Loews Regency hotel in Manhattan with Andrii Artemenko, a Trumpish, pro-Russian Ukrainian parliamentarian to discuss a ‘peace plan’ for Ukraine. The story emerged in mid February and received a decent amount of attention. But key facts look quite different after what we learned during the consequential month of May.
Artemenko allegedly gave Cohen a package of paper documents to hand deliver to Michael Flynn. Cohen said he did so, though he later denied doing so and ran through several contradictory stories about what he did with the dossier before refusing to discuss it anymore. Almost certainly he hand delivered it just as Artemenko asked and as he said he did in the initial interviews.
The headlines referred to these documents as a ‘peace plan’ for Ukraine. But getting a bit less attention in the original reporting was the fact that the dossier also purportedly included damaging information about the leaders of the government of Ukraine. All the cloak and dagger activity over the ‘peace plan’ never made a great deal of sense since the plan was essentially this: Russia gets out of eastern Ukraine and the US lifts all sanctions, a message simple enough to be delivered in a Fortune Cookie, and about as obvious. It’s been the obvious plan for pro-Russian advocates since 2014. It doesn’t require a packet of papers or a personal meeting.
Now, here’s the key. Artemenko brought these physical documents from Ukraine to New York, arranged a meeting with Cohen and asked him to hand deliver them to Mike Flynn, the President’s top foreign policy advisor. In the early 21st century there are many easier ways to send information. There’s email. There are phones. There’s old fashioned mail. There’s FedEx. There are of course also conventional diplomatic channels. Hand delivery of physical documents is certainly the most cumbersome option. But it is also extremely secure.
What does this tell us?
Well, we now have very strong indications that members of Trump’s team, including Flynn himself, were trying in the weeks just before this meeting to set up extremely secure modes of communication with people in Moscow. The main aim appears to have been to hide the contents of those communications from the US government. In that context, the ‘peace plan’ story looks very different and possibly much more significant than it appeared to be in March. We don’t know this incident involved people in Moscow or the Russian government but it was explicitly about the situation in Ukraine and the sanctions regime, which were central issues in the attempted rapprochement with Russia. We are also under no obligation to be willfully dense.
Now, at the time this whole Cohen/Sater/Artemenko interlude was treated as just another of the bizarre eruptions served up by the Trump world’s endless and weird connections with the former Soviet Union. Perhaps Artemenko was just a crank. But he managed to get a meeting with one of Trump’s top business associates and his purported personal lawyer. Cohen, the personal lawyer, agreed to hand deliver his package to the White House.
And there’s more.
According to Artemenko, this wasn’t his first meeting with Cohen. He told Ukrainian press shortly after the initial reports of the meeting that he’d first met Cohen years earlier when Cohen was setting up an ethanol business in Ukraine. Cohen started that business with his brother’s father-in-law (bear with me here), a Ukrainian emigre with extensive business interests in the Ukraine agricultural sector, who supposedly help set up the meeting at the Loews Regency and died about a month after the meeting. More notably, Artemenko said he’d first started discussing his “peace deal” with Cohen during the Republican primaries. In other words, in the early months of 2016.
So here’s my question. We now know with what seems to be a fairly high degree of confidence that the Trump Team was trying to find ways to communicate with people in Russia by secure channels around this time. We also learned last night from Yahoo’s Mike Isikoff that the Trump Team rolled into town in late January eager to deliver basically the full package to Russia more or less immediately. A mixture of bureaucratic resistance and not having their own act together blocked the effort during the critical weeks before Mike Flynn was fired on February 13th.
What was in that dossier? Perhaps it was just flotsam and nonsense. But remember this was a set of physical documents which Cohen said he delivered to the White House, specifically to Mike Flynn. What was in them? Where’s the dossier now? Was it thrown away? Does Flynn still have it? Is it still at the White House?
With all we’ve learned over the last four weeks about the Trump team’s efforts to conduct covert communications about a rapprochement with Russia, I think we need to know.