Washington • A Russian national who claimed ties to the Kremlin told President Donald Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen, as early as November 2015 that he could use his Russian government ties to help both Trump’s business and political prospects.
The new Russia contact was revealed Friday by special counsel Robert Mueller III, as he outlined cooperation Cohen has provided the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
The new interaction between a top Trump lieutenant and a Russian citizen who claimed government ties is the latest of dozens of similar interactions that have emerged since the November 2016 election. Days after Trump's victory, his spokeswoman Hope Hicks asserted that there had been no contacts of any kind of Trump associates and Russia.
The new information about Cohen is particularly significant because it came in the campaign's early months and because prosecutors said the Russian national claimed to have interest in helping Trump's campaign, as well as his business.
Prosecutors wrote that around November 2015, "Cohen received the contact information for, and spoke with, a Russian national who claimed to be a 'trusted person' in the Russian Federation who could offer the campaign 'political synergy' and 'synergy on a government level.'
They said Cohen told prosecutors that the Russian repeatedly suggested arranging a meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Trump, in part as a way of helping Cohen advance plans to build a Trump real estate project in Moscow.
"The person told Cohen that such a meeting could have a 'phenomenal' impact 'not only in political but in a business dimension as well,' referring to the Moscow Project, because there is 'no bigger warranty in any project than consent of [the President of Russia],'" prosecutors wrote.
By the time Cohen made contact with the Russian, he had already begun work on a Trump Tower project in partnership with Felix Sater, a Russian-born Trump business partner. Cohen has pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about details of that project, including a phone call he arranged with a Kremlin official in January 2016 to discuss the project.
Sater, too, had suggested arranging a meeting with Putin and Cohen told prosecutors he did not pursue the Russian's offer because he decided to work with Sater instead.
The new information underscores both the frequency of offers of support that were extended from Russia to Trump's top aides during the campaign - and the eagerness with which some of his closest advisers greeted those entrees.
Prosecutors wrote that Cohen had been an early advocate of a meeting between candidate Trump and Putin. In a September 2015 radio interview, Cohen had suggested that Trump meet with the Russian president while he was in New York to attend the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly. Prosecutors said that Cohen later claimed the comments were spur of the moment, but he has admitted in recent weeks that he conferred with Trump about reaching out to the Russian government.
The fall 2015 contact came at an important time in the campaign. As Trump's candidacy was starting to heat up, Putin appeared to grow more interested in his effort. On Dec. 17, 2015, Putin attracted notice by offering words of praise for the celebrity mogul, calling him "colorful and talented" and the "absolute leader of the presidential race." Trump returned the compliment the next day calling Putin "a leader, unlike what we have in this country."
Mueller’s filing came in advance of Cohen’s Dec. 12 sentencing for various crimes, including lying to Congress about his Russia contacts. Prosecutors in New York said Cohen should receive substantial jail time, in part because they said he has provided only grudging cooperation to their investigations, which are separate from the Mueller probe.
In a separate filing, however, Mueller said Cohen has "gone to significant lengths" to aide the investigation of Russian involvement in the 2016 election.
They said his information had helped explain his own contacts with Russian interests, as well as information related to what they termed “certain discrete Russia-related matters core” to the investigation that he learned through regular contact with executives of Trump’s business. They said he was also able to provide information about contacts with White House officials after Trump took office and the circumstances that surrounded the preparation of his false testimony to Congress.