Since early 2017, President Donald Trump has dramatically moved the goalposts about his dealings with Russia, shifting from “I HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH RUSSIA — NO DEALS” all the way to acknowledging on Thursday that his company was in fact trying to build a project in Moscow during the campaign but claiming “everybody knew about it.”
Trump’s position has changed as more information has emerged about the contacts both his campaign and companies had with Russians during 2015 and 2016. On Thursday, Trump’s longtime lawyer, Michael Cohen, agreed to a plea deal with special counsel Robert Mueller that acknowledges he made false statements to Congress about the Trump Organization’s dealings with Russia.
As part of the deal, Cohen admitted that the Trump Organization secretly pursued a project to build a Trump Tower in Moscow at least as late as June 2016 — the same month top Trump campaign officials had a secret meeting with a Kremlin-connected lawyer who promised to provide them dirt on Hillary Clinton.
Details of the proposed Moscow project are still leaking out. On Thursday evening, BuzzFeed reported that talks had advanced to the point where Trump’s company “planned to give a $50 million penthouse at Trump Tower Moscow to Russian President Vladimir Putin as the company negotiated the luxury real estate development during the 2016 campaign, according to four people, one of them the originator of the plan.”
Back in 2013, Trump tweeted about his hopes of building a Trump Tower Moscow, but the fact that these talks were happening during the campaign remained a total secret until after Trump won the presidency. (News of it first broke in August 2017.)
All the while, as his relationship with Putin and business dealings were coming under increased scrutiny, Trump repeatedly claimed things like he had “nothing to do with Russia” and “I know nothing about Russia ... I don’t deal there.”
During a news conference held days before his inauguration, Trump said, “I have no dealings with Russia, I have no deals in Russia, I have no deals that could happen in Russia because we’ve stayed away.”
"I have no dealings with Russia, I have no deals in Russia, I have no deals that could happen in Russia because we stayed away."— Erick Fernandez (@ErickFernandez) November 29, 2018
Trump in Jan. 2017. pic.twitter.com/7ZjbxW4SkO
Yet after the Cohen plea this week, Trump rewrote history to claim that “everybody knew” about his secret business dealings with Russia. In tweets posted Friday morning, Trump even characterized his dealings as “very legal & very cool.”
“I talked about it on the campaign trail,” he claimed, falsely, before adding that he “Lightly looked at doing a building somewhere in Russia.”
In tweets posted Thursday evening, Trump hinted at a new line of defense — that even if he didn’t tell the truth about his dealings with Russia, fibbing is not a crime, and therefore the Mueller investigation “is an illegal Hoax that should be ended immediately.”
The president has also emphasized that the deal didn’t end up happening in the end. “I didn’t do the project, I decided not to do the project, so I didn’t do it,” he said Thursday.
One question Trump has not yet answered, however, is why, if his dealings with Russia were “very legal & very cool,” he and other Trump Organization officials spent more than two years trying to keep them quiet.