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On Russia, did Trump’s business and policy converge?

With developments involving several of President Trump’s former staff, including Michael Cohen and Paul Manafort, this week marked a major shift for the investigation of special counsel Robert Mueller. Lisa Desjardins speaks to David Sanger, national security correspondent for the New York Times, and Matea Gold, enterprise and investigations editor for the Washington Post, about its significance.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    This was, you might say, a marquee week for special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into President Trump's 2016 campaign.

    Lisa Desjardins reports on what we are learning about Mr. Trump's ties to Russia.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Judy, here are just some of the developments this week.

    Trump campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos reported to prison to serve his sentence for lying to the FBI. Mueller said former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort broke his plea agreement by lying to investigators. And Mr. Trump's personal lawyer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about some of the president's business ties to Russia. That's his former personal lawyer.

    For some context, two reporters tracking the business and national security implications here, Matea Gold. She's the enterprise and investigations editor for The Washington Post. And David Sanger, he's a national security correspondent for The New York Times.

    Thanks to both of you.

    Let's just jump right into this.

    As the president has said, it's not illegal to try to build a hotel in Russia, but my question to you, David Sanger, to start this off, what do we know about any overlaps between businessman Donald Trump's deals in Russia and politician Donald Trump's policies about Russia?

  •  David Sanger:

    Well, Lisa, that's the central question, because, from the start of his campaign in 2015, he was taking an unusual position, a much softer position on Russia than almost any of his Republican competitors, and certainly than the Republican Party had in the past.

    I went to see him with Maggie Haberman, my colleague at The Times, in March of 2016. And we did the first sort of lengthy foreign policy interview. And when I asked about Russia, the first thing that he did was veer into the question of why the U.S. was continuing sanctions on Russia for its annexation of Crimea.

    He argued Crimea was far from us, European countries didn't care about this as much as we did, why are we doing this?

    Well, what do we now know? We now know T. hat same month, March of 2016, his aides were still negotiating on whether or not they would be getting permission to build a building in Moscow, and, of course, they were dealing with the Kremlin to some degree on this. And he was offering a position that was music to Vladimir Putin's ears.

    That doesn't mean the two are causally related.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    We don't know yet, right.

  •  David Sanger:

    We just don't know.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Matea Gold, your team has been covering something that was first reported in BuzzFeed yesterday, that, in fact, the Trump Organization team trying to work on the Trump Tower in Moscow actually floated the idea to Russian officials of a penthouse apartment, a $50 million penthouse apartment, for Vladimir Putin.

    My question to you, because you have been taking an broad look at all of this, how long has Donald Trump and the Trump Organization tried to build a hotel in Russia? And what do we know how President Trump was involved President Trump was when he was a candidate in trying to make that happen?

  • Matea Gold:


    So, the 2016 effort was really a capstone on a 30-year quest by Donald Trump to bring his brand to Moscow. He and his then wife, Ivana, actually traveled to the then Soviet Union in 1987 to scout out locations for a possible Trump Tower, Trump development.

    And over the years, he repeatedly tried to make a deal happen. It just never could get done. The 2015-2016 endeavor was very interesting, because even months after he famously came down the golden escalator and announced his candidacy for president, in October 2015, Trump signed a letter of intent to continue searching for a deal in Russia.

    And we know that his personal attorney Michael Cohen really made it a mission to make that happen. Now, Cohen had originally told Congress that effort was dead essentially in January of 2016, just as Trump's candidacy was really getting going and starting to take hold.

    And he said that his efforts to reach a top aide to Putin never got a response. Now, we learned this week that those were actually false statements, that, in fact, he spoke to a personal assistant to a top Putin aide for at least 20 minutes in January about help securing financing and land for a project.

    And for the next six months, he and Felix Sater, his partner in the effort, continued to discuss the project, and he discussed the project with members of Trump's family and the president.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    I want to look at that moment a little bit more too. And that was what stood out to me in the Cohen plea document yesterday, that moment where — we have a graphic of it — where Cohen says that, yes, in fact, he did in 2016 have contact back and forth with the Putin lieutenant Dmitry Peskov about this idea of a Trump Tower in Moscow.

    And I want to ask you, David Sanger, how significant is this person, Dmitry Peskov, who as Matea was saying, originally kind of said, oh, we didn't pay any attention this? But now it looks like this Putin deputy was, in fact, trying to communicate with some Trump top lieutenants as well.

    How significant is this, if at all?

  • David Sanger:

    Well, Mr. Peskov himself is quite powerful and very close to Putin. He's the spokesman. You hear him periodically speaking for Putin. You have heard them today from Argentina, actually, on some of these issues.

    Here's the critical point. President Trump said yesterday as he was leaving for the summit that he was continuing his business operations quite openly, he said, although we didn't know about this negotiation that was ongoing, because he might lose his quest for the presidency, and then he would have to go back into business, and he didn't want to lose any opportunities.

    Well, that's fine, except you open yourself up to exactly this kind of charge, that there's a conflict of interest, and that foreign nations that are seeking or others who are seeking influence will use their business relationship to try to influence him, or his views might be altered or appear to be altered in order to keep a potential business partner happy.

    And that's the central question. Did he alter his view of American policy toward Russia for that reason?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Matea, one question I have for you, so much of this now seems to be centering more around the Trump Organization and Mr. Trump's businesses.

    And many folks think the road map to what his business was actually doing are his tax returns. Do we know, can Robert Mueller obtain those tax returns? Do we know if he has tried?

  • Matea Gold:

    So we don't have any public confirmation that the special counsel has the president's tax returns.

    But I would note that that is a pretty basic investigative technique, is to look at someone's finances, when you're scrutinizing any sort of potential white-collar crime or financial impropriety. And he clearly could, as a prosecutor, obtain those.

    And so I think it's safe to say that Mueller has substantially more material than is in the public domain that's assisting him in his investigation. So we really don't know from the outside all the pieces that he's looking at as he's putting together his case.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    And this means we will need to keep talking to both of you.

    Matea Gold, David Sanger, thank you so much.

  • David Sanger:

    Thank you.

  • Matea Gold:

    Thank you.

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