ROBERT COSTA: Individual one. President Trump emerges as a subject of interest in the Mueller probe. I’m Robert Costa. Welcome to Washington Week.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) He is a weak person and what he’s trying to do is get a reduced sentence. So he’s lying about a project that everybody knew about.
MR. COSTA: President Trump battles his former personal attorney and defends his business with Russians during the 2016 campaign.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) We were very open with it. We were thinking about building a building. I decided ultimately not to do it. There would have been nothing wrong if I did do it.
MR. COSTA: But those talks for a Trump Tower in Moscow are now under intense scrutiny, as Cohen admits he lied to Congress and the president continues his political war with Robert Mueller after the special counsel withdrew a plea deal with former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort. All this as the president is abroad in Argentina along with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The latest reporting, next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. The Russia probe that has long gripped the Trump presidency was jolted this week by Michael Cohen, the president’s former lawyer, who admitted he lied to Congress about what was called the Moscow project. Cohen had testified that talks about building a Trump Tower in Russia had fizzled by early 2016, but in a Manhattan courtroom on Thursday Cohen said that discussions about the project actually went into the summer of 2016, deep into the presidential campaign. This development raises new questions: Did the president’s business pursuits with Russia shape his campaign or his message? And what does it reveal about Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation?
Joining me tonight to discuss all of this are three seasoned reporters on this fast-moving beat: Michael Schmidt, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning national security reporter with The New York Times; Susan Glasser, staff writer for The New Yorker and author of the weekly Letter From Trump’s Washington column; and Rosalind Helderman, political enterprise and investigations reporter for The Washington Post, who won a Pulitzer Prize this year.
Michael great to have you here on Washington Week. You’ve been reporting on Mueller for so long. There are so many pieces to this puzzle. What does this piece – the Cohen piece, the development this week, his cooperation – tell us about where Bob Mueller’s going with his entire investigation?
MICHAEL SCHMIDT: Well, it shows, obviously, that he continues to go deeper and deeper inside that inner circle of the president’s in really trying to figure out what was going on during the campaign. But I think more importantly he’s continuing to tell the story of the different pieces of the pie of what was going on in the summer of 2016 – the Russians were reaching out to try and meet with his son, they were starting to do things on social media to undermine our democracy, and they were also trying to do business with the president – and trying to lay out for the average person in this country through these documents the history and the story of this to give us a greater understanding of it.
MR. COSTA: The president’s defending his conduct, all these different conversations. He began the day with a series of tweets mocking the Mueller probe and defending his pursuit of the real estate project in Moscow. He wrote in part: “I decide to run for President & continue to run my business-very legal & very cool, talked about it on the campaign trail.” But most Democrats have sounded the alarm, including House Intelligence Committee Ranking Member Adam Schiff of California.
REPRESENTATIVE ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA): (From video.) It means that when the president was representing during the campaign that he had no business interests in Russia, that that wasn’t true.
MR. COSTA: I just want to follow up on something you said, Mike. It raises questions about what President Trump was doing during the 2016 campaign, about the timeline. He just submitted questions, written answers to Robert Mueller. Is there a perjury question now for President Trump and his legal team?
MR. SCHMIDT: As soon as we saw the plea deal with Cohen, the thought that we had was what’s in the answers, because we knew from reporting earlier this year that Mueller wanted to ask him about this deal. He wanted to know who he spoke to. And if you’re trying to understand the criminal exposure, the political exposure that the president has, you have to find out what that answer was. So we went – we pushed on the president’s lawyers to get that, and what they say is that what the president put in those answers lines up with what Cohen said, and that he’s fine there.
Now, in a Trumpian twist, the president came out from the White House after Cohen pled and said he was lying that day. He called him a liar and said he was lying to reduce his sentence. Well, if Cohen is lying, then what – it doesn’t line up with what the president was saying in his answers. So, you know, sort of classic Trump there.
MR. COSTA: Maybe Mueller comes back for more questions for the president about all of this at some point.
MR. SCHMIDT: I find it very hard to believe that Bob Mueller will be simply satisfied with written responses from Donald Trump on a small sliver of the investigation.
MR. COSTA: Ros, also great to have you here at the table. You’ve been following Michael Cohen for so long. We’ve been questioning for a long time at the Post and elsewhere how valuable he really is to Robert Mueller’s investigation. What does your reporting tell you about that question?
ROSALIND HELDERMAN: Well, we know it was revealed yesterday that he sat down with Bob Mueller’s team I believe seven separate times just in the last few months, so there’s a lot of information. I mean, this is a guy who was really Donald Trump’s sort of right-hand man within the Trump Organization, had a lot of involvement with basically all of the sort of dirtiest secrets of the Trump Organization. Obviously, we’ve seen, involved deeply with the payments to women prior to the election to silence them, but also just a lot of Donald Trump’s overseas international business expansion. So he’s a guy with a wealth of knowledge. The problem is he’s also a guy, like so many people in Trump world, who has a tendency to exaggerate and to lie. And so you can be sure that Bob Mueller is gathering every piece of paper he can to try to get corroboration for anything he’s being told by Michael Cohen.
MR. COSTA: But this development this week, does this tell us that Mueller sees Cohen as pretty credible, at least?
MS. HELDERMAN: It certainly shows that he believes that Cohen has important information to share, and certainly that he has a lot of additional evidence to back up anything he plans to use.
MR. COSTA: Susan, you’ve lived in Moscow. You’ve written a book about Vladimir Putin. You know this country. The timing here really matters. It comes just as Russia is mounting its interference campaign in 2016, then-candidate Trump engaging with Russians at the same time. What does it tell us about Russia and Putin that they were doing both of these things simultaneously?
SUSAN GLASSER: Well, you know, I think that’s an excellent question because that’s the thing that immediately occurred to me. When you look at what Cohen is testifying to and what was included in this agreement that Mueller brought to court the other day, it includes the information that multiple times Michael Cohen reached out to and interacted with Vladimir Putin’s office through his spokesman – through the office of his spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, who I know – who’s been Putin’s spokesman, by the way, since the very beginning of his term. He’s one of Putin’s closest advisors. So he’s not just like a press secretary; he’s been with Putin since Putin became president in the year 2000, so 18 years, right, and is reputed to have grown very wealthy at the side of Vladimir Putin. And so it’s not just some random official that they’re interacting with.
But think about this. Think about this: weaponizing information – “kompromat” they call it in Russian – is, you know, a trademark of this new Russian power elite in the post-Soviet era. And what does it mean? Potentially, it means that Donald Trump and his advisor Michael Cohen have offered Putin an enormous amount of potentially compromising information on him to use in the middle of a political campaign. As you pointed out, Putin’s government, according to U.S. intelligence, was already mobilizing to support Donald Trump in the election using influence methods. But separately, he’s seeking – he’s offering him more information.
MR. COSTA: You had this marvelous profile of Adam Schiff, the ranking member, who’s going to be the new chair of the Intelligence Committee when House Democrats take over in January. As House Democrats process all of this, as Schiff watches all of this, what can we expect from them?
MS. GLASSER: Well, first of all, this is the first charge from the Mueller case to result from lying to Congress. And so what happened is that Michael Cohen is actually pleading guilty to having lied to Capitol Hill when he was called to testify in their earlier investigation.
As you know, there was a very partisan report that was put out by the House Republicans on the Intelligence Committee, who then shut down their investigation. Democrats, under Congressman Schiff, have vowed to reopen an investigation. The first thing they want to do is release transcripts of the many interviews that they took with people. They say there are other people who likely committed perjury and that may now be charged by Mueller’s investigative team as a result. For example, Congressman Schiff specifically named Roger Stone as one of those who he believed was not truthful with their committee.
MR. COSTA: What about at the Department of Justice? You’ve been following the obstruction side of this for so long, Mike. You have an acting attorney general, Matt Whitaker. How does he respond to this? How are they handling this? Are they on edge that the president could try to disrupt Mueller?
MR. SCHMIDT: Well, it seemed from what sort of we’ve learned in the past few days that Whitaker has not been very involved in the Russia matter and that it has stayed underneath Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general. There does not appear to have been any real interest by Whitaker so far in getting involved in the Mueller investigation. He knows that everyone is closely looking at him, whether he does anything towards this and whether that is part of a continued obstruction.
The problem is is that the president put him there because he felt comfortable with him. He knew what he had said about the Russia investigation. He knew that Whitaker had been very skeptical of it. Whitaker had spent a lot of time with the president, had built a real rapport with him and Whitaker was someone that no one at the senior levels of the Justice Department thought really deserved the job. So there’s this sort of weird dynamic there where the president has someone, there is this ongoing investigation, it’s still being run by Rosenstein.
MR. COSTA: If that’s the dynamic, why aren’t Senate Republicans trying to protect Mueller with legislation?
MR. SCHMIDT: Well, that legislation, it looked like it died again this week. I mean, it seems like it’s died a few times, but more recently died this week. And, you know, for whatever reason, they don’t feel the need to do this. And I’m not sure why. I mean, they seem very attuned to public opinion on this, maybe the Republicans really don’t care about it.
Will it take something else of the president doing to get them to do that? I’m not sure.
MR. COSTA: The other issue, Ros, of this whole thing brought up this week was President Trump kept telling us in the campaign he had nothing to do with Russia, no money involved with Russia. But this week, we learned that the Moscow project, thanks in part to your reporting, wasn’t the first attempt by President Trump to expand his brand into Russia. You wrote in your story, quote, “It was a dream born in the 1980s, a gleaming Trump Tower in the heart of Soviet Moscow. For Donald Trump, that vision never died, even as he launched a presidential campaign.”
What explains this decades-long effort with Russia?
MS. HELDERMAN: I think Trump wanted to do a thing he had set out to do years ago and he hadn’t succeeded. I think you have to look at Cohen’s activities during the campaign against that backdrop. I mean, Cohen was a guy who wanted to please the boss. That was sort of his self-image was being Donald Trump’s man. And so he understood, if he could finally get the Trump Tower deal in Moscow done, he would really get in good with the boss.
And you have this history. Trump goes in 1987, he goes in 1996, in 2005 he signed a deal actually with this same guy, Felix Sater’s company, to try to build. He’s back in 2013. He’s trying again and again. And you see the Trump Organization putting its name on buildings in various other countries of the world. Russia was a place he wanted to be. It was a place where his brand, Russians liked his brand, they were buying all over the world in his buildings and he wanted a building there.
MR. COSTA: What does this mean for the president, as he’s watching all of this from Argentina, for U.S. foreign policy, for U.S.-Russian relations, U.S. relations with our own allies?
MS. GLASSER: Well, you know, as you know, it’s been an incredibly divisive issue, among many, between the United States and its European allies from the very beginning of Trump’s presidency when, you know, he came into office, even potentially talking about lifting sanctions on Russia. Those have stayed in place largely because Congress has made it absolutely clear that even the Republican-controlled Congress would have acted very decisively if he moved in the direction he wanted to. Enormous outcry even from Republicans when he had that meeting in Helsinki with Vladimir Putin, which we all remember.
So flash forward to this week at the G-20. President Trump has been looking forward to meeting President Putin again ever since that Helsinki meeting. And in fact, John Bolton, his national security adviser, said in the lead-up to Buenos Aires that the agenda of the meeting between Putin and Trump was simply to continue their excellent discussion from Helsinki. And, you know, now Trump is saying, well, I canceled it because of Russian aggression toward Ukraine over the last weekend.
MR. COSTA: Is it – is it more – there’s more to that story, though, perhaps. It’s not just about Russia’s hostility in the Ukraine.
MS. GLASSER: Well, you know, it’s an excellent question. Obviously, we don’t know yet the real story here. But it’s fair to say that the United States was very sluggish in its response to this incident involving the Kerch Strait and Ukrainian naval ships that were boarded and seized by Russia. Other countries, NATO, the EU issued statements both far more quickly and far stronger than those of the U.S. government. President Trump at one point seemed to say, well, you know, there’s a problem on both sides. He later came out and said, well, I don’t like this aggression, I don’t like it at all, but it was much after the fact and it certainly didn’t seem to be an issue that would have motivated him to cancel a meeting with Putin days later.
When he got on the plane yesterday to go to Buenos Aires, he said he was going to have the meeting. One hour later, in the midst of the Cohen deal, it was canceled.
MR. COSTA: Russia haunts him at home and abroad.
Mike, when you think about the president, when you went to – reporters used to go visit him at Trump Tower on the 26th floor, you’d see his children there, Don Jr., Eric, Ivanka, working with him on business, working with him on the campaign. You read about Cohen, his work with Mueller, does the family have exposure here, legally and politically?
MR. SCHMIDT: Well, I think in the president’s mind they do and that is probably the most important thing. We don’t know what Mueller has, we don’t know what he’s doing. But certainly, the president, you know, he has these different red lines that he’s made up. I think a true, real one is the family. And they do think that there’s something afoot here and that they are looking at Don Jr. That’s what the president thinks.
And that has guided some of his anger. You know, in the past month, it has built. He didn’t like the way that they – that Mueller was treating Paul Manafort, his former campaign chairman. He didn’t like the way that they were trying to enter into a plea deal with this person who was in touch with Wikileaks. And he didn’t like the way that the government unsealed these documents about Julian Assange that showed they charged him. And he thinks something larger is going on here.
He sees the Cohen thing happen right as he’s leaving for a meeting. He knew that Mueller had filed charges before he went to Helsinki, the last time when he went to meet with – meet with Putin. He does – he thinks that there is a conspiracy.
MR. COSTA: Well, he’s right, there – well, there’s not – there is a lot going on.
MR. SCHMIDT: He thinks there’s a conspiracy.
MR. COSTA: He thinks there’s a conspiracy; it’s an investigation.
You mentioned Paul Manafort. There was news this week, of course, that Michael Cohen is cooperating with Mueller’s probe and that’s significant, but so is the fact that the Trump campaign’s former chairman, Paul Manafort, his plea deal with Mueller collapsed this week. Manafort, his deal falling apart.
Does that mean he’s going to break at some point, Ros, and be a cooperative witness like a Michael Cohen? Or does this mean he’s going to face another trial and more legal trouble down the road?
MS. HELDERMAN: Well, there was a hearing just today in that matter. And the special counsel’s office told a judge that they have not yet decided whether to pursue further charges against him for his new lies, what they – what they said in a court filing were his crimes and lies. It does seem like the ship has sailed for him to be a cooperating witness. This is not a development that a prosecutor would want, to have a cooperator sort of breach their plea agreement, so I think he’s unlikely to come around.
But interestingly, we’re going to see a really important development a week from today when the special counsel’s office goes into court and actually details for the judge all of his lies, all of the ways in which they feel –
MR. COSTA: Why do they have to detail those things?
MS. HELDERMAN: It’s part of arguing to the judge that his plea agreement has been – has been breached and he will not be worth – he’s not deserving of leniency for having assisted in the – in the investigation. Otherwise, he would be in a position of getting a break on his sentence. So they’re going to file this report and they’re going to talk about all the things they were asking him about in this time period where they felt like he was not honest, and they’re going to have to say why they know he wasn’t honest, which allows them to lay out some evidence.
You know, we’re all talking about this report that might be issued. Well, we might see some of the information we might have expected to see in a report in sort of stages entered into court, starting next week.
MR. COSTA: So you’re saying we may not even see that report, but we can get a little gleaning of what’s going to come from the court?
MS. HELDERMAN: We could get a singular report maybe in the – in the new year. But before then, we’re going to have a lot of new information.
MR. SCHMIDT: There’s no guarantee we’ll get a report, so Mueller has to speak when he can speak, and he does that in his public filings. So he always knows he will be able to do the things in public. He will not really be able to control where the report goes. That is a decision that will be made above him at the Justice Department.
But to your point about Manafort, the thing to understand about Manafort is there’s really just two people who basically control the fate of perhaps the rest of his life. He’s 69 years old. He’s looking at many years in prison. Either it was going to be Bob Mueller who was going to go to a judge and say give this man leniency, or it’s Donald Trump who is going to pardon him. There’s really no one else who can – has any other important, you know, way to impact the rest of his life.
MR. COSTA: Is he searching for a pardon, Susan, when you look at Paul Manafort? You’ve followed his career a long time, international political strategist. Unlike Cohen, does he perhaps see there’s a window here for him to get a pardon from President Trump?
MS. GLASSER: Well, look, a lot of people have suggested that that seems to be what he’s doing for here, and that it’s such an audacious play, in fact, to challenge someone who is as tough-minded as Bob Mueller; by breaching your agreement, that you must have in mind that this is your only lifeline, your signal to President Trump, who’s made it very clear what he thinks about cooperators. He’s gone – over and over made the point that they’re rats, that they’re not trustworthy, that they’re bad people. So it seems to me that he needed to restore in some way credibility with Trump in order to make his case for a plea.
But I would just say that there are potentially some other people who could affect Paul Manafort’s life. For example, he spent years getting millions – tens of millions of dollars from Ukraine’s corrupt, deposed former President Viktor Yanukovych, Russia-supported. He has enormous relationships with Russian oligarchs such as Oleg Deripaska, who figure in this Trump story. They have information, too, that could affect both Paul Manafort and Donald Trump.
MR. COSTA: Or what about, Ros, Roger Stone, a longtime Manafort associate? What is his future right now legally?
MS. HELDERMAN: Well, we don’t yet know. What we do know is that the special counsel has spent an enormous amount of time on the Roger Stone piece of his case in recent months. He’s brought in, I think at last count, maybe a dozen friends/associates of Roger Stone to be interviewed by prosecutors or in front of the grand jury. We know that Roger Stone said things prior to the election that sure sounded like he had advance knowledge of what WikiLeaks has planned. Now, he has over and over and over again now denied that fact, but there is clearly something about Roger Stone and what he knew that Bob Mueller is very, very interested in.
MR. COSTA: Final thought, Mike. The talk about a pardon, President Trump’s, his signaling on that front; the conversations between Manafort’s lawyers and the Trump lawyers; is there an obstruction issue at all facing Manafort in these kind of conversations?
MR. SCHMIDT: I guess it depends on what’s really going on. If there was some sort of backroom deal between Manafort’s lawyers and the president’s about giving them information in exchange for a pardon to interfere with the investigation, highly, highly problematic. If it was simply Manafort’s lawyers passing information back to Trump’s, you know, to, you know, just kind of be a free flow of information, less so. Not really clear. What we do know is that the issues of pardons have been looked at. Mueller –
MR. COSTA: You reported John Dowd once.
MR. SCHMIDT: Correct. John Dowd, you know –
MR. COSTA: The president’s former lawyer.
MR. SCHMIDT: – last year having discussions with Manafort and Flynn’s lawyers.
MR. COSTA: We’re going to have to leave it there. We’ve a live show, but we’re going to continue that on the podcast. I appreciate everyone coming out tonight on a Friday night.
We will continue this conversation on the Washington Week Podcast. You can find that on our website Fridays after 10 p.m. and also on your favorite podcast app. I promise we’ll get there, Mike.
I’m Robert Costa. Have a great weekend, and thanks for joining us.