Washington (CNN)President Donald Trump's attorney reached out to the Kremlin for assistance in building a Trump Tower in Moscow well into the business mogul's presidential campaign, he said Monday, adding that he discussed the project with Trump three times.
Trump attorney reached out to Kremlin to pursue Moscow Trump Tower project
The attorney, Michael Cohen, denied that the project was related "in any way" to Trump's campaign, though the developments appear to contradict Trump's vehement denials of any such business connections to Russia in the past.
Previous reports have indicated that efforts to build a Trump Tower in Moscow were underway during the presidential campaign in 2015, but it had not been reported that those efforts continued into 2016.
"The Trump Moscow proposal was simply one of many development opportunities that the Trump Organization considered and ultimately rejected," Cohen said in a written statement.
"In late January 2016, I abandoned the Moscow proposal because I lost confidence that the prospective licensee would be able to obtain the real estate, financing and government approvals necessary to bring the proposal to fruition," he added. "It was a building proposal that did not succeed and nothing more."
Cohen's own attorney provided documents to the House intelligence committee that included a reference to the Moscow project. In a second, separate statement Monday, Cohen said the proposal "was not related in any way to Mr. Trump's presidential campaign. The decision to pursue the proposal initially, and later to abandon it, was unrelated to the Donald J. Trump for President campaign. Both I and the Trump Organization were evaluating this proposal and many others from solely a business standpoint, and rejected going forward on that basis."
Cohen told CNN he reached out to Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, describing the message as "an email that went unanswered that was solely regarding a real estate deal and nothing more." In the second statement, Cohen said he contacted Peskov after it was suggested that the proposal would require approval by the Russian government, but that it was never provided.
Trump and Cohen discussed the proposal three times, though Cohen said he "never considered asking Mr. Trump to travel to Russia in connection with this proposal" and did not brief on him on his decision to terminate the development.
Cohen told CNN that the conversations were "short." The first was to inform him about negotiations happening for a possible deal. Second time was to sign a letter of intent. The third time was letting him know that the deal was off after he decided himself to terminate it.
Cohen said the proposal was under consideration from September 2015 until the end of January 2016 and progressed to soliciting building designs and negotiations over financing.
The Washington Post, citing several people familiar with the proposal and new records reviewed by Trump Organization lawyers, first reported the project, which involved Russian-born developer Felix Sater.
The Post said that Sater "urged Trump to come to Moscow to tout the proposal and suggested he could get Russian President Vladimir Putin to say 'great things' about Trump." Cohen said he determined that the proposal was "not feasible."
According to the Post, in a November 2015 email to Cohen, who at the time was executive vice president of the Trump Organization, Sater also said that he and Trump Organization leaders would soon be celebrating the real estate project and Trump's election.
In a statement Monday, Cohen said Sater has "sometimes used colorful language and has been prone to 'salesmanship.'"
The Trump Organization has signed similar letters in the past, pursuing deals in Russia and elsewhere only to see those efforts fall through in the initial stages.
Cohen has been a central focus for investigators on the House intelligence committee who are digging into the Trump campaign's ties to Russia -- he is one of only two people to have been subpoenaed by the committee so far; the other is former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn.
Trump's involvement and awareness of the negotiations remains unclear and there is no public record that Trump has ever spoken about the effort to build a Trump Tower in 2015 and 2016. Trump denied having any business interests in Russia in July 2016, tweeting, "for the record, I have ZERO investments in Russia." He then reiterated that point again at a news conference the following day, telling reporters "I have nothing to do with Russia."
However, Trump has spoken out in news interviews and in sworn depositions about his previous efforts to develop properties in Russia, which date back decades, praising the market there as ripe for investment. Messages left with the White House were not returned Monday.
Sater confirmed to CNN that he put together a real estate proposal for the development of "the world's tallest building in Moscow" in the latter half of 2015, and presented the development to Cohen, which resulted in a signed Letter of Intent for the project. Cohen was the only member of the Trump Organization he communicated with on the project, Sater said, and added that he would not have been compensated by the Trump Organization if the project had been successful.
"During the course of our communications over several months, I routinely expressed my enthusiasm regarding what a tremendous opportunity this was for the Trump Organization," he said. "Ultimately, in January 2016, Michael informed me that the Trump Organization decided not to move forward with the project."
But his interest in developing a project in Russia has been well documented, and Trump himself said he wanted to build a Trump property in Moscow at the Miss Universe pageant in 2013.
Cohen said he worked with a Moscow-based development company, I.C. Expert Investment Company, through Sater. The Trump Organization would license the Trump name for the building. Other reports have detailed similar efforts between Trump and Aras Agalarov, an Azerbaijani-Russian oligarch close to Putin.
Agalarov is also tied to the June 2016 meeting Donald Trump Jr. attended on the premise that he would receive dirt on Hillary Clinton from the Kremlin -- the publicist for Agalarov's son first proposed the meeting to Trump Jr. in an email made public last month.
New details about Trump's business deals also come as federal investigators have seized on Trump and his associates' financial ties to Russia as one of the most fertile avenues for moving their probe forward, people familiar with the investigation told CNN earlier this month.
While Cohen was working on the Trump Tower deal, Trump was speaking positively about working with Putin and also minimizing Russia's aggressive military moves around the world. His openness to Putin, and his willingness to accept narratives favored by the Kremlin, contrasted strongly with not only his Republican opponents but also with the Obama administration.
"I would talk to him, I would get along with him," Trump said about Putin at a Republican primary debate in September 2015. "I would get along with a lot of the world leaders that this country is not getting along with."
At that debate, moderated by CNN's Jake Tapper, Trump went on to suggest that the US stand back as Russia fought ISIS in Syria. But Obama administration officials at the time were saying that Russia wasn't going after ISIS but instead was targeting other Syrian rebel groups, some of whom were trained and armed by the US government.
Two months later, Trump quickly pivoted when asked on the debate stage what he would do about Russia's aggressive moves in both Syria and Ukraine, where it annexed the Crimean peninsula and has supported a separatist insurgency since 2014.
"First of all, it's not only Russia," he said. "We have problems with North Korea, where they actually have nuclear weapons."
This friendly posture toward Russia continued after the Trump Tower deal was terminated. During a March 2016 debate, Trump lavished the Russian leader, who has been criticized for rigging elections, killing his enemies and crippling free speech.
"As far as Putin is concerned, I think Putin has been a very strong leader for Russia," Trump said. "I think he has been a lot stronger than our leader, that I can tell you. I mean, for Russia. That doesn't mean I'm endorsing Putin."