If you don’t know who Sater is, read this morning’s post. The NYT got copies of the emails he sent to Trump lawyer Michael Cohen in November 2015 and, uhhhh, they don’t “scan well,” let’s just say. An email in the Hillary archives from some Clinton crony who does business in China vowing that he’ll “get Xi Jinping on the program and we’ll get Hillary elected” would have been newsworthy, especially if there was evidence of Chinese cyber-hijinx in an election that Clinton won.
Even so, although this says a lot about Sater’s intent, it says nothing about the campaign’s. It’s a story because it shows someone in Trump’s orbit pushing the idea of cooperating with Moscow on the election early in the campaign, before the primaries had even begun. What it doesn’t show is Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, Trump himself, or anyone else attached to the campaign signaling interest in pursuing this.
The business associate, Felix Sater, wrote a series of emails to Mr. Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, in which he boasted about his ties to Mr. Putin and predicted that building a Trump Tower in Moscow would be a political boon to Mr. Trump’s candidacy.
“Our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it,” Mr. Sater wrote in an email. “I will get all of Putins team to buy in on this, I will manage this process.”…
In another email, Mr. Sater envisioned a ribbon-cutting in Moscow. “I will get Putin on this program and we will get Donald elected,” Mr. Sater wrote…
Mr. Sater presented himself as so influential in Russia that he helped arrange a 2006 trip that Mr. Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, took to Moscow. “I arranged for Ivanka to sit in Putins private chair at his desk and office in the Kremlin,” he said.
Cohen’s response to the Times: Sater’s a blowhard who was guilty of “salesmanship” in trying to get Team Trump excited about a development deal for a hotel in Moscow. Which is probably true. Trumpworld’s best defense both to these emails and the famous emails to Donald Jr from Rob Goldstone proposing the meeting with the Russian lawyer last year is that meaningful collusion between the campaign and the Kremlin never would have been this obvious. A man with the cachet in Moscow to broker cooperation between Vladimir Putin and a Republican candidate for president wouldn’t have been so stupid as to put the offer in writing, especially in terms this stark.
There’s also no reason to think Sater’s enough of a player in Russia that he could have arranged for Ivanka Trump to sit at Putin’s private desk in 2006, let alone been the middleman between Putin and Trump, although he has been accused in the past of having “links between Russian organized crime, the Russian military, the KGB, and operatives who played both ways, or sometimes three ways.” Sater also had a cameo in an interesting NYT story from February in which his pal Cohen also turns up:
Mr. Flynn is gone, having been caught lying about his own discussion of sanctions with the Russian ambassador. But the proposal, a peace plan for Ukraine and Russia, remains, along with those pushing it: Michael D. Cohen, the president’s personal lawyer, who delivered the document; Felix H. Sater, a business associate who helped Mr. Trump scout deals in Russia; and a Ukrainian lawmaker trying to rise in a political opposition movement shaped in part by Mr. Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort…
But the proposal contains more than just a peace plan. Andrii V. Artemenko, the Ukrainian lawmaker, who sees himself as a Trump-style leader of a future Ukraine, claims to have evidence — “names of companies, wire transfers” — showing corruption by the Ukrainian president, Petro O. Poroshenko, that could help oust him. And Mr. Artemenko said he had received encouragement for his plans from top aides to Mr. Putin.
Sater, Cohen, and a Ukrainian lawmaker were pushing a Russia-friendly Ukraine peace plan favored by Putin’s inner circle. Hmmm. But … why would Russia need Sater and Cohen to get a Ukraine proposal to Trump, who was already president by this point? They could have done this through standard diplomatic channels. This also looks more like “puffery” by Sater, trying to convince Team Trump that he’s some major political player in Russia when he really isn’t, than a Kremlin-approved back channel. This is a guy, after all, who couldn’t even find land in Moscow for the Trump-branded hotel we was trying to build. Maybe Sater thought Trump might appoint him to a diplomatic position of some sort (one that didn’t require Senate confirmation) if he could prove his “worth” somehow and the half-assed Ukraine peace plan was his attempt. That seems more likely than Putin using Sater as a conduit to Trump.
Exit question: How come we haven’t seen Cohen’s email replies to Sater? Did he write back to say he was interested when Sater proposed getting Putin involved?
Update: This counts as a “reply,” I suppose. According to Cohen, on Sater’s advice, he emailed Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov directly for help with finding land for the Moscow hotel project.
“Over the past few months I have been working with a company based in Russia regarding the development of a Trump Tower – Moscow project in Moscow City,” Cohen wrote Peskov, according to a person familiar with the email. “Without getting into lengthy specifics. the communication between our two sides has stalled.”…
The email shows the Trump business official directly seeking Kremlin assistance in advancing Trump’s business interests, in the same months when Trump was distinguishing himself on the campaign trail with his warm rhetoric about Putin.
In a statement Cohen submitted to Congressional investigators, he said he wrote the email at the recommendation of Felix Sater, a Russian-American businessman who was serving as a broker on the deal.
Direct communication between Trump’s lawyer and Putin’s spokesman sure is interesting. Just one wrinkle: That email was sent in January 2016 and … the hotel project wasn’t approved. It died that same month. Either Peskov never responded (which is what Cohen claims) or he did respond but his asking price for help with the hotel project was too steep for Team Trump. Either way, this detail doesn’t fit easily into the “collusion” narrative.
“Collusion” enthusiasts will argue, though, that we’re missing the forest for the trees here. You’ve got a top agent of Trump’s business appealing directly to the Kremlin for financial help a month away from the Iowa caucuses. The fact that the hotel project failed is but a detail; the significant fact is that Trump’s inner circle was in direct contact with Putin’s inner circle and not above petitioning them directly in hopes of a payday. Even if they couldn’t get together on the hotel, did they get together on other “projects”? How often were top Trumpers communicating with top Putinistas, particularly where money was at stake?