Possibly the best evidence we’ll ever have that the president really, really didn’t expect to become president. Imagine him trying to defend the building of a new Trump-branded hotel in Moscow during a campaign in which Hillary Clinton was slashing him for being a “puppet” of Putin. The fact that he signed a letter of intent to license his name is smoking-gun proof that he didn’t think he’d win the nomination. Either that or the extreme opposite — he was so confident that his voters would forgive him anything, from the “Access Hollywood” tape to financial dealings with Russia to the proverbial shooting on Fifth Avenue, that he saw no political risk in developing a hotel in Moscow during a presidential run when he was already under fire for being too pro-Putin.
Four months into his campaign for president of the United States, Donald Trump signed a “letter of intent” to pursue a Trump Tower-style building development in Moscow, according to a statement from the then-Trump Organization Chief Counsel Michael Cohen.
The involvement of then-candidate Trump in a proposed Russian development deal contradicts repeated statements Trump made during the campaign, including telling ABC News Chief Anchor George Stephanopoulos that his business had “no relationship to Russia whatsoever.”…
“To the best of my knowledge, Mr. Trump was never in contact with anyone about this proposal other than me on three occasions, including signing a non-binding letter of intent in 2015,” [Cohen’s] statement says.
Four months into his campaign would have put the signing of the letter of intent in October 2015. Three months later, after Cohen emailed Putin’s chief spokesman for a little help to make the project happen, it was dead — on Cohen’s orders, Cohen claims, not Trump’s. “I did not ask or brief Mr. Trump, or any of his family, before I made the decision to terminate further work on the proposal,” he said in a statement today.
Why does the letter of intent matter? For one thing, it shows that Sater wasn’t operating totally independently in trying to drum up business for Trump in Russia:
IMO–most important detail in the WaPo story is that the Trump Org signed letter of intent to pursue the deal. Can't say Sater went rogue
— Natasha Bertrand (@NatashaBertrand) August 28, 2017
Without the letter, Sater could be dismissed as an oddball and blowhard who had dreams of big business for the Trump brand in Moscow and who was humored by his friend Cohen but who never put together anything serious enough as to be worth bringing to the boss himself. The fact that Trump signed the letter proves that Cohen, at least, thought Sater had enough sway in Russia to make the hotel happen. And Trump, who’d done business with Sater before, apparently thought so too.
The other reason it matters, as ABC notes in the excerpt, is that Trump has sworn up and down that he has no business with Russia. That’s true insofar as the hotel never happened but it’s a Clintonian approach to truth. If he signed a letter of intent during the campaign to license his name for a new hotel, that should have been disclosed: “I have no business in Russia but we’re working on a hotel in Moscow, and it’ll be the best hotel, believe me.” He wanted business in Russia for years and continued to pursue it even after becoming a candidate. Why keep that a secret?
One other detail about the brief possibility of a Trump Moscow hotel in late 2015/early 2016: That time period also happens to include some of Trump’s most provocative spin on Putin’s behalf. He defended Russia’s airstrikes in Syria in October 2015, dismissed Putin’s targeting of journalists in December by noting that the U.S. does bad things too, and disputed whether Putin had had Alexander Litvinenko assassinated in late January 2016. Putin in turn praised Trump in mid-December. All of that may just be politics and nothing more: Trump wanted detente with Russia, he saw some opportunities to butter Putin up in hopes of restoring diplomacy with Moscow, so he took them. But given the letter of intent on the hotel and what it signifies in terms of Trump looking ahead to returning to business after his candidacy ended, he may have been buttering Putin up for financial reasons too.