“If true, this story further underscores the need to finish the Committee’s counterintelligence investigation to determine what, if any, financial leverage the Russians may hold over President Trump and the Trump Organization, and what Trump may have hoped to gain by any financial offer to Putin,” Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the committee, said in a statement to BuzzFeed News Thursday evening…
[Dem Rep. Joaquin] Castro also said he believed the plan could have violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. “If this was an attempt to speed up the project or secure the project and make sure it got done, it could amount to bribery for an official of a foreign government and anyone who was part of that could be in violation of this federal statute,” he said…
“We’re way beyond bribery,” [Dem Rep. Eric Swalwell] added. “If a candidate for president is offering a foreign adversary a $50 million gift while that adversary through his own backchannels is offering support of the campaign, that’s betrayal at the highest level; that’s conspiracy.
Yeah, the FCPA. What about that? I didn’t mention it in last night’s post but there is in fact a federal law that makes it illegal to promise to give “gifts” (i.e. bribes) to foreign officials in exchange for favors. Note: You don’t have to actually make the gift. Merely a promise to make it is enough. The fact that Trump Tower Moscow ended up not being built might not prevent prosecution on these grounds.
It shall be unlawful for any person … while in the territory of the United States, corruptly to make use of the mails or any means or instrumentality of interstate commerce or to do any other act in furtherance of an offer, payment, promise to pay, or authorization of the payment of any money, or offer, gift, promise to give, or authorization of the giving of anything of value to—
(1) any foreign official for purposes of—…
(B) inducing such foreign official to use his influence with a foreign government or instrumentality thereof to affect or influence any act or decision of such government or instrumentality,
in order to assist such person in obtaining or retaining business for or with, or directing business to, any person;
Trouble for Trump? Well, BuzzFeed’s story last night noted that it’s “not clear” whether Trump himself knew of the apartment offer. The idea was hatched by Michael Cohen and Felix Sater and, per BuzzFeed’s sources, allegedly advanced to the point that Cohen discussed it with an aide to Putin’s press secretary, Dmitri Peskov. Cohen was talking to Trump in 2016 about the Moscow project, but there’s no evidence right now that he specifically mentioned the possibility of a free luxury apartment for Putin to him.
But would Cohen have offered a $50 million bribe to the president of Russia without running it past his boss?
Another statute for you:
If two or more persons conspire … to commit any offense against the United States … and one or more of such persons do any act to effect the object of the conspiracy, each shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.
If Trump authorized the offer, in theory he could be prosecuted for conspiracy to commit bribery of a foreign official under the FCPA by dint of Cohen’s chat with Peskov. There’s a wrinkle, though. According to BuzzFeed’s interview with Sater, the idea of giving Putin an apartment wasn’t as a quid pro quo for his help in getting the project approved. It was to try to attract Russian oligarchs to rent apartments in the building. Knowing that they could use their proximity to their neighbor Vladimir to curry favor might have made Trump Tower Moscow a hot commodity to the ultrarich. If it could be proved that the offer of a gift/bribe to Putin was made for the purpose of drumming up business, not for the purpose of getting Putin to lean on Moscow officials to approve the development, then it might not be illegal under the FCPA.
But what are the odds that Cohen floated this idea to Peskov’s aide and didn’t mention anything about Putin helping them out? In fact, the information filed in court yesterday by Mueller specifically says that Cohen “requested assistance in moving the project forward, both in securing land to build the proposed tower and financing the construction,” in his chat with the aide.
One other point. There’s been lots of chatter in the last 24 hours, including from me, about the financial leverage that the Trump Tower deal momentarily gave Russia over Trump. Until the deal was dead, he had reason to stay on Putin’s good side and at least consider complying with any “requests” made of him. Conor Friedersdorf makes a good point, though: Russia’s leverage didn’t evaporate the moment that the deal did. Anything illegal that may have occurred as part of the negotiations to which the Russians were privy — like, say, a bribe offered by the president’s lawyer — would also be leverage as potential blackmail material. As Friedersdorf notes, the Russians would have known after Cohen’s false testimony to Congress that he had lied under oath about how late the Moscow deal was being worked on, which would also be potential kompromat.
The federal government takes that seriously enough to oust people from high positions because of it. Remember, what triggered Mike Flynn’s ouster as NSA was Sally Yates recognizing that he had misled the White House about his sanctions discussions with the Russian ambassador and that the Russians obviously knew it. They could have blackmailed Flynn by threatening to expose the lie if he didn’t comply with their agenda. Now we have a similar case involving the president’s lawyer, who in 2016 was talking about a deal that may have involved criminal activity with the soon-to-be president himself. What did Cohen tell Trump about it? That’s what Democrats are going to dig into.
Exit question: Did Cohen (and Trump?) really think Putin would accept this gift? Lord knows the man’s not above bribery, but think of the security risks.
Seriously? Putin has a $1bn estate on the Black Sea – and that’s just one of them. Anyways, the Federal Protection Service won’t let him anywhere near an elevator, let alone share a residence with absolutely anyone. Are these people really so dumb? https://t.co/SLchkE1tnu
— Alexey Kovalev (@Alexey__Kovalev) November 29, 2018