Legal? Almost certainly. Cool? Well … that depends on one’s definition of ‘cool,’ and also the timing. On Twitter from the G-20 summit this morning, Donald Trump defended his pre-presidential business interest in a Moscow real-estate deal, which ended up going nowhere — even if exactly when it arrived at that destination isn’t entirely clear:
Let’s start with the legal side first. Until Election Night — and arguably until Inauguration Day — Donald Trump’s legal status was Private Citizen Trump operating his multinational real-estate empire. There are no legal requirements for a private-sector business owner to stop operating his companies while running a presidential campaign. Until he took public office, Trump was under no legal obligation to turn down any business, domestic or international, nor to stop contacting officials that impacted his potential businesses.
But what about ethically? This is where the concept of ‘cool’ comes in. Trump might think it was “very cool” to continue working Russian officials all the way up to Vladimir Putin’s inner circle for profit while campaigning for president, but it’s safe to say that most Americans probably wouldn’t agree. On the Fonzie Cool scale, that likely scores no better than a Potsie, and maybe the Full Chuck. If it was really that “cool,” then why did Michael Cohen go out of his way to lie about it in the first place?
That’s actually a pretty good question. A close look at the indictment suggests that while this isn’t a nothingburger, it might wind up being a mehburger instead. Cohen’s lie was that the Russia real-estate deal had fizzled out in January 2016. But when precisely did the deal fall through?
From on or about June 9 to June 14 , 2016 , Individual 2 sent numerous messages to COHEN about the travel , including forms for COHEN to complete. However , on or about June 14 , 2016 , COHEN met Individual 2 in the lobby of the Company ‘ s headquarters to inform Individual 2 he would not be traveling at that time.
As Andy McCarthy pointed out to me on yesterday’s show, June 14th was five days after the infamous Trump Tower meeting with now-presumed Russian agent Natalia Veselnitskaya, who lobbied them against the Magnitsky Act. It’s very likely that the three campaign officials in that meeting — Paul Manafort, Donald Trump Jr, and Jared Kushner — finally and belatedly realized just how stupid it was to take that meeting in the first place. If they didn’t, then Trump himself might have realized it. At that point, it would make perfect sense to kill any potential projects in Russia to limit their exposure to narratives of “uncoolness,” at the very least.
If the deal got ditched at that point, then Trump would have been telling the truth in July 2016 when he stated he had no interests in Russia. That’s something Sen. Chris Coons conceded today on CNN, while still noting correctly that Cohen’s contacts with Russians are the most significant uncovered in the investigation thus far:
Sen. @ChrisCoons: “What is striking about this revelation by Michael Cohen … is that this wasn’t a conversation with some intermediary, with some sort of shadowy business figure in Russia. This included direct negotiations with Kremlin officials.” https://t.co/44Y9WBUUnm pic.twitter.com/TwfXuWYKbe
— New Day (@NewDay) November 30, 2018
Let’s follow up on Coons’ point. Did candidate Trump calculate his Russia policy during the primaries to benefit his businesses? That’s irrelevant legally, because candidate Trump was also still Private Citizen Trump. He wasn’t in charge of any public policy at that point. It’s also a bit moot, given that those business interests ended long before he took office.
In terms of coolness, that’s a different story. But that’s a political issue rather than a legal one. It’s up to voters to determine whether he’s the Fonz, Potsie, or worthy of a full chuck out of office in 2020.