Ever since he glided down the escalator at Trump Tower two years ago to announce his presidential campaign, Donald Trump has said it again and again. "I have nothing to do with Russia, folks," he proclaimed at a campaign rally last fall. A few months ago, in an interview with NBC's Lester Holt, he said, "I have nothing to do with Russia. I have no investments in Russia, none whatsoever. I don't have property in Russia." And, just in case anyone missed the point, last January he tweeted in all caps, "NOTHING TO DO WITH RUSSIA - NO DEALS, NO LOANS, NO NOTHING!"
Well, not exactly. For three decades, Trump, key members of his family and several first-rank aides to the Trump Organization sought repeatedly to strike deals with top Russian banks and billionaires to build Trump-branded properties in Russia, and Trump's real estate properties have engaged nonstop with Russian oligarchs who've bought lavish houses and apartments in New York, Florida and elsewhere. And now we know, thanks to bombshell revelations by The New York Times and The Washington Post this week, that the most recent effort by Trump & Co. came last year, at the height of his campaign for president. In late 2015 and early 2016, just as the Republican primary was gearing up, two key aides – his top lawyer, Michael Cohen, and a shady business partner, Felix H. Sater – were deep in talks with Russian investors about building what The Post called a "massive Trump Tower in Moscow."
Sater, a career criminal who'd been convicted of slashing someone's face in a bar with the broken stem of a margarita glass and who'd also been found guilty in a $40 million stock fraud case, emailed Cohen positively giddy about his real estate negotiations in Russia – and in terms that, were you Robert Mueller, the dogged special counsel investigating Russiagate, you might consider a smoking gun. "Our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it," emailed Sater. "I will get all of Putin's team to buy in on this, I will manage this process."
If we're counting smoking guns, this one should be Number Two. Number One, of course, was the revelation last month that in June 2016 three Trump intimates – Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner and then campaign manager Paul Manafort – had met in Trump Tower with a Russian delegation promising to deliver dirt on Hillary Clinton that came straight from Russian intelligence and the Russian state prosecutor. ("I love it!" responded Trump Jr.) Both are being folded into Mueller's high-powered inquiry, along with parallel investigations by Senate and House intelligence committees, which are looking to determine not whether Russian spies meddled in the 2016 election – that's taken for granted now, and was conclusively verified by the U.S intelligence community in a January report – but whether Trump and his allies cooperated or colluded with Russian efforts to throw the election to him.
Ever since Mueller empaneled a Washington, D.C., grand jury and ordered a predawn raid on Manafort's stately Virginia home, revelations have been piling up. (Though not from Mueller's office, which is notoriously tight-lipped, doesn't have a website and issues no press releases.) No one knows the full story yet, since what we know consists of scattered media reports and incomplete testimony from some of those involved. But for Trump, who's intervened at least seven times to slow down or obstruct justice in the investigation – not least by firing FBI Director Jim Comey in May – the Mueller investigation must look not unlike the Terminator: unstoppable. There's no timetable for its conclusion yet, but in the end Mueller's report could lead to indictments of top Trump allies, a devastating report on Trump-Russia collaboration and even a recommendation that the president be impeached. Yes, it's that serious.
Among the recent revelations:
—A series of reports in the Wall Street Journal reveal that Peter W. Smith, a GOP operative who claimed to be working with General Mike Flynn, actively sought cooperation with Russian hackers to obtain Clinton emails in 2016. (Flynn, of course, was Trump's chief national security aide during the campaign, and he served as the president's national security adviser for less than a month before being fired, in February, because of undisclosed conversations with Russia's ambassador to the United States.) "We knew the people who had these [emails] were probably around the Russian government," Smith – who committed suicide two weeks later – told the Journal. Mueller, says the paper, is investigating the report.
—The Washington Post revealed that George Papadopoulos, an eager young Trump aide, repeatedly offered to set up meetings between Russian officials, including President Vladimir Putin, and Trump campaign officials in 2016. One email, to seven Trump aides, was titled "Meeting with Russian Leadership – Including Putin." Apparently, Papadopoulos' work got no takers from the campaign, although investigators working with the congressional committees are looking into it. "Putin wants to host the Trump team when the time is right," wrote Papadopoulos.
—CNN reported that top Trump official Rick Dearborn, who now serves as deputy chief of staff in the White House, sought to arrange a meeting between Putin and Trump campaign officials in June 2016, around the time Trump Jr., Kushner and Manafort were meeting with Russians in New York. Dearborn and an unnamed Republican in West Virginia sought to bring Trump and Putin together over their "shared Christian values," CNN reported. Many American conservatives, who support Trump's overtures toward Moscow since taking office, believe Putin's reputed strong Russian Orthodox Christian ties make him a likely partner against external enemies, including Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.
While any one of these leads – plus, no doubt, many more that have yet to surface from inside the Mueller investigation – could prove not to be incriminating, taken together they make a convincing case that Team Trump knowingly had multiple contacts with Russia in 2016 even as the Obama administration began to uncover evidence that Russia's GRU spy service was involved in the hack attack against the Democratic National Committee and the email account of Clinton campaign manager John Podesta. Among the other officials under scrutiny – besides Flynn, Manafort, Cohen, Sater, Kushner, Trump Jr., Dearborn and Papadopoulos – there's also Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who had to recuse himself from overseeing the Russiagate inquiry after it was revealed that he had a series of still unexplained meetings with Sergei Kislyak, then Russia's ambassador. Dearborn served as Sessions' chief of staff.
Mueller has unleashed a flurry of subpoenas since establishing his grand jury last month, aimed at many of those Trump officials and their aides and associates. And Mueller is not restricting himself to collusion with Russia alone, but he's digging deep into the Trump-Kushner real estate and financial empire. In addition, he's investigating whether President Trump tried to obstruct justice by blocking the investigation, firing Comey, threatening to dismiss Sessions and asking U.S. intelligence officials to defend him against Russiagate charges. Most recently, according to NBC, Mueller is "keenly focused" on reports that Trump help craft a misleading statement issued by Trump Jr. when reports of the Trump Tower meeting first surfaced.
And Sater, the convicted felon who worked with Trump over a period of years to find deals in Moscow, could be a prime target. "Michael," Sater wrote to Cohen, Trump's attorney, "I arranged for Ivanka to sit in Putin's private chair at his desk and office in the Kremlin. I will get Putin on this program and we will get Donald elected."
And maybe impeached.