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What The Latest Trump Tower Documents Say About Trump's Russian Business Interests

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

One part of the Mueller investigation has centered on President Trump's business interests in Moscow. A pile of new documents that BuzzFeed just published gives us more detail on how those interests took shape during the 2016 presidential campaign.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I have nothing to do with Russia. I don't have any jobs in Russia. I'm all over the world, but we're not involved in Russia.

SHAPIRO: That was President Trump speaking with a local Miami CBS affiliate in July of 2016, one of many times he denied business connections to Russia. Over time, we have learned that those statements were false. President Trump's closest advisers were talking about building a Trump Tower Moscow at least until just weeks before he made that blanket denial we just heard.

Trump's former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about the project. Here's how President Trump responded to that development on the White House lawn in December.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: He's a weak person, and what he's trying to do is get a reduced sentence. So he's lying about a project that everybody knew about. I mean, we were very open with it. We were thinking about building a building. I guess we had - in a form, it was an option. I don't know what you'd call it. We decided - I decided ultimately not to do it. That would have been nothing wrong if I did do it.

SHAPIRO: That form, the option, is among nearly 300 pages of internal documents that BuzzFeed News has posted online today just days before Michael Cohen is scheduled to testify to Congress again. Anthony Cormier is one of the reporters on this story. Welcome.

ANTHONY CORMIER: Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: First give us the big picture of what you have here. These documents include architectural renderings, text messages, emails, legal agreements. When you take the 10,000-foot view, what do these documents show?

CORMIER: We see that the Trump Organization was deeply involved in these negotiations. They went much further than they have publicly acknowledged. In fact, we have a Trump attorney striking lines, working on this letter of intent so that, well - Mr. Trump and those around him have said that there really was no deal, that there were no filings. We, in fact, know that his organization was deeply, deeply involved in getting this thing off the ground.

SHAPIRO: I know that you're not naming your source, but what can you tell us about where these documents come from and how you know that they are authentic?

CORMIER: We've managed to authenticate them with law enforcement officials, people on the Hill. It's our understanding that they have been turned over to investigators. They are part and parcel of this aspect, the Trump Tower Moscow aspect, of the special counsel's inquiry.

SHAPIRO: We already knew that President Trump's team was working on a possible Trump Tower Moscow for months after he said he had no business in Russia, but these documents do add a lot more texture to the timeline. And they let us see behind the scenes. Tell us about a few of the specific details that stand out to you when you go through them.

CORMIER: I think it's remarkable that when you put them on a timeline, when you plot them out, you can begin to see how publicly the candidate, Mr. Trump, was praising Vladimir Putin. And privately, his associates were using those sort of announcements as ways to further the deal. On November 3, 2015, I think it's a press conference at his tower in New York, and he tells the public, I believe we'll have a very good relationship with Russia.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: A very good relationship with Russia. I believe that I will have a very good relationship with Putin.

CORMIER: And less than an hour later, one of his associates emails Mr. Cohen and says that he's about to go to the Bahamas to meet with a developer who wants to build the tower. And he writes that Putin will get onstage with Donald for ribbon-cutting for Trump Moscow. And Donald owns the Republican nomination and possibly beats Hillary, and our boy is in. It's a crystallization of what publicly the president is doing to praise Putin and what - privately how his associates are using those proclamations.

SHAPIRO: These documents show that they got as far as discussing potential travel dates for Donald Trump to visit Russia, discussing whether it should be before or after he officially secured the Republican nomination for president at the RNC convention.

CORMIER: Right. That is true. They - Mr. Cohen was planning to go to meet with developers, look at sites before the National - the Republican National Convention and that he hoped to get Mr. Trump over there possibly to even see Mr. Putin afterward.

SHAPIRO: There are among these nearly 300 pages more than 50 pages of text message exchanges about everything from visas to Russia, potential meetings with Putin and more. Will you read us a section of the text messages that stands out to you?

CORMIER: Quite often they are laced with profanity. But I will find one from late in December 2015. Mr. Cohen and his associate, Felix Sater, are sort of bickering back and forth about how long it's taking to get this deal in place. And frustrated, Mr. Cohen tells Sater, (reading) not you or anyone you know will embarrass me in front of Mr. T when he asks me what is happening. That's a signal, I think, that Mr. Trump may have been more involved in these negotiations than he was publicly letting on at the time.

SHAPIRO: I'd like to end with that argument that we heard at the beginning of our conversation from President Trump about the Trump Tower Moscow project.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: We decided - I decided ultimately not to do it. There would have been nothing wrong if I did do it.

SHAPIRO: Is he right?

CORMIER: Good question, I think one that's going to be picked over for many, many years, right? It's not clear that he decided or when he decided not to do it. And there are questions about whether or not anyone in the organization was offering any inducements to Russian officials, right? In the past, we reported that as part of this deal, Mr. Cohen offered a $50 million penthouse to Mr. Putin as a way to sort of grease the skids and get this thing done. And so I think that there are quite a bit of threads left to be pulled on, and there are avenues that - yet to have been lighted.

SHAPIRO: Anthony Cormier of BuzzFeed News, thanks a lot.

CORMIER: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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