Michael Cohen isn’t really supposed to be talking to reporters. The former executive vice president and special counsel at the Trump Organization, who also serves as the personal attorney to the president, sat in the back of the bustling Hampton Coffee Company in the tony beach town of Water Mill, New York, on Tuesday, nursing a large black coffee. His two cellphones beeped every few seconds. Eventually he looked down at the offending devices. “There goes CNN again,” he said. “Friends and my attorney have recommended I not appear on air until after my testimony.”
There was certainly good reason for his lawyers to advise caution. This week has seen Cohen, 51, take another star turn in the ongoing Russia investigation. Cohen (and President Donald Trump) have insisted for more than a year that the Trump Organization has had no business dealings in Russia. Cohen has been one of the president’s most dogged defenders in the media on that point, taking his case to TV, Twitter ― anywhere, basically. Speaking to the Financial Times in December, he dismissed the idea of “any connection with Russia” as “yet another example of the press’s liberal bias towards Mr. Trump.”
But earlier this week, details of a planned business deal with Russia emerged in the press, partly because Cohen’s lawyer filed a two-page statement ahead of Cohen’s upcoming appearance before the House Intelligence Committee. (The hearing, originally scheduled for Sept. 5, has been postponed.) The statement reveals that in 2015 and 2016, Cohen was pursuing a deal to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. The deal was brought to him by Felix Sater, a freelance Russian-American broker, convicted criminal and former FBI informant who’d worked with the Trump Organization on several previous projects.
Sater said he could lasso a Russian partner for the proposed Moscow deal, and he pursued one with customary brio. In a November 2015 email, Sater told Cohen, who he has known for 30 years, that he would “get all of Putins [sic] team to buy in on this.” He added, “Our boy can become President of the USA and we can engineer it.”
But that wasn’t all. According to his statement, Cohen talked about the proposed project with Trump himself on three separate occasions during the course of the campaign. Cohen also admitted that in mid-January 2016, he sent an email to Dmitry Peskov, a senior member of the Kremlin, asking where the government stood on approvals for the tower. He said he didn’t hear back, and the project never got off the ground.
This goes against Cohen’s earlier claim that Trump had no connection to Russia “altogether,” not to mention Trump’s own blanket denial from February: “I have nothing to do with Russia. To the best of my knowledge, no person I deal with does.”
I asked Cohen how it feels to be caught in a contradiction. “I feel great,” he said. “Which picture did The Wall Street Journal use of me? Was it good?” He continued: “I am in many respects just like the president. Nothing seems to rattle me, no matter how bad the hate.”
As Cohen sees it, he is simply “collateral damage,” a victim of the general ill will toward Trump supporters like himself. As proof, he showed me an email on one of his phones from someone claiming to be an entertainment executive in Los Angeles. “Your a dick,” the email began, and escalated from there, with the sender threatening to molest Cohen’s girlfriend. (Cohen is married.)
He told me that he gets a lot of emails and calls like this. Still, his mood lightened when a man at the coffee shop approached us. The man said that he and Cohen grew up in the same neighborhood, and praised Cohen’s TV appearances. “You are Howard Stern meets Tony Robbins meets Ari from ‘Entourage,’” the man said. Cohen chuckled. “You can write that if you want,” he told me.
I showed him a tweet from John Podhoretz, editor of the magazine Commentary: “Nothing illegal about Trump & people kissing up to Putin while running for Prez, even if for biz reasons. Gross but not illegal.”
“Well, he’s right,” Cohen replied calmly. “Though I would argue that neither I nor Trump were kissing up to Putin for either political or business benefits. The Trump Moscow project was a proposal that came to me through Felix from a Russian real estate developer. The fact that it needed government approval from the Kremlin is irrelevant. Putin was not the partner. He is the president of the country.”
But if Trump needed the Kremlin to approve a major deal, wouldn’t that have created the possibility of undue influence? “No,” Cohen said. “Their system is different from ours. The Kremlin has to approve buildings in Moscow. That’s not undue influence. That’s just the way it is.”
I point out that for many people, it is becoming increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish between Trump’s business interests and his political ones. And yet Cohen told me that during the campaign there had been no internal conversations at the Trump Organization about how to avoid potential conflicts of interest. “Everything was being characterized as a potential conflict,” he said. “On CNN, they argued that unless Trump sold everything, there would be a conflict of interest. My comment [to them] was that even if he sold every asset, they’d attack the buyer as having undue influence over him. It’s the epitome of Catch-22.”
Did the Trump Organization’s stance change when reports started to emerge that Russia was attempting to interfere with the election? “No,” Cohen said, “because we had no involvement in it. We had the same information as the public.”
How, then, does he explain Sater’s email gloating that the Moscow deal would help “our boy” with the campaign? “Trump getting elected would have just been a bonus [of the deal] in my mind,” Cohen said. “Felix knew that. He was selling me. What Felix was referring to was that [the tower] would distinguish Trump from the other 16 candidates by showing his ability to get along with foreign leaders who have not been well received by the previous administration.”
Later, he added: “I think it’s essential that the U.S. and Russia work together as superpowers in order to bring stability to the world. This is why the U.S. people elected Donald Trump.”
Throughout our conversation, Cohen maintained that Trump was barely aware of the details of what would have been a “very, very lucrative” project, if it had gone ahead. He gave me an account of the precise numbers of minutes, and even words, that Trump expended on the effort. According to Cohen, when he first brought up the Moscow deal to his boss, he received a two-word response: “He said: ’OK, great.”
The second conversation, Cohen said, was in the fall of 2015, when he asked Trump to sign a nonbinding letter of intent to go out to potential Russian partners. “This meeting lasted approximately two minutes,” Cohen said. The third exchange happened in January 2016: “I stated to Mr. Trump, while talking about something else, that I terminated the agreement. His response was another two words ― ‘Too bad.’”
And so, Cohen concluded, “the entire duration of our conversations on Trump Tower Moscow, if you added them all up, lasted four minutes.”
I told him it’s difficult to understand why Cohen and Trump had denied having any dealings in Russia, if all these conversations were so innocuous. Cohen nodded. Some of it, he said, has to do with lawyers wanting to control the narrative. And some of it, he said, is just plain absurd. He claims that when he sent the email to Peskov, he had little idea whom he was actually reaching out to. By his account, he wanted to find whether the Russian government had authorized the Moscow tower. At Sater’s suggestion, he says, he looked Peskov up. “I sent my email addressed to Peskov to a general mailbox ― not his personal email, which I never had. I did not hear back from him.”
Cohen characterizes this contact as “tantamount to sending an email to [White House chief of staff] General [John] Kelly by sending the communication to ‘info@.’ It is certainly not in the Spy 101 Handbook for Stealth.”
This wasn’t the only episode that Cohen attempted to justify with an explanation that might have been a plot out of “Monty Python.” There was also his alleged effort, in February, to help broker peace in Ukraine with politician Andrey Artemenko. This was controversial because Artemenko said that he had won Putin’s backing for his plan, and Cohen allegedly delivered the proposal to Michael Flynn, who was fired from his post as national security adviser one week later.
Cohen claims that this encounter was blown out of proportion. “Felix asked that I meet him for a cup of coffee, as he wanted to introduce me to a friend,” he said, referring to Artemenko. Cohen suggested the Loews Regency near New York’s Central Park “because it is two blocks from my house and they have good coffee.”
There, Cohen said, Artemenko told him that he was going to run for president of Ukraine and that he knew how to solve the conflict between Russia and Crimea. “His plan, which was one that is not novel nor unique, was for the Ukraine to lease Crimea to Russia for 100 years. That was the whole plan,” Cohen said. “He asked if I could deliver a paper to either the president or General Flynn. He gave me a long brown envelope containing one or two pages. I never opened it and I never delivered it to either General Flynn or the president. I told him to send it to General Flynn at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. He asked me to take a copy in case I saw them… But I didn’t deliver it, because I had no interest in what he was selling.”
So, why the conflicting accounts about his role? Cohen raised his hands. “I really don’t want to go into it,” he said, “except Reince Priebus later confirmed no document was ever given.” (Priebus, Trump’s former chief of staff, did not respond to requests for comment.)
“The whole thing is so stupid,” he continued. “When was the last time you saw a peace proposal on one piece of paper? SAT computations for algebraic equations take at least two pages or more. I truly hope at the end of all this nonsense that some L.A. screenwriter elects to turn this into a Netflix miniseries or movie called ‘Sheer Nonsense.’”
He waited a beat. “And I really hope Tom Cruise plays me.”