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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

How Donald Trump became 'Individual 1' in Robert Mueller's Russia investigation

His former lawyer Michael Cohen's confirmation of Moscow business interest undermines Trump's campaign denials

Former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen leaves a federal court in New York on November 29, 2018. AP Photo
Former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen leaves a federal court in New York on November 29, 2018. AP Photo

After months of quiet, steady progress, Robert Mueller’s painstaking investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election is entering a new phase after publicly revealing it was closing in on its ultimate target. It came in a paragraph of legalese inside a nine-page court filing.

“Cohen discussed the status and progress of the Moscow Project with Individual 1 on more than the three occasions Cohen claimed to the Committee, and he briefed family members of Individual 1 within the Company about the project,” it reads.

With those lines in a plea deal with Michael Cohen, Donald Trump’s long-time fixer and lawyer, Mr Mueller moves into uncharted territory. For “Individual 1” is the President of the United States, making him, his family and his business a major subject of interest in the criminal investigation.

Taken with other developments, it reveals how prosecutors believe Mr Trump remained in close contact with key aides as they reached out to Russian officials, before later trying to hide those contacts. And it suggests Candidate Trump knew of the business dealings in Moscow at a time when he was praising Russian President Vladimir Putin on the campaign trail.

“This week’s dramatic developments are a game changer in the Russia investigation: they clearly indicate that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation will implicate the president, his campaign, and his close associates in aiding and abetting a Russian conspiracy against the United States to undermine the 2016 election,” is how the Moscow Project at the Centre for American Progress Action Fund put it in a briefing note.

On Thursday, Mr Cohen, who acted as Mr Trump’s personal lawyer, admitted lying to Congress when he said that his employer was not looking to build a Trump Tower in Moscow after January 2016. In fact, he admitted, they continued into June 2016, undermining campaign claims that Mr Trump had no financial ties to Russia.

A day later, a business associate of Mr Cohen said the Trump Organisation discussed offering a $50 million (Dh184m) apartment in the planned 100-storey Moscow development to Vladimir Putin.

“In Russia, the oligarchs would bend over backwards to live in the same building as Vladimir Putin,” Felix Sater told BuzzFeed News.

And on Saturday, during the G20 summit in Argentina, Mr Putin’s press secretary displayed what he said were two emails from Mr Cohen asking for help getting the Trump Tower Moscow project off the ground.

It followed a court filing in which the former fixer said he told Mr Trump about a conversation he had with the Kremlin seeking help with the skyscraper during the 2016 campaign.

“He and Client 1 also discussed possible travel to Russia in the summer of 2016, and Michael took steps to clear dates for such travel,” Mr Cohen's lawyers said in the Friday filing.

The project eventually came to nothing but taken together — the conversation with the Kremlin and his aides’ lies about when the project ended — they cast fresh light on Mr Trump’s soft stance towards Russia.

The president’s allies have since tried to undermine Mr Cohen’s credibility. And the president himself shrugged off the developments, saying he had nothing to hide.

“Against all odds, I decide to run for President & continue to run my business-very legal & very cool, talked about it on the campaign trail,” he tweeted. “Lightly looked at doing a building somewhere in Russia. Put up zero money, zero guarantees and didn’t do the project. Witch Hunt!”

But Mr Trump immediately cancelled a planned one-to-one meeting with Mr Putin in Argentina. He cited the recent Russian seizure of Ukrainian warships but it prompted speculation that he was letting the accusations govern diplomacy.

“If you think Trump cancelled Putin meeting because of Russian aggression rather than the Cohen revelation, I’ve got a nice suite in the Trump Tower Moscow I’d be happy to sell you,” tweeted David Rothkopf, a professor at Columbia University.

The saga may be headed into a fresh, even more disruptive phase next month when the new term of Congress begins. Its new Democratic majority brings fresh peril for the president. His opponents will control key committees, with the power to open investigations and subpoena witnesses.

Jerrold Nadler, a Democrat from New York, is in line to take over the chair of the powerful judicial committee.

He pointed out that of 191 charges issued so far, almost all involved people in the orbits of Mr Trump or Mr Putin, or both.

“As the new Congress begins, these developments make clear that my colleagues and I must step in and provide accountability,” he said. “No one is above the law, not even the President, and our job will be to check his impulse to abuse his office to protect himself.”

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Read more:

Trump blasts probe in which Cohen pleaded guilty

President Trump helped parents avoid millions in taxes, says New York Times

Paul Manafort agrees to help inquiry into Russian election meddling

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