Engineering Another Hyped Trump-Russia Story

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There is a new Trump-Russia story making the rounds this week. It’s about a real estate deal that the Trump Organization considered in Moscow in 2016. If the deal had gone through, there’d be a new Trump Tower in Moscow today, but nothing came of it.

Nothing, that is, except for a major story in The New York Times, which first broke the news under a modest headline: Trump Associate Boasted That Moscow Business Deal ‘Will Get Donald Elected’

Following the Times’ lead, NPR’s Up First program also decided to hype the story by pulling a seemingly damning quote out of context:

Guest: …One of the key lines from the emails, and I’ll quote it, “Buddy our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it.”

Host: Wow, yeah, that’s jaw-dropping to some degree.

The implication of both the Times headline and the NPR coverage is that the business deal would come with some kind of quid pro quo that would help not just the Trump Organization, but Donald Trump the candidate. In the context of the broader Russiagate narrative, the average reader or listener would no doubt assume that the Russian government would be the source of that help.

But the actual story, based on the details reported by the Times, turns out to be far less interesting. The relevant details look like this:

Felix Sater is a Russian-American real estate broker who has previously worked with President Trump, and who claimed to have major influence in Russia, including with President Vladimir Putin. In 2015, Sater emailed Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, to promote a possible real estate deal to build a Trump Tower in Moscow.

In the emails, some of which were obtained by the Times, Sater claims to already have financing lined up. As part of his pitch, Sater also suggests that building a Trump Tower in Moscow could be good for Trump’s political image. He imagines a possible ribbon-cutting ceremony and argues this deal could show Americans that Trump could negotiate even with America’s “most difficult adversary”. The broker also tosses out the idea that he could convince Putin to praise Trump’s business sensibilities.

The quote cited by NPR is from Sater and these are the kinds of things he is referring to. He’s saying that “we”, meaning he and Cohen, could “engineer” Trump’s victory by helping strengthen Trump’s brand as a savvy negotiator. But importantly, based on the Times’ reporting, everything Sater talked about would amount to PR stunts made in the open, not back-room collusion to commit espionage against Trump’s political rivals.

Just as important, none of it came to pass. Here, we’ll let the Times pour cold water on its own story (emphasis added):

There is no evidence in the emails that Mr. Sater delivered on his promises, and one email suggests that Mr. Sater overstated his Russian ties. In January 2016, Mr. Cohen wrote to Mr. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, asking for help restarting the Trump Tower project, which had stalled. But Mr. Cohen did not appear to have Mr. Peskov’s direct email, and instead wrote to a general inbox for press inquiries.

The project never got government permits or financing, and died weeks later.

To reiterate, the deal never went through. And the Trump Team is apparently so deeply connected to the Russians that they tried to contact them using the general press inbox–an email address that anyone with a pulse and an Internet connection also has access to.

At the end of the day, there’s a much more compelling and non-conspiratorial way to interpret these emails. We should remember here that Sater’s job as a broker is to arrange real estate deals. And if he’s like most other salespeople, he’s probably in the habit of exaggerating his own influence and the benefits of any particular deal he’s promoting. This is what salespeople do everyday.

In this case, the deal he’s promoting was between Trump and Moscow, so his pitch included some highly quotable lines.

But again, he’s a salesperson who’s making a sales pitch that didn’t even pan out. He also did not work for Trump at the time of the events, and if the outcome is anything to go by, his influence with the Russian government does not appear extensive.

Given all these facts, does it make any sense to cite this individual, and this sales pitch, as credible evidence in support of the Trump-Russia collusion narrative?

Clearly, it does not.

And the Times itself will even admit it, for anyone that is willing to read down to paragraph 10, that is.

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