In a few weeks, Robert Mueller’s tenure as chief of the Office of Special Counsel for Russiagate will hit its one-year mark. So far, there have been a number of high points along the way: cooperation agreements with several former Trump aides, including Michael Flynn, Rick Gates, and George Papadopoulos; and the indictment in February of 13 Russian individuals and three Russian companies engaged in the Kremlin-backed 2016 social-media campaign against Hillary Clinton.
Two major events have punctuated Mueller’s inquiry: the pre-dawn raid last summer on the Alexandria, Virginia, home of Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager in 2016; and then, this month, the coordinated FBI raids into the home, the office, and the hotel room of Michael Cohen, Trump’s longtime lawyer.
Both events show the awesome power that can be wielded by a special counsel, working hand-in-glove with the Justice Department and the FBI, executed properly according to a warrant authorized by a judge who was convinced, in both cases (in the Cohen raid, upon request from the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, after referral by Mueller’s office), that law-enforcement officials had strong reasons to believe that they’d find criminal evidence relevant to an ongoing investigation. (Never mind the howls of outrage from Fox News, comparisons of the FBI to the Nazi Gestapo by Newt Gingrich, and Trump’s own charge that the FBI “broke into” Cohen’s office as part of what the president called “an attack on our country.”)
It’s reasonable to say that both the Manafort and Cohen raids have likely brought Mueller much closer to being able to conclude whether or not the Trump campaign colluded with Russia in its unprecedented assault on our democratic system in 2016. As reported here last week, Manafort’s multiple entanglements with Russian and pro-Russian Ukrainian oligarchs have now, according to Mueller’s court filings, involved a business partner in Kiev with ties to the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency, who maintained ties to both Manafort and the GRU as late as mid-2016—and there’s no telling what else the famously taciturn and leak-averse Mueller knows.
Like Manafort, Cohen, Trump’s virtual mini-me and the real-estate tycoon’s “fixer,” is himself multiply connected to Russia. That’s the case even though what triggered the April 9 raid on Cohen may relate to payoffs to a porn star and to a Playboy Playmate, charges perhaps unrelated directly to Russiagate but which could potentially result in Cohen’s being indicted for bank fraud, money laundering, and/or campaign-finance violations. Like Manafort, then—also dinged for financial crimes unrelated to Russiagate and who now faces the possibility of a lengthy prison sentence—Cohen may soon have to face the same Hobson’s choice that confronts Manafort: Cooperate with Mueller, or spend a big chunk of the rest of his life as a guest at a federal detention facility.
Meanwhile, the raid on Cohen—like the earlier, equally stunning raid on Manafort—was carried out without a hint of warning, reportedly triggering an understandable sense of panic inside the White House. Amid reports that among the materials seized by the FBI may be secret tapes preserved by Cohen, there are no doubt plenty of people in and around Trump’s circle who are scrambling to remember every telephone conversation they had with him, going back years. And there’s another worry for Trump & Co., precisely because the raids on Manafort and Cohen were sudden and unannounced: The two raids have moved Mueller and the FBI closer to the president himself and to his immediate family. Taking the next logical step, they’ve got to be worried that Mueller’s next foray could target the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, as well as the Kushner Companies.
With that in mind, let’s review Michael Cohen’s potential connection to Russia, and thus to Russiagate. If you haven’t followed every twist and turn of the investigation, which seems to bring new revelations nearly every day, perhaps you’ve missed or forgotten some of those ties.
First, of course, there’s the famous Steele dossier, the 2016 compilation of raw intelligence that was assembled by former British MI-6 Russia specialist Christopher Steele for Glenn Simpson’s firm, Fusion GPS, on behalf of the Democratic National Committee. In it, Cohen makes a couple of potentially crucial appearances. Most important is the claim that he maintained a “covert relationship with Russia,” and that in August 2016 Cohen made a secret visit to Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, where he reportedly met with senior Kremlin officials. According to the dossier, whose allegations are so far unproven, the Prague meeting was facilitated by Konstantin Kosachev, who heads the Russian Duma’s foreign-relations committee and who may have attended the meeting in person.
Most explosively, the dossier alleges that Cohen’s meeting in Prague in that late summer of 2016 included “secret discussions with Kremlin representatives and associated operators/hackers,” and that “the agenda comprised questions on how deniable cash payments were to be made to hackers who had worked in Europe under Kremlin direction against the CLINTON campaign and various contingencies for covering up these operations and Moscow’s secret liaison with the TRUMP team more generally.”
Sourced to a “Kremlin adviser,” the dossier report said that the meeting was originally planned for Moscow but was “shifted to what was considered an operationally ‘soft’ EU country when it was judged too compromising for him to travel to the Russian capital.” And it adds that Cohen’s wife “is of Russian descent and her father [is] a leading property developer in Moscow.” (Michael Cohen’s wife, Laura, is a Ukrainian of Russian descent, according to the dossier; his brother, Bryan, is also married to a Ukrainian; and, like Manafort, the Cohen family has business ties to Ukraine.)
So far, the report that Cohen met with Russians in Prague is unverified. Cohen has vigorously denied it, and he’s shown his passport, which lacks a Czech entry stamp, to reporters. However, according to a report by McClatchy, citing “two [unnamed] sources familiar with the matter,” Mueller “has evidence that Donald Trump’s personal lawyer and confidant, Michael Cohen, secretly made a late-summer trip to Prague during the 2016 presidential campaign.” The McClatchy report, by Peter Stone and Greg Gordon, two veteran investigative journalists, didn’t say whether Cohen met with Kosachev, but it did say that Mueller’s investigators unearthed the fact that Cohen traveled to Prague via Germany, meaning that his passport would not have needed a stamp from the Czech Republic.
Second, Cohen was involved with Felix Sater, the former Trump business associate and perhaps Russiagate’s most colorful character, who during late 2015 and into 2016—i.e., during the presidential campaign—was trying to finagle the deal to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. In an e-mail to Cohen, Sater waxed enthusiastic about the political implications of the proposed real-estate deal: “Our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it,” wrote Sater. “I will get all of [Vladimir] Putins [sic] team to buy in on this, I will manage this process.… I will get Putin on this program and we will get Donald elected.” While the Cohen-Sater exchanges on the tower project were initially reported to have ended in early 2016, Buzzfeed recently reported that Sater and Cohen sought to make a last-ditch effort to move it forward by attending the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in June 2016, though in the end neither one made the trip.
Third, Cohen was involved in the still mostly unexplained “Ukraine peace plan” that reportedly ended up on the desk of Trump’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn, in February 2017 just before Flynn was forced to resign over his own contacts with Russia’s ambassador to the United States. The plan, organized outside regular diplomatic channels, was concocted by a Ukrainian politician, Andrii Artemenko, reportedly at the behest of top aides to President Putin. The plan, which would have resulted in eliminating or easing Western sanctions on Russia over its annexation of the Ukrainian province of Crimea, was cooked up in conjunction with Cohen and Sater. According to the New York Times report, Sater delivered the written plan to Cohen “in a sealed envelope,” and Cohen placed it in Flynn’s office.
Fourth, as The Wall Street Journal revealed in a stunning exposé, Cohen was the attorney who arranged a $1.6 million payoff to quiet a scandal involving an affair between Elliott Broidy, a top Republican Party fundraising official, and a Playboy Playmate. But Broidy has a part to play in the Russia scandal, too: Along with an operative named George Nader, who was picked up by federal agents at an airport and who’s now cooperating with Mueller’s office, Broidy was a principal in a scheme to boost US support for the United Arab Emirates over Qatar, in a tangled dispute among Arab nations of the Persian Gulf. Nader is an adviser to the UAE, and as the Times recently reported, Nader maintains business ties to Russia, including working on arms deals.
Meanwhile, the Times reported, Broidy “owns a private security company with hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts with the United Arab Emirates, and he extolled to Mr. Trump a paramilitary force that his company was developing for the country.” And it was Nader who arranged the secret meeting between Erik Prince, top UAE officials, and a Russian wheeler-dealer named Kirill Dmitriev, a meeting that Mueller is now investigating because it was apparently aimed at setting up some sort of back-channel links between Moscow and the incoming administration in Washington. It will be up to Mueller, possibly aided by information seized in the raid against Cohen, to sort out the relationship between Cohen, Broidy, Nader, Prince, and the various Russian and Emirati representatives they’re involved with.
There are, of course, many other ways in which evidence seized in the Cohen raid could implicate the president, most of which could involve Trump’s long history of seeking real-estate deals in Russia and selling real estate to Russian investors, including those involved in money laundering. Those deals, as reported in The Nation last month, could have provided the Russian government with leverage over Trump, during the campaign and in the White House.
Clarification: This article was updated to indicate that the raid on Michael Cohen’s office was executed by the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, after referral by special counsel Robert Mueller’s office.