Donald Trump’s Twitter feed was oddly silent as the news came that his former campaign manager and his former lawyer were going to jail. Perhaps his staff have finally seized control of his android phone. Perhaps his lawyers have convinced him that every time he reaches for it to tweet on anything relating to the Russia investigation, he is dancing on the edge of a precipice, with Robert Mueller just waiting to push him off. Whatever the reason, this was the equivalent of Trump entering a stunned, catatonic state, while his world spins out of control around him.
The President merely tweeted to note that he was going to a Make America Great Again rally in West Virginia, slipping into a warm bath of affirmation from his most loyal supporters: ‘Thank you West Virginia!’ Here he was guaranteed an uncritical audience for his familiar arguments – more slogans, really – that the whole Russia thing is a ‘witch hunt’, a ‘hoax’, a ‘deep state conspiracy’. He did not comment on the terrifying news that Michael Cohen, his former lawyer and consigliere, may have flipped, accepting a plea deal. On the way to the rally, he did tell reporters that his former campaign manager, Paul Manafort was ‘a good man’ and: ‘This has nothing to do with Russian collusion.’
In a narrow sense he is right about that. Paul Manafort made tens of millions of dollar representing thugs and thieves around the world – Marcos in the Philippines, Sese Seko in the Congo, Yanukovych in Ukraine – but then somehow forgot to tell the US taxman about it. He was not actually convicted for buying an $15,000 ostrich skin jacket of staggering vulgarity – though the prosecution did their best – but for bank fraud and tax evasion. What has this to do with Russia?
On the face of it, nothing. But in Ukraine, the money came from oligarchs who ultimately worked for Vladimir Putin. If Manafort was paid $75m dollars in Ukraine, as is claimed, Russian intelligence would have known about it, and more importantly they would have known he was hiding it in offshore accounts. The Kremlin would therefore have had a powerful hold over him: information that could get him sent to jail. Trump’s enemies, including some in the ‘intelligence community’, believe that Manafort was quite deliberately inserted into the Trump campaign by the Kremlin. It’s no accident that in one of the further indictments Manafort faces, he is jointly charged with his business partner in Ukraine, Konstantin Kilimnik, known to be former officer in Russian military intelligence.
As Manafort faces the prospect of spending the rest of his life in jail, he must be full of bitter regret that he did not flip on his old boss. Cohen did not make that mistake. His plea agreement says he could face up to five years in jail for tax evasion but there is considerable latitude for prosecutors to reduce this and his lawyer, Lanny Davis, told MSNBC that his client ‘wants to tell the truth’ about Donald Trump. ‘It’s truth that Michael Cohen has committed to and it’s truth that so threatens the president of the United States.’ It was a nice touch for Cohen to pick Davies as his lawyer, a man known as a Clinton ultra-loyalist. With that, Trump must have known he was going to take it in the shorts with Cohen’s plea deal. As Cohen, the mafioso manqué once told a reporter, threatening him on behalf of Trump: ‘What I'm going to do to you is going to be fucking disgusting.’
What will he now tell the FBI? One of Cohen’s very important duties in TrumpWorld was cleaning up the “women messes”. Cohen engineered payments of $150,000 to a former Playboy model, Karen McDougal, and $130,000 to a porn star, Stormy Daniels, getting them to sign NDAs – non disclosure agreements – to stop them from talking. Business as usual: there are said to be many more such women. Unfortunately for Cohen, some of this hush money was paid during the campaign and, according to his indictment, constituted illegal campaign contributions.
But as entertaining as the stories of the ‘women messes’ are, this was always the person we knew Donald Trump to be. What Cohen might have to tell Mueller about the Russia connection could be far more deadly. As ever with Trump, you start with his business history. After the dossier by the former MI6 officer Christopher Steele was published in January 2017, the President was asked in a news conference: ‘Does Russia have any leverage over you, financial or otherwise?’ He replied: ‘I have no deals that could happen in Russia, because we've stayed away…We could make deals in Russia very easily if we wanted to, I just don't want to… So I have no loans, no dealings, and no current pending deals.”
That last part was true, but not the rest. He hadn’t stayed away. He had desperately wanted to see a gleaming, golden Trump Tower rise above Red Square in Moscow. One of the men who would make this happen was Michael Cohen. Cohen’s eager helper was Felix Sater, a Russian-American and convicted former mobster who built and sold condos for Trump in Manhattan. Sater emailed Cohen: ‘Everything will be negotiated and discussed not with flunkies but with people who will have dinner with Putin…My next steps are very sensitive with Putin’s very, very close people.’
Sater and Cohen chatted on an encrypted app called Dust. ‘Gotta keep this quiet,’ Sater texted.
Cohen has always publicly maintained that he has never been to Moscow. Professor Ryan Goodman of New York university told me: ‘This is strangely suspicious, because he has so many business dealings that relate or attempt to relate to Russia.’ Cohen was also on the board of the Miss Universe pageant, held in Moscow in 2013, as well as trying to get Trump Tower Rusiya. I have spoken to an eyewitness who puts Cohen in a hotel banqueting hall in Moscow with the Solntsevskaya organised crime group as they celebrated the birthday of their leader. Solntsevskaya has deep connections to the Kremlin and Cohen was allegedly asking for their help with the hotel deal. The eyewitness is not willing to be publicly identified – no surprise, given Solntsevskaya’s chilling reputation – and there is no independent corroboration of his story. But this is a tantalising possibility for the Mueller team to explore.
But far more important is the question of whether Michael Cohen has ever been to Prague. Christopher Steele’s dossier claims he did go, in 2016, to meet Russian hackers and Russian intelligence officers. Cohen was asked by the Atlantic magazine about this claim, and about Russia. He responded: ‘I’m telling you emphatically that I’ve not been to Prague, I’ve never been to [the] Czech [Republic], I’ve not been to Russia.’
If the ‘eyewitness’ to the Moscow meeting is telling the truth, says Professor Goodman, therefore if Cohen was being misleading about Russia, then perhaps he was, in the same breath, being misleading about Prague, too – and the whole Russia ‘conspiracy’ starts to unravel. I have spoken to one intelligence source who says Mueller is examining ‘electronic records’ that would place Cohen in Prague. Now the special counsel has Cohen himself to establish the truth of these claims.
Cohen also knows about one other crucial event: the meeting in Trump Tower between Donald Junior and a lawyer from the Kremlin during the campaign. Junior had been told the lawyer would bring ‘dirt’ on Hillary Clinton and declared (unwisely, by email): ‘I love it.’ Bizarrely, the two sides were brought together by a British music promoter called Rob Goldstone, who represented a singer who also happened to be the son of the Russian oligarch Trump partnered with in Miss Universe. The interesting thing about all these contacts and meetings is that the way they came about does not speak of a conspiracy. As one former Trump campaign aide told me: ‘We couldn’t even co-ordinate with the RNC in Pennsylvania, let alone with Russian intelligence.’ But if there was no highly organised conspiracy, that does leave open the possibility of collusion. When the Russians offered help, the Trump campaign seemed only too eager to accept. Does that mean President Trump knew of Russian hacking and other illegal acts before they took place. Lanny Davies, Cohen’s lawyer, hints that it does mean exactly that. The President may have know ‘ahead of time’ what the Russians were doing. The fate of the Trump presidency now hangs on what Michael Cohen will say.
Paul Wood is a BBC correspondent