BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — President Donald Trump’s story about his business pursuits in Russia has shifted again.
As a candidate and afterward, Trump said repeatedly that he didn’t have any business dealings with Russia.
“I have no dealings with Russia,” he said shortly before his inauguration in 2017. “I have no deals that could happen in Russia, because we’ve stayed away.”
The truth was more complicated than Trump suggested: He had long relied on Russian investors for projects in other parts of the world, and long sought to develop real estate in Russia.
And now, with former Trump fixer Michael Cohen having pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about efforts to develop a Trump Tower project in Moscow, the president has added a new layer to his take, arguing that it would be perfectly fine for him to have pursued the Oval Office and a high-end business opportunity in Russia at the same time.
“We were thinking about building a building,” he told reporters at the White House on Thursday. “I decided ultimately not to do it. There would have been nothing wrong if I did do it.”
Prosecutors say Cohen admitted that he lied to Congress by saying that the Moscow Trump Tower project was nixed in January 2016 — before the Iowa caucuses — even though he continued to pursue it on Trump’s behalf as late as June 2016. That’s the same month that top Trump advisers took a meeting at Trump Tower in Manhattan with Russian emissaries who had promised to provide political dirt on then-presumed Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
There’s no law barring a candidate who doesn’t already hold office from continuing to do business during a campaign — and no requirement to disclose such activity — but veteran lawyers say Trump could have a problem if discussions over the Trump Tower project were tied to potential actions once he won the presidency.
“If additional facts show that the negotiations were part of a broader quid pro quo with Russians/oligarchs (Trump gets tower in exchange for some goodies once he is POTUS), then we are potentially into federal criminal conspiracy and campaign-law violations,” said Kim Wehle, a law professor at the University of Baltimore and former member of independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s Whitewater investigation team, in an email to NBC News.
And Trump’s evasiveness on the question of whether he was seeking business in Moscow during the election raises the question of whether he was worried about political or legal exposure, according to Joyce White Vance, a former federal prosecutor and MSNBC contributor.
“Lying about it certainly raises the implication that Trump himself believed that it was somehow untoward for a candidate to have business ventures with Russia,” she said. “And there could be a variety of legal problems here — tax, emoluments, what have you — that could come back to haunt the president.”
The “emoluments clause” of the Constitution prohibits federal office-holders from receiving items of value from foreign governments.
On a political level, Vance said, voters should have been informed of his business ties to Russia, particularly because such deals only happen with the blessing of the government.
“That really is the guardrail,” she said of the deterrent to candidates engaging in business activities that might reflect poorly on them during a campaign. “It’s why candidates disclose their tax returns, so the voters can be fully informed about whether they think a candidate has a conflict of interest that would lead him or her to put someone else’s interests above the American people.”
Unlike past presidential contenders, Trump never released his tax returns.
And though he denied having a financial interest in Russia during the campaign, Trump said Thursday “everybody knew about” the Trump Tower project. He called Cohen “weak” several times in an exchange with reporters, and accused his former ally of lying to the court.
“What he’s trying to do is get a reduced sentence,” Trump said. “So he’s lying about a project that everybody knew about. I mean we were very open about it.”
Trump reiterated his claim that he was the victim of a "witch hunt" on Twitter early Friday.
But ultimately, Trump’s self-defense is no longer that he was free from interests in Russia. Now, it is that there would have been no problem with pursuing them.
“My focus was running for president,” he said. “But when I run for president, that doesn’t mean I’m not allowed to do business.”