IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Trump's Russia dealings represented an enormous conflict of interest in 2016

First Read is your briefing from "Meet the Press" and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.
Image: *** BESTPIX *** Donald Trump Holds Campaign Rally In Bentonville, Arkansas
Then Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally on Feb. 27, 2016 in Bentonville, Arkansas.Benjamin Krain / Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Every time special counsel Robert Mueller speaks — through his court filings — he packs a punch. The latest example came Thursday, when he revealed that Trump lawyer/fixer Michael Cohen was lying about the president’s business ties with Russia, and that Trump & Co. were seeking business deals with Russia well into June 2016, right before Trump officially became the GOP’s presidential nominee.

And when you consider what Trump said about Russia during the 2016 campaign, as National Review’s David French writes, those business ties represented an enormous conflict of interest, especially since Russia is/was an adversary.

Here was Trump in December 2015, when MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough asked him about Vladimir Putin’s killing of journalists: “He’s running his country. And at least he’s a leader — unlike what we have in this country.”

Here was Trump downplaying Russia’s hostilities with Ukraine in a March 2016 New York Times interview: “Now I’m all for Ukraine, I have friends that live in Ukraine, but it didn’t seem to me, when the Ukrainian problem arose, you know, not so long ago, and we were, and Russia was getting very confrontational, it didn’t seem to me like anyone else cared other than us. And we are the least affected by what happens with Ukraine because we’re the farthest away. But even their neighbors didn’t seem to be talking about it. And, you know, you look at Germany, you look at other countries, and they didn’t seem to be very much involved. It was all about us and Russia. And I wondered, why is it that countries that are bordering the Ukraine and near the Ukraine — why is it that they’re not more involved? Why is it that they are not more involved? Why is it always the United States that gets right in the middle of things?”

And here was Trump in an April 2016 foreign policy speech calling for stronger relations with Russia: “I believe an easing of tensions, and improved relations with Russia from a position of strength only is possible, absolutely possible. Common sense says this cycle, this horrible cycle of hostility must end and ideally will end soon. Good for both countries. Some say the Russians won’t be reasonable. I intend to find out. If we can’t make a deal under my administration, a deal that’s great — not good, great — for America, but also good for Russia, then we will quickly walk from the table. It’s as simple as that. We’re going to find out.”

As French says, “Trump made those comments at the exact time when his team was allegedly trying to secure a business deal that could have netted Trump millions of dollars. This is no small thing. Trump’s words mattered.”

Take away everything else we know about Russia’ interference in 2016 — the email hacks, the WikiLeaks disclosures, the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting. Isn’t the news that a presidential candidate’s business deals were shaping his views about a geopolitical adversary a humongous scandal by itself?

If there wasn’t already a special counsel, would yesterday’s revelations have launched one?

Trump, Russia and the big picture from 2016

But, of course, yesterday’s news is just ONE part of how Russia and its connection to Trump influenced the 2016 presidential race. Some of the other parts:

  1. Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner held that June 9, 2016 Trump Tower meeting with a Kremlin-connected lawyer and other Russians. "If it's what you say, I love it," Donald Trump Jr. wrote in reply to a message that Russians had dirt on Hillary Clinton.
  2. Well into Trump’s presidency, Trump and his son weren’t telling the full truth about that meeting, and Trump himself dictated a misleading statement about the meeting.
  3. Trump asked Russia for assistance in his campaign against Hillary Clinton. "If you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing," he said on July 27.
  4. Russia obliged, according to Mueller’s July 2018 indictments against Russian intelligence officials. "[O]n or about July 27, 2016, the Conspirators attempted after hours to spearphish for the first time email accounts at a domain hosted by a third-party and used by Clinton's personal office.”
  5. Russian intelligence gained access to the emails and computer networks of the DNC, DCCC and Clinton campaign chair John Podesta.
  6. Trump eagerly campaigned on the revelations from those emails – which were handed over for WikiLeaks for distribution. "Boy, I love reading those WikiLeaks," Trump said on the campaign trail on Nov. 4, 2015 — four days before Election Day.

Under normal circumstances, yesterday’s news would have ended a normal presidency

By the way, don’t miss this point from attorney and former federal prosecutor Ken White in The Atlantic:

“The third remarkable thing about Cohen’s plea was its substance. The president of the United States’ personal lawyer admitted to lying to Congress about the president’s business activities with a hostile foreign power, in order to support the president’s story. In any rational era, that would be earthshaking. Now it’s barely a blip. Over the past two years, we’ve become accustomed to headlines like ‘President’s Campaign Manager Convicted of Fraud’ and ‘President’s Personal Lawyer Paid for Adult Actress’s Silence.’ We’re numb to it all. But these are the sorts of developments that would, under normal circumstances, end a presidency.

The dark cloud over Trump’s G-20 trip

NBC’s Jonathan Allen: “President Donald Trump landed here Thursday night with special counsel Robert Mueller looming over his shoulder back home and President Xi Jinping of China on his horizon. The trick for him, as he celebrates the signing of a new trade agreement with Mexico and Canada Friday and negotiates over his trade war with China Saturday, is to prevent his domestic troubles from damaging American foreign policy interests as the G-20 meets here.”

More from Allen: “Shortly after he found out Wednesday morning that former ally Michael Cohen had pleaded guilty to lying to Congress to obscure his efforts to build a Trump Tower in Moscow during the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump abruptly canceled a planned meeting here with Russian President Vladimir Putin… The president’s reception in Buenos Aires seemed to hint at a diminished status. When Xi arrived earlier in the day, he was greeted with a red carpet and a military band. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman had been given the red carpet but no band. Yet, as Trump was met by a small delegation of dignitaries, for whatever reason, he was afforded neither honor.”

The uncalled House races of 2018 (1)

CA-21 (NBC retracted its call of GOPer David Valadao as the winner)

Democrats are currently at +39 under NBC’s count, and they’d be at +40 if they end up winning CA-21.