Analysis

The True Mystery Man in the Trump Probe: Putin

Even if Trump is impeached, U.S. investigators are unlikely to find the Russian president’s fingerprints.

U.S. President Donald Trump chats with Russia's President Vladimir Putin as they attend the APEC Economic Leaders' Meeting, part of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders' summit in the central Vietnamese city of Danang on Nov. 11, 2017. (Mikhail Klimentyev/AFP/Getty Images.)
U.S. President Donald Trump chats with Russia's President Vladimir Putin as they attend the APEC Economic Leaders' Meeting, part of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders' summit in the central Vietnamese city of Danang on Nov. 11, 2017. (Mikhail Klimentyev/AFP/Getty Images.)

A spokesperson for Special Counsel Robert Mueller late Friday denied an explosive report by Buzzfeed News that U.S. President Donald Trump had ordered his then-lawyer to lie to Congress about his dealings with Russia. Even so, the lawyer, Michael Cohen, has already pled guilty to lying to Congress about efforts to construct a Trump tower in Moscow, and his own lawyer has said that Cohen’s actions were done “in accordance with” Trump’s “directives.” The president and his associates also have left behind a trail of emails and tweets revealing his longtime interest in doing business with Russia and getting Russian President Vladimir Putin on board to help.

Buzzfeed has stood by its story, and it remains unclear what precise language was allegedly used between Trump and Cohen

But however the Mueller investigation pans out, what’s lacking at this point is any evidence that Putin himself was personally involved with the Trump Organization’s efforts in Moscow.

Putin, in fact, appears to be extremely agile at keeping his fingerprints off of all sorts of wrongdoing—whether it’s political murder, election manipulation, or business dealings around the world worth billions of dollars. And even if Trump is ultimately impeached, convicted, and removed from office because of the Russia investigation, it’s unlikely the world will ever know Putin’s precise role. While no major decision is made without his approval, Putin is a shrewd delegator, Russia experts say.

The Russian decision-making system has been characterized as an “ad hoc-racy,” with its political landscape largely shaped by a network of vastly wealthy oligarchs, elites, and grifters trying to anticipate the president’s desires while shoring up their own power base. The Russian president is also believed to never write anything down and doesn’t use email or a cell phone, which leaves little paper trail and has made it extremely difficult for Western intelligence agencies to intercept his communications.

In the case of the Trump Tower that now-President Trump sought to build in Moscow for years, the American businessman’s oligarchical partner in Russia appeared to have been Aras Agalarov, an Azerbaijan-born construction billionaire who played host to Trump’s Miss Universe pageant in Moscow in 2013. Afterward, Trump tweeted to Agalarov: “I had a great weekend with you and your family. You have done a FANTASTIC job. TRUMP TOWER-MOSCOW is next.”

And at the time Trump, then a private citizen who hadn’t announced his run for president, clearly believed that he needed to cozy up to the Russian president. Months earlier, before going to Moscow, Trump had tweeted: “Do you think Putin will be going to The Miss Universe Pageant in November in Moscow – if so, will he become my new best friend?”

Over the next several years, Trump, through his lawyer Michael Cohen, continued to seek approval for a Trump Tower in Moscow. And though he later told the U.S. public he had “nothing to do with Russia” after allegations arose of Russian interference in the 2016 election, this outreach continued through much of Trump’s presidential campaign, up to the point when he had clinched the Republican nomination.

Beyond that, members of the Agalarov family proved to be key players in the infamous Trump Tower meeting in New York that is said to be a focus of Mueller’s investigation into possible campaign collusion with the Russians. It was a month before that meeting in July 2016, according to emails later released by Donald Trump Jr., that a British music promoter who worked for Agalarov’s singer son, Emin, told Trump’s eldest son that he knew a lawyer who could “provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father.” That was when Donald Trump Jr. famously responded: “I love it.”

In the same email, on June 3, 2016, the music promoter, Rob Goldstone, told Trump’s son: “This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr Trump.”

Later on, also in efforts to help get the Trump Tower Moscow built, another sometime business partner of the Trump Organization, Felix Sater, suggested that he too had personal connections to Putin and that Putin wanted Trump elected. Sater, who had done previous deals with the Trump Organization, emailed Cohen in 2015: “I will get Putin on this program and we will get Donald elected. … Buddy our boy can become President of the USA and we can engineer it. I will get all of Putins [sic] team to buy in on this.”

It’s unclear whether Sater’s connections came through, and the Trump Tower Moscow project was never built.

The report on Thursday night from BuzzFeed News, citing “multiple witnesses from the Trump Organization and internal company emails, text messages, and a cache of other documents” obtained by Mueller, said that Trump even sought to visit Russia during the presidential campaign to meet Putin and “jump-start” the tower negotiations. “Make it happen,” BuzzFeed’s law enforcement sources said Trump told Cohen.

But for reasons unknown, that meeting never did happen, and it has never been clear whether the people emailing the Trump associates, such as Sater and Goldstone, ever really spoke for Putin. According to BuzzFeed, Trump later directed Cohen, his former attorney, to lie in congressional testimony about those negotiations to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. Although Trump had continued private business negotiations in Moscow through June 2016—until shortly before the Republican National Convention—he allegedly wanted Cohen to say they had ended earlier.

Late Friday, in a highly unusual move, Mueller spokesman Peter Carr issued a statement saying: “BuzzFeed’s description of specific statements to the Special Counsel’s Office, and characterization of documents and testimony obtained by this office, regarding Michael Cohen’s Congressional testimony are not accurate.”

That report followed two other stunning stories in recent weeks; the first, by the New York Times, said the FBI had opened up a counterintelligence investigation into whether Trump was working on behalf of Russia; the second, by the Washington Post, said Trump as president has concealed the details of his private talks with Putin even from his own national-security officials.

Together all these reports suggest that the Russian president has been orchestrating, like some global impresario, the behavior of Donald Trump, perhaps by leveraging embarrassing information Putin has or by promising business to the Trump Organization.

But the truth is far more murky, Russia experts say. While there is clear evidence that Trump and his associates have sought out Putin, almost no evidence exists that Putin has shown a personal interest in manipulating Trump.

“What this has demonstrated time and time again is the cluelessness of people around Trump,” said Mark Galeotti, a senior fellow at Prague’s Institute of International Relations.

In January 2016, Michael Cohen wrote to Dmitry Peskov, a gatekeeper to the Russian president, to request a meeting with Putin regarding the Trump Tower project. Cohen reportedly wrote to a general press inquiry email instead of Peskov’s personal email address.

Peskov said that Russian officials responded to Cohen over the phone and told him that “the presidential administration doesn’t build houses.”

“They thought it was still the 1990s, where you could go along with enough glitz and front [audacity] and you can get anywhere,” said Galeotti, referring to the economic free-for-all of the immediate post-Soviet collapse. 

Putin has retained a tight grip on power for almost 19 years, but he does not have the micro degree of control over Russian affairs often ascribed to him. While no major decisions are taken without his consent, informal policy entrepreneurship is basically how the system works, said Yuval Weber, a Russia expert at the Daniel Morgan Graduate School of National Security. Putin adjudicates disputes among political elites and sets the direction on foreign affairs.

“Putin is not sitting in his office hashing up schemes,” Weber said.

This system can be seen at play in eastern Ukraine, where Russian oligarch Konstantin Malofeev allegedly serves as an intermediary between pro-Russian rebels in the Donbass and Moscow. The infamous St. Petersburg troll factory is funded by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a catering magnate and old friend of the president’s. Prigozhin was indicted by the special counsel investigation for allegedly trying to influence the 2016 presidential election.

It is this kind of setup that gives the Russian leader plausible deniability when things go wrong and creates a buffer between him and his minions. As Foreign Policy has previously reported, huge amounts of money from Russia and former Soviet republics helped to revive and sustain the Trump Organization after Trump’s bankruptcies in the 1990s and early 2000s. What remains unknown is whether Putin himself had anything to do personally with any of these investments.

This story was updated on Jan. 20 to account for the statement from Robert Mueller’s office and the response from Buzzfeed.

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent at Foreign Policy@michaelphirsh

Amy Mackinnon is a staff writer at Foreign Policy@ak_mack

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