It's been relatively quiet on the Russia front lately, but on Sunday evening, the Washington Post published a story that quickly gained traction among the media and anti-Trump partisans. According to multiple sources, Donald Trump's company pursued a major hotel development deal in Moscow during the early stages of last cycle's presidential campaign. At first, questions lingered about whether Trump himself was aware of the alleged project, but those doubts were definitively put to rest in fairly short order. There's evidently a paper trail so conspicuous that Trump confidante and former Trump Organization Chief Counsel Michael Cohen is flat-out admitting this (via ABC News):
Four months into his campaign for President of the United States, Donald Trump signed a “letter of intent” to pursue a Trump Tower-style building development in Moscow, according to a statement from the then-Trump Organization chief counsel, Michael Cohen. The proposal would have involved construction of the world’s tallest building in Moscow, according to developers of the project. The disclosure from Cohen, who has described himself as President Trump’s personal lawyer, came as Cohen’s attorney gave congressional investigators scores of documents and emails from the campaign, including several pertaining to the Moscow development idea.
This is smoking gun evidence of...what, exactly? That remains unclear, but Allahpundit is spot-on about what it likely does prove: "[The letter of intent] is possibly the best evidence we’ll ever have that the president really, really didn’t expect to become president. Imagine him trying to defend the building of a new Trump-branded hotel in Moscow during a campaign in which Hillary Clinton was slashing him for being a 'puppet' of Putin. The fact that he signed a letter of intent to license his name is smoking-gun proof that he didn’t think he’d win the nomination." he reasons. Either that, or Trump was so convinced that his voters would readily forgive anything he might say or do that he didn't see getting mixed up in a Russian business deal as a campaign liability. As you assess this latest wrinkle, click through for a look at the unsavory character at the center of the nascent deal, whose emails with Cohen carry an unseemly odor of financial-political collusion. But does any of this demonstrate that the Trump campaign was collaborating with the Kremlin to influence the election? That does not appear to be the case. Furthermore, there's a critical and possibly-exculpatory detail in the original WaPo report that diminishes the impact of this would-be "bombshell," in my estimation:
As part of the discussions, a Russian-born real estate developer urged Trump to come to Moscow to tout the proposal and suggested that he could get President Vladimir Putin to say “great things” about Trump, according to several people who have been briefed on his correspondence...Trump never went to Moscow as Sater proposed. And although investors and Trump’s company signed a letter of intent, they lacked the land and permits to proceed and the project was abandoned at the end of January 2016, just before the presidential primaries began, several people familiar with the proposal said.
The whole enterprise folded last January; the deal never went through. Trump's company couldn't work out the logistical kinks to move forward, and by the time the first Republican primary votes were cast in Iowa, the organization's behind-the-scenes maneuvering had already hit a dead end. If Putin and Trump were truly working hand-in-glove, and if the Russians were trying to influence and assist someone whom they wanted to become the next President of the United States, one would imagine that they'd have cut away the red tape and helped shepherd this project to fruition, no? But that didn't happen. To be clear, none of that means Trump emerges from this looking squeaky clean. He doesn't. Two concerns come to mind: First, Trump stated repeatedly during the campaign that he had no business interests in Russia -- and "no relationship to Russia whatsoever." By the time he offered those blanket denials on ABC News and elsewhere, the hotel deal had fallen through, so his statement wasn't necessarily a technical lie. But it was parsed and misleading. Trump swore up and down that he had nothing to do with Russia, less than a year after he'd aggressively chased a mammoth real estate deal in Russia. While running for president. Knowing this previously-undisclosed piece of context in retrospect evinces oleaginous -- even Clintonesque -- dishonesty. It's a bad look. Second, consider Trump's pro-Putin spin on world events during the era in which the hotel plans were still potentially viable:
That time period also happens to include some of Trump’s most provocative spin on Putin’s behalf. He defended Russia’s airstrikes in Syria in October 2015, dismissed Putin’s targeting of journalists in December by noting that the U.S. does bad things too, and disputed whether Putin had had Alexander Litvinenko assassinated in late January 2016. Putin in turn praised Trump in mid-December.
AP wonders if Trump was deliberately (or maybe even subconsciously) "buttering Putin up for financial reasons," adopting Russia-sympathetic views to ingratiate himself with the Kremlin in order to establish a solid footing for when he resumed running his business, "after his candidacy ended" -- which, of course, it never did. All in all, these developments advance the Russia narrative in meaningful ways, but not every detail looks incriminating for Team Trump. As I've repeated, nearly ad nauseam at this stage, if we truly want to know the full extent of the Russia matter, Bob Mueller's special counsel probe must review and assess all of the facts, including ones that don't align with pre-judged outcomes by many on the Left and in the press. On that note, I'll leave you with this nugget about Mueller's examination of the president's role in explaining away the Donald Trump, Jr. attempted collusion meeting with what he believed to be a government emissary from Moscow, which is still the single most damning strand of evidence in this entire saga: