Two close associates to President Trump discussed offering the $50 million Trump Tower Moscow Penthouse to Vladimir Putin, according to ABC News. Felix Sater, a Russian-born businessman who was the Trump organization’s liaison in Moscow, and Trump’s longtime attorney Michael Cohen, conceived of the plan in 2015 as a marketing ploy to drive interest in the project. However, if it is found that the president or his organization pitched the idea to Putin in hopes of gaining favor with Russian officials, it would be grounds for a federal bribery case under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.
Information has not been made public on if Cohen or Sater ever pitched the idea to Russian officials, but court filings from the Mueller investigation did show that Cohen communicated with the personal assistant of Russian Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov in January of 2016.
“Short of being a canvas bag of money, this sounds like a high-value gift to a government official for the purpose of gaining an improper business advantage,” said Mark Matthews, a former financial crimes prosecutor with the Department of Justice.
“A scenario like this raises all the classic warning signs of a foreign corrupt practices act violation.”
“No one at [the] company ever heard of any of this until reading it in the press,” said a source close to the Trump organization, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to discuss the matter.
“It all appears to come from a private communication between these two individuals. The project never even got past a non-binding letter of intent. It never went anywhere.”
Cohen told investigators the Trump Tower Moscow efforts started in Sept. 2015 and ended in June 2016. During those months, Trump called Putin a "strong leader," "a nicer person than I am," and said they would "have a great relationship.” w/@nicole_hong https://t.co/deYTjQmsxK
— Rebecca Ballhaus (@rebeccaballhaus) November 29, 2018
According to court filings, Cohen continued to pursue a deal to build Trump Tower Moscow even after President Trump had begun his 2016 presidential campaign. Cohen had initially told Congress that the deal never went past the aforementioned Letter of Intent and that the plan had been scrapped by January of 2016. However, following Cohen’s plea agreement and subsequent cooperation with the Mueller investigation, Cohen revealed that negotiations continued well past that time into the summer of 2016 and that those discussions included President Trump and members of his family.
Court filings have not revealed further information about those negotiations, including who was involved from the Russian side and the exact time frame of those discussions.
Trump, who has repeatedly claimed that he has no ties to Russia, tweeted on Friday morning that his organization “lightly looked at doing a building somewhere in Russia.” He added that he “put up zero money, zero guarantees and didn’t do the project.”
Legal experts are divided on the exact interpretation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, with some suggesting that the intent to engage is corrupt practices alone is enough to spur legal consequences, while others insist that there must at least be a clear offer for the case to stand up in court. The key question will be if Trump organization developers made the offer to Putin to influence the Russians to favor the president. Investigators will be searching for that intent in the volumes of legal files and personal records seized by the FBI from Cohen’s home and office in April, including correspondence, e-mails, and phone records.