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To justify Trump Tower Moscow effort, president redefines 'business'

Trump pursued a lucrative business deal in Moscow, but later said he "stayed away" from Russia. His new defense involves redefining the word "business."
St Basil's Cathedral
St Basil's Cathedral on Red Square is seen September 26, 2003 in Moscow.

One of the many elements of the Russia scandal that has dogged Donald Trump was the Trump Tower Moscow project the Republican pursued during his 2016 campaign. It was poised to be one of the most lucrative deals of Trump's career, and for reasons that are still unclear, he appears to have lied about it.

Yesterday, the New York Times asked the president about the project, and his answers went in an interesting direction.

Mr. Trump offered a vague account of his involvement in the proposed Moscow project. Michael D. Cohen, his former personal lawyer, has pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about the project and told the authorities that talks continued into the summer of 2016, even as Mr. Trump was securing the Republican nomination.Rudolph W. Giuliani, the president's current lawyer, said recently that talks went all the way through the November election, only to later claim that he was mistaken and speaking only hypothetically."He was wrong," Mr. Trump said on Thursday. "Rudy has been wrong a little bit. But what has happened is this: I didn't care. That deal was not important. It was essentially a letter of intent or an option."

Of course, in reality, it wasn't "essentially" a letter of intent; it was literally a letter of intent. Then-candidate Trump signed it in the fall of 2015 -- the same day of one of the Republican primary debates -- months into his national candidacy.

Trump nevertheless later assured Americans that he "stayed away" from any business opportunities in Russia. How does he reconcile his claim with reality?

The president told the New York Times' Peter Baker yesterday, in reference to the business deal he pursued, "That wasn't business."

Trump added, "It was a nothing. And I wasn't doing anything. I don't consider that even business."

Let's take a moment to recap. While running for president of the United States, Trump signed a letter of intent to pursue a Trump Tower Moscow project, to be financed by a sanctioned Russian bank. He dispatched top members of his inner circle -- including his personal attorney and fixer, Michael Cohen -- to work on the deal, which included a penthouse gift for Vladimir Putin, over the course of several months.

Cohen later lied to Congress about the details of the deal, and Trump himself told the public that he "stayed away" from any business opportunities in Moscow.

Pressed for an explanation, the Republican president's new position is that the proposed business deal didn't really count as "business," so his falsehood doesn't really count as a lie.

Trump has had months to come up with a defense for his actions. Apparently, this is what he's come up with.