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With Trump and Cohen, it's not just the 'what'; it's also the 'why'

If the Trump Tower Moscow project was perfectly benign, what explains all of the many lies about the deal?
US President Donald Trump's personal lawyer Michael Cohen(C) leaves the US Courthouse in New York on April 26, 2018....

A couple of months ago, after Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about a proposed Trump Tower Moscow project, Donald Trump addressed the controversy in an interesting way.

"[Cohen is] lying about a project that everybody knew about. I mean, we were very open with it. We were thinking about building a building. I guess we had -- in a form, it was an option. I don't know what you'd call it. We decided -- I decided ultimately not to do it. There would have been nothing wrong if I did do it. If I did do it, there would have been nothing wrong. That was my business. [...]"When I run for president, that doesn't mean I'm not allowed to do business. I was doing a lot of different things when I was running.... I was running my business while I was campaigning. There was a good chance that I wouldn't have won, in which case I would have gotten back into the business. And why should I lose lots of opportunities? [...]"Even if [Cohen] was right, it doesn't matter because I was allowed to do whatever I wanted during the campaign. I was running my business -- a lot of different things -- during the campaign."

The funny thing is, that's actually a decent argument. Before taking office, Donald Trump was a private citizen. He wanted to pursue a possible business venture in Moscow while running for president, and he was well within his rights to do so.

Trump wasn't expected to win, so it's plausible he wanted to position himself for lucrative opportunities in the event of his likely defeat. That's a perfectly reasonable position to take.

The trouble, of course, is all of the lying, which would seem wholly unnecessary if the Republican's efforts to build a Trump Tower Moscow -- complete with a penthouse gift to Vladimir Putin -- were entirely kosher.

The big political story of the day, of course, is the BuzzFeed report alleging that the president "directed" Cohen to lie to Congress about the Trump Tower Moscow negotiations. But the question hanging over the story is more than just the "what" -- it's also the "why."

If Trump were simply pursuing a business opportunity in Russia, why not tell the truth about this from the beginning?

The president said he deliberately "stayed away" from possible deals with Russia, but that wasn't true. His lawyer said there was never a signed letter of intent, but that wasn't true. Trump said he and his team were "very open" about the possible deal during the campaign, but that wasn't true.

Cohen, of course, lied to Congress about when the Trump Organization abandoned the deal, and according to the latest reporting, he lied at the president's behest.

I realize that Trump occasionally lies when he doesn't have to, but for a perfectly benign business arrangement, it's extraordinary just how far the president and his team have gone to obscure the truth.

And what, pray tell, is the White House's explanation for all of this? Spokesperson Hogan Gidley appeared on Fox News this morning and passed on multiple opportunities to say Trump didn't direct Cohen to lie to Congress. Kellyanne Conway also had an opportunity to deny the accuracy of the BuzzFeed article, and she didn't.Hmm.