Show: THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW Date: May 17, 2018 Guest: Nathan Layne, Anthony Cormier
RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC HOST: Chris Hayes, I very rarely, if ever, tweet publicly ahead of your show to let people know they have to see something that`s coming up on your show. But that tape of Bill Gates --
CHRIS HAYES, MSNBC HOST, "ALL IN": Wild, right?
MADDOW: -- is absolutely right.
But the one part of this I don`t think you addressed this on your show but I`m curious as to what you think about it. What do you think -- how do you think the president will react to this tape of bill gates talking about him this way?
HAYES: I think it is almost like engineered in a lab to touch the most intense insecurities he has --
HAYES: -- which is being laughed at and mocked by people who view him as kind of nouveau riche and that his entire life has been driven by that particular chip on his shoulder. I don`t think he`s going to like it very much.
MADDOW: I mean, it`s one thing to hear funny and incisive criticism of the president. Lots of people do that. All I could think seeing that tape and the bits of it I knew you would have on your show-s how this functions inside the president`s mind, to have a guy who is actually one of the richest people on earth --
MADDOW: -- whose -- which is a milieu that he absolutely not only aspires to but has tried to sort of -- been a --
HAYES: Pretend, right.
MADDOW: -- pretender to for so long. I mean, this is -- this is going to be -- I have a feeling this is going to be a very potent thing for the president.
HAYES: I think you`re very much right about that.
MADDOW: Well, I mean, congratulations on breaking that.
HAYES: Thank you very much. Yes, exactly.
MADDOW: Thanks, my friend. Well done.
And thanks to you at home for joining us this hour. Super happy to have you here. There`s lots going on in the news tonight. Lots to get to.
Do you remember when Jared Kushner lost his security clearance? Jared Kushner is the president`s son-in-law. He is married to the president`s daughter, Ivanka. Mr. Kushner still works in the White House.
He still has the White House senior adviser title that he has had ever since he first got to D.C., but Mr. Kushner apparently is no longer allowed access to any classified materials, because he was not able to get a security clearance.
One of the reported concerns about his security clearance application were these repeated allegations that he was mixing conversations about the needs of his family`s real estate business with conversations he was having about U.S. government policy as a White House adviser. I mean, that`s the kind of thing that can keep you from getting a security clearance, right?
If you are giving business owners or donors or foreign governments the impression that if they financially help out your family business, that might give them an edge when it comes to getting what they want from the U.S. government. That`s not OK. You can`t get a clearance if that`s the impression that you`re giving people.
I mean -- then there`s the darker version of that possibility. Not only could you be offering people sort of inducements, right? I can hook you up with some U.S. government policy you that might like if you pay me. That could also be construed as a threat.
The converse is also true. You can also be creating the impression that basically you`re extorting people for money. Nice company, nice little country you`ve got there. Shame if something happened to it.
Did I mention that my family real estate business needs some new investors, right? If you are mixing your personal business needs with discussions about U.S. government policy, you can either be offering something good or you can be threatening something bad unless somebody pays up and pays your family.
That, you know, soliciting of a bribe, that extortion is basically what was alleged by the government of Qatar about Jared Kushner. Last year, the Trump administration surprised everyone when President Trump with no warning came out very strongly against the nation of Qatar. He called Qatar supporters of terrorism. He came out in support of a surprise blockade that was launched against Qatar by other Middle Eastern states.
Everybody was like hey, what now? What just happened?
We`ve got thousands of U.S. military personnel based in Qatar. It`s our biggest outpost in the Middle East. CentCom literally has their headquarters in Qatar. Whether you like Qatar as a country or you don`t, even if you can`t quite remember how to pronounce the place, I mean, they are an active and important U.S. ally in that region and they have been for some time.
So why did President Trump, all of a sudden, last year without warning start denouncing them? Why did he reportedly green-light this blockade against them by neighboring countries?
That radical turn in U.S. policy toward Qatar was so fast and so drastic that the rest of the U.S. government apparently didn`t even know it was happening while it was happening. Last June, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson actually made a formal statement denouncing that blockade against our ally, Qatar.
But then the president that same day came right out and contradicted Rex Tillerson and said, no, no, actually, it`s U.S. policy that we are in favor of that blockade. It was just really strange. Where did that come from? What was the urgency there? Why that 180 degree turn against Qatar?
Well, Qatar said at the time that they thought they knew why that was happening. Qatari officials told reporters at the time that they suspected it might have had something to do with the fact that they had just turned down Jared Kushner`s dad when Jared Kushner`s dad came to the Qataris and asked them for a big investment in the Kushner family real estate business to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.
Now, Kushner companies initially denied that Jared`s dad had even taken a meeting with the Qataris. But then they later admitted actually he had. Qatar says that Charles Kushner made the ask. He asked that Qatar`s sovereign wealth fund put money into the Kushner family`s biggest real estate screw-up, a big Manhattan office tower that the Kushner family bought, but they couldn`t afford. It has since turned into a giant money pit for the family and their company.
Jared Kushner`s dad reportedly went to the Qataris and asked them for a big investment basically to bail the Kushner family out when it comes to that skyscraper. The Qataris said they turned Jared Kushner`s dad down, they said no. And boom just a few weeks later, Jared Kushner, then the White House point man on the Middle East, presided over this radical change in U.S. policy against Qatar.
Now, we don`t know if those two things are linked. We don`t know if the White House -- the White House radical policy shift against Qatar was revenge by Jared Kushner for Qatar refusing to pay up to his dad. But that`s where things stood before today.
Now, the whole deal has swung back the other way. So, now you can see this dynamic at work from a whole different angle and draw your own conclusions.
For whatever reason, President Trump and the White House more broadly, they softened their stance on Qatar within the last few weeks. After, prize, denouncing Qatar last year as a funder of terrorism at a very high level, after announcing that the U.S. would support the shock blockade of that country by its neighbors. A few weeks ago Trump started talking about Qatar as an ally again.
The second week of April, President Trump hosted the emir of Qatar at the White House. He didn`t call him a terrorist at all despite all that criticism last year. President Trump hosting the emir of Qatar, actually said it was a great honor to have him at the White House.
He called him a, quote, friend of mine. He said he was a great gentleman. He said, quote, there are a lot of good things happening. We`re working very well together.
Then a couple of weeks later, late last month, the new Secretary of State Mike Pompeo came out and said, yes, actually, we don`t support that blockade against Qatar anymore, never mind what we said last year, we`ve changed our mind now.
Quote, Pompeo`s message to Saudis, enough is enough. Stop Qatar blockade.
Just let`s step back from this a second. We`ve got a big military base in Qatar. It`s the headquarters of CentCom. We`ve got friendly relations. They`re an ally.
We don`t know what caused this White House and this president to turn suddenly hostile against Qatar last year. But we know that sudden turn toward hostility followed almost immediately that country turning down an investment request from Jared`s family. And we know that rightly or wrongly, what the Qataris think happened there is that Jared changed White House policy against them to punish them for not paying off his family. So, Qatari officials have explained to U.S. reporters.
Well, now, now we`ve had sort of just as sudden a switch back to Qatar once again being treated back in an ally -- treated as an ally. They`re back in America`s good graces. The president is hosting the emir of Qatar at the White House, calling him a friend, dropping all the terrorism complaints and directing Qatar`s neighbors to stop with that blockade after all.
Why the switch back?
Here`s the headline: Kushners near deal with Qatar-linked company for troubled tower. This is today. "The New York Times" first to report today that Jared`s dad, Charles Kushner, has convinced Qatar to come through after all with a big investment, basically a bailout, for the Kushner family real estate company and that skyscraper they bought that they really can`t afford.
This deal they have reportedly all but sealed is with Brookfield Properties. As "The Times" puts it today, quote: Brookfield has financial ties to the government of Qatar. The Qatar investment authority is the second largest shareholder in Brookfield Properties, ranking only behind Brookfield`s parent company.
"Bloomberg News" puts an even finer point on it, noting that the Kushner family is actually doing this deal with a specific unit of Brookfield and the single largest owner of that unit is Qatar -- the Qatar Investment Authority which invests on behalf of Qatar`s government.
So, who says big city real estate has to be complicated? Or foreign policy for that matter?
Qatar tells the Kushner family real estate company no, we`re not going to give you hundreds of millions of dollars to bail you out of your failing skyscraper in midtown. U.S. policy toward Qatar almost immediately turns suddenly and radically hostile against Qatar. Qatar freaks out a little bit, scrambles a little bit.
Qatar decides OK, we`ll take another look at the Kushner family real estate company`s failing skyscraper. And they decide, actually on second thought, maybe we really do want to invest. Open checkbook, swivel wrist, here`s your money.
And everybody looking for an explanation for why U.S. policy toward Qatar just got real friendly again, without explanation. Everybody looking at that suddenly remembers oh, yes, that`s why Jared lost his security clearance.
Even if this isn`t the selling of U.S. foreign policy, even if this isn`t the blatant shakedown and extortion of a U.S. ally, shaking down a country for payments to the family of a government official under the threat of that country losing its favored status with the U.S. government, even if as all parties insist today, even if this duet of private money and public policy is just a coincidence and this definitely isn`t bribery and quid pro quo -- well, the problem is that it certainly looks like it is.
And for the nation of Qatar, their dealings with the U.S. government and with the Kushner real estate company have certainly made them think that it is. That the only way their country can regain favored status is to submit to extortion, to pay the bribe.
And so, no, you can`t get a security clearance, right? Not if you`ve created the perception that that is how this White House does business now. You can`t have a security clearance then.
But you can apparently keep your White House job. And your family can definitely, definitely get paid, big-time, today.
So you would think that would be the all-encompassing big news of the day today, right? Honestly, in any other ten-year period of American politics that would conceivably be a contender for the biggest White House scandal in the decade. But here in this new life we`re all living now, the possible raffling off of U.S. foreign policy for the price of a -- the president`s family`s skyscraper mortgage payments -- I mean, in this life we`re in now that`s a story we`ve got to get to and make sure we understand but then we`ve got to keep going, move on, sister, because there`s more coming down the pike.
"BuzzFeed", for example, broke significant new news today on a financial tie between the president and Russia. A tie that is much more significant than anything that`s been previously reported, a tie that overlapped with Mr. Trump`s time running for president. A tie that the FBI has reportedly been investigating and the real bombshell in this new "BuzzFeed" reporting is that this financial dealing involving the president is reported to have involved individuals in Russia who personally had knowledge of or who helped carry out the Russian government attack on our election in 2016 when Russia was intervening in that election to try to help Trump win.
Anthony Cormier is one of the two "BuzzFeed" reporters who broke that big story today. He`s going to be with us live in just a minute to talk about that.
But then, then, just when you thought it was safe to say, OK, here`s what happened today, then in addition this happened. I know you`ve been thinking, you know, if I had married Robert Mueller, our one-year anniversary would be the occasion for gifts made of paper. But this isn`t a marriage. This is a special counsel investigation authorized by the Justice Department.
What do you gift for a special counsel`s office one-year anniversary?
It turns out the appropriate gift is a new cooperating witness for the Mueller probe. Mazel tov. You`ve made it a year. Someone else has flipped.
Reporter Nathan Layne at "Reuters" was first to report today, and the reporting was soon confirmed by the "Wall Street Journal," by NBC News, that Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, his son-in-law has flipped.
Manafort is already in considerable legal jeopardy. He`s facing multiple felony charges in two different federal jurisdictions. But now again, "Reuters" first to report that Manafort`s former business partner who is also his former son-in-law, he is apparently the newest witness to plead guilty to multiple felony charges and he has agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors. The various sources reporting this out tonight all have slightly different details, but what`s emerging is that this man, who until last year was married to one of Paul Manafort`s daughters, he has apparently pled guilty to multiple federal criminal charges apparently in California.
The reason we don`t have a totally clear window into those charges is because the proceedings in his case thus far are still sealed. So, in public court documents, we can`t yet see his guilty plea. We also can`t yet see the details of what`s reported to be a cooperation agreement that he has signed with prosecutors.
The way Mr. Layne`s reporting has it at "Reuters" tonight, Manafort`s son- in-law Jeffrey Yohai, quote, has cut a plea deal with the justice department that requires him to Cooperate with other criminal probes.
Now, one of the true mysteries that remains about Trump`s campaign chairman Paul Manafort and the potential links of the Trump campaign to the Russian attack on our election, one of the mysteries that remains that I don`t even have a great theory for and I`ve heard a lot of different competing theories, there`s a lot of unanswered questions still about what was going on with Paul Manafort and money around his time running the Trump campaign and around the time that Trump became president. Paul Manafort famously offered to run the Trump campaign for free.
But then once he was running it, we learned that -- we later learned that he was offering private briefings about the campaign to a Putin-connected Russian oligarch. We learned that he discussed with one of his own business associates who`s linked to Russian intelligence how he could use his position on the campaign to, quote, get whole. The implication being that Mr. Manafort`s gig as campaign chairman for Trump could somehow be used for his own financial benefit, especially with regard to this one Russian oligarch with whom he`d previously been in business.
The very day, the exact same day that Paul Manafort resigned from the Trump campaign amid revelations about money he`d been paid in the former Soviet Union as a political consultant, that very same day, Paul Manafort set up a shell corporation that quickly took in about $13 million in loans. Between late August 2016 when he was fired and November, which is the month that the election happened, he took in about $13 million in loans in that new shell company. Within just a couple of months he`d taken in a total of $20 million in brand new loans.
Where was all that money coming from? And even more interestingly, why did Paul Manafort all of a sudden need all that cash so quickly? It`s not like at the end of all of it we learned he bought something that cost $20 million. When Manafort was indicted late last year we got a bunch of detailed allegations from the special counsel`s office about Manafort getting paid by pro-Russian interests in the former Soviet Union where he worked as a political consultant. There were a lot of detailed allegations about how prosecutors say he laundered that money and evaded paying taxes on it.
But then remember, Paul Manafort was actually indicted twice. He was indicted again. There was a superseding indictment earlier this year in February, and in that superseding indictment against February, we got new detailed allegations from the special counsel`s office about what appeared to be a mad scramble for cash by Manafort during the year that he was running -- during the time that he was running Trump`s campaign and thereafter.
That superseding indictment alleged all sorts of apparently desperate, at least clumsy maneuvers by Manafort to allegedly inflate his income, to fake profit and loss statements, to fake insurance documents, all to allegedly defraud banks into giving him loans under false circumstances, loans for millions and millions and millions of dollars. And those loans he was scrambling for were mostly loans made against his real estate holdings. And Paul Manafort`s real estate deals in this time period in many instances were made in conjunction with his son-in-law, Jeffrey Yohai, who is no longer Manafort`s son-in-law because there was a divorce in the family last year, which is always a sad thing.
But now, Mr. Yohai has reportedly pled guilty to multiple felonies and he has reportedly agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors on any number of other criminal cases.
It has been reported that Mueller`s prosecutors sent a team last summer to interview Jeffrey Yohai. They reportedly asked him about Paul Manafort`s dramatic financial moves around the time of the campaign and thereafter, borrowing tens of millions of dollars against his property holdings for unknown reasons and with unknown urgency.
But Mueller`s team also reportedly asked Jeffrey Yohai about his father-in- law`s relationship with President Trump and his father-in-law`s ties with Russian oligarchs. We don`t know what Jeffrey Yohai told them then when they sent that team to interview him last summer. But now, Jeffrey Yohai has pled guilty and he has reportedly legally obligated himself to now tell them everything he knows. The question is, what is he in a position to know?
Joining us is Nathan Layne. He`s a white collar crime reporter for "Reuters" who was also part of the team covering the Trump Russia investigation. He broke the story today.
Mr. Layne, it`s great to have you here tonight. Thank you for being here.
NATHAN LAYNE, REPORTER, REUTERS: Thank you for having me.
MADDOW: Jeffrey Yohai is a little bit of a mysterious figure for those of us who`ve been following this scandal and the various indictments including the case against Paul Manafort. What`s your understanding of what he`s in trouble for, what he`s pled to and what he may be cooperating with prosecutors about?
LAYNE: So, I think I`ll stick to what`s in my reporting. There`s been various reports about what he pleaded guilty to.
MADDOW: Of course.
LAYNE: But the sources I spoke to told me basically I know two different things he`s pleaded guilty to. One is the -- essentially misuse of construction loan funds. The proceeds of the loan were supposed to be used towards renovating a property. He seems to have misappropriated those, so to speak.
The other thing is essentially an overdraft of a bank account.
LAYNE: And those are the two main things that I`m aware of that he`s pleaded guilty to.
MADDOW: So, he`s pleaded guilty to charges about his finances.
LAYNE: Essentially his own personal finances, yes.
MADDOW: OK, and the idea of at least from a layman`s perspective, the idea of somebody agreeing to cooperate, to plead guilty and cooperate, my understanding of that, at least the way it works on TV, is that usually people do that when they`re facing significant jeopardy and the reason they decide to cooperate, particularly if they held out for a while and didn`t want to do it for a long time, is because they`re facing significant jeopardy themselves and they kind of want to keep their butts out of prison and they really want to protect themselves from quite serious jeopardy.
Is it your understanding that he`s in serious legal jeopardy?
LAYNE: That`s not. That`s not clear. But I do think that initially, of course, like all -- like investigations usually go, he was facing a whole sort of raft of charges or potential charges. I`m not saying he was guilty of those but he was -- there were allegations against him. Some of those had to do with his dealings with Paul Manafort. Some of those had to do with his own personal finances.
But they`ve essentially been whittled down during the negotiation process between Yohai and the assistant U.S. attorney in Los Angeles who was overseeing this probe, Andrew Brown.
MADDOW: Do you have any sense of whether or not Mueller`s team is planning to use Mr. Yohai as part of their case against Paul Manafort or part of any future case against Paul Manafort that`s yet to be brought?
LAYNE: That`s unclear. But it would seem to me that that would be the logical assumption you could make here. It`s worth pointing out that they`ve already used Yohai in a sense. If you look at the first indictment in October in Washington, D.C. and you look at the second indictment in Virginia, especially the one in Virginia, a lot of that information about the bank loans and the bank fraud has to do with loans that were taken out in conjunction with Jeffrey Yohai.
MADDOW: Right, OK. And so that -- it implied that at least in the case of Mr. Yohai if not testimony and information from him may have already been used to in part build the case against Manafort.
LAYNE: Right. And so, I`ve spoken with legal experts who have speculated -- Yohai as a witness might be slightly problematic. He`s got his own -- he`s pled guilty. So, that`s always -- you`re going to have a credibility issue there.
But if you`re going to trial, and as we know Mr. Manafort wants to go to trial, if you need someone to help round out the narrative, so to speak, or you need someone to sort of fill a hole here and there, that`s where someone like Jeffrey Yohai might be very useful.
MADDOW: Yes, and especially, just again -- looking from the outside in, this question of why Paul Manafort needed all that cash that fast around time he was running, leaving -- running and then leaving the Trump campaign, Mr. Yohai was right in the middle of all of that. He may able to fill that out.
Nathan Layne, white-collar crime reporter for "Reuters" -- thank you for helping us understand it. Congratulations on the scoop.
LAYNE: Thank you very much.
MADDOW: Appreciate having you here.
I have a bunch more questions about this case in particular and one of our great legal minds, one of our favorite people to talk about legal questions on the show is going to join us live to talk about that.
We`ve also still got ahead tonight, the reporter with the other big scoop of the day, Anthony Cormier had a huge scoop today at "BuzzFeed" involving a tie between President Trump and Russia during the campaign. That was not previously reported before today.
All that still to come. Stay with us.
MADDOW: I have questions. I have the best possible person to try to answer them. And she`s here live in studio.
Joining us now is Joyce Vance. She was former U.S. attorney in the great state of Alabama.
Joyce, thank you for being here. Much appreciated.
JOYCE VANCE, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY: Thanks for having me.
MADDOW: I wanted you to be here in person tonight because I have a whole bunch of things stacked up on the legal side of news that I don`t understand and I need help with.
The first is this reporting we just discussed with this reporter from "Reuters" about what appears to be a new cooperating witness for prosecutors, and it`s a young man who has been involved in real estate dealings with Paul Manafort in the past.
My first question is, should we say that he is a new cooperating witness for the Mueller investigation? The way it`s being described is that he has agreed to help federal prosecutors with any number of criminal cases. Does that mean necessarily the special counsel`s office will use him? Does that mean that anybody is already signed up to use him? Does it just mean he`s on tap for anyone?
VANCE: So, I think it`s a good guess that he`ll work with the special counsel`s office if they need him. But it`s just a guess. His plea agreement is under seal, and to really know what his agreement is, we would have to see the terms of his cooperation agreement.
We know it calls for him to cooperate on other cases. And I think given where he has the best knowledge, where he can be of the most assistance to the government, it`s logical that he would work with Mueller`s team.
You have to think about DOJ as really the world`s biggest law firm. It`s not like the Los Angeles office is separate from D.C. Everyone coordinates and combines. If I had information in Birmingham on a case that would help out the Southern District of New York, then I would share it with them. I think it`s likely we`re looking at that here.
MADDOW: Is there anything that we can infer about the seriousness of the legal jeopardy this young man was facing when he made his decision to cooperate from the way that his case was prosecuted? We have the name of a prosecutor. He`s associated with I believe the U.S. attorney`s office in Los Angeles. We don`t -- we have a characterization of the type of financial crimes that Mr. Yohai has reportedly pled guilty to. Is there anything we can piece together from those facts in terms of the kind of seriousness of legal jeopardy that he was facing?
VANCE: So, this particular prosecutor works in the major fraud section in that particular U.S. attorney`s office. They usually prosecute cases where the loss involves a million dollars or more. Not always, but that`s typically their threshold for taking cases.
And because federal sentencing is driven by the dollar amount of the loss in this type of a case, Mr. Yohai is looking at a very significant sentence. Again, hard to know for sure but I took a quick eyeball at the federal sentencing guidelines and it looks like 15 years would be about the lowest sentence he could be looking at.
It could be significantly higher. He`ll have a lost incentive to cooperate with any prosecutors who can benefit from the knowledge he has.
MADDOW: And in terms of the pressure on Mr. Manafort, obviously, one of the -- one of the issues that`s been raised even by the judge in Manafort`s case in Virginia is the question of whether or not the special counsel`s office has been looking to pressure Paul Manafort with this very aggressive prosecution, essentially not because they want to nail him for the things they`re alleging against him, but because they would like Mr. Manafort himself to become a cooperating witness so that he could be a window into the Trump campaign and some way of pursuing maybe even a bigger political fish.
If that is the case, and it`s been alleged including by one of the judges in the case. Would it make sense that prosecutors would want to talk to Jeffrey Yohai, would want to pursue the real estate charges against Paul Manafort simply to find out yes was trying to get his hands on so much cash during the election and his time running the Trump campaign. We`ve got it laid out in the indictment that he seems to put together $10 million, $13 million, $17 million, $20 million in cash in very short order around the time the campaign was wrapping up and his time on the campaign was wrapping up.
Would prosecutors be trying to figure out why he was doing that?
VANCE: So, first, I think it`s important to say there`s nothing wrong with prosecutors using witnesses against other criminal defendants. You know, as a prosecution, you don`t just give Mr. Manafort a pass on prosecuting him for financial crimes because he happens to have been involved with a group that perhaps was collaborating with Russia. This is all fair game and it`s very often the case that criminal defendants will cooperate because they have knowledge of other criminal activity.
As for Manafort and the money, it`s all very difficult -- you know, we only see Mueller`s submarine as it comes to the surface. But it`s clear that one of the issues or at least I think it`s clear one of the issues special counsel is looking at is whether Manafort`s history explains anything about potential collusion between the campaign and Russia. We know Manafort was working with pro-Russian Ukrainian politicians.
Is there anything in his past history that might add to what we know about Russian efforts to influence the election?
And so, these millions of dollars that he needed to put together very quickly at a point in time where he was rumored to be in debt to one of the Russian oligarchs and where there was other activity in play would seem to be very critical for Mueller to understand fully.
MADDOW: Right, especially because that period of time seems to have coincided with his time running the campaign and the time between when he left the campaign and when the election actually happened.
VANCE: Absolutely. The whole timeline here is critical.
MADDOW: Joyce Vance, former U.S. attorney from the great state of Alabama -- lovely to have you here in person.
VANCE: Thanks for having me.
MADDOW: All right. Much more ahead tonight. Stay with us.
MADDOW: On January 21st, 2016, Donald Trump`s personal lawyer and his self-proclaimed fixer Michael Cohen wrote an e-mail to Vladimir Putin`s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov. That e-mail asked Peskov for help in getting a stalled Trump Tower Moscow project moving again.
It was a big revelation last summer when the "Washington Post" and the "New York Times" both reported that in the middle of the presidential campaign 2016, the Trump Organization actively and secretly was pursuing a Trump Tower project in Moscow, at a time when Trump was insisting he had nothing to do with Russia.
But their pursuit of that tower project in Moscow we later learned included the Trump Organization writing directly to the Kremlin for help with the project. Trump did claim to have no deals in Russia, but it turns out he had signed a letter of intent to build this tower in Moscow on the same day he appeared in the third Republican primary debate during the campaign.
The Trump campaign kept this a secret all through the campaign even months later when Michael Cohen was pursuing it so enthusiastically he was writing to the Kremlin for help. But when Michael Cohen wrote to the Kremlin for help, he sent his e-mail to the general Kremlin press account. Like the e- mail address you might find on the Website for general Kremlin inquiries, like you know, firstname.lastname@example.org wasn`t exactly it but you got the idea.
You know, sort of made it seem like Michael Cohen didn`t have much of a direct line to the Kremlin. Michael Cohen and the Kremlin`s spokesman Dmitry Peskov both said there was no reply to Cohen`s request. Cohen told recorders the Trump Moscow deal was abandoned shortly after that e-mail was sent.
So, that e-mail to the Kremlin has seemed like maybe it was a kind of ham- handed last-ditch effort by Michael Cohen to salvage a deal but obviously the deal was already dead and there wasn`t much Kremlin involvement if any. That`s how it felt.
Now today, we have new reporting which suggests that that e-mail was not the end of that project. It was actually the start of a whole new phase of that project.
Anthony Cormier and Jason Leopold reported on "BuzzFeed News" today that four days after Michael Cohen sent that e-mail to the Kremlin, to Dmitry Peskov, quote, Cohen received a reply. He received a letter from a Russian mortgage tycoon and boxing promoter.
The letter said, quote: in furtherance of our previous conversations regarding the development of the Trump Tower Moscow project, we would like to respectfully invite you to Moscow for a working visit. Oh. The meeting would be to tour plots of land for the potential tower, to have round table discussions and to coordinate a follow-up visit by Mr. Trump himself.
The same day this letter was sent, Michael Cohen`s partner on the Moscow project, Trump associate and convicted felon and FBI informant Felix Sater, he, quote, asked Michael Cohen for travel dates for both Mr. Cohen and Mr. Trump. Mr. Cohen wrote back, quote, will do.
This new reporting from "BuzzFeed News", as well as a new report from Yahoo News reveals that negotiations and planning for the Trump Tower Moscow project actually went on much further into the Trump presidential campaign than we knew. They told us it was dead in January of 2016, but in May 2016, as Trump was dispatching Ted Cruz in the Republican primary, Felix Sater and Michael Cohen were texting each other about plans for Michael Cohen and Donald Trump to visit Moscow and cement this deal.
Cohen wrote, quote, my trip before Cleveland, Trump once he becomes the nominee, after the convention, meaning after the convention in Cleveland. The next day, Felix Sater told Michael Cohen that Dmitry Peskov, Putin`s spokesman Cohen had written to in January, quote, he would like to invite you as his guest to an economic forum in Russia. Peskov wants to meet there with you and possibly introduce you, Michael Cohen, to either Vladimir Putin or Dmitry Medvedev.
As far as we know, that trip by Michael Cohen to the St. Petersburg economic forum and all this meet Putin or Medvedev, as far as we know, that trip never happened and Trump Tower Moscow obviously didn`t get built. But Donald Trump`s business associates were trying really hard actively to make it happen. Right up, right up through the presidential nominating conventions in the summer of 2016.
And there`s one more explosive new bit of reporting in this "BuzzFeed" -- in this "BuzzFeed" report today about all the hustling that Michael Cohen was doing to try to get this deal done. Check this out.
Quote: even before the appointment of Mueller as special counsel in May 2017, FBI agents investigating Russia`s interference in the election learned that Michael Cohen was in frequent contact with foreign individuals about Trump Moscow, and some of these individuals had knowledge of or played a role in 2016 election meddling. That`s according to two FBI agents who, quote, both have detailed knowledge about the bureau`s work on the collusion investigation that predated Mueller`s appointment.
And that is new. That is new information that adds a whole new dimension to the Trump Tower Moscow story, which had been kept secret for a very long time and then diminished and we were told it was nothing. Now it turns out it was more than nothing. The FBI was interested in it and it involved people who were part of the 2016 election meddling by the Russian government.
Oh. One of the reporters who got this scoop joins us next.
MADDOW: "BuzzFeed News" vastly expanded our understanding of the Trump Organization`s pursuit of a Trump Tower Moscow project during the 2016 presidential campaign. BuzzFeed`s big brand new report really expands our understanding of the president`s financial ties to Russia during the campaign, because this previously reported effort to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, according to "BuzzFeed", this is being pursued well into Donald Trump`s run for president in 2016, well beyond what the Trump Organization has previously admitted in terms of the time frame of this project, and according to "BuzzFeed", the project reportedly attracted the attention of the FBI at the time, during the election, when the FBI was looking into Russia trying to mess with our election.
Quote: Even before the appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel, FBI agents investigating Russia`s interference in the election learned that Trump Organization lawyer Michael Cohen was in frequent contact with foreign individuals about Trump Tower Moscow. And they learned that some of those Russian individuals he was in contact with had knowledge of or played a role in 2016 election meddling.
Joining us now is Anthony Cormier. He`s an investigative reporter for "BuzzFeed News", one of the authors of this new report today.
Mr. Cormier, congratulations on this scoop. Thanks for joining us tonight.
ANTHONY CORMIER, REPORTER, BUZZFEED NEWS: Thanks for having us.
MADDOW: Let me ask you about that last point first. FBI agents are telling you that Cohen was in contact with individuals who themselves were involved in Russia`s 2016 election meddling. My question there is, were they in contact about election meddling or were they talking about Trump Tower Moscow and these just happened to be the same people who were messing with our election?
CORMIER: I wish I knew. I don`t. Clearly, if we did, we would have had a totally different headline.
What`s still unclear to us is who these individuals are and what role they played in the potential interference. We don`t know whether they`re the individuals we named in our story, the folks that have already sort of come to light, or whether this is a whole new group of individuals. We`re just sort of beginning to piece all of that together.
MADDOW: Do you have any clearer sense of why this was secret? We had Trump bluntly declaring during the campaign that he had no deals in Russia, that he had nothing to do with Russia. We know now and we`ve learned since and it`s added to by your reporting today that he was actively pursuing a very big deal, would have been one of the biggest deals of his life, in Russia. He was signing a letter of intent the same day that he was participating in one of the Republican primary debates. Now, based on your reporting, we can say this deal-making and this effort to build this project went on for months after they have previously admitted.
Why was there so much secrecy around this deal and are you confident we now know the extent of it?
CORMIER: We know a good deal of it. I`m not certain why they kept it so secret. I can only assume it is because you`re negotiating with sort of top officials at one of America`s greatest adversaries.
But they really did take extreme measures. They were using, for instance, an encrypted app to go back and forth in which the messages are sort of deleted. And we know from some new reporting today that these messages about Trump Tower going back and forth between Felix Sater and Michael Cohen all the way through July, that they continued to sort of press the issue and knew they needed to keep this quiet, to keep it on the down low, so to speak.
MADDOW: The Dmitry Peskov e-mail is something that has been cited by supporters of the president and people who are dismissive of the Russia scandal in general, to say, listen, if the Trump Organization or Michael Cohen or indeed Donald Trump had any real connections to the Kremlin, Michael Cohen wouldn`t have been e-mailing the generic press e-mail at the Kremlin for help with the Trump Tower Moscow project. They would have had some better away of getting in touch, some less amateurish way of getting in touch.
And indeed, the Trump Organization and Trump supporters have said that the Trump Tower project essentially went away in January 2016 after Michael Cohen didn`t get any response to that e-mail. My impression from your reporting today is that Michael Cohen basically did get a response to that e-mail. At least he did get an additional contact initiated with him about this project from Russia, from people in position, potentially, to make it happen, very shortly after he sent that message.
CORMIER: Well, there`s a couple things I find quite interesting. Number one, after he sends this message to essentially a -- for lack of a better word, a Kremlin.gov account, essentially four days later, he gets, through his associate Felix Sater, an unusual letter from a gentlemen who`s a boxing promoter and a mortgage tycoon.
But then if you continue to look forward into the future there, it`s clear that Felix Sater is or says he`s communicating directly with this same individual, with Dmitry Peskov, and Dmitry Peskov is inviting Cohen and Trump to Russia. So, it`s -- while it appears on the surface to have been a lousy attempt to reach out, there does appear to have been at least some reaching back by the Kremlin.
MADDOW: Yes, it may have been the wrong e-mail address to send the note too but it appears to have generated a response.
Anthony Cormier, reporter at "BuzzFeed News", congratulations on this scoop tonight. Thanks for helping us understand it.
CORMIER: Thanks, Rachel.
MADDOW: All right. We`ll be right back. Stay with us.
MADDOW: All right. We have one last story coming up for you tonight. It is about -- it`s another legal thing. It is yet another court ruling involving the president.
This was a low-profile case that had a surprise ruling that was very, very much against the president today. It has the potential to open up yet another new scandal against the president, something that we have not previously been watching. But this court ruling went against him today and this is about to start something new. I will explain when we come back.
MADDOW: If you`re not a lawyer, the word "discovery" is probably exciting to you because it immediately brings to mind shark week on the Discovery Channel. If you`re a lawyer, the word discovery is exciting for a different reason, in the context of a lawsuit, the word discovery is mow you use the court system to dig up information you might not get any other way. Discovery basically means gathering evidence. In legalese, it`s the pretrial disclosure of pertinent facts or documents by one or both parties to a legal action or proceeding.
Well, today, an appeals court in New York state ruled that this woman has the right to gather evidence in her lawsuit against Donald Trump. Her name is Summer Zervos. She`s a former contestant on the reality TV show "The Apprentice".
Ms. Zervos says that Donald Trump sexually assaulted her in the context to that show. She made that claim publicly. Trump called her a liar. Now, she is suing for defamation.
President Trump really didn`t want the Summer Zervos case to enter the discovery phase. He petitioned the court to block Summer Zervos from discovery, but today, this court in New York rejected the president`s motion, basically told Summer Zervos, go for it, start discovery, go gather evidence.
Her wish list is something to behold. She and her attorneys have subpoenaed MGM, which owns "The Apprentice" archives. They`re demanding MGM turn over documents, video or audio that features Ms. Zervos or Mr. Trump talking about Ms. Zervos.
They want any recordings in which Trump speaks about women in any sexual or inappropriate manner. They`re also subpoenaing the Beverly Hills Hotel, which is where Zervos says Trump assaulted her. Zervos subpoenaed all the surveillance footage from the hotel during the period of time when she says the assault happened.
Zervos also subpoenaed the president himself, she and her attorney say they intend to depose him under oath. The president has until May 29th to respond to that subpoena.
This has been a slow burn, low profile case compared to a lot of the other stuff the president has been facing but, discovery is going ahead. Ooh.
We`ll see you again tomorrow night.
Now, it`s time for "THE LAST WORD WITH LAWRENCE O`DONNELL."
Good evening, Lawrence.
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