The Slatest

The Press Didn’t Just Report Accurately on Trump-Russia Corruption. It Prevented the Corruption From Being Worse.

Flynn, wearing a pinstriped suit, speaks from behind a TRUMP logo on a lectern and in front of a row of American flags.
Michael Flynn at a Trump campaign event on Sept. 7, 2016, in Philadelphia.
Mark Makela/Getty Images

Russia conspiracy skeptics like the Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald and President Donald Trump are not done gloating/ranting about how “the media” allegedly embarrassed itself by reporting on seemingly improper relationships between Trump advisers and the Russian government in 2016 and 2017. Which is interesting, because I keep reading parts of the Mueller report and finding examples of potential Trump-Russia deals that were very likely called off because of accurate media reports. Here are three of them!

Trump Tower Moscow. Trump attorney Michael Cohen was involved in an effort to secure Russian approval for the development of a Trump Tower project in Moscow in late 2015 and 2016. Cohen and the Trump Organization were still pursuing the project on June 9, 2016, when senior Trump campaign figures attended a meeting at which they discussed foreign policy with several individuals representing the interests of the Russian government. It wasn’t until June 14 that Cohen told Felix Sater, the Trump Organization’s liaison to Russian partners, that the organization was putting pursuit of the deal on hold. That’s also the day that the Washington Post first reported that Russian hackers were targeting the Democratic Party. According to the special counsel’s report, “After the media began questioning Trump’s connections to Russia, Cohen promoted a ‘party line’ that publicly distanced Trump from Russia and asserted he had no business there.”

• Sanctions. What the Russians at the June 9 meeting specifically wanted to discuss with Trump’s advisers was their government’s interest in getting the U.S. to lift sanctions that prevent Russian officials, oligarchs, and/or organized crime figures from using the American financial system. And June 9 wasn’t the only attempt to broach this issue: Campaign chairman Paul Manafort discussed a sanctions-related Ukraine “peace plan” in August 2016 with one of his former business partners, Konstantin Kilimnik, who had connections to Russian military intelligence. Additionally, eventual Trump administration national security adviser Michael Flynn served as an “adviser” until June 2016 to a company that was developing a plan to build nuclear reactors in the Middle East in collaboration with Russian partners, a plan that would have required the U.S. to lift certain sanctions.

As is documented at length in Mueller’s report, during the presidential transition period Flynn told Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak that the Trump administration did not want to escalate sanctions that the Obama administration had imposed against Russia over its election interference. A former State Department official who dealt with sanctions has also said publicly that Trump officials began initiating plans to rescind other sanctions against Russia immediately after Trump’s inauguration. Those efforts subsequently died under heavy political pressure, however. After the Washington Post broke the news of Flynn’s conversation with Kislyak, he was eventually forced out of office—and more broadly, as the New Yorker has reported, the administration’s efforts to strike a sanctions-easing agreement with Russia died because of “the looming Mueller investigation” and because “members of Congress were pushing at the time to expand sanctions against Russia, not reduce them.” Says the New Yorker: “Trump told aides that he was frustrated that he could not make progress because of political opposition in Washington.” That political opposition, of course, existed because even Republican senators were responding to what John McCain described as “Russia’s attack on American democracy”—a subject that had been covered since June 2016 in press accounts of Russian propaganda and hacking operations whose details would go on to be confirmed by multiple Mueller indictments and documented in his report.

Michael Flynn’s nuclear deal. As mentioned above, Flynn served well into 2016 as an adviser to a group called ACU Strategic Partners, which was developing a plan to build nuclear reactors in the Middle East in collaboration with Russian companies and, in Reuters’ description, “required lifting sanctions on Russia” to go forward. But when Flynn became Trump’s national security adviser and began promoting a Middle East nuclear plan inside the administration, it was one developed by a different company he’d advised, IP3, whose key figures split from ACU in 2016—and say they specifically did so because they didn’t want Russia involved in the deal. (The post-inauguration nuclear plan push alarmed many career national security staffers who felt it was being pursued for potentially corrupt reasons, and it has since been documented in reports by the House Oversight Committee.) According to Newsweek’s coverage, ACU’s breakup took place in the context of “reports … that the FBI was investigating possible collusion between the Russians and the Trump campaign.” One of IP3’s partners told Politico that he and the others had told Flynn that “we’re not up for working with Russia.” Flynn’s disclosure forms say his work with ACU ended in June 2016, the month that Trump-Russia reporting first surfaced, and that he started advising IP3 in August of that year.

The picture the Mueller report creates of Trump World in 2016 and early 2017 is one in which Russia-connected figures were swarming around trying to squeeze concessions out of the campaign and administration. And, repeatedly, Trump’s advisers were receptive to hearing about and pursuing these plans until being caught in the spotlight of press scrutiny and related political pressure. No wonder he hates the media!