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What Michael Cohen's Latest Testimony Means For Mueller And Trump

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

So as we just heard, one of the most significant developments in the Mueller probe this week was President Trump's former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen pleading guilty to lying to Congress about efforts to build a Trump Tower in Russia during the 2016 campaign. And that effort came after decades of President Trump trying to build in Russia.

WNYC's Ilya Marritz co-hosts the Trump Incorporated (ph) podcast. He joins me now to give us more of the long view. Welcome to the program.

ILYA MARRITZ, BYLINE: Thanks for having me. It's great to be here.

CORNISH: I should say that's Trump, Inc., right? I have to get that right.

MARRITZ: Correct, Trump, Inc. That's right.

CORNISH: So we know some about Michael Cohen's work during the presidential campaign. How does this week's news add to what we already knew about Trump's efforts to build in Russia?

MARRITZ: Well, we now know, because Trump's former lawyer said it in court, that Trump was actively pursuing a tower in Moscow while he was campaigning for the Republican nomination for president. This is something Donald Trump has long denied. What history tells us is that Trump has long wanted to put his name on a building in Moscow. So in 1987, he visits the USSR, the Soviet Union, and he talks about how they need luxury hotels in Moscow and Leningrad. He makes another trip in the 1990s, doesn't get anywhere.

And then in the 2000s, Trump starts to lend his name to developers around the world. And there's a - there are deals around Russia. There's one in Azerbaijan. There's one in the republic of Georgia which Michael Cohen helps to arrange. In 2013, Trump's - comes to Moscow again for the Miss Universe pageant. He owns the pageant. And he says again that he's in talks with developers. And then finally we see a renewed effort in 2015 and 2016 to build in Moscow.

CORNISH: Well, but you're saying that we don't know why he wanted to build in Moscow. But what are the clues in his business history?

MARRITZ: So at Trump, Inc. we've spent a long time looking at this history precisely because Donald Trump's business is not well understood because as a candidate, he never released his tax returns. What I can tell you is that Trump has long shown an affinity for Russians and Russian-Americans. He's sold a lot of condo units to people from the former Soviet Union. In the 1990s, Trump's casinos in Atlantic City become really popular in the Russian-American community. They're also a hub, we've learned, for the Russian mob.

The period that is most interesting to us at Trump, Inc. is the mid-2000s, starts in the mid-2000s. Banks at this point won't lend to Trump anymore for the most part. He's not really a developer. But the success of "The Apprentice" has made his name really valuable, and his brand is valuable. And these opportunities start to come to him. And a lot of them are connected to the former USSR. So the former Trump SoHo, a hotel here in New York, is basically a project from developers from the former Soviet Union. And I've seen depositions and other kinds of documents where we see the Trumps were exploring business in Kazakhstan and Kiev.

In 2008, Donald Trump Jr. tells a conference that Russians, quote, "make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets." So even though Trump is kind of cut off from the mainstream financial system at that point, and even though he can't build in a place like Paris or Tokyo, these prime markets, there is money for Trump buildings on the shores of the Black Sea in the republic of Georgia.

CORNISH: Bringing this back to today and the news of the week, how does this all fit in with Robert Mueller's investigation?

MARRITZ: So let's combine Trump's history, his demonstrated eagerness to build in Russia, with what Robert Mueller is telling us. Mueller says Cohen briefed Trump and his family members repeatedly in 2016 about the Moscow Project. As late as June he was talking to the campaign about it, his travel plans to go to Russia. Now, remember; the campaign is basically a small operation run out of Donald - out of Trump Tower, which is both Donald Trump's home and his office. What it really shows is a lot more communication between Trump's people and the Russians, something Trump has long denied.

CORNISH: That's Ilya Marritz, co-host of Trump, Inc. podcast, a production of WNYC and ProPublica. Thank you.

MARRITZ: You're very welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.