By Susan Heavey
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday defended his decision to seek a business deal in Russia in 2016 even as he pursued the Republican presidential nomination, calling it “very legal” and “very cool” to keep running his business while campaigning.
In a series of tweets from Buenos Aires, where he is attending the G20 summit, Trump also said he had only “lightly looked” at a real estate project “somewhere in Russia” but that nothing had come of the effort.
A second guilty plea on Thursday by Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal lawyer, has raised new questions about Trump’s dealings with Russia while he was also establishing Republican foreign policy during his run for the presidency.
Trump repeatedly has said he had no ties to Russia. The U.S. Special Counsel’s Office is investigating Moscow for alleged interference in the 2016 election and possible collusion with Trump’s campaign.
Russia has denied U.S. intelligence conclusions that it meddled and Trump has frequently decried the investigation as a “witch hunt.” Both have denied any collusion.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team has brought charges or secured convictions against more than two dozen Russian nationals and entities, as well as a number of Trump’s associates, including former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who faced a hearing on Friday morning to schedule his sentencing. Mueller this week said Manafort had been lying to federal prosecutors despite his plea deal.
Cohen, who had already pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations and other financial crimes in a separate case brought by federal prosecutors in New York, on Thursday said he had lied to Congress about a proposed Trump Organization skyscraper project in Moscow.
His plea agreement with Mueller’s team showed the Trump Organization pursued the scheme further into the 2016 campaign than previously disclosed. Cohen also told Mueller’s prosecutors he briefed Trump on the project more than three times. He also briefed members of Trump’s family and had direct contact with Kremlin representatives.
Trump lashed out at Cohen after the plea deal was announced, calling him “a weak person” and a liar. As he departed for Buenos Aires, Trump acknowledged his business dealings with Russia, telling reporters on Thursday: “It doesn’t matter because I was allowed to do whatever I wanted during the campaign.”
On Twitter on Friday he said that during his campaign he continued to run “my business-very legal & very cool.”
Trump still owns his private company but had said he would hand over day-to-day dealings to his sons Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump when he took office in January 2017.
His meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki earlier this year drew criticism after Trump appeared to cast doubt on U.S. intelligence findings of Russian meddling in the campaign and said Putin had been extremely strong in his denials.
After Cohen’s plea, Trump cancelled his planned meeting with Putin at the G20, citing the Ukraine crisis. Russia’s Foreign Ministry on Friday said it believed the meeting was cancelled over “the U.S. domestic political situation.” A Kremlin spokesman reportedly said the two leaders will have an impromptu meeting.
Democrats and other critics said the latest revelations from Mueller’s investigation have cast Trump’s actions in a questionable light.
“This whole thing has likely been a scam from the start,” Democratic U.S. Senator Chris Murphy tweeted on Friday. “It’s not some wild coincidence that the Administration’s foreign policy is most inexplicable towards the two countries – Russia and Saudi Arabia – where the Trump family pursues the most business.”
Concerns about Trump and the Mueller investigation have led to a bipartisan push in Congress to protect the special counsel, a move that has been blocked in the Republican-controlled Senate.
(Reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Bill Trott)