Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s longtime lawyer, confirmed what was long suspected on Thursday evening. According to multiple reports, Cohen said that Trump knew ahead of time about the infamous 2016 Trump Tower meeting between then-campaign manager Paul Manafort, Donald Trump Jr., and Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya.
Cohen said he was “present, along with several others, when Trump was informed of the Russians’ offer by Trump Jr. By Cohen’s account, Trump approved going ahead with the meeting with the Russians, according to sources,” CNN reported. Trump has insisted for the past year that he knew nothing about the meeting beforehand.
The meeting, of course, was predicated on Veselnitskaya’s offer of “dirt” on Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton — a proposition Trump Jr. memorably responded to with the line, “If it’s what you say I love it.” The meeting also came two days after Trump hinted that a major bombshell about Clinton would be forthcoming.
CNN put together video of Trump suspiciously teasing a major speech in which he'd share dirt about Hillary just 2 days before the Trump Tower meeting where Russians promised to give him such dirt, followed by Trump camp's repeated denials that Trump knew about meeting in advance pic.twitter.com/aQDn8Xinde
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) July 27, 2018
The president denied Cohen’s allegations on Twitter Friday, but a series of phone calls from Trump Jr. to a blocked number occurred both before and after the meeting — a number Trump Jr. has never identified. The president later personally dictated a misleading statement about the meeting, claiming his son and Veselnitskaya had primarily discussed “adoption.” The AP reported this week that emails show Veselnitskaya had worked far more closely with senior Russian government officials than she previously admitted.
If Cohen’s comments bear out — particularly given that they line up with other evidence surrounding the meeting, as well as Trump’s behavior thereafter — they would confirm that Trump was the first major presidential candidate in American history to accept Moscow’s offers of help in defeating his opponent.
It’s a point that bears repeating: Trump was not the first American presidential candidate Moscow has offered to assist but he was, as his own lawyer now alleges, the first to accept the offer. Every other presidential campaign in the past has turned down such offers.
It is now known that Moscow sought to back three previous U.S. presidential campaigns, through financing or other means of aid: John F. Kennedy’s 1960 run, Hubert Humphrey’s 1968 efforts, and the 1984 election, in which Moscow, as one analyst wrote, offered to help “any candidate, of either party” against Ronald Reagan.
These efforts are detailed in Cambridge historian Christopher Andrew’s 1999 revelations on the Mitrokhin Archive, a trove of documents swiped from the KGB. The book, The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB, runs through hundreds of KGB operations internationally, including prior efforts at meddling in American elections — and efforts at supporting certain presidential candidates in particular.
However, unlike the Trump campaign, no prior major presidential candidate or campaign accepted the offers of help from those connected to Moscow.
John F. Kennedy in 1960
Richard Nixon’s positions on the Soviet Union and the spread of communism were so concerning to Moscow that, when Nixon ran for president in 1960, the Kremlin turned its efforts to trying to back his opponent, John F. Kennedy — an offer the Kennedy team turned down. Writes Andrew:
Moscow followed the presidential elections of 1960 with close attention. [Soviet Premier Nikita] Khrushchev regarded the Republican candidate, Richard Nixon, as a McCarthyite friend of the Pentagon hawks, and was anxious that Kennedy should win. The Washington [KGB] resident, Aleksandr Semyonovich Feklisov (alias “Fomin”), was ordered to “propose diplomatic of propaganda initiatives, or any other measures, to facilitate Kennedy’s victory.” The residency tried to make contact with Robert Kennedy but was politely rebuffed.
Hubert Humphrey in 1968
Moscow particularly loathed the thought of a Nixon presidency. When Nixon ran for president once more in 1968, the Kremlin looked directly to assisting his opponent again — an attempt that Humphrey himself declined. Writes Andrew:
In 1968 the Kremlin had been so anxious to prevent the election of the veteran anti-Communist Richard Nixon that it had secretly offered to subsidize the campaign of his Democratic opponent, Hubert Humphrey.
Andrew also cites the memoir of longtime Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin, who offered far more detail on Moscow’s 1968 efforts, as well as Humphrey’s refusal of the Kremlin’s offers. As Dobrynin wrote:
Our leadership [in Moscow] was growing seriously concerned that [Nixon] might win the election. As a result the top Soviet leaders took an extraordinary step, unprecedented in the history of Soviet-American relations, by secretly offering Humphrey any conceivable help in his election campaign — including financial aid… [The idea] if discovered certainly would have backfired and ensured Humphrey’s defeat, to say nothing of the real trouble it would have caused for Soviet-American relations…
[During the presidential campaign] I happened to be at breakfast at Humphrey’s home. Naturally, we talked about the election campaign, so I tried to take advantage of that to carry out my instructions as tactfully as possible. I asked him how his campaign was going, and then I moved the conversation diplomatically to the state of his campaign finances. Humphrey, I must say, was not only a very intelligent but also a very clever man. He knew at once what was going on. He told me it was more than enough for him to have Moscow’s good wishes which he highly appreciated. The matter was thus settled to our mutual relief, never to be discussed again.
‘Any candidate’ besides Ronald Reagan in 1984
Not all previous election interference efforts were directed at specific candidates. Rather, in 1984, the Kremlin sought to thwart Ronald Reagan’s reelection by reaching out to all other major candidates. There’s no evidence they succeeded. Writes Andrew:
On Feb. 25, 1983 the [KGB leadership] instructed its three American residencies to begin planning active measures to ensure Reagan’s defeat in the presidential election of November 1984. They were ordered to acquire contacts on the staffs of all possible presidential candidates and in both party headquarters. Residencies outside the United States were told to report on the possibility of sending agents to take part in this operation. [KGB leadership] made it clear that any candidate, of either party, would be preferable to Reagan…
Reagan’s landslide victory in the 1984 election was striking evidence of the limitations of Soviet active measures within the United States.
Multiple attempts, and multiple failures: that was the track record of Moscow’s efforts at aiding major American presidential candidates in their campaigns for the White House. At least, that was the case until 2016 — when Donald Trump, as his longtime personal lawyer now alleges, signed off on accepting the offer of help, a move no other major presidential candidate in American history had ever taken.