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At G-20 Summit, President Defends Trump Tower Moscow Talks


This morning, President Trump is in Argentina to meet with world leaders at the G-20 summit, but he has clearly got the Russia probe on his mind and in his Twitter feed. The president's responding to new revelations from his former lawyer Michael Cohen, who pleaded guilty to a series of lies. Cohen says he made false statements to Congress to cover up Trump Organization talks about a possible Trump Tower in Moscow. And he lied about when those talks ended.

This morning, the president tweeted the following defense - quote, "Against all odds, I decide to run for president and continue to run my business - very legal and very cool. Talked about it on the campaign trail, lightly looked at doing a building somewhere in Russia, put up zero money, zero guarantees and didn't do the project - witch hunt," end quote.

Evidence now shows Donald Trump's company continued those discussions about a Moscow Trump Tower at least up until June of 2016 while Russia was meddling in the U.S. election. Former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti is with us to help sort through all this and the implications. Good morning.

RENATO MARIOTTI: Good morning.

MARTIN: How do you read the Cohen admission? What is the upshot of this?

MARIOTTI: Well, first of all, one thing that I think is very important is that now Michael Cohen has a cooperation deal. And this time it's with Robert Mueller. So that's significant because what it confirms to us is that he's been providing information to Mueller, and Mueller believes that information is accurate. It's consistent with the other evidence he has. And Mueller believes that that information is valuable to him. So that, I think, is certainly very important and has implications.

As for the information itself and the admission about the Trump Tower Moscow, what's important there, first of all, just from a - perhaps from a political perspective is that the president was engaged in business that actually involved the Russian government during the election and didn't disclose that to the public. But from a legal perspective, how that matters is whether or not, you know, he and his associates, including his family, were truthful about that and other topics related to Congress and to Mr. Mueller.

MARTIN: But the president insists that he did nothing wrong. And you're suggesting there isn't, at this point, evidence that he broke any laws here, right?

MARIOTTI: That's right. As to this subject, there is not. Exactly.

MARTIN: In the Cohen documents, President Trump is referred to as individual one. Is that not typically a designation that prosecutors assign to the primary target of an investigation?

MARIOTTI: No, it doesn't mean that at all. All it means is that he is somebody who is not being identified because he's not being charged in that document. Justice Department policy indicates that individuals who are not charged in the document are not identified. And so even though it is absolutely obvious from the document that this is referring to President Trump, his name is not included.

MARTIN: As you note, another significant factor here is that Michael Cohen has signed an agreement with the Mueller team. We know that he has cooperated. He is talking, and he will continue to do so. Is there any indication that you can see of what he has told Mueller thus far or other shoes that could drop?

MARIOTTI: Well, originally, his charges related to the topics in the Trump Organization. There is a separate investigation by federal prosecutors in New York and the New York attorney general's office that relates to the Trump Organization. And their dealings and it originally appeared that Mr. Cohen was cooperating regarding those matters. Now it is clear that Mr. Cohen is also talking to Robert Mueller about subjects related to Russia and the president's dealings with Russia and so forth. So we don't know exactly what he's told Robert Mueller, but President Trump no doubt does. And, you know, I think we will see this play out in the months to come.

MARTIN: Let's talk about Paul Manafort, President Trump's former campaign chairman. His legal team will appear in court today. This is a witness, a potential cooperating witness for the Mueller team that is no longer. I mean, the Mueller team voided a plea deal that it struck with Manafort back in August after his conviction for financial fraud. What kind of a loss is this for the Mueller investigation? What could Manafort have offered them?

MARIOTTI: Well, I think it is significant because Paul Manafort has agreed to cooperate against other individuals, and he provided information that was significant enough to get a deal, even though he had already been convicted of other crimes. So definitely, you know, this means that Mueller is not going to be able to pursue those individuals and that - and those charges that he thought Paul Manafort was going to help him make.

It also potentially damages the Mueller investigation because we have learned since that Manafort's attorneys were secretly working with Trump's attorneys and giving them confidential information about Mueller's investigation. So those are significant blows to Mueller, although it doesn't seem to be slowing him down all that much.

MARTIN: You're a former federal prosecutor. You have been watching the Mueller probe very closely from the beginning. How do you read the signs that we have seen this past week? There's been a lot of motion from the Mueller team. Is it close to wrapping up?

MARIOTTI: I wouldn't say that. I would say that they've made significant progress towards what people - a lot of the people in the public call collusion because they are focusing on topics, whether it's Roger Stone and Jerome Corsi or this topic here related to Russia and its dealings with the Trump administration. But at the same time, there are unprecedented efforts to obstruct Mueller's investigation.

MARTIN: Renato Mariotti - he's a former federal prosecutor walking through with us all the twists and turns of the Mueller probe this week and the revelations from Michael Cohen. Thank you so much for your time. We appreciate it.

MARIOTTI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.