Amid all the scrutiny over President Donald Trump’s ties to Russia, a fresh scoop illustrates how the commander in chief’s associates are not shying away from trying to seal backroom deals that could end up helping the Kremlin. According to information first revealed by the New York Times, Trump’s personal lawyer (Michael Cohen), a former business associate (Felix Sater), and a member of the Ukrainian parliament (Andrii Artemenko) met to discuss a possible peace plan for Russia that could give Moscow control over the territory it seized in 2014. Conveniently enough, the plan would then lead to the lifting of sanctions against Russia and, as a bonus, could lead to the toppling of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
The story is mighty complicated, but here is a giant hint that it’s important: One of the key players has started playing defense and has reportedly changed his story. According to the Times, Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, delivered the sealed proposal for Ukrainian-Russian peace to Michael Flynn a week before he was forced out as national security adviser. Cohen vehemently denied that was the case to the Washington Post, which followed the Times scoop with its own story. “I acknowledge that the brief meeting took place, but emphatically deny discussing this topic or delivering any documents to the White House and/or General Flynn,” Cohen said. According to Cohen, he told the Ukrainian member of parliament (Andrii V. Artemenko) he could mail his peace proposal to the White House like anyone else. The Times stands by its story, insisting Cohen said “in no uncertain terms that he delivered the Ukraine proposal to Michael Flynn’s office at the White House.”
Although the “amateur diplomats,” as the Times calls them, seem eager to characterize the efforts as driven by a desire for peace, there’s more to it than that consider Artemenko also has power ambitions of his own and apparently sees himself as "a Trump-style leader of a future Ukraine." Artemenko also claimed he had been encouraged by Moscow to move forward with the plan. On Monday, the Kremlin essentially laughed off the proposal, calling it absurd to think that Russia would agree to lease out Crimea. (Under the proposal, Russian forces would withdraw from Eastern Ukraine and voters would decide whether the land would be leased to Russia for a 50-year or 100-year term.) “There's nothing to talk about,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. “How can Russia rent its own region from itself?”
Some are highlighting the presence of murky business associate Sater, who once pleaded guilty to Mafia-related stock fraud, as particularly important. When Sater’s criminal past was revealed, Trump insisted he barely knew him. Now, however, this latest story shows he could still be influential in Trump circles. Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo explains:
On its own, Trump's relationship with Sater might be written off (albeit not terribly plausibly) as simply a sleazy relationship Trump entered into to get access to capital he needed to finance his projects. Whatever shadowy ties Sater might have and whatever his criminal background, Trump has long since washed his hands of him. (Again, we're talking about most generous reads here.)
But now we learn that Sater is still very much in the Trump orbit and acting as a go-between linking Trump and a pro-Putin Ukrainian parliamentarian pitching 'peace plans' for settling the dispute between Russia and Ukraine. …
Indeed, far, far more important, Cohen—who is very close to Trump and known for dealing with delicate matters—is in contact with Sater and hand delivering political and policy plans from him to the President.
Even as he denied he delivered the documents to the White House, Cohen seemed to recognize he still had regular contact with Sater. After all, he told the Post that the only reason he attended the meeting with Artemenko was as a courtesy to Sater.