When Donald Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, went to Moscow in 2006, she did all the usual tourist things: walked around Red Square, visited the Kremlin… sat in Vladimir Putin’s private chair. At least she did according to Trump’s broker and business partner Felix Sater. ‘I arranged for Ivanka to sit in Putins private chair at his desk and office in the Kremlin,’ Sater said in an email, which was later leaked. Ivanka put out a statement more or less confirming this, saying that she ‘might have’ sat in Putin’s chair, but couldn’t exactly recall.
The rest of Sater’s emails were more important as they gave details of his efforts to fix a deal for a Trump Tower in Moscow. ‘I will get Putin on this program and we will get Donald elected… Buddy our boy can become President of the USA and we can engineer it. I will get all of Putin’s team to buy in on this.’
The ‘Buddy’ in this email is Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen. He is presumably extremely busy today as — according to the New York Times — the special counsel, Robert Mueller, has subpoenaed documents from the Trump Organisation, including some related to Russia. This, as the Times reports, is the first time Mueller is known to have demanded documents directly related to President Trump’s businesses, bringing the investigation closer to the president. Trump has previously said that Mueller would be ‘crossing a red line’ if the Russia inquiry strayed into his business past.
In other emails that leaked, last year, Trump’s lawyer, Cohen, writes to Putin’s personal spokesman to ask for help in getting the Moscow project underway. Bizarrely, this email was sent to the general address listed on the Kremlin’s press website: ‘As this project is too important, I am hereby requesting your assistance. I respectfully request someone, preferably you, contact me so that I might discuss the specifics.’ Such an email is not consistent with an existing, longstanding conspiracy between Trump’s people and the Kremlin – the thing that Trump’s enemies would most dearly love to prove. But it does show someone from Trump’s inner circle reaching out to the Kremlin, and at a time when the presidential election season was fully underway. Mueller’s (reported) subpoenas will try to get at what more Trump’s people asked for, and what the Russians may have asked for in return.
If the New York Times story is accurate, these latest subpoenas may mean that Mueller’s inquiry is nowhere near wrapping up, as some have speculated. Back in 2013, Trump was asked about Sater — broker of the hoped-for Moscow tower deal — in a videotaped deposition. He said he wouldn’t recognise him if he were sitting in the same room. But Sater’s name keeps cropping up in stories about Trump and Russia. According to more than one of my sources, Sater is either actively cooperating with Mueller’s inquiry or is discussing his terms for doing so. One of those sources said that Trump has been quietly approaching lawyers who defended President Clinton against impeachment. (The Washington Post reports that one of those lawyers has actually met Trump in the Oval Office). Another source me that Mueller had been consulting academic experts on the constitution and asking whether a sitting president can be indicted. The answer, according to my source, is Yes.
None of this is to say that President Trump is guilty of anything. But more than one source says it’s clear that the target of Mueller’s investigation is Trump himself, not just his associates.
Paul Wood is a BBC correspondent and fellow of the New America foundation