Rudolph W. Giuliani, President Trump’s lawyer, said Mr. Trump recalled that the discussions about building a Trump Tower in Moscow were “going from the day I announced to the day I won.”Erin Schaff for The New York Times
WASHINGTON — President Trump was involved in discussions to build a skyscraper in Moscow throughout the entire 2016 presidential campaign, his personal lawyer said on Sunday, a longer and more significant role for Mr. Trump than he had previously acknowledged.
The comments by his lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani indicated that Mr. Trump’s efforts to complete a business deal in Russia waned only after Americans cast ballots in the presidential election.
The new timetable means that Mr. Trump was seeking a deal at the time he was calling for an end to economic sanctions against Russia imposed by the Obama administration. He was seeking a deal when he gave interviews questioning the legitimacy of NATO, a favorite talking point of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. And he was seeking a deal when, in July 2016, he called on Russia to release hacked Democratic emails that Mr. Putin’s government was rumored at the time to have stolen.
The Trump Tower Moscow discussions were “going on from the day I announced to the day I won,” Mr. Giuliani quoted Mr. Trump as saying during an interview with The New York Times. It was one of a flurry of interviews Mr. Giuliani did on Sunday amid fallout from a disputed report by BuzzFeed News that President Trump had personally directed his former lawyer and fixer, Michael D. Cohen, to lie to Congress about the negotiations over the skyscraper.
Mr. Giuliani denied that claim, and a spokesman for the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, called BuzzFeed’s report “inaccurate” in a rare statement.
Mr. Giuliani also acknowledged that Mr. Trump might have talked to Mr. Cohen before his congressional testimony but he said his client had never instructed Mr. Cohen to lie. Mr. Trump acknowledged discussing the Moscow project with Mr. Cohen in written responses that the president gave Mr. Mueller’s investigators days before they revealed that Mr. Cohen had pleaded guilty to lying to Congress.
“There was no question that he was asked by the special counsel a question that said, ‘Did you talk to him before he testified?’” Mr. Giuliani said.
“There were questions like, ‘Did you talk about the Moscow project with Michael Cohen?’ to which we answered yes.”
Later in the day, Mr. Giuliani said he was merely allowing for the possibility that the president and Mr. Cohen could have discussed the Moscow project through the election but that no notes or call logs indicated specific conversations about Russia.
“We’re at Cohen’s mercy for the dates,” Mr. Giuliani said, adding that the president “doesn’t remember the dates. He does remember conversations about Moscow. He does remember the letter of intent. He does remember, after that, fleeting conversations.”
He added that he was trying to keep Mr. Trump from legal exposure if prosecutors uncover evidence of a conversation that the president has said he does not recall.
Like so many other threads of the Russia saga, the story that the president’s aides have told about the Trump Tower Moscow negotiations has changed repeatedly. First, they said that the discussions never moved beyond their infancy, barely involved Mr. Trump, and ended well before the Republican primaries. Then, when Mr. Cohen pleaded guilty in November to lying to Congress about the Tower negotiations, the special counsel’s office revealed they extended at least until the middle of 2016.
When — and even if — the discussions officially ended remains unclear, and Mr. Giuliani did not provide clarity.
Even after Mr. Trump secured a surprise victory in November 2016 — and as evidence was mounting that the Russians had carried out a sophisticated campaign to disrupt the presidential election — Mr. Trump’s top aides took part in numerous meetings and phone conversations with Russians that have been a focus of Mr. Mueller’s investigation.
Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, met with the head of a Russian bank under sanctions and asked Russia’s ambassador to Washington, Sergey I. Kislyak, whether Mr. Trump’s aides could use phone lines at the Russian embassy to communicate with Moscow during the presidential transition. Michael T. Flynn, who would become President Trump’s first national security adviser, discussed sanctions with Mr. Kislyak numerous times in December 2016 as President Obama punished Russia for its campaign of election interference.
Mr. Flynn pleaded guilty a year later to lying to F.B.I. agents about his communications with Mr. Kislyak.
The tangled, yearslong negotiations to build a Trump Tower in Moscow were emblematic of the process Mr. Trump used to stamp his name on luxury buildings around the world — developing relationships with foreign businessmen and government officials to navigate the byzantine world of international real estate.
For the Moscow project, Mr. Trump appears to have relied on Mr. Cohen to be the lead negotiator, and interviews, emails and court documents show that Mr. Cohen made a vigorous effort to try to get the blessing of the Kremlin for the project and even tried to arrange a trip to Moscow for Mr. Trump.
His partner in the effort was Felix Sater, a former felon and longtime business associate of Mr. Cohen’s who had deep contacts in Russian business and political circles. Mr. Sater cultivated this web of contacts for years, from when he was secretly working for American intelligence agencies during the 1990s — work that prompted federal authorities to reduce Mr. Sater’s penalty after a guilty plea in a securities fraud case.
In late 2015, months after Mr. Trump announced his presidential candidacy, Mr. Sater sent an enthusiastic message to Mr. Cohen bragging about how he would tap his Russian connections for the tower project and “get all of Putin’s team to buy in on this.”
“Buddy,” Mr. Sater wrote, “our boy can become President of the USA and we can engineer it.”
Mr. Sater later testified to the House Intelligence Committee that his boastful emails overstated his ties to the Kremlin, and his message about getting Mr. Trump elected meant only that he thought the Trump Tower deal might generate publicity for the campaign.
One of the people Mr. Sater contacted was Evgeny Shmykov, a former general in Russian military intelligence who once worked with anti-Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. Mr. Sater appears to have seen Mr. Shmykov as a conduit to get Russian government approval for the Trump project.
According to emails reviewed by The Times, Mr. Sater sent an urgent message to Mr. Cohen in late 2015 saying that Mr. Shmykov was on the phone and he needed passport information for Mr. Cohen and Mr. Trump so they could receive visas.
Mr. Sater said that, for diplomatic reasons, the Kremlin could not issue the visas. Instead, he said, a Russian bank could provide the documents as part of “a business meeting not political.”
The Moscow trip for Mr. Trump and Mr. Cohen never materialized, but court documents released in November as part of Mr. Cohen’s guilty plea showed that Mr. Cohen pursued the Moscow project well into 2016.
He made numerous attempts to reach Mr. Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, who arranged for Mr. Cohen to speak to another Kremlin official. Mr. Cohen told prosecutors for the special counsel that, during a January 2016 conversation, the Kremlin official “asked detailed questions and took notes, stating that she would follow up with others in Russia.”
Mr. Cohen told prosecutors that the discussions lasted at least until June 14, 2016, when he met with Mr. Sater in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York and told him he would not be traveling to Russia “at that time,” according to court documents. On the same day, The Washington Post reported that Russian operatives had infiltrated the computer network of the Democratic National Committee — the first public evidence of Moscow’s campaign to disrupt the election.
Now, based on Mr. Giuliani’s remarks on Sunday, it appears that the negotiations over the Moscow skyscraper deal continued even months beyond that.
President Trump did not elaborate on his lawyer’s remarks, but in November said there was nothing wrong with him pursuing a deal to enlarge his business empire at the same time he hoped to become president of the United States.
“There was a good chance that I wouldn’t have won, in which case I would have gotten back into the business, and why should I lose lots of opportunities?” the president said.
Mr. Trump said he ultimately decided not to go through with the project — without saying how long the discussions lasted.
But, he added, “There would have been nothing wrong if I did do it.”
Mark Mazzetti and Michael S. Schmidt reported from Washington, and Maggie Haberman from New York.