The controversy surrounding the role President Donald Trump's lawyer played in pushing a "peace plan" for Russia and Ukraine on the National Security Council is "an absurd attempt to distract" from Trump's reforms, the White House told Business Insider on Tuesday.
Trump's personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, was at the center of a New York Times report published Sunday that said he had hand-delivered a plan to Michael Flynn before Flynn was asked to resign as national security adviser. The plan reported in the paper involved lifting sanctions on Russia in return for Moscow withdrawing its support for pro-Russia separatists in Ukraine.
"No one in the White House — including the president, vice president, and senior members of the NSC — has spoken to Mr. Cohen about any Russia-Ukraine peace proposal, and no one has spoken to Andrii Artemenko at all about any matter," a White House representative told Business Insider on Tuesday, referring to the Ukrainian lawmaker who had reportedly helped draft the peace plan.
"In addition, the NSC keeps comprehensive records of documents received, and we have no record of receiving any proposal from Mr. Cohen," the person said. "This is another absurd, misleading attempt to distract from the real reform taking place under President Trump.”
The plan's existence was first reported by The New York Times, which said Cohen met with Artemenko and businessman Felix Sater in a hotel lobby on Park Avenue in Manhattan in late January to discuss it. The Times said Cohen had told the publication that he had left with the plan in a sealed envelope, which he delivered to Flynn.
Hours after the Times story was published, however, Cohen told The Washington Post that he hadn't delivered the peace plan to Flynn or discussed it with anyone in the White House.
Cohen then appeared to alter his story again, telling NBC News that even if he had taken an envelope with a peace plan to the White House: "So what? What's wrong with that?"
Finally, on Monday afternoon, Cohen told Business Insider in a series of text messages that he denied "even knowing what the plan is."
In a later message, however, Cohen acknowledged that he had met with Artemenko in New York for "under 10 minutes" to discuss a proposal that Artemenko said "was acknowledged by Russian authorities that would create world peace."
"My response was, 'Who doesn't want world peace?'" Cohen said.
One of the Times reporters who broke the story, Scott Shane, pointed Business Insider to a statement the newspaper's deputy managing editor gave on Sunday: "Mr. Cohen told The Times in no uncertain terms that he delivered the Ukraine proposal to Michael Flynn's office at the White House. Mr. Sater told the Times that Mr. Cohen had told him the same thing."
Sater, a businessman of Russian descent who has boasted of his "relationship with Trump," told The Post last May that he "handled all of the negotiations" for the Trump Organization's dealings in Russia in the mid-2000s. Trump has distanced himself from Sater, insisting in sworn testimony as part of a 2013 lawsuit that "if [Sater] were sitting in the room right now, I really wouldn't know what he looked like."
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