Testimony gives look inside Trump's failed efforts to meet Putin in 2013

A file photo of Russia's President Vladimir Putin talking to US President Donald Trump during their bilateral meeting at the G20 summit in Hamburg, on July 7, 2017.
A file photo of Russia's President Vladimir Putin talking to US President Donald Trump during their bilateral meeting at the G20 summit in Hamburg, on July 7, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (WASHINGTON POST) - They called it "the gorilla in the room".

Mr Donald Trump's desire to meet Mr Vladimir Putin was so fierce that as Mr Trump and his team prepared for their 2013 trip to Moscow to host the Miss Universe pageant, they strategised about how the American reality-television star might be able to huddle with the Russian President.

As soon as the deal was struck for Miss Universe to take place in Russia, pageant president Paula Shugart told Mr Rob Goldstone, a publicist and fixer who helped bring the pageant to Russia, "Oh, God, he's going to want to meet Putin," according to Mr Goldstone's testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee released on Wednesday (May 16).

"It was the gorilla in the room that had to be addressed, but there seemed to be no answer to address it," Mr Goldstone told the committee.

Negotiations for a face-to-face meeting began with a written request from Trump Tower to the Kremlin, included a personal call with Mr Putin's top spokesman and "went down to the wire", Mr Goldstone recalled.

Once Mr Trump landed in Moscow, he lavished praise on Mr Putin ("strong") as compared to then-US President Barack Obama ("weak") at a reception.

Mr Trump and Mr Putin did not end up meeting because, according to Mr Goldstone, Mr Putin was too busy receiving the new King of Holland.

Still, newly-revealed details about the American businessman's failed courtship of the Russian autocrat illustrate the depth and tenure of Mr Trump's infatuation, which predated the 2016 presidential campaign during which he routinely praised Mr Putin.

Mr Trump's long-held admiration of Mr Putin has been a source of suspicion and held up by critics as evidence that he and his campaign associates welcomed help from the Russians in defeating Democrat Hillary Clinton, even if they did not directly coordinate activity with Mr Putin's government.

Mr Trump repeatedly has insisted that there was "no collusion", something Special Counsel Robert Mueller is investigating.

Mr Trump's attraction to strongmen is not limited to Mr Putin.

He has praised Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, Thailand Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, among others.

But Mr Trump has held a singular affection for Mr Putin, complimenting him again and again as a strong leader because he exerts almost absolute authority in Russia and taking care not to criticise or antagonise him personally.

"He has this strange fascination not only with the strongmen, but the almost retro male chauvinist culture that they have still in Russia," said Ms Evelyn Farkas, a former deputy assistant secretary of defence for Russia in the Obama administration.

"I think that Trump thinks he sees some of himself in Putin, this macho facade of being in control."

Dr Michael McFaul, who was the US ambassador to Russia at the time of Mr Trump's visit, said some visiting American businessmen worked with the embassy to arrange meetings there, but that Mr Trump did not.

"To do anything in Russia requires Putin to be on your side," he said. "That's why all of these people are seeking to meet with him."

But Mr Putin only rarely meets with Americans. During his two years as ambassador, Mr McFaul recalled, only three Americans outside of the government got an audience with Mr Putin: former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger; then-ExxonMobil chief executive Rex Tillerson, who would become Mr Trump's first secretary of state; and actor Steven Seagal, known for his outspoken support for Mr Putin.

"Every billionaire who comes to Moscow wants to meet with Putin and most of them don't get the chance," Mr McFaul said.

As Ms Farkas put it, "To Putin, Trump was not on the A-team."

Mr Putin said in an interview in March that he did not know until after the fact that Mr Trump had visited Moscow, despite efforts by Mr Trump and his associates to arrange a meeting through Mr Putin's staff.

"Donald came here to Russia when he was not even nominated," Mr Putin told Ms Megyn Kelly of NBC News. "I did not even know that he had been to Russia. I learned about it only afterwards, when I was told that as it turned out he had been to Russia."

Mr Goldstone testified to the Senate committee that when the deal was nearly completed to bring the Miss Universe pageant to Moscow following meetings in Las Vegas in June of 2013, there was an immediate effort to "determine if and when a meeting could or would take place" between Mr Trump and Mr Putin.

That is when "it first reared its ugly head", he recalled.

Mr Goldstone said that he and Ms Shugart worked through Mr Emin Agalarov, who told them the meeting would have to be arranged by his father, Mr Aras Agalarov, who Mr Emin Agalarov felt had the necessary gravitas.

Mr Emin Agalarov informed them that an official request would have to me made in writing by Mr Trump and delivered through Mr Aras Agalarov.

Mr Trump sent a personal letter to Mr Putin inviting him to the beauty pageant and, as The Washington Post first reported in March, the real estate magnate scrawled a postscript at the bottom of the typed letter that said he looked forward to seeing "beautiful" women during his trip to Moscow.

It was unclear whether Mr Agalarov delivered the letter to Mr Putin or whether Mr Putin responded.

Mr Goldstone told the Senate committee that on the day of the pageant, around 4pm, a call came in to Mr Aras Agalarov from Mr Dmitry Peskov, Mr Putin's top spokesman.

The Agalarovs, Mr Goldstone, Ms Shugart and bodyguard Keith Schiller gathered with Mr Trump in a conference room at Crocus, the exhibition centre where the pageant was being staged, as Mr Peskov explained to Mr Aras Agalarov that Mr Putin would not be able to meet with Mr Trump because his visit with the Dutch King was running late, Mr Goldstone testified.

"A lot of Russian words" were exchanged, Mr Goldstone recalled.

Mr Peskov invited Mr Trump to attend the Olympic Winter Games in February 2014 in Sochi "and said he'd be happy to meet him there or at any future time", Mr Goldstone said, an offer Mr Trump did not accept.

Still, Mr Trump talked about Mr Putin during his 2013 visit.

At a reception at Nobu, a trendy Japanese restaurant in Moscow, Mr Trump was asked about his views on Russia, its economy and its President.

"I remember him saying specifically, 'You have a very strong leader. Our leader is weak,'" Mr Goldstone testified about Mr Trump.

"And then he emphasised the word again. He goes, 'Weak. We need a strong leader.'"

Two years later, another opportunity to meet Mr Putin was dangled before Mr Trump.

Mr Goldstone e-mailed Mr Trump's personal secretary, Ms Rhona Graff, on July 22, 2015, just six days after Mr Trump launched his presidential campaign, inviting Mr Trump to attend Mr Aras Agalarov's 60th birthday party on Nov 8 of that year in Moscow.

Ms Graff responded that Mr Trump would be "honoured" to be invited, but it was "highly unlikely" he would have time to visit Moscow because of the campaign.

"I totally understand," Mr Goldstone replied, "unless maybe he would welcome meeting with President Putin, which Emin would set up."

Mr Trump did not make it to Mr Agalarov's party in Moscow.

He spent that evening in New York, at NBC's Rockefeller Centre studios as the guest host of Saturday Night Live.