Trump's 30-year quest to expand his brand to Russia

Donald Trump's former attorney Michael Cohen revealed attempts to build a Trump Tower in Moscow throughout the first half of 2016.
Donald Trump's former attorney Michael Cohen revealed attempts to build a Trump Tower in Moscow throughout the first half of 2016. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

WASHINGTON (WASHINGTON POST) - It was a dream born in the 1980s: a gleaming Trump Tower in the heart of Soviet Moscow.

For Mr Donald Trump, that vision never died, even as he launched a presidential campaign and moved towards clinching the Republican Party nomination in 2016.

On Thursday (Nov 29), his former attorney Michael Cohen told a federal judge that Mr Trump was pursuing a deal to build a Trump Tower in Moscow throughout the first half of 2016 - the very time the candidate was stepping out on the world stage as a political figure and breaking with the GOP by praising Russia and its President, Mr Vladimir Putin.

Mr Trump's attempt that year to expand his brand into Moscow capped a 30-year-long effort by the celebrity mogul to do business in Russia.

His refusal to give up that ambition as he was campaigning for the White House now colours his public embrace of Mr Putin, whose help Mr Cohen sought for the project.

Again and again, Mr Trump pursued his Russia project, travelling to Moscow and unveiling four ultimately unsuccessful plans to put his name on a building in the Russian capital before he announced he would run for president.

"Russia is one of the hottest places in the world for investment," Mr Trump said in a 2007 deposition. "We will be in Moscow at some point."

While running for president, Mr Trump spoke highly of Mr Putin and criticised the Russian President's adversaries, including international organisations like Nato and the European Union.

His rhetoric seldom wavered, even as evidence began to emerge that Russia was interfering in the 2016 campaign to boost Mr Trump's effort.

At the time, Mr Trump repeatedly insisted that he did not have financial ties to Russia.

"How many times do I have say that?" he said at a news conference in July 2016, just after WikiLeaks published thousands of e-mails hacked by Russian operatives from the Democratic Party. "I have nothing to with Russia, I have nothing to do with Russia."

He added in a tweet: "For the record, I have ZERO investments in Russia."

But his assertions belied years of Mr Trump's failed efforts in Russia. The final attempt led by Mr Cohen began in September 2015 and apparently ended on June 14, 2016, according to court documents - the same day The Washington Post broke the news that Russia was suspected to be behind a hack of the Democratic National Committee.

Mr Trump travelled to Russia for the first time in 1987, as the Soviet Union began to open to more Western investment, but many Americans remained wary of the communist leadership.

According to his memoir, The Art Of The Deal, he and his then wife Ivana scoped out possible sites for a luxury hotel that he wanted to build in a joint venture with the Kremlin's hotel and tourism agency.

In 1996, Mr Trump was back, this time promising to build in the heart of post-Soviet Moscow in partnership with a group of US tobacco executives.

The group drew up architectural plans and had meetings with city leaders. But again, it fizzled.

By 2005, Mr Trump had found a new partner: a company called the Bayrock Group that had opened offices in Trump Tower two floors below his own executive suite and had clinched deals to build Trump-branded properties in several US cities.

The company's point person on the project was Mr Felix Sater, a Russian-born businessman with a chequered past.

He had served a year in prison after a 1991 bar fight. In 1998, he pleaded guilty to one count of racketeering in a US$40 million Mafia-linked stock fraud.

But Mr Sater had cooperated with the government in various criminal and national security matters, allowing him to keep his plea under seal and remake himself as a respectable Trump business partner.

The Trump Organisation gave Bayrock a one-year exclusive deal to hunt for land in Moscow for a development, according to documents obtained by The Post.

Mr Sater said in a 2008 deposition that he located a group of interested Russian investors, as well as a possible site for the project - a shuttered pencil factory that had been named for American radicals Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, who were convicted of murder and executed during the "Red scare" that swept the United States after World War I.

"I showed him photos, I showed him the site, showed him the view from the site. It's pretty spectacular," Mr Sater said of Mr Trump in the depositions. "It was more of verbal updates when I'd come back, pop my head into Mr Trump's office and tell him, you know, 'Moving forward on the Moscow deal.' And he would say, 'All right.'"

That deal fell apart as well, but it did not rupture Mr Sater's relationship with the Trump Organisation.

A year later, Mr Sater testified, Mr Trump asked him to accompany his adult children, Ivanka and Donald Trump Jr, on a trip to Moscow.

By 2007, Mr Trump had hired Mr Cohen to serve as one of his top lawyers. Mr Cohen and Mr Sater had attended high school together and were close.

The failures in Russia were a source of frustration for the Trump Organisation at a time when it was otherwise expanding around the world, buoyed by the success of Mr Trump's reality television show, The Apprentice.

He signed deals to build Trump Towers in Istanbul and Panama in 2006 and in the Dominican Republic in 2007.

Speaking to a real estate conference in 2008, Mr Trump's son Donald Trump Jr explained that building in Russia was tricky.

"As much as we want to take our business over there, Russia is just a different world," he said. "It is a question of who knows who, whose brother is paying off who... It really is a scary place."

But the younger Mr Trump insisted that the company was determined to make it work. He had travelled to Russia six times in the previous 18 months, he told the investors.

"Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets," he said, explaining that Russians found the Trump name appealing and were buying units in the company's buildings around the world.

Mr Donald Trump finally made it to Moscow in 2013, bringing his Miss Universe beauty pageant to the Russian capital.

Costs for the elaborate event were born by a Russian billionaire developer, Mr Aras Agalarov, and his pop star son Emin - often called the Trumps of Russia for their tendency to put their own name on projects.

Mr Trump spent 36 hours in Moscow in November 2013, meeting Russian business leaders and hoping for a sit-down with the Russian President. Mr Putin declined, citing a delayed meeting with the King of Holland.

As the event concluded, Mr Trump announced he had once again reached a preliminary deal to build in Moscow - this time with the Agalarovs as partners.

"I had a great weekend with you and your family," Mr Trump tweeted to Mr Agalarov as he left Russia. "TRUMP TOWER-MOSCOW is next."

The deal did not advance beyond preliminary talks, hampered by a cooling Russian economy and then Mr Trump's busy campaign schedule, the Agalarovs told The Washington Post in a joint interview in spring 2016.

But the billionaire and his son remained in contact with Mr Trump, and in June 2016, they helped arranged for Mr Trump Jr to have a meeting with a Russian lawyer as his father pursued the presidency.

The candidate's son was told the lawyer would bring dirt about Democrat Hillary Clinton as part of a Russian government effort to help Mr Trump.

"If it's what you say, I love it," Mr Trump Jr responded.

By then, Mr Cohen had been working with Mr Sater for months to once again get a Trump development in Moscow off the ground.

A person close to Mr Cohen said he knew how badly Mr Trump wanted a Moscow project and believed he would score a major coup with his boss if he could get it done.

Mr Cohen has said Mr Sater approached him with the proposal in September 2015. He had found a new Russian partner, a Moscow-based developer called IC Expert Investment Co and its chairman, a former Sater business partner named Mr Andrei Rozov.

It was not the only Moscow project fielded by Mr Cohen while his boss ran for president.

Mr Cohen had also been forwarded in October 2015 another a 13-page proposal from Mr Sergei Gordeev, a Moscow real estate billionaire and former legislator.

The proposal was delivered by an international financier with whom Mr Cohen had worked previously, whose spokesman said last year that Mr Cohen rejected the offer because he was already working with Mr Sater.

She declined to comment on Thursday about whether that businessman, Mr Giorgi Rtskhiladze, has been interviewed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

That same month, Mr Trump signed a letter of intent to proceed with the Sater project, Mr Cohen has said. It came on the same day Mr Trump participated in the third Republican debate.

Both Mr Cohen and Mr Sater believed the project could be used not only to help Mr Trump's bottom line, but also his electoral efforts.

"Our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it," Mr Sater to Mr Cohen in a 2015 e-mail obtained by The New York Times and confirmed by The Washington Post.

"I will get all of Putin's team to buy in on this, I will manage this process."

In the messages, Mr Sater claimed he had lined up financing with VTB Bank, under US sanctions at the time for allegedly undermining democracy in Ukraine.

In another e-mail, Mr Sater told Mr Cohen they could host a ribbon-cutting ceremony in Moscow and suggested showing Russian contacts video clips of Mr Trump praising Russia on the campaign trail.

"I will get Putin on this programme and we will get Donald elected," Mr Sater wrote. "America's most difficult adversary agreeing that Donald is a good guy to negotiate."

Testifying to Congress, however, Mr Cohen said the project was short-lived. He told lawmakers he spoke to Mr Trump about it only three times before cancelling the project. By January 2016, he said the project had stalled.

Mr Cohen e-mailed Mr Dmitry Peskov, a top Putin aide and spokesman, to enlist Russian government help to secure land and permits, according to documents submitted to Congress. Mr Cohen said he did not recall receiving a response, and the project died.

On Thursday, Mr Cohen acknowledged those statements were false and pleaded guilty to lying to Congress.

He said that after reaching out to Mr Peskov, he spoke to the Russian official's personal assistant for 20 minutes. She took notes and promised to look into the issue, according to a court document filed on Thursday.

The next day, Mr Sater e-mailed Mr Cohen. "It's about (the President of Russia) they called today," he wrote, according to the the filing.

Mr Cohen also admitted that he discussed the project with Mr Trump more frequently than he told Congress, and briefed his children as well.

Six months later, Mr Cohen agreed to travel to Russia to attend an economic forum in St Petersburg at Mr Sater's recommendation, only reversing course and cancelling the trip on June 14, 2016.

Mr Trump told reporters on Thursday that Mr Cohen was lying about key details.

But he added that he saw no reason why running for president meant he could not also pursue his business ambitions.

"There was a good chance that I wouldn't have won," he said, "in which case I would have gone back into the business and why should I lose lots of opportunities?"