Donald Trump and the Hunt for the Big Russia Deal

In this photo provided by German government U.S. President Donald Trump, left, shakes hand with Russian President Vladimir Putin before the first working session of the G-20 summit in Hamburg, northern Germany. (Stef... In this photo provided by German government U.S. President Donald Trump, left, shakes hand with Russian President Vladimir Putin before the first working session of the G-20 summit in Hamburg, northern Germany. (Steffen Kugler/Presse- und Informationsamt der Bundesregierung via AP) MORE LESS
August 2, 2017 1:08 p.m.

Over almost twelve months in which “Trump/Russia” has been a catchword for a confusing and troubling series of relationships between the now President and the Russian government, President Donald Trump has repeatedly insisted he has ‘no business’ in Russia. We know this is demonstrably not true if we are talking about business deals with individual Russians or citizens of the successor states of the former Soviet Union. We also know it is not true if we mean investments of Russian nationals in various Trump owned or branded real estate properties. It is with major cash investments to build new properties (as opposed to selling units of buildings) and potential building projects in Russia where the picture becomes murkier and more opaque.

This is needless to say an important question if we are trying to understand the mix of relationships with individual Russians and potentially the Russian government in the lead up to Trump’s presidential run and presidency. What is now clear is that Trump’s interest in and desire to start major building projects in Russia, particularly in Moscow, was increasing as he got closer to mounting a run for President. It was also building in intensity as doing business with Russia was getting more difficult – first in a limited way with the 2012 Magnitsky Act and then in a far more dramatic way after March of 2014 after the Russian seizure of the Crimean Peninsula.

One part of this story we already know. In 2013 era, Trump was chumming up with the Agalarov clan, first as hosts of the November 2013 Miss Universe pageant (of which Trump was then part owner) and second as investors in a new Trump building project in Moscow. After the pageant, Trump and the Agalarovs signed a preliminary agreement to build a Trump Tower Moscow. But the deal seems to have fallen through or come to nothing before the Presidential campaign got underway.

But that does not seem to be the only effort.

Trump business partner Felix Sater told TPM’s Sam Thielman that he was working on a deal to build a Trump Tower Moscow in the final months of 2015, after Trump’s presidential campaign was already underway. This seems to have come after the Agalarov deal foundered. And, based on Sater’s account, it focused on new oligarch partners.

From Thielman’s story

“My last Moscow deal [for the Trump Organization] was in October of 2015,” Sater recalled. “It didn’t go through because obviously he became President.” Sater had told the New York Times that he was working on the deal that fall, but over the course of several conversations with TPM, he gave a slightly more detailed timeline. “Once the campaign was really going-going, it was obvious there were going to be no deals internationally,” Sater said. “We were still working on it, doing something with it, November-December.”

That deal was for “The Trump Tower, to develop in Moscow.” It was a similar proposition to the one Trump himself tried to broker with the Agalarovs, a family of vastly wealthy Russian oligarchs who brought Miss Universe 2013 to Moscow and were behind the infamous 2016 Trump Tower meeting between the President’s oldest son and an attorney said to work for the Russian government.

Sater said he never worked with the Agalarovs on a Moscow deal for Trump: “I don’t work with them and I’ve never worked with them.” When asked who he was working with, Sater chuckled. “A couple of people I’d like to continue working with, and that’s why I don’t want their names in the newspaper. People say, ‘I care about you and love you but why do I need my name in the press?’”

It would be interesting to know who those other hoped for partners were and how direct Trump’s involvement with this separate effort was. The Trump Organization didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The bigger picture is that contrary to all his denials, Trump did not simply have a history of doing business with Russian investment capital and a clear interest in major building projects in Moscow. That interest seems to have peaked – either from Trump’s side or the Russia side – in the years just before he decided to run for President. Indeed, the Trump-Sater effort to build Trump Tower Moscow continued through the early months of the campaign.

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