Trump, Rus­sia deal for decades

Co­hen’s guilty plea puts ‘Art of the Deal’ in news

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - FRONT PAGE - Kim Hjelm­gaard

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s in­ter­est in de­vel­op­ing lux­ury real es­tate in Moscow stretches back decades, ac­cord­ing to court doc­u­ments, his pub­lic state­ments and in­ter­views with Trump.

Trump’s long-stand­ing ties to Rus­sia are back in the spot­light be­cause his for­mer lawyer Michael Co­hen pleaded guilty Thurs­day to ly­ing to Congress in con­nec­tion with the Jus­tice De­part­ment’s spe­cial coun­sel probe into whether Trump or any mem­bers of his in­ner cir­cle col­luded with Rus­sia dur­ing the 2016 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign.

The in­ves­ti­ga­tion has been go­ing on for 18 months.

Co­hen, who pre­vi­ously pleaded guilty to tax fraud and other cam­paign-re­lated fi­nan­cial vi­o­la­tions, ad­mit­ted mak­ing false state­ments to law­mak­ers about the tim­ing of Trump’s ef­forts to de­velop a Trump Tower in Moscow. The de­vel­op­ment is po­ten­tially sig­nif­i­cant be­cause Trump has con­sis­tently de­nied any fi­nan­cial ties to Rus­sia.

Trump called Co­hen a “weak per­son” and ac­cused him of pro­vid­ing false tes­ti­mony to get a re­duced sen­tence from spe­cial coun­sel Robert Mueller.

“He’s got him­self a big prison sen­tence. And he’s try­ing to get a much lesser prison sen­tence by mak­ing up this story,” said Trump as he left Wash­ing­ton for a Group of 20 eco­nomic sum­mit in Buenos Aires, Ar­gentina. “He’s ly­ing about a pro­ject that ev­ery­body knew about. I mean, we were very open about it.”

Trump tweeted Fri­day that he “Lightly looked at do­ing a build­ing some­where in Rus­sia. Put up zero money, zero guar­an­tees and didn’t do the pro­ject. Witch Hunt!” He de­fended that ef­fort as “very le­gal.”

But Trump’s known con­nec­tions to Rus­sia go back more than 30 years.

In “The Art of the Deal,” his 1987 book about his busi­ness style, Trump wrote about want­ing to build “a large lux­ury ho­tel across the street from the Krem­lin in part­ner­ship with the Soviet gov­ern­ment.” Trump was in­vited that year to Moscow by the Soviet Union’s am­bas­sador to the United States to dis­cuss the pro­ject. The deal fell apart be­cause, Trump later told Play­boy mag­a­zine, Rus­sia “was out of con­trol and the lead­er­ship knows it.” Four years later, the Soviet Union dis­solved, and Rus­sians who had been al­lowed to buy sta­te­owned en­ter­prises amassed enor­mous for­tunes.

Less than a decade later, Trump an­nounced in a 1996 news con­fer­ence in Moscow that he in­tended to in­vest $250 mil­lion in var­i­ous Rus­sian build­ing projects. Trump said he would li­cense his name for use on two lux­ury res­i­den­tial build­ings. “We have tremen­dous fi­nan­cial com­mit­ments from var­i­ous groups,” Trump said, speak­ing at the plush Baltschug Ho­tel in Moscow. “We’re ready to go any­time we want to go,” he said. It is not clear what hap­pened to those ef­forts, but they never ma­te­ri­al­ized.

In an in­ter­view with The New Yorker in 1997, Trump said: “We are ac­tu­ally look­ing in Moscow right now, and it

would be sky­scrapers and ho­tels, not casi­nos. Only qual­ity stuff ... I’ll be soon go­ing again to Moscow. We’re look­ing at the Moskva Ho­tel. We’re also look­ing at the Ros­siya. That’s a very big pro­ject; I think it’s the largest ho­tel in the world. And we’re work­ing with the lo­cal gov­ern­ment, the mayor of Moscow and the mayor’s peo­ple. So far, they’ve been very re­spon­sive.”

At the same time, Trump was sell­ing dozens of con­do­mini­ums in Trump World Tower in mid­town Man­hat­tan to Rus­sians, ac­cord­ing to Dolly Lenz, a real es­tate bro­ker who sold many of the units. She said many of th­ese Rus­sian buy­ers sought an au­di­ence with Trump be­cause they re­spected his busi­ness acu­men and per­sonal style.

By the early 2000s, Trump was court­ing wealthy Rus­sian in­vestors to help fund sev­eral for­eign con­struc­tion projects from Canada to Panama. He launched his epony­mous Su­per Pre­mium Vodka brand in Moscow in 2007. It ceased pro­duc­tion four years later.

Trump’s son, Don­ald Trump Jr., trav­eled to Rus­sia a half-dozen times in 18 months look­ing for deals around 2008, he told eTur­boNews, an on­line busi­ness pub­li­ca­tion. While in Moscow, Trump Jr. ex­plained to in­vestors that the Trump Or­ga­ni­za­tion had trade­marked the Don­ald Trump name in Rus­sia and planned to build hous­ing and ho­tels in Moscow, St. Peters­burg and Sochi, and sell li­censes to other de­vel­op­ers.

“Rus­sians make up a pretty dis­pro­por­tion­ate cross-sec­tion of a lot of our as­sets,” Trump Jr. said at the time. “We see a lot of money pour­ing in from Rus­sia.”

In 2013, Trump brought the Miss Uni­verse Pageant to Moscow, funded by $20 mil­lion from Rus­sian bil­lion­aire Aras Agalarov. The venue was Agalarov’s Cro­cus City Hall on the out­skirts of Moscow. Trump took part in a mu­sic video with Agalarov’s son, Emin. Mean­while, Tev­fik Arif, an ex-Soviet of­fi­cial who co-founded Bay­rock Group, a New York-based real es­tate com­pany, had helped Trump fund Trump SoHo in New York, a 46-story, res­i­den­tial-ho­tel hy­brid build­ing later re­named “The Do­minick.”

“It’s ridicu­lous that I wouldn’t be in­vest­ing in Rus­sia,” Trump tes­ti­fied un­der oath in a 2007 court de­po­si­tion as his busi­ness re­la­tion­ship with Bay­rock broke down.

“Rus­sia is one of the hottest places in the world for in­vest­ment,” he added.

Felix Sater, the other Bay­rock founder, is also be­ing scru­ti­nized by Mueller as part of his in­ves­ti­ga­tion into al­leged 2016 cam­paign col­lu­sion with Rus­sia.

Sater, ac­cord­ing to The New York Times, wrote a se­ries of emails in 2015 to Trump’s lawyer – Co­hen – in which he boasted about his ties to Rus­sia’s Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin. “Our boy can be pres­i­dent of the USA and we can en­gi­neer it,” Sater wrote in one of the emails. “I will get all of Putin’s team to buy in on this.”

The Times noted that Co­hen never replied to the emails and viewed them as “puffery.” Sater said he was sim­ply ex­press­ing “en­thu­si­asm” for the Trump Or­ga­ni­za­tion. Rus­sia-born Sater had spent a year in prison in 1991 for stab­bing a man in the face with a bro­ken mar­garita glass at the Rio Grande restau­rant and bar in New York.

A re­port by Buz­zFeed News said that at one point Sater and Co­hen hatched a plan to of­fer Putin a $50 mil­lion pent­house in the pro­posed Trump Tower in Moscow to help sell other apart­ments. “In Rus­sia, the oli­garchs would bend over back­wards to live in the same build­ing as Vladimir Putin,” Sater told Buz­zFeed News.

Co­hen’s at­tor­ney, Lanny Davis, de­clined to com­ment on the re­port when reached by USA TO­DAY.

Still, to ex­pand his real es­tate de­vel­op­ments over the years, Trump, his com­pany and part­ners have re­peat­edly turned to wealthy Rus­sians and oli­garchs from for­mer Soviet re­publics – sev­eral al­legedly con­nected to or­ga­nized crime, ac­cord­ing to a USA TO­DAY re­view last year of court cases and gov­ern­ment and le­gal doc­u­ments.

At least five close ad­vis­ers to Trump have ad­mit­ted wrong­do­ing or been con­victed since his elec­tion.

In “The Art of the Deal,” his 1987 book about his busi­ness style, Don­ald Trump wrote about want­ing to build “a large lux­ury ho­tel across the street from the Krem­lin in part­ner­ship with the Soviet gov­ern­ment.”

IGOR TABAKOV/AP

Don­ald Trump vis­its a re­cep­tion as he checks out sites in Moscow for lux­ury res­i­den­tial tow­ers on Nov. 5, 1996.

GETTY IM­AGES

Trump as­so­ci­ates re­port­edly dis­cussed giv­ing Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin a Trump Tower suite.

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