President-elect Donald Trump tweeted Wednesday that he has “NOTHING TO DO WITH RUSSIA – NO DEALS, NO LOANS, NO NOTHING!”
Trump, however, has a long history with Russia, trying repeatedly to build luxury properties in Moscow, holding a beauty pageant there, and benefiting from heavy investments from Russians in his properties around the world.
It is not possible to verify whether Trump has no current deals or loans with Russian entities because he has refused to release his tax returns. But a look at Trump’s record since the 1980s shows that he and his family long have been interested in trying to do business there. The connection became a matter of curiosity during the 2016 presidential race. A Russian official was quoted saying his government had been in contact with Trump’s campaign, and the candidate repeatedly praised Russian President Vladimir Putin while urging the country’s leaders to hack into his opponent’s emails.
The connections go back 30 years.
Trump first visited Moscow in 1987 in an effort to make real estate deals. As he told it in a Playboy interview, two Russian fighter planes accompanied his jet to the airport, and he had insisted on having two Russian colonels fly with him. He stayed at the National Hotel, overlooking the Kremlin, and said that the Soviets wanted him to build two luxury hotels. The Soviet ambassador had visited Trump in New York City and said his daughter had “adored” Trump Tower and suggested a Moscow version, according to a Newsweek account of the visit published at the time. Trump visited a number of potential sites around Moscow.
Trump said he told Soviet officials that he didn’t know how to arrange financing because the government owned the land. Trump said he was told: “No problem, Mr. Trump. We will work out lease arrangements.”
Trump said he responded: “I want ownership, not leases.” The Soviets said they would create a committee of seven government representatives and three Trump associates to resolve problems.
Trump said in the 1990 interview he was “very unimpressed” with the Soviet system, which he called “a disaster.” “What you will see there soon is a revolution,” he added. He said his “problem” with then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was that he was “not a firm enough hand.”
Trump did not wind up making a deal, but he soon tried again.
In 1996, Trump sought to build luxury condominiums in Moscow, but the deal never happened. Trump tried again in 2005, signing a deal for a possible Trump building in a converted pencil factory, but this also failed to materialize.
The Trumps were undaunted. Donald Trump Jr. traveled to Russia six times in an 18-month period, starting around 2006, to try to make deals. His father seemed convinced it would happen.
“Russia is one of the hottest places in the world for investment,” the senior Trump said in 2007. “We will be in Moscow at some point.”
The following year, Donald Jr. appeared at a real estate conference in which he said the company had tried to invest in Russia, and acknowledged that “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”
The Trump company sold condos to Russian investors, and the senior Trump received $95 million for a Palm Beach mansion in 2008 from Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev, more than twice the $41 million of Trump’s original purchase price, according to property records.
“The closest I came to Russia, I bought a house a number of years ago in Palm Beach, Florida,” Trump said last July. “Palm Beach is a very expensive place. There was a man who went bankrupt and I bought the house for $40 million and I sold it to a Russian for $100 million including brokerage commissions…. I guess probably I sell condos to Russians, okay?”
Trump’s ambition to build in Russia was still unfulfilled, and he made another effort in 2013. He traveled that year to Moscow for his Miss Universe pageant at the 7,300-seat Crocus City Hall. Trump sent a tweet in search of Russia’s leader: “Do you think Putin will be going to The Miss Universe Pageant in November in Moscow -if so, will he become my new best friend?”
Putin did not attend the pageant, but Trump used the occasion to visit with Russian officials and seek out real estate opportunities. He spoke with a developer named Aras Agalarov, who said he talked with Trump about developing adjoining towers in Moscow. Trump sounded sure he would strike a deal, tweeting: “TRUMP TOWER-MOSCOW is next.”
During his time promoting the pageant in Moscow, Trump lavished praised on Putin, and the Russian leader responded with a “friendly letter” to him, Agalarov told The Washington Post last year. Agalorov’s son, Emin, visited Trump in New York after the mogul announced his presidential bid, and he said Trump criticized the U.S. government “for not being able to be friends with Russia.”
Trump’s friendly view toward Russia escalated during the campaign. In July, Trump encouraged Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails. “I will tell you this, Russia: If you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” Trump said. “I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”
U.S. intelligence agencies subsequently said that Russia, under Putin’s direction, was behind the hacking of Democratic National Committee emails as part of an effort to undermine Clinton and help Trump. The emails of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta were also hacked and released, much to Clinton’s embarrassment. Podesta wrote in The Post that he believed he was the “direct target of Russian hacking.”
In September, Trump lavished praise on Putin, saying he is “a leader far more than our president has been.” Asked to explain, Trump said, “He does have an 82 percent approval rating…I think when he calls me brilliant , I’ll take it as a compliment, ok?”
Trump’s statements highlighted his tendency to value those who stroke his ego, and his admiration for leaders who project power – two attributes of which Moscow seemed to be well aware.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told state-run Interfax news agency that his country had “contacts” with Trump’s campaign. “Obviously, we know most of the people from his entourage,” Ryabkov said. The campaign denied such talks.
Ryabkov did not say who Russia talked to. Trump’s onetime campaign-manager Paul Manafort, managed an investment fund for a Putin ally, and he was cited in a corruption probe in Ukraine, where investigators were looking into illegal payments from a pro-Russia party that had hired Manafort when he was a political consultant. Manafort denied any wrongdoing and said he never received improper payments. He also said he had nothing to do with weakening of the Republican Party platform language that suggested US military support for Ukraine.
Trump’s national security adviser, retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn – who led “Lock Her Up” chants about Clinton – sat next to Putin at a 2015 dinner. Flynn told The Post last year that he gave a paid speech at an anniversary party for the RT television network in Moscow, a network on which Trump later appeared.
Trump stood by his warm words for Putin and Russia at his Wednesday press conference, even as he acknowledged that “I think it was Russia” that hacked D.N.C. emails. Addressing an unverified memo that said Russia had collected compromising material about him – which he called “fake news” – Trump said he believed Russian denials that they had not collected such information. He followed that by welcoming Putin’s friendship.
“If Putin likes Donald Trump, I consider that an asset, not a liability,” Trump said.