The New York Times, following up on a Sunday report by The Washington Post, broke news Monday that the Trump Organization sought a deal for a Trump Tower in Moscow while Donald Trump was in the middle of running for president, and that it was engineered in part to “get Donald elected.”
The deal was brokered by a Russian-mafia linked real estate developer named Felix Sater, who in email correspondence with Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen, said he could get Putin to say “great things” about Trump.
“Our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it,” Stater wrote in the email. “I will get all of Putins team to buy in on this, I will manage this process.”
The initial discussions for the Moscow property were conducted in late 2015, before any one was really keying in on links between the Trump campaign and Russia. As the election cycle went on and connections between the two became more apparent, Trump repeatedly denied that he had any business interest in Russia. He’s made similar denials since the election. All of them look very awkward now.
At his first press conference after winning the election, then-president elect Trump said, “I have nothing to do with Russia.” He reiterated his denial on Twitter that same day.
Russia has never tried to use leverage over me. I HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH RUSSIA – NO DEALS, NO LOANS, NO NOTHING!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 11, 2017
And twice again in February.
I don't know Putin, have no deals in Russia, and the haters are going crazy – yet Obama can make a deal with Iran, #1 in terror, no problem!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 7, 2017
But the Post and Times reports indicate that the Trump Organization was actively seeking to build a Trump-branded property during the campaign, even going as far as signing a letter of intent.
Trump has a long, storied history with Sater, which includes Russian real estate ventures. Sater worked at an investment group named Bayrock, whose offices are conveniently located on the 24th floor of Trump Tower in New York, where they formed a casual working relationship. In a sworn 2008 deposition statement, Sater says he would “pop [his] head into Mr. Trump’s office” to tell him how the Russia deal was coming along. According to Sater, Trump asked him to escort Donald Jr. and Ivanka Trump during their 2006 trip to Moscow. He also said he would pitch Trump business deals (“just me and him”) on a “constant basis.” In 2005, Trump began licensing his name for real estate developments in New York and Florida. He struck up an exclusive deal with Bayrock to develop a property in Russia, a deal which also later fell through.
As with most controversies, Trump has tried to distance himself from Felix Sater, even going as far as to say he wouldn’t be able to recognize him if they were in the same room together. When asked in 2013 about why Trump remained in a deal with Sater considering his criminal past, Trump walked off set.
The Trump Organization always enjoyed the support of Russians. Eric Trump told golf reporter James Dodson in 2014 that they “don’t rely on American banks” because they have “all the funding [they] need out of Russia.” Donald Trump, Jr., who runs the Trump Organization along with his brother Eric, also touted the family business’ financial connections to Russia at a real estate conference in 2008, where he said Russians “make up a disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets.”
In response to the Times report, the Trump Organization issued a statement that says it has “never had any real estate holdings or interests in Russia.”
The details of all these deals, however, will remain shrouded in mystery, as Trump is the only president in over four decades to refuse to release his tax returns. Tax returns wouldn’t just reveal whether or not he has projects in Russia, but also more importantly disclose whether or not those deals leave him indebted to the Russian government or oligarchs in any way. A president owing debt to a foreign government puts the integrity of a country’s foreign policy at risk, forcing citizens to question whether his debt influences his decision-making.