Mueller Wants Trump’s Business Records. What’s the Russia Connection?
The investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election has expanded to include President Trump’s family business, with the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, subpoenaing the Trump Organization for documents related to Russia.
For more than 30 years, Mr. Trump has repeatedly sought to conduct business in Russia. He traveled to Moscow in 1987 to explore building a hotel. He applied for his trademark in the country as early as 1996. And his children and associates have met with Russian developers and government officials on multiple occasions in search of joint ventures.
But the company says nothing has come of it. Mr. Trump tweeted in January last year, shortly before his inauguration: “I HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH RUSSIA — NO DEALS, NO LOANS, NO NOTHING!”
So what about the Trump Organization’s Russian connections might be of interest to Mr. Mueller?
Felix Sater, right, with Mr. Trump in 2005. Mr. Sater discussed securing money for a Trump Moscow project through a Russian bank under sanctions.
There Was a Moscow Hotel Deal in the Works During the Campaign
Perhaps the closest Mr. Trump came to launching a real estate project in Russia was during the presidential campaign, when he signed a letter of intent in late 2015 for a Trump hotel to be built in Moscow. Ultimately, the deal never materialized.
In email exchanges with Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael D. Cohen, Felix Sater, a Russian émigré who had previously helped develop Trump SoHo in New York, talked about securing financing for the Moscow project from VTB, a major state-owned Russian bank under American sanctions. He also mused about how the deal, if supported by Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, would “fix relations between the countries by showing everyone that commerce & business are much better and more practical than politics.”
“I will get Putin on this program and we will get Donald elected,” Mr. Sater wrote in one of the emails.
Mr. Trump signed the letter of intent with Andrey Rozov, a developer of retail and residential projects in the Moscow region. If the deal went through, Mr. Trump would receive a $4 million upfront fee in exchange for licensing his name, and his company would manage the completed hotel.
By January 2016, the project seemed to have stalled. At one point, without success, Mr. Cohen emailed an aide to Mr.
Putin seeking help jump-starting it. There is no evidence the Kremlin provided any assistance for the project.
The Trump Organization has said that it received no government approvals or financing and that the effort was abandoned in early 2016.
Mr. Trump with Aras Agalarov, left, a Russian real estate developer, and Gabriela Isler, the 2013 Miss Universe. The pageant that year was held in Moscow. CreditIrina Bujor/Kommersant.ru, via Associated Press
Mr. Trump Took Miss Universe to Moscow and ‘Met the Top People’
Mr. Trump’s business opportunities in Russia got little traction until he took the Miss Universe pageant to Moscow in 2013.
A father-son pair of real estate developers, Aras and Emin Agalarov, paid nearly $20 million to license the Miss Universe name, bringing the contest to their Crocus City Hall in Moscow. As an owner of the pageant, Mr. Trump flew to Russia in November 2013 to participate. He became friendly with his partners, who were known to have been helpful to the Kremlin.
The visit left an impression on Mr. Trump and had him contemplating future endeavors with the Agalarovs.
“I had a great weekend with you and your family,” Mr. Trump posted on Twitter in a message to Aras Agalarov. “You have done a FANTASTIC job. TRUMP TOWER-MOSCOW is next,” he wrote, before referring to Mr. Agalarov’s son, a pop star: “EMIN was WOW!”
While the plans for the tower were apparently shelved during the campaign, Mr. Trump and the Agalarovs maintained their friendship.
In June 2016, a publicist for Emin Agalarov requested that Donald Trump Jr. meet with a Kremlin-connected lawyer.
That meeting, at Trump Tower in New York, first reported by The New York Times last July, included other campaign officials and has been the subject of considerable scrutiny.
After the disclosure of the meeting, the president downplayed his ties to the Agalarovs in an interview with The Times. But in a September 2015 interview on “The Hugh Hewitt Show,” he had made the Miss Universe pageant seem far more important.
“I called it my weekend in Moscow,” Mr. Trump said. “I was with the top-level people, both oligarchs and generals, and top-of-the-government people. I can’t go further than that, but I will tell you that I met the top people, and the relationship was extraordinary.”
Deutsche Bank, which has done business with Mr. Trump over the years, paid more than $600 million in penalties over money laundering.
The Trumps’ German Bank Paid Fines in a Russian Money-Laundering Case
Two decades ago, Mr. Trump was a persona non grata on Wall Street. His casino and hotel businesses had suffered some bankruptcies, and his lenders were grumbling that he had stiffed them.
But one giant German bank stepped up as a willing partner.
Over the years, that institution, Deutsche Bank, offered Mr. Trump more than $4 billion in loan commitments and potential bond offerings, a majority of which were completed, The Times reported last year.
There is no indication of a Russian connection to Mr. Trump’s loans or accounts at Deutsche Bank, and there is no public evidence that Mr. Mueller has subpoenaed the bank for records about Mr. Trump.
But the bank last year landed in legal trouble over Russian money laundering — paying more than $600 million in penalties to American and British regulators.
Some Deutsche Bank executives expect they will eventually have to produce records as part of Mr. Mueller’s inquiry, The Times reported last July. The bank has already been asked to turn over documents to federal prosecutors in Brooklyn about another client with a White House connection: the Kushner Companies, the family business of Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and adviser.
A mansion in Palm Beach, Fla., that Mr. Trump sold to a Russian billionaire for $95 million. Mr. Trump had bought it just a few years earlier for about $41 million. CreditSteve Mitchell/Associated Press
A Russian Oligarch Bought a Trump Mansion at a High Price
Dmitry Rybolovlev, a Russian billionaire oligarch, paid $95 million for Mr. Trump’s oceanfront mansion in Palm Beach, Fla., one of two sources of income from Russians that Mr. Trump’s lawyers have said were reflected in his income tax returns. (The other was $12.2 million in payments in connection with holding the Miss Universe pageant in Moscow.)
The Palm Beach deal was unusual for several reasons.
Mr. Trump sold the house less than four years after buying it for about $41 million. Mr. Rybolovlev paid the markup despite buying the property in 2008, at the height of the housing crisis. And Mr. Trump had made few improvements to the mansion, which reportedly had a mold problem.
Mr. Rybolovlev, moreover, never lived in the property.
At the time of the sale, Mr. Trump was facing financial pressure. He potentially owed Deutsche Bank $40 million after not paying off a loan for his Chicago hotel and tower.
The Florida property later featured prominently in Mr. Rybolovlev’s divorce.
Mr. Rybolovlev’s wife sought control of the mansion, saying he had bought it partly to hide money from her in the divorce, a claim he denied.
He has since demolished the mansion and divided the property into different parcels that he is selling. The new owners are hidden behind murky layers of trusts and other legal entities.
A spokesman for Mr. Rybolovlev disputed that he overpaid for the property, saying that the sale was negotiated down from an asking price of $125 million and that it predated an upheaval in the Palm Beach real estate market. The spokesman also said that the property was acquired by a family trust “specifically and explicitly for investment purposes,” and that depending on the sale price of the final lot, the investment might “end up yielding a decent return.”
A golf writer said that at a Trump course in Charlotte, N.C., in 2013, Eric Trump told him, “We have pretty much all the money we need from investors in Russia.” CreditJacob Biba for The New York Times
There Were Boasts That Russian Money Helped Pay for Golf Courses and Other Projects
In the past decade, the Trump Organization has bought and refurbished several golf courses around the world, but the financing behind those deals remains something of a mystery. A respected golf writer says that Eric Trump, a son of
Mr. Trump’s who is now helping to run the Trump Organization, told him the money came from Russia.
Last year, during an interview on Boston public radio, the golf journalist James Dodson recounted a conversation he had had with Eric Trump in 2013 on a newly opened Trump golf course in Charlotte, N.C. Mr. Dodson said he had asked Mr. Trump about the company’s sources of funds, and Mr. Trump told him, “We have pretty much all the money we need from investors in Russia.”
Eric Trump has denied making the comment about Russia, but several of Mr. Dodson’s friends and colleagues confirmed that Mr. Dodson relayed the anecdote to them shortly after the conversation took place.
It was not the first time that one of Mr. Trump’s sons made a similar claim. In 2008, at a real estate conference in New York, Donald Trump Jr. said: “In terms of high-end product influx into the U.S., Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets, say in Dubai, and certainly with our project in SoHo and anywhere in New York. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”