At the heart of businessman-President Donald Trump’s relationship with Vladimir Putin lies billions of dollars in business interests. In 2013, the Trump-owned Miss Universe Pageant was hosted in Moscow jointly by Trump and Aras Agalarov, a Putin acolyte and Russian oligarch who owes his wealth to Kremlin contracts. The Trump Organization’s private server is linked to Alfa Bank, Russia’s biggest private bank, controlled by Putin. Fedor Emelianenko, Putin’s martial arts instructor, was Trump’s business partner. Felix Sater, the most unsavoury of Trump associates, has a Russian connection—he is in jail after he was caught in a stock scam involving the Russian mafia.
He had also engineered a $150-million sweetheart deal with Iceland-based hedge fund, FL Group, that has invested in Trump SoHo project; FL has ties with Putin. The sponsor for Donald Trump Jr to speak at a think-tank event was Fabian Baussart, the French interlocutor for Russia in Syria. Baussart had nominated Putin for the Nobel Peace Prize. As Donald Trump Jr put it in September 2008, “In terms of high-end product influx into the US, 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.” Another son Eric Trump has admitted that the entire investment in his golf courses is from Russia. Daughter Ivanka Trump was introduced to Russian billionaire Abramovich—Putin’s close friend—by Rupert Murdoch’s ex-wife Wendy Dang.
The beginnings of Russiagate perhaps lie in the 1980s when Donald Trump hired unscrupulous former Nixon fixer Roger Stone and Paul Manafort to lobby for his gambling and real-estate interests. Then the Russian mafia was beginning to launder money through US real estate investments. In 1984, Russian emigre David Bogatin purchased five condominiums in Trump Tower for $6 million. In April 1987, Australian intelligence pointed out ‘Trump Mafia Connections’ to the US government. In the intervening years, Trump courted Russia vigorously. In 1996, he visited Moscow to scout for new locations for his construction business. In August 1998, Russia’s Stock Market collapsed and Russian millionaires piped their money out into New York City real estate. Like Bogatin, they too bought units in Trump World Tower. 2002 was a landmark year for Trump when Russian-born Felix Sater entered his life as his top dealmaker in Moscow; ironically Trump has denied knowing Sater multiple times though they remained in touch. In February 2006, Sater facilitated the visit of Donald Trump Jr and Ivanka to Moscow.
Sater quoted Trump Sr, saying, “Nice, big city, great. Let’s do a deal here.” Subsequently in 2007, Trump told TV showman Larry King, “Look at Putin—what he’s doing with Russia—I mean, you know, what’s going on over there. I mean this guy has done—whether you like him or don’t like him—he’s doing a great job”. In 2008, Trump made the biggest single-family home sale in American history—a Florida house for $95 million to Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev. In 2010, Putin-controlled bank VEB bailed out Trump with $850 million for his Canadian project. In 2013, Trump declared that the next Miss USA pageant would be held in Moscow. He tweeted, ‘Will he (Putin) become my new best friend?’ Trump is full of admiration for the Russian leader; he told King, “(Putin) is a tough guy. I met him once.” He subsequently told US TV host David Letterman, “Well, I’ve done a lot of business with the Russians.” Letterman then asked him, “Vladimir Putin, have you ever met the guy?” Trump’s answer was, “He’s a tough guy. I met him once.”
Before the beauty pageant was held in Moscow, Trump sent Putin a personal invitation, looking forward to seeing “beautiful” women. But Putin did not attend. However, his close aide did—Vladimir Kozhin, who heads the Kremlin’s presidential property management department that handles all construction and development projects in Russia. A few days after the event, Trump announced plans to build a skyscraper in Moscow. The Russian majority state-owned Sberbank agreed to “partly finance” construction projects worth 80 billion rubles ($2.4 billion) in Moscow’s Crocus City—the largest loan granted to the real estate sector in the bank’s history. At the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference, Trump said Putin sent him a beautiful present—we don’t know what. In April 2014, Trump praised Putin again in a TV interview: “Well, he’s done an amazing job of taking the mantle, and he’s taken it away from the President (Obama) and you look at what he’s doing—so smart.” As the story unravelled, so did Trump. On February 7, 2017, he tweeted a blatant lie: “I don’t know Putin; have no deals in Russia.”
The Russian buildup in the US elections was obvious. Russian oligarchs poured billions of dollars into Trump’s presidential campaign. For making a 20-minute appearance via video link to a conference in Kiev, Ukrainian billionaire Victor Pinchuk donated $150,000. By then, the secret services of the UK and Europe were in a tizzy over contacts between Trump officials and high-level Russians. Sater and Cohen considered gifting the Trump Tower’s most luxurious apartment—a $50-million penthouse—to Putin. In June 2016, Rob Goldstone, music publicist for Russian pop star Emin Agalarov, son of oligarch and Putin-groupie Aras Agalarov, mailed Trump Jr. “The Crown prosecutor of Russia met with his father Aras this morning and in their meeting offered to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father. This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump—helped along by Aras and Emin.”
Trump Jr replied, “If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer.” The Senate Judiciary Committee later discovered proof of several phone calls between Emin and Junior. In July 2015, Lt Gen Michael Flynn, who became Trump’s National Security Adviser and was fired soon after, met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in Washington, DC; a meeting he described in an email to the Russian embassy as “very productive”. In January 2016, Trump lawyer Michael Cohen emailed Dmitry Peskov (identified in court documents only as “Russian Official 1”), asking for help in moving the Trump Tower-Moscow deal forward. Russia renewed six unused Trump trademarks set to expire in 2016. An email written on October 12, 2015, Re: Trump Tower Project by Felix Sater to Cohen, says: “Kostin who is Putin’s top finance guy and CEO of 2nd largest bank in Russia is on board and has indicated he would finance Trump Moscow”.
He forwarded the letter of intent to be countersigned by Trump. The power play would have been childish if it was not for the connivance—Sater emailed Cohen: “I arranged for Ivanka to sit in Putins (sic) private chair at his desk and office in the Kremlin. I will get Putin on this program and we will get Donald elected… Buddy our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it.” The New York Times reported that two shadowy businessmen close to Trump had discussed setting up an energy-related business funded by Russian oligarchs “who are not under sanctions” and that doors would be open at “any level all the way to the top”. One of the billionaires wanted to explore plans to build a Trump-branded hotel in Moscow: “I know the President will distance himself from business, but his children might be interested,” he was reported saying. On November 9, 2016, Putin announced Trump’s election victory in Russia’s Parliament. Predictably the applause was thunderous.