In light of Michael Cohen’s pleading guilty on one charge of lying to Congress about Trump’s Moscow Project and his contacts with the Russian government on behalf of Donald Trump, who is identified as “Individual 1” in the filing, today seems like a good time to re-up this article that was originally published June 4, 2018.
The 2013 Miss Universe Pageant is a vital nexus in the Russia investigation, an event that brings together many of the major players in Moscow at a time when Donald Trump was seeking both a real estate deal in Moscow and quietly setting up a run for the presidency. Among all of the events of Trump’s “weekend in Moscow”, there are two topics that matter to Robert Mueller’s investigation. Both topics have to do with kompromat (compromising materials used by the Kremlin to blackmail an individual into cooperation).
In this post, Donald Trump’s Kremlin contacts and real estate deal will be the focus, with the infamous and salacious kompromat being covered next time.
The Back Story
For three decades, long before the Miss Universe Pageant was held in Moscow, Donald Trump has been seeking to build a hotel with his name on it in Russia. He flew to Moscow in 1987 at the invitation of the Soviet Ambassador to scout locations near Red Square in the then Soviet Union. That deal fell through.
In 1996, after going once again to Moscow, he bid on the renovating of Hotel Rossiya. That deal was never made, The New Yorker reports.
In 2008, Trump Organization, via Donald Trump, Jr. announced plans to build in Sochi, St. Petersburg, and Moscow. The luxury hotels were never built.
The reason, according to Donald Trump, Jr., for none of those deals working out was that Russia is famously corrupt and a “really scary place”, The Atlantic explains.
But there was something getting in the way of those trips adding up to a Trump Tower Moscow. “It is definitely not an issue of being able to find a deal,” Trump Jr. said, “but an issue of ‘Will I ever see my money back out of that deal or can I actually trust the person I am doing the deal with?’ As much as we want to take our business over there, Russia is just a different world. … It is a question of who knows who, whose brother is paying off who, etc.”
It was a matter of having access to permits and people who could shepherd the Trumps through the process. They needed a local who was an experienced real estate developer and had the connections to get the permits necessary to build. In short, one needs the blessing of the Kremlin to succeed in real estate in Russia.
Miss Universe 2013
That is where the Agalarovs and the Miss Universe Pageant come in. Aras and Emin Agalarov were instrumental in bringing the Miss Universe Pageant, owned by Donald Trump until 2015, to Moscow. Aras, a Russian billionaire, real estate developer, and oligarch, paid Trump $20 million to host the pageant at his Crocus City Hall. The Miss Universe deal established a friendship between Trump and Aras Agalarov and laid the foundation for the Moscow tower Trump had been wanting for for nearly 30 years.
During the trip to the Miss Universe Pageant in Moscow, Trump claims to have met with many important people, as The Guardian points out.
“I was with the top-level people, both oligarchs and generals, and top-of-the-government people,” he said in a radio interview in 2015. “I can’t go further than that, but I will tell you that I met the top people, and the relationship was extraordinary.”
He was scheduled to meet with Putin and tweeted “Will he become my new best friend” prior to flying to Russia. That meeting was cancelled due to a scheduling conflict. Putin sent a handwritten note and a gift via Aras Agalarov.
Through social media posts, we can track who Trump did meet with that weekend. Donald Trump met prominent Russian businessmen, at a meeting at Nobu, a restaurant owned by Aras. Perhaps most importantly, he met Herman Gref, chief executive of the state-owned Sberbank.
Donald Trump and Emin Agalarov at @nobu_moscow @realdonaldtrump @eminofficial #emin #nobu #nobumoscow
On November 9, 2013, Russia Today announced plans for Trump Tower to be built in Moscow. After 30 years of trying, Donald Trump finally found the key. Eight days later, Sberbank announced it was lending Agalarov $1.3 million to finance new projects in Moscow.
The day after the pageant, Donald Trump tweeted his enthusiasm to Aras Agalarov.
@AgalarovAras I had a great weekend with you and your family. You have done a FANTASTIC job. TRUMP TOWER-MOSCOW is next. EMIN was WOW!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 11, 2013
Emin, in an interview with Forbes, confirmed that there was an NDA signed, although he later walked that back to state they had signed a letter-of-intent before eventually denying any documents had been signed.
We just thought that building a Trump tower next to an Agalarov tower, basically, having the two big names… My father is a big developer here in Russia, and Trump globally. So we thought that these two towers standing next to each other could be a really cool project to execute. But during our discussions—we had actually signed some nondisclosure documents at the time just to establish the relationship on a different level—[Editor’s note: Agalarov later clarified, in March, that they signed letter-of-intent documents, not a nondisclosure agreement. Then, on Wednesday, July 12, he emailed Forbes through a representative and denied that any documents were signed related to a building project.] he ran for president, so we dropped the idea, because obviously at this point his interests are slightly different.
It was not until February 2017, that Aras Agalarov announced the deal was dead, because Donald Trump was now president and could not do business as he had before. By that time, the lingering questions about President Trump’s contacts with Russia during the campaign had grown into an investigation so Aras pulling out of the deal in February instead of November, when Trump won the election, is curious.
Ultimately, whether the deal eventually fell through because of Trump’s election is less important that the fact that a candidate for President was courting the favor of Putin.
The basic truth of Russian business is that nothing happens without Putin’s blessing. From the time he met the Agalarovs in June 2013, it took Trump only a handful of months to cement a deal that he had been working on for decades. The only way that could have happened is if Putin was facilitating the deal.
This fact and the fact that Eric Trump, in 2013 stated in an interview, “We don’t rely on American banks. We have all the funding we need out of Russia,” call Trump’s finances with Russia into question. Eric later denied making that remark. The New Yorker, however, points out that by 2000, Trump had to look for financing outside of America.
By the turn of the century, Trump had moved away from the capital demands of developing real estate and begun leveraging his celebrity into franchise deals. He had experienced repeated bankruptcies in Atlantic City, and was cut off from traditional sources of funding. As a result, he began to welcome less reputable partners, as long as they had access to cash.
When one is running for President and one is beholden to Putin for loans and for making the deal of a lifetime come true, this is a type of kompromat that may not be salacious, but is very real and one that every American should be concerned about.
Furthermore, the relationships that were forged during the Miss Universe deal led to the Trump Tower meeting in July 2016. That meeting was arranged by the Agalarovs and involved a Russian lawyer who was working for the Kremlin meeting with top Trump campaign officials with the purpose of giving over damaging information about Hillary Clinton. The public was not informed about that meeting until nearly a year later and the Trump administration continued to mislead the public in their explanations.
Robert Mueller and his team of investigators are left to find the truth of whether Trump went to Moscow knowing that he was running for president (as appears likely) and compromised himself in exchange for a deal with Putin, and, if there was a deal, what exactly it entailed.