Trump’s Russia Ties: A Chronology
Below is part 1 of our three part chronology covering Donald J. Trump’s ties to Russia. To get parts 2 and 3 in your inbox, subscribe to Inside Trump.
Part 1: 1980s — 2015
With investigations underway by the FBI, and intelligence committees in the House and Senate, into Trump and Russia, plus his controversial dismissal of FBI Director James Comey just after a request for more FBI resources to dedicate in the case, the scandal really seems to be heating up.
A lot of recent stories in the press have focused on whether or not the White House is seeking to cover up something, or to outright put a stop to these ongoing investigations, and whether or not the President has overstepped his authority to functionally shut down the Russia probe.
But what exactly is being probed? What do we know, and what do some people THINK, are actually Trump and his government’s connections to Russians, and why is it a potential problem?
What follows is an attempt to put together a rough chronology of what intelligence officials, experts and other insiders have written about the relationship between Donald Trump and Russia. Future editions will look at the specific allegations around what Trump and his campaign did, and what the Russian government did, that may have adversely impacted the 2016 Election. For now, we’re sticking to the pre-2015 era, before Trump had announced his candidacy for president.
It’s worth pointing out that not everything here has been proven with evidence. Much of what’s been in the press about this case is conjecture, based on intelligence reports leaked to the press and largely anonymous sources from within the intelligence community. That means, it may or may not be true. We want to collect together all the allegations that have been made in one place, so that, when you see “Russian ties” being investigated, you know what this means. This will not be an attempt to verify that any of the allegations are actually true. Inside leaves that to the press corps, lawmakers, judges and intelligence agencies.
In 1986, Donald Trump was seated at a lunch organized by the heir to the Estée Lauder cosmetics fortune next to Russian Ambassador Yuri Dubinin, and pitched him on a luxurious Trump Tower hotel right across the street from The Kremlin, then the head of Soviet power. This resulted in a visit to Moscow for Trump and, eventually, a tour of Trump Tower for USSR leader Mikhail Gorbachev. (Famously, Trump failed to identify the real Gorbachev and formally greeted an impersonator.)
In 1989, Trump hosted the “Tour de Trump,” a race for Soviet cyclists from Albany to Atlantic City.
In the mid ’90s, Trump once more tried to get a hotel going in Moscow, this time with the help of tobacco company Brooke Group, even meeting with retired Soviet general (and then-presidential candidate) Alexander Lebed in New York.
But the business dealings go beyond exploratory meetings and conjecture in 2005, when Trump allegedly signed a development deal with real estate firm the Bayrock Group to develop a hotel in Moscow and another in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
The planned Moscow Trump Tower itself was never built, though in 2007, Trump opened Trump SoHo in Manhattan, which was partly financed by Bayrock. A lawsuit filed by a former Bayrock finance director, Jody Kriss, alleged that the financing had been backed by Russian organized crime saying, “Tax evasion and money-laundering are at the core of Bayrock’s business model.” There’s no specific evidence that Trump had interactions with any of the suspected criminals.
Deals with Bayrock brought Trump into the orbit of Felix Sater, the Russian-born executive who joined Bayrock in 2002 (when the company was based in Trump Tower), and served as the firm’s managing director. Trump has denied any personal connection to Sater, but a Forbes investigation indicated that they worked closely on the Moscow deal, with Trump even asking Sater to show his children Don Jr. and Ivanka around the city during a visit there on behalf of the Trump Organization.
In 1998, Sater pleaded guilty to federal charges of racketeering for his role in a $40 million Mafia-orchestrated stock fraud scheme. He possibly also agreed to serve as a confidential FBI informant during this time. Though Trump later claimed he would not be able to recognize Sater if he saw him on the street, in 2010, the businessman joined the Trump Organization as a senior advisor, working on hotel and condominium deals in New York, Florida, Arizona, London and elsewhere.
OK, we were talking about 2005. That’s also the year that Paul Manafort, who for a time served as Trump’s 2016 campaign manager, started working for Putin confidant Oleg Deripaska. Deripaska has since denied efforts to advance the interests of Putin’s government around the world.
In 2007, Trump debuted Trump Vodka at the “Millionaire’s Fair” in Moscow, an event where he met Sergey Millian, an American citizen from Belarus. According to Millian, at this meeting, Trump’s lawyer — Michael Cohen — told him Trump was “study[ing] Moscow [real estate].”
Millian also appears as, varyingly, “Source D” and “Source E” in the dossier prepared by British spy Christopher Steele, the same infamous report on Trump’s Russian ties that was published by BuzzFeed. Steele’s report refers to Millian as a “close associate of Trump,” and includes statements by him indicating that Russian officials were feeding Trump negative information to use against his opponent, Hillary Clinton, during the 2016 election.
Also in 2007, Trump told Larry King that he felt Russian President Vladimir Putin is doing “a great job in rebuilding the image of Russia” and “rebuilding Russia, period.” It was the first time Trump praised Putin on-the-record.
The following year, in 2008, Donald Trump Jr. famously told a real estate conference 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.” USA Today reports that Trump Jr. visited Russia 6 times in a period of 18 months around this era, looking for deals.
OK, cut to 2013: Trump’s team reaches out to Russian pop star Emin Agalarov — and his powerful father, billionaire Aras Agalarov — about potentially bringing the Miss Universe pageant, which Trump owned, to Moscow.
The $20 million event was eventually held at the Crocus City Hall, a 7,500-seat arena owned by the Agalarovs. This was the event that prompted Trump to write the oft-parodied tweet: “Do you think Putin will be going to the Miss Universe Pageant. If so, will he become my new best friend?” Putin did not attend, but notorious Russian gangster Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov was there.
Years later, the FBI wiretapped unit 63A in Trump Tower to get information on a Russian money-laundering ring operating there. Among the more than 30 people implicated in the scheme? Tokhtakhounov.
Trump used the Moscow trip to explore more local real estate and development deals, including attending an exclusive two-hour event at the local Nobu restaurant. This gathering was also attended by Herman Gref, the CEO of Russia’s largest, state-controlled bank, Sberbank PJSC. Trump told David Letterman in an interview about the experience that he has “done a lot of business with the Russians.”
2013 was also the year, by the way, that current Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, then CEO of Exxon Mobil, received Russia’s Order of Friendship, after having developed a strong relationship with Russia’s state-owned oil company, Rosneft. (More on them later!)
We’ll be publishing Part 2 (2015 — Securing the GOP Nomination) and Part 3 (Campaign 2016) exclusively in the Inside Trump newsletter. Sign up here!