In 2013, Donald Trump realised that the best way to get something built in Moscow was to become friends with Vladimir Putin. (Reuters: Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin)
“There is absolutely no collusion. I didn’t make a phone call to Russia, I have nothing to do with Russia, and everybody knows it.”
Donald Trump has said or tweeted words to this effect hundreds of times in the past 18 months.
Just before he was inaugurated as president he resorted to all-caps:
Russia If You’re Listening
Donald Trump: A Russian love affair
Donald Trump has always claimed he has “nothing to do with Russia” but is that true? What if Trump was caught in a Russian web, long before he even considered a career in politics?
“Russia has never tried to use leverage over me. I HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH RUSSIA — NO DEALS, NO LOANS, NO NOTHING!”
But, as USA Today noted at the time, this is not exactly true.
One of the biggest things to come to light during the course of the investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 US presidential election is that he has an uncommonly large number of connections with Russia, going right back to the 1980s.
And that’s not just the connections through his associates.
We now know that several members of his inner circle have had clandestine meetings and communications with Russians, and while Mr Trump acknowledges that this is the case, he still denies that he personally has anything to do with Russia.
Dreams of a Trump Tower in Moscow
The connections began in 1986 when Mr Trump had an idea while sitting next to the Soviet ambassador at a lunch event.
Mr Trump decided he was going to find a way to build a Trump-branded property in Moscow, the capital of the Soviet Union.
For Mr Trump, a man for whom publicity is everything, the prospect of stamping his name on a building in the notoriously secretive and isolated Russian capital was incredibly attractive.
In The Art Of The Deal, Mr Trump writes that he wanted to build a luxury hotel right across the road from the Kremlin, the home of the Russian president.
By this time the Soviet Union had been aware of Mr Trump for a decade.
The connections began in 1986 when Donald Trump decided he was going to find a way to build a Trump-branded property in Moscow. (Reuters: Lucas Jackson)
In 1977 he had married a Soviet citizen — Ivana, a 28-year-old model from Czechoslovakia, which was part of the Soviet Union at the time. Czech spies kept tabs on the happy couple in Manhattan.
When he arrived in Moscow in 1987 at the invitation of the ambassador, not only did they know who he was, but Czech files suggest they already knew he was interested in politics.
Mr Trump loved the visit. He stayed in Lenin’s suite at the National Hotel, (which was almost certainly bugged) and toured the city, visiting a half dozen potential sites for his development.
He couldn’t close the deal immediately though, and in the following few years during the collapse of the Soviet Union, it wasn’t easy to get anything built in Moscow.
By the time the brand new Russian Federation was stable enough for Mr Trump to have another crack at investing, his own finances were in trouble.
The mid-1990s were a struggle for Mr Trump, with a string of corporate bankruptcies meaning he couldn’t find lenders.
The mid-1990s were a struggle for Mr Trump, with a string of corporate bankruptcies meaning he couldn’t find lenders. (Reuters: Kevin Lamarque)
Wall Street washed their hands of him, but thankfully the brand new real estate division at Deutsche Bank came to his rescue.
They financed him through the early 2000s, which led to him making another few half-hearted attempts at building something in Moscow.
By the late 2000s, Mr Trump’s business changed.
Instead of being a construction company, the Trump Organisation became more of a marketing company.
They made big bucks licensing Mr Trump’s name to be used on buildings around the world.
This is why you see Trump-branded properties in unusual places like Panama City, Rio, Kolkata, Manila, Mumbai, Punta del Este and Baku. Developers pay Mr Trump to give their building legitimacy.
The Trump Organisation became more of a marketing company, making big bucks licensing Donald Trump’s name to be used on buildings around the world. (Reuters: Gary Cameron)
But while Mr Trump had found a way of leveraging his international fame for financial gain, he hadn’t given up on Trump Tower Moscow.
As late as 2016 — 30 years after the original idea — Mr Trump was apparently still working on making Trump Tower in Moscow a reality.
It was only when he announced his candidacy for President did the dream seem to truly die.
Will Putin become ‘my new best friend?’
By 2013, Mr Trump realised that the best way to get something built in Moscow was to become friends with Vladimir Putin.
Mr Putin, as the most powerful man in Russia, controls the country’s oligarchs, and no big business deal can be done without his approval.
US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin talk before a session of the APEC summit in Danang. (Reuters: Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin)
So in an effort to charm Mr Putin, Mr Trump cooked up a scheme with an Azerbaijani oligarch close to Mr Putin named Aras Agaralov.
Ms Agaralov would help Mr Trump put on the Miss Universe Pageant in Moscow in exchange for Mr Trump promoting the music career of Mr Agaralov’s son Emin.
Ahead of the pageant, Mr Trump tweeted: “Do you think Putin will be going to The Miss Universe Pageant in November in Moscow — if so, will he become my new best friend?”
Mr Trump was in Moscow for two nights, but he was so busy he barely slept. He had dinners to attend, he had calls to make to try and lure Mr Putin to the pageant, and of course he had to wrangle the contestants.
This is also the weekend that the notorious “pee pee tape” story is based on.
Former British spy Christopher Steele said in his dossier on Mr Trump that one of his sources told him that the Russian spy agencies had recorded the future president and a number of sex workers engaging in … interesting activities in his hotel room.
In an effort to charm Mr Putin, Mr Trump cooked up a scheme with an Azerbaijani oligarch close to Mr Putin named Aras Agaralov. (Reuters: Maxim Shemetov)
There’s a lot of question marks around whether this event happened.
Mr Steele himself says he thinks there’s only about a 50 per cent chance that the story is true, and a recent book by David Korn and Michael Isikoff says Mr Trump barely spent any time in his hotel room during his Moscow trip, and that it’s possible that it’s a misunderstanding.
So how much money has Mr Trump made from his Russian interests? It’s a matter of debate.
His son Donald Trump Jr said in the past that they make a disproportionate amount of their income from Russia, although he never specified how.
But even if they don’t make money, it’s not hard to imagine that over 30 years of trying to get a deal done in Moscow, Donald Trump might have got tangled up in some sort of web.
It’s hard to imagine that he has “nothing to do with Russia” and if it’s true that he has “NO DEALS”, it certainly wasn’t through a lack of trying.
Russia if you’re Listening is a new ABC podcast about the investigation into Russia’s interference in the US election. Subscribe now in Apple podcast or your favourite podcasting app.