[ELECTRIC GUITAR FLOURISH PLAYS]
MICHAEL COHEN: Just to be clear, Mr. Trump knew of and directed the Trump Moscow negotiations throughout the campaign and lied about it. He lied about it because he never expected to win. He also lied about it because he stood to make hundreds of millions of dollars on the Moscow real estate project.
BERNSTEIN: That, of course, is Michael Cohen, testifying before Congress in February about a business deal he was working on in 2015 and 2016.
COHEN: I lied to Congress when Mr. Trump stopped negotiating the Moscow Tower project in Russia. I stated that we stopped negotiating in January of 2016. That was false. Our negotiations continued for months later during the campaign.
[TRUMP, INC. THEME STRINGS BEGIN TO PLAY]
BERNSTEIN: Cohen had a point he kept coming back to.
COHEN: So this was just business as usual.
BERNSTEIN: “Business as usual.”
COHEN: This is the regular course of business.
BERNSTEIN: “Regular course of business.” And what was that? In this deal: a signed agreement with a second-tier developer, discussions with banks that had been sanctioned after the Russian invasion of Crimea, and at least one talk with the Kremlin.
REPRESENTATIVE STEPHEN LYNCH: How did the President actually direct the negotiations? What details did he direct?
COHEN: Well, after each communication that I had, I would report back to him, and our goal was to get this project. We were interested in building what would have been the largest building in all of Europe.
BERNSTEIN: All of this, while Russia was staging an attack against the U.S. elections.
[TRUMP, INC. THEME PLAYS]
BERNSTEIN: Hello, and welcome to Trump, Inc., a podcast from WNYC and ProPublica that digs deeply into the Trump Family Business. I’m Andrea Bernstein.
You’ve probably heard something about the Trump Tower Moscow.
[MONTAGE OF NEWS CLIPS ABOUT TRUMP TOWER MOSCOW PLAYS]
REPORTER 1: … Trump Organization real estate deal in Moscow.
REPORTER 2: … Trump Tower in Moscow …
REPORTER 3: [IN A BRITISH ACCENT] … Trump Tower in Moscow …
REPORTER 4: … Trump Tower in Moscow …
REPORTER 5: … Trump Tower in Moscow …
REPORTER 6: … Trump Towers in Moscow …
REPORTER 7: … Trump Tower, Moscow …
REPORTER 8: … Trump Tower in Moscow …
[SLOW, METHODICAL PIANO MUSIC PLAYS]
BERNSTEIN: We’re going to help you make sense of the cacophony of coverage. Today on the show, we’re going to lay out the new information we’ve found about Trump’s Moscow efforts — and there were a number of them.
His last effort, which happened during the campaign — and as other investors were fleeing Moscow — involved a partner who didn’t appear to be in any position to get the job done. It was a deal in which Trump’s proxies needed and sought help from the Kremlin. That put Trump, the candidate, in a position of seeking favors from a hostile foreign power.
We reached out to the Trump Organization, the White House, and Michael Cohen. We did not get a response.
But we know we’re going to learn more.
The Moscow negotiations are now being closely scrutinized by Congressional investigators. And Cohen’s business associate in the Moscow Deal, a man named Felix Sater, is scheduled to testify before Congress in late March.
[MUSIC PLAYS IN THE CLEAR FOR A MOMENT, THEN OUT]
BERNSTEIN: First, a little history.
You don’t actually have to work that hard to find out when Trump’s interest in building in Moscow got started because he told us, himself, in his 1987 book the Art of the Deal. The very first chapter, coming after an entry on hiring pool contractors at Mar-a-Lago.
He says he happens to sit next to the Soviet Ambassador at a luncheon, and one thing leads to the next and he’s invited to Moscow by the Soviet Tourism Agency to talk about building a luxury hotel. And so he and his wife, Ivana, and their assistants go to Moscow. They stay in Lenin’s suite at the National Hotel.
BERNSTEIN: Trump’s first attempt at a deal in Moscow falls apart. He blames communism.
[BASS-DRIVEN MUSIC PLAYS]
BERSTEIN: In 1996, Trump is back in Moscow. This time he brings with him a friend, Howard Lorber, a big-time New York realtor with some business in Russia.
There’s actually a Russian news clip on YouTube of this trip. It shows Trump sitting with a number of Russian officials, including the Deputy Mayor of Moscow. They’re at a table with glass bottles of Coke, and water in the center.
[RUSSIAN IS HEARD, MONOTONE, OVER THE DRONE OF A TUBE TV]
BERNSTEIN: Trump looks bored.
The Moscow Times writes, “If things go the way Donald Trump plans — and they usually do — he will be the first big-time developer since Josef Stalin to attach his name to high-rise towers in Moscow.”
Things do not go as Trump plans, and his second attempt to do a deal in Moscow also falls apart.
[BOUNCY, INTRIGUE MUSIC PLAYS]
BERNSTEIN: In 2006, Donald Jr. and Ivanka Trump go to Moscow. They’re there with a Trump business associate, Felix Sater, a Russian emigre who grew up in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn.
Sater has a criminal record for financial fraud, but, by this point in time, he’s been gathering intelligence for U.S. law enforcement agencies. He’s working on re-inventing himself, putting together licensing deals, selling the Trump brand to developers who pay millions of dollars for the right to put Trump’s name on their buildings.
Here’s Sater in an interview with CNN’s Chris Cuomo last year. He’s asked if it’s true that he went to Russia with Don Jr. and Ivanka.
FELIX SATER: That is true.
CHRIS CUOMO: Because you know that GC — the General Counsel of the Trump Organization — says it’s not true. “Felix was just in Russia at the time that the kids were there. It wasn’t coordinated.” Is that true?
SATER: Uh, the President asked me to be in Russia at the same time as them to look after them.
CUOMO: The President asked you.
SATER: Yes, sir.
BERNSTEIN: In his telling, Sater says he convinced a Russian contact to let them tour the Kremlin. They walk by Vladimir Putin’s office. While they’re there, Sater says, he asked the guards if Ivanka, then 25, could sit in Putin’s chair. They balked, he says, and so he told them, “What’s she going to do, steal his pen?” And then, he says, she sat, and spun around in Putin’s chair. Twice.
[MUSICAL FLOURISH PLAYS]
BERNSTEIN: She told The New York Times it’s possible she sat in Putin’s chair but does not recall.
Felix Sater declined to be interviewed for the podcast.
After this trip, Donald Trump Jr. keeps traveling to Moscow. The Trump Organization starts working on deals in Latvia, and Georgia, and Azerbaijan.
In 2012, Don Jr. attends a banking conference in Riga, Latvia, and sits down for a videotaped interview. He’s sitting at an ornate wooden table, in a dark suit and a pale blue tie, across from his two interviewers. And they ask him something along the lines of “Why are you focusing on former Soviet satellite countries, when the big money’s in Moscow?”
REPORTER: You just told about a new project in Georgia, but we have never heard about any projects in Russia. It’s a big market. Maybe it should be interesting for such a businessman?
DONALD TRUMP JR.: It is. I’ve been there many times and I spent quite a bit of time in Moscow looking at deals. Uh, a lot of that was before, sort of, the world changed in 2005, 2006, 2007.
BERNSTEIN: This is in 2012. He says interest is starting to pick back up again.
REPORTER: And, um, what — what would you do in Russia?
DON JR.: What kind of put it depends. I mean, the things that I’ve looked at thus far — I’ve looked at everything from resorts to hotel. I was there last summer looking at a potential golf development.
[ELECTRONIC POP MUSIC PLAYS, WITH AN EAGLE’S CRY AT THE BEGINNING]
BERNSTEIN: Just a few years before the presidential campaign, the Trumps are back in Russia, scouting sites.
In 2013, the Trumps start thinking about another development deal. You might have heard about this: Trump Tower Moscow. It involves a publicist named Rob Goldstone, and his clients, the oligarch-slash-developer Aras Agalarov and his son Emin, a pop star. This is Emin.
[A CLIP FROM EMIN’S SONG “AMOR” PLAYS: “Look into my eyes. How you sway your hips, how you bite your lips, got me hypnotized.”]
BERNSTEIN: They pitch the Trumps on an idea: the Agalarovs will help them bring the Miss Universe contest, which Trump owns, to Moscow.
They all get together in June of 2013 in Las Vegas: Emin and Aras Agalarov, Rob Goldstone, Donald Trump, and Michael Cohen. CNN got a video of a private dinner they had.
[SOUNDS FROM A DINNER]
DONALD TRUMP: [A LITTLE MUFFLED] … powerful people in all of Russia. The richest men in Russia.
BERNSTEIN: The Miss Universe deal comes together.
BEAUTY QUEEN: The Miss Universe pageant will be held at Crocus City Hall in Moscow. [APPLAUSE] So, get ready! November 9th!
DONALD TRUMP: It’s going to be amazing.
BERNSTEIN: Trump goes to Moscow, to Agalarov’s mega-complex called Crocus City Hall. He says, “almost all of the oligarchs” are there. He flies back home and Tweets in all caps: “TRUMP TOWER MOSCOW IS NEXT. Emin was WOW!”
[SOLEMN PIANO MUSIC PLAYS]
BERNSTEIN: This version of the Trump Tower Moscow also goes nowhere. Even though Aras Agalarov is a major developer in Russia, with a track record of successful projects.
Donald Trump Jr. will later tell the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee this deal “died of deal fatigue” by the end of 2014. But we don’t really understand the details of why.
Donald Trump continues to look for a Moscow deal. His next partner is a little-known developer, with far less experience. This deal goes much further.
We’ll be right back.
BERNSTEIN: We’re back.
In early 2014, something happens that changes Russia’s relationship with the rest of the world.
[A MONTAGE STARTS]
RUSSIAN POLITICIAN: [SPEAKING RUSSIAN]
REPORTER 1: … what America is officially calling a Russian invasion of Ukraine. Russian troops spreading out throughout the strategic Crimean peninsula.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: We are imposing sanctions on specific individuals responsible for undermining the sovereignty, territorial integrity, and government of Ukraine. We’re making it clear there are consequences for their actions.
REPORTER 2: Russia immediately retaliated with its own sanctions against nine US officials, now banned from traveling to Russia — a fact that did not seem to bother them much. Senator McCain tweeted, “I guess this means my spring break in Siberia is off.”
[ROMANTIC MEANDERING GUITAR MUSIC PLAYS]
BERNSTEIN: So this is where things stand politically between the US and Russia when Donald Trump announces he’s running for president in June of 2015.
Almost immediately, Trump becomes the frontrunner and stays the frontrunner in the Republican primary.
This is when Felix Sater and Michael Cohen get to work on a new Trump Tower Moscow deal. They were trying to monetize Trump’s growing popularity.
HEATHER VOGELL: Well, I mean, I think that the timing of this particular development deal for Trump obviously puts it in a place where it couldn’t be more critical to understanding both his presidency — his campaign — so his political self, and also his business self.
BERNSTEIN: ProPublica’s Heather Vogell.
VOGELL: It’s all kind of there in this nice little package.
BERNSTEIN: We know the timeline of this deal thanks to Michael Cohen’s guilty plea, his public testimony, and to really terrific reporting accompanied by a trove of documents and emails published by BuzzFeed News.
Heather took these documents, then started pulling everything she could find related to the deal: property records, bank information, the business histories of Trump associates in Russia.
VOGELL: I really kind of felt myself wanting a nuts-and-bolts understanding of what was going on the ground in Moscow, you know, in hopes of shedding light on the bigger picture for him in the campaign and his relationship with Putin and in his business’s trajectory.
BERNSTEIN: I’m gonna hand things off here to Heather and to Meg Cramer, Trump, Inc. Senior Producer. Together, they’ve looked into a lot of Trump licensing deals. You might have heard their reporting on Trump’s Panama deal.
Here’s Meg with the next part of the story.
[PLUNKY MUSIC PLAYS]
MEG CRAMER: Let’s start by looking at the timeline. The first email we have was sent on September 25th, 2015. It’s from Michael Cohen to Felix Sater.
The subject line is: Revised Trump Tower Moscow Design Study. There’s an attachment. It’s an illustration of a glittering, faceted high rise, with the “TRUMP” name spelled out across the top floors. This is potential Trump Tower Moscow Number Five — at least. So we’ll use that name: Number Five.
At the time they’re negotiating the deal, Cohen’s an Executive Vice President for the Trump Org — the same title as Trump’s three oldest children — and he’s a frequent campaign surrogate.
That same week Cohen sends around the architectural designs, Trump goes on The O’Reilly Factor and praises Vladimir Putin.
BILL O’REILLY: You know, you say you and Putin are going to be close. Did Putin go up to your office? And did you guys, like, bond or anything this week he’s in town?
TRUMP: No, I don’t know anything about him coming to my office. But I will tell you, I think, in terms of leadership, he’s getting an “A” and our president is not doing so well. They did not look so good …
CRAMER: A few days after Cohen’s first email to Sater, there’s a developer mentioned in connection with Trump Tower Moscow Number Five: Andrey Rozov.
VOGELL: You know Rozov is interesting because he seems to be — from what I can tell — a little bit of a second-level — at least — if not third-level player.
CRAMER: Andrey Rozov and Felix Sater both used to sit on the board of a Russian development company called Mirax that had an ambitious skyscraper project but later fell apart.
VOGELL: Sater and Rosov apparently continued their relationship. And so when Sater was looking for somebody to help usher this Trump-branded tower through he turned to Rozov.
[SLOW GUITAR MUSIC PLAYS]
CRAMER: Rozov, Cohen, and Sater exchange a couple more emails. And then, on October 5th, there’s an attachment: it’s a letter of intent. An agreement, outlining a plan for Rozov to build Trump Tower Moscow Number Five. If the deal went forward, Trump stood to make millions: $1 million for signing a license agreement, another million once the building site was approved, and two million within two years, whether or not the project was finished. $4 million — the highest up-front fee in any Trump licensing deal we’ve seen. Between that, and his cut of the sales, he could make over $100 million if the project were completed. It would be his most lucrative licensing deal ever. Donald Trump signs the letter of intent October 28th, 2015, the same day as the third Republican Primary debate. Trump Tower Moscow is one step closer to happening.
There is very little publicly available information about Rozov, the guy Trump settles on to build a luxury high-rise. Here’s what we know: In a letter to Cohen, Rozov talks up some of his other projects. He mentions a suburban development outside of Moscow, two projects in North Dakota. “I also own a 12-story office building in Manhattan,” he writes.
CRAMER: We went looking for more, and found previously unreported information starting with his building in New York, on a nondescript block near the Empire State Building.
[STREET SOUNDS ARE AUDIBLE IN THE BACKGROUND]
VOGELL: It’s very narrow. It’s 17 paces wide.
CRAMER: Heather and Katie Zavadski, ProPublica’s research director, took the subway to 22 West 38th Street, the address Rozov gave for his Manhattan building.
[STREET SOUNDS ARE AUDIBLE IN THE BACKGROUND]
VOGELL: We’re here, basically. We’re in the garment district. There’s a lot of other small businesses around here. It’s not a big retail street.
CRAMER: They ask to talk with the super, David, who’s been there since the early ‘90s.
[VOGELL AND ZAVADSKI CAN BE HEARD WALKING, THEN ASKING TO FIND THE SUPERINTENDENT]
DAVID: Hello, I’m David.
VOGELL: Oh, hi! Nice to meet you!
DAVID: Nice to meet you, too! Hands are cold!
VOGELL: Yes! [ALL THREE LAUGH]
CRAMER: Property records show that Rozov owned this building for just over a year. Bought it all cash, took out some financing on it, and sold it for a 23% profit.
David says, during that year, they didn’t make any major improvements on the building — and that he never met Rozov.
VOGELL: You’re smiling. [LAUGHS]
CRAMER: But he did meet another Russian-speaker connected with the deal.
DAVID: … this gentlemen has a very colored history. Um, Felix Sater?
VOGELL: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
CRAMER: Felix Sater. His name shows up on the sale documents as an “authorized signatory.”
VOGELL: Well, have you read the new reports that the guy who — for whom Felix bought this building was trying to go on a trip to Moscow?
ZAVADSKI: You did. Did you know that there was a Russian owning it behind Felix at the time?
DAVID: Yeah. Yeah, yeah.
VOGELL: Did you ever meet him? Did he ever come visit?
DAVID: No, no.
CRAMER: Rozov’s other US projects were harder to find. In his letter to Cohen, he mentions a mall in Williston, North Dakota.
KATIE ZAVADSKI: There’s not, like, an “Andrey Rosov Mall” in North Dakota.
CRAMER: ProPublica’s Katie Zavadski.
ZAVADSKI: But what I did was I essentially looked for malls that had gotten zoning approval in North Dakota. And it turns out there is maybe, like, one place that could reasonably be called a mall in Williston. It’s called the Badlands Town Center, and it’s sort of this family-owned strip mall with a couple of stores, the local FBI office.
CRAMER: This is not Rozov’s mall.
[MEANDERING STRING MUSIC PLAYS]
ZAVADSKI: But there’s really nothing else, except for, in April 2015, a Swiss company called Stropic had gotten zoning for a $500 million project in this town of 30,000 people.
CRAMER: The county’s zoning commission approved a sprawling shopping complex with apartments, a hotel, an indoor water park. A county spokesperson told us they had never heard of Andrey Rozov, but a person familiar with the deal confirmed that this is the project Rozov was bragging about.
CRAMER: So what would I find if I went to this site that’s been zoned for this mall today?
CRAMER: Katie has been reporting on Rosov for a while. She hasn’t been able to reach him.
ZAVADSKI: So I tried. [LAUGHS] I emailed Andrey Rozov and his financial manager Dimitri Tijucaof a year and a half ago, and all I got back was a one-line reply asking, “How did you get this email?”
[MUSIC COMES BACK IN]
CRAMER: That email no longer works. She called the offices of Rozov’s company in Russia. No one picked up.
In his letter to Cohen, Rozov mentioned another project: a housing development east of Moscow. Katie and Heather looked into that too, found that by 2015, it had run into delays. It is still incomplete.
We thought it was unusual that Trump signed a letter of intent with this developer. Someone who pointed to these deals to show what kind of developer he was. Here’s Heather.
VOGELL: Ideally, you’re going to want somebody who’s either got land or you have a sense they really have a reputation or connections that are gonna bring you that financing very easily. And Rozov doesn’t seem to have either. So it just begs the question of, are we not understanding Trump’s intentions? Or are we not understanding Rozov’s capacity? And why is that?
[MUSIC LIKE A CHUGGING TRAIN PLAYS]
MEG: In the fall of 2015, Felix Sater and Michael Cohen have access to at least one of the things they need to build a Trump Tower Moscow: Donald Trump.
They also have a questionable developer with an incomplete housing project outside of Moscow and zoning rights to build a mega-mall in North Dakota. Now, all they need is practically everything. Starting with money. And a building site.
Heather’s been doing some research on what it’s like to build a building in Moscow.
VOGELL: So I’ve sat in a lot of planning and zoning meetings —
CRAMER: She wrote about them as a reporter for local newspapers in South Carolina and Connecticut.
VOGELL: — and so I have kind of this template in my head for how these sorts of things are supposed to go. And I remember, especially early in my career, finding this to be a very boring thing to be following up close. And Moscow seems to be, like, a whole different ball of wax.
You have this place with these outsized personalities — these oligarchs and billionaires and other sorts of people — who’ve been able to get control of these different parcels that are up for redevelopment. And there’s not, you know, a surplus of them. There’s, you know, only a certain number of them that are sites that you could potentially build something big enough to make a lot of money off of it.
CRAMER: The map of Moscow looks like a series of concentric rings, with the Moscow River snaking through from west to east.
In the innermost ring is the Kremlin, St. Basil’s Cathedral with the onion domes, and Red Square. This is the center of power in the city. It’s where Trump was looking to do a deal in the ‘80s and ‘90s. But between site availability and height restrictions, this is a difficult place to build. Further out, you can build higher, but it’s less prestigious.
VOGELL: So, you have people kind of jostling for their place in this world, and you have people falling in and out of political favor, and that is impacting their ability to build. And, in fact, there are multiple stories that I came across of developers who fell out of political favor — either with the mayor or with Putin — and ended up jailed, end up fleeing the country, having their assets seized. And then there’s this whole reshuffling as whoever’s left kind of carves up what they had.
[SHIFTS TO AN INTERVIEW WITH DARRELL STANAFORD]
DARRELL STANAFORD: Smart businessmen in Russia — and that includes the real estate business — understand that if you are not inside the Putin circle, then you want to avoid any projects that are of national significance.
CRAMER: This is Darrell Stanaford. He spent more than a decade as Managing Director of Russian operations for CBRE, the world’s largest commercial real estate broker. He says the terrain can shift suddenly.
STANAFORD: One day somebody can decide that your project is very interesting to them, and that you should agree to sell. That happens.
CRAMER: And, unlike in the US, you can’t just buy a piece of property in Moscow and sit on it for 30 years. Instead, the government owns the property, and leases it to developers.
VOGELL: In Moscow, there’s a master plan — there’s a plan for that piece of property. And if you’re not getting the job done, you can end up losing your property. So you’ve got to put the pieces of the puzzle together and start working to build what you’re supposed to build on that property.
CRAMER: In Moscow, you’ve got zoning restrictions, limited site availability, a timeline set by the city planning office, and politics. All of these factors put pressure on one of the most important decisions for any new development: Where to build it?
In our reporting, we found that Cohen and Sater never figure out a suitable location for Trump’s Tower. It’s this problem, Cohen says in his testimony, that leads him to reach out to the Kremlin.
From what we can tell, Cohen and Sater are considering multiple sites. The Letter of Intent mentions Moscow City. It’s a business development district with other high-rise towers. Most of it is already built out.
VOGELL: So it’s not kind of a slam dunk to just walk in there and pick up a parcel.
CRAMER: They’re also looking at less-obvious locations. Sater makes plans to meet with a Russian billionaire who controls a site called the Zil Limousine Property, an old automobile manufacturing plant.
VOGELL: The problem with that property, even though it’s large and available — at the time it was — was that it was really not in the kind of elite neighborhood that Trump would want to locate in.
CRAMER: Trump’s team in Moscow is still angling for a better location. Kind of like where Trump Tower New York is located — what’s called the “Tiffany Location.”
VOGELL: At least two other sites, one source with knowledge of the project told me, were possibilities they were considering at the time. Those sites were more central to the Kremlin. One was just about three blocks away from the Kremlin, across the Moscow River, and it had plenty of land, plenty of area for a project like this. The catch there: height restrictions.
CRAMER: The only way to get around these height restrictions is to get something that, in New York City, you’d call a “zoning variance”: a special dispensation from government officials to build something out of character with the neighborhood — in this case, central Moscow. Normally the maximum building height in this area would be around 10 stories.
VOGELL: This is an area where the skyline is very historic and it would really be a sore thumb to have a Trump Tower in the middle of that. And it’s located across the Moscow River. And it’s on an island. Actually, on the tip of that island, there’s a second site called the Red October Chocolate Factory, that was also available at the time. And again, the problem there is that you’re going to face a lot more difficulty with something like height restrictions. And that’s why, at that point, you would really need intervention from somebody fairly high-placed.
[WESTERN-STYLE INTRIGUE MUSIC PLAYS]
BERNSTEIN: Getting intervention from somebody highly-placed — this has been Donald Trump’s bread and butter since he started in real estate. New York mayors, Governors: getting them to do his bidding while he makes political contributions. He knows this.
And in Moscow … Well, in Moscow, according to BuzzFeed reporting and Cohen’s testimony, Felix Sater raised the idea of offering a $50 million penthouse in the proposed Trump Tower Moscow to Putin. (A spokesperson for the Kremlin has denied this.) According to Cohen, the Putin Penthouse was a marketing strategy to lure oligarchs to also buy into the building.
We don’t know how far they got with this offer.
We reached out to the Kremlin asking about all of this. We did not get a response.
But we do know, thanks to Cohen’s plea deal, that, in January 2016, Cohen does seek help from the Kremlin. He sends an email and speaks for 20 minutes with the assistant to a top Kremlin official.
Cohen outlines the project, including the Russian development partner. Then he asks for help in moving the project forward, both in securing land to build the proposed tower, and financing the construction.
The assistant takes detailed notes, says she’ll follow up. The next day, Sater writes to Cohen, telling him to call. He writes “It’s about [the President of Russia]. They called today.”
Cohen said, in his sworn testimony, all of this is relayed in real time to Donald Trump.
COHEN: Most of the time — virtually all of the time 00 he would say — he would say to me, “Michael, come walk with me.” He was heading to, say, a rally, to a car, and as I was walking him to the elevator he would ask me questions, quickly, regarding a series of … [FADES UNDER]
BERNSTEIN: “Walk with me, Trump would say.” And Cohen would walk, and talk, and tell him the details of the Trump Tower Moscow.
CONGRESSPERSON: Could there be any doubt about what he was referring to, in terms of the project in Russia?
COHEN: No. This would be it.
[MUSIC BEGINS TO PLAY]
BERNSTEIN: Cohen’s call to the Kremlin to ask for help with building the tower and financing the construction took place in January.
In March, at least 12 of Vladimir Putin’s top military intelligence officers began a massive theft of emails and documents from Democrats and Hillary Clinton. So while Cohen was talking about a land deal with the Kremlin, Putin and his military men were about to execute an attack on the 2016 elections.
[MUSIC PLAYS UP FOR A MOMENT]
BERNSTEIN: By early 2016, Sater and Cohen are planning a trip to Moscow.
But to arrange that, they need an official invitation from a Russian business.
CRAMER: Sater messages Cohen, saying there will be an invitation from VTB Bank. VTB is a state-owned bank that’s under US Treasury sanctions for Russian aggression in Ukraine. He says, “VTB Bank CEO Andrey Kostin will be at all meetings with Putin, so that it is a business meeting, not political.” Later, Sater writes, “It’s an invitation that’s being directed by Putin’s people — not a banker”
An invitation from VTB never comes through. Instead, they get an invitation from GENBANK, a different bank, also under sanction.
Heather looked into GENBANK — and a man named Yvgeny Dvoskin. The Russian press calls him GENBANK’s “owner,” and GENBANK, “his bank.” Records show he controls at least 4.8% of the bank’s capital.
Turns out that, just like Felix Sater, Dvoskin has roots in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. They were teenagers there at the same time.
VOGELL: In his 20s, Dvoskin got involved a gas bootlegging scheme that was run by the Russian mafia, and it was really kind of a notorious scheme and resulted in a number of prosecutions and a lot of sort of stepped-up law enforcement action to try to break up the Russian mafia around that time.
CRAMER: Dvoskin was convicted of tax evasion and spent some time in prison in the US for his role in the mafia-led bootlegging scheme. He returned to Russia, where, according to the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, he remained tied to criminal networks.
VOGELL: So, then, he became a part-owner of Genbank. It’s a small bank, partly state-owned, that expanded significantly in the Crimea right after Russia invaded the territory.
CRAMER: This is the bank that sends an invitation to Cohen during the campaign.
VOGELL: Well, I think what’s really amazing about this is that it shows us that, even with Trump in the glare of the spotlight from the campaign — that you’ve got Sater still connecting him and his associates with people who not only have criminal backgrounds, but appear to have ties to networks of criminals.
A lot of businesses that work internationally really actively try to avoid these kind of associations in order to try to protect their reputation and to prevent someone associated with getting the whole company into all kinds of trouble. Um, you know, we haven’t seen any evidence that Trump Organization does this and it raises questions about what these sorts of folks might have wanted to seek in return from Trump or from staff like Cohen, given that his political career was really taking off at that moment.
BERNSTEIN: As the campaign continues, the plans for a Moscow trip by both Cohen and Trump proceed apace. In his testimony before the House Oversight Committee, Cohen says he talked to Trump about going to Moscow during the campaign, and that Trump told him to talk it over with his campaign manager at the time, Corey Lewandowski.
CONGRESSPERSON: What did you discuss in this meeting?
COHEN: Possibility of which dates that Mr. Trump would have availability if, in fact, that we were going to go over to Russia to take a look at [PAUSE] the project.
[SLOW MUSIC PLAYS]
BERNSTEIN: Cohen and Sater are messaging about this as late as May 4, 2016. That’s the day after the Indiana Primary, where Ted Cruz ended his campaign, and Trump became the all-butcertain nominee. By this time, according to the Special Counsel’s Office, top Russian military intelligence officers had already succeeded in hacking the computer networks of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the Democratic National Committee, the Hillary Clinton Campaign, and the personal emails of Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta. Russian agents had monitored the computers of dozens of Democratic campaign workers, implanted malware, stolen thousands of emails, and begun to plan how to release them.
[MUSIC PLAYS IN THE CLEAR FOR A MOMENT, THEN OUT]
CRAMER: Cohen is still planning a Trump visit to Moscow in June of 2016 as the Republican National Convention in Cleveland is approaching. He gets a formal invitation to go to Russia. But at the last minute, he decides not to go.
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BERNSTEIN: In the beginning of June, that other Moscow development family — the ones who hosted the Miss Universe events — reappear in our story. Aras Agalarov, along with his pop star son Emin, and Emin’s publicist, Rob Goldstone.
Goldstone emails Don Jr., saying there is “high-level and sensitive information” from the Russian government that would incriminate Hillary Clinton.
Don Jr. takes a meeting in Trump Tower, with Rob Goldstone and a Russian government lawyer. Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort are there too.
CRAMER: Within days of Don Jr.’s meeting, Felix Sater and Michael Cohen meet face-to-face in the same building, at the snack bar in the atrium, to talk about their Trump Tower Moscow deal. And that’s where the trail ends.
Trump’s Moscow tower is never built. Cohen says the deal was terminated because Trump won the presidency.
ALEXANDRA WRAGE: What you describe is — is certainly worrying.
BERNSTEIN: We laid out our reporting on the Moscow deal, and on Cohen’s call to the Kremlin, and talk of the Putin penthouse, for Alexandra Wrage, the president and founder of Trace International, an organization that helps companies comply with anti-bribery laws. She’s an expert in the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, or FCPA.
WRAGE: It says you can’t pay, or even offer to pay, anything of value — and a $50 million penthouse is clearly something of value! — in order to secure either new business or an improper business advantage, and that might be waiving permitting issues, overlooking zoning restrictions … [FADES UNDER]
BERNSTEIN: To be in violation of the FCPA, she said, the quid pro quo doesn’t have to be perfectly explicit.
WRAGE: Nobody ever says, “We will give you a penthouse in exchange for your help with zoning restrictions, or security, or traffic,” or whatever the issues are. A lot of it is left unsaid.
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BERNSTEIN: And whether Trump knew of the penthouse offer, Wrage says, that might not matter in an FCPA case, because there’s an expectation that companies do their due diligence.
For years, Trump denied he had any business in Moscow — until Cohen’s guilty plea, when he said he was acting like any ordinary businessman.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: [OVER THE SOUND OF AN AIRPLANE ENGINE] There would be nothing wrong if I did do it. I was running my business while I was campaigning. There was a good chance that I wouldn’t have won, in which case I would have gotten back into the business. And why should I lose lots of opportunities?
BERNSTEIN: Why? Heather and I can’t quite get this all to add up: why Trump and his associates pushed so hard to build in Russia, at this time, with this developer.
VOGELL: I think one of the biggest questions is “Why Rozov?” This is a guy who, on the surface, didn’t seem to have himself positioned to do a deal like this, something of this scope and magnitude. He didn’t have land under his control, as far as we know. He didn’t have financing lined up, as far as we know. And he didn’t have a history of successfully leading efforts to build skyscrapers in Moscow.
BERNSTEIN: So one of the questions is, “Did he bring some kind of other value to Trump? Some kind of value that we can’t see?”
VOGELL: Exactly. I think we don’t understand completely his value to Trump. And knowing that Trump is — obviously, he’s a businessman, he’s looking to make some money. We don’t completely understand why Trump thought he was the one who could help him make that money. “Where would the streams of money come from?” “How this would all work, exactly?” Those are all questions that we still have.
BERNSTEIN: So another question is, this is a post-sanction environment, because of the invasion of Crimea. Why was Trump at all so hell-bent on building a tower in Moscow during this period?
VOGELL: Another thing that occurred to me in this reporting once I got in was, you know, first, understanding the complexity of the Moscow real estate market — this is not an easy place to build — understanding the lack of power Rozov — or capacity Rozov seemed to have. And then, you know, finding out that in addition to those hurdles that you have a time in history when other investors — other foreign investors are pulling out of this market because of the Crimea invasion and the U.S. sanctions. So it’s a very strange time to get involved the way Trump did.
BERNSTEIN: And did Trump’s associates, in fact, offer something of value to the Kremlin?
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VOGELL: If you have a situation where you’re an American developer and also a presidential candidate and all of a sudden a foreign leader has in his possession, essentially, evidence that you may have broken U.S. law, that you may have broken the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, that gives you a whole lot of leverage over that candidate — theoretically.
BERNSTEIN: The Trump Tower Moscow deal remains under scrutiny from multiple investigators. We’re continuing to look at it too. If you have any tips, please send them to us at tips@TrumpIncPodcast.org.
In this week’s newsletter, we’re including some artwork we mentioned in this episode.
CRAMER: It’s an illustration of a glittering, faceted high rise, with the “TRUMP” name spelled out across the top floors.
BERNSTEIN: Sign up at TrumpIncPodcast.org.
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BERNSTEIN: Trump, Inc. is produced by Meg Cramer, Alice Wilder, and Katherine Sullivan, who provided additional reporting for this episode. The technical director is Bill Moss, with help this week from Sam Bair. Our editors are Charlie Herman, Eric Umansky, and Nick Varchaver. Katie Zavadski is ProPublica’s research director. Special thanks to Darrell Stanaford and to Anthony Cormier and BuzzFeed News. BuzzFeed has an easy-to-read timeline of Cohen and Sater’s communications about the Moscow project. We’d recommend checking it out.
Robin Fields is ProPublica’s Managing Editor. Jim Schachter is the Vice President for News at WNYC, and Steve Engelberg is the Editor-in-Chief at ProPublica.
The original music composed by Hannis Brown.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.