Anti-Trumpers are buzzing about this because it has all the makings of a true Russiagate bombshell — Trump! Russia! money! secret deals! — but doesn’t deliver much of anything. It’s noteworthy only to the extent that it raises the potential for future bombshells. Trump was interested in doing business in Russia *while* he was a candidate for president, and evidently the Trump Organization was trying to make that happen. That means new contacts between Trump associates and Russians for Bob Mueller to explore, particularly any contacts that may have led to money changing hands in other unrelated “business deals.”
The hotel deal, though? Not only didn’t it happen, it was apparently dead by January 2016, before a single vote had been cast for Trump in a presidential primary.
While Donald Trump was running for president in late 2015 and early 2016, his company was pursuing a plan to develop a massive Trump Tower in Moscow, according to several people familiar with the proposal and new records reviewed by Trump Organization lawyers…
Trump never went to Moscow as [developer Felix] Sater proposed. And although investors and Trump’s company signed a letter of intent, they lacked the land and permits to proceed and the project was abandoned at the end of January 2016, just before the presidential primaries began, several people familiar with the proposal said.
Nevertheless, the details of the deal, which have not previously been disclosed, provide evidence that Trump’s business was actively pursuing significant commercial interests in Russia at the same time he was campaigning to be president — and in a position to determine U.S.-Russia relations. The new details from the emails, which are scheduled to be turned over to congressional investigators soon, also point to the likelihood of additional contacts between Russia-connected individuals and Trump associates during his presidential bid.
It’s not easy to shoehorn that detail about Trump’s company failing to get Russian permits into a theory of collusion between the campaign and Russia. If Putin wanted to entice Trump into cooperating with the Kremlin against Hillary, why not help him find some land and get the necessary approvals? Even better from Moscow’s perspective, it would have been hugely embarrassing for Trump if the permits had been approved and then the American public found out later that he had had a hotel licensing deal in the works in Russia the entire time. The best you can do to squeeze this into a collusion storyline is speculate that the permits were rejected as a bargaining tactic by Putin, effectively saying, “If you want your hotel approved, you had better collude with us.” And yet, the hotel was never approved.
What the hell was Trump thinking, though, working with Sater on a new Moscow hotel while he was running for president? Obviously the project would have had to have been abandoned once he became the nominee if it hadn’t fallen apart in January 2016. The risk that the Clintons would find out about it and publicize it during the campaign would have been too great. The fact that Trump was willing to pursue this in late 2015, when he was leading Republican polls but kept facing predictions that he’d flame out once GOP voters started to “get serious” about their nominee, is further evidence that even Trump himself didn’t think he had a real chance at the presidency. He was lining up a hotel deal in Russia because he was already anticipating returning to private life after his candidacy ended.
Trump has been trying to develop property in Moscow for years, incidentally. In 2013, during a visit there, he discussed opportunities with Russian developer Aras Agalarov. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because Agalarov’s son, Emin, is the one who brokered the meeting between Donald Trump Jr and the Russian lawyer last year at Trump Tower to discuss possible dirt on Hillary Clinton. Sater, the point man on last year’s Moscow project, is another … interesting character. Per Timothy O’Brien, Sater in the past has “worked as a mob informant for the U.S. government, fled to Moscow to avoid criminal charges while boasting of his KGB and Kremlin contacts there, and had gone to prison for slashing apart another man’s face with a broken cocktail glass.” In 2010 he was a “senior advisor to Donald Trump,” per WaPo. He used to be a principal in the Bayrock Group, a development firm that did business with Trump’s company. O’Brien:
During the years that Bayrock and Trump did deals together, the company was also a bridge between murky European funding and a number of projects in the U.S. to which the president once lent his name in exchange for handsome fees. Icelandic banks that dealt with Bayrock, for example, were easy marks for money launderers and foreign influence, according to interviews with government investigators, legislators, and others in Reykjavik, Brussels, Paris and London. Trump testified under oath in a 2007 deposition that Bayrock brought Russian investors to his Trump Tower office to discuss deals in Moscow, and said he was pondering investing there…
In a series of interviews and a lawsuit, a former Bayrock insider, Jody Kriss, claims that he eventually departed from the firm because he became convinced that Bayrock was actually a front for money laundering.
Sater’s contact in Trump’s circle was Michael Cohen, Trump’s lawyer and a friend of Sater’s since childhood, so he potentially had access to the president through a member of his tight-knit inner circle. Mueller’s probably viewing this failed Russia deal through the prism of the Bayrock allegations: Was the licensing deal on the Moscow hotel actually designed as a pipeline for suspiciously exorbitant payments to the Trump family? And once the deal fell through, were any other Russian-related pipelines opened, with or without Sater’s help? Just speculation, but this is where the investigation’s headed. Or at least, one of its branches is.