This week, we’re exploring President Donald Trump’s efforts to do business in Moscow. Our team — Heather Vogell, Andrea Bernstein, Meg Cramer and Katie Zavadski — dug into just who Trump was working with and just what Trump needed from Russia to get a deal done. (Listen to the podcast episode here .)
First, the big picture. We already knew that Trump had to develop a tower in Moscow while running for president. Former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen has admitted to lying to Congress about being in contact with the Kremlin about the project during the campaign.
All of that explains why congressional investigators are scrutinizing Trump’s Moscow efforts. And we’ve found more:
• Trump’s partner on the project didn't appear to be in a position to get the project approved and built. On Oct. 28, 2015 — the same day as a Republican primary debate — Trump signed a letter of intent with the partner, a developer named Andrey Rozov, to build a 400-unit condominium and hotel tower in Moscow.
In a letter Rozov wrote to Cohen pitching his role, he cited his work on a suburban development outside of Moscow, a 12-story office building in Manhattan’s Garment District (which he bought rather than constructed) and two projects in Williston, North Dakota, a town of around 30,000.We looked into each of them.
Rozov’s Moscow project has faced lawsuits from homeowners, some of which have settled and some of which are ongoing, and the company developing it filed for bankruptcy. It remains unfinished.
Property records show that Rozov owned his New York building for just over a year. He bought it for about $35 million in cash, took out an almost $13 million loan several months later, made no significant improvements and then sold it for a 23 percent profit. Trump’s former business associate, Felix Sater, who once pleaded guilty to financial fraud and reportedly later became an asset for U.S. intelligence agencies, is listed on the sale as an “authorized signatory.”
We did find a developer with a workforce housing project in Williston, as well as approved plans for a mall/hotel/water-park. (The town attracted interest from developers as the center of North Dakota’s oil boom earlier in the decade.) Rozov’s name doesn’t appear on materials relating to the company, but a person familiar with the project confirmed that this is what Rozov was bragging about in his letter. Oil prices cratered and the mega-mall was never built.
Rozov did not respond to an email seeking comment.
Here is a of the plan:
Plans for "Williston Crossing," a 218 acre site in Williams County, North Dakota.
(Williston Crossing Major Comprehensive Plan Amendment Presentation/Gensler)
• An owner of a sanctioned Russian bank that vouched for the Trump Organization in Moscow had a criminal history that included involvement in a Russian mafia gas-bootlegging scheme in the U.S.
Making a business trip to Russia requires an official invitation. According to correspondence published by BuzzFeed, Sater arranged for an invitation from Genbank, a small Russian bank that expanded significantly in Crimea after Russia invaded in 2014.
One of Genbank’s co-owners is Yevgeny Dvoskin, a Russian-born financier who grew up in Brighton Beach at the same time as Sater. Dvoskin pleaded guilty to tax evasion in federal court in Ohio for the bootlegging scheme and spent time in prison. He was later deported to Russia, according to press accounts. In Russia, he remained tied to criminal networks, according to . (We were unable to reach Dvoskin for comment.)
• We also get a hint about why Trump may have needed the Kremlin to get his deal done. Some of the sites under consideration for a potential Trump Tower Moscow were in historic areas with strict height restrictions. Just a few years before the 2015 letter of intent that Trump signed, Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin pledged to do all he could to prevent the city from being overrun by skyscrapers.
If Trump’s deal was to move forward in some place like the Red October Chocolate Factory, one of the spots that was considered, getting around zoning restrictions would need help from the very top.
Sater and Cohen were also kicking around a plan to offer Putin the building’s $50 million penthouse, according to BuzzFeed. That need for special help, combined with the potential offer of a valuable asset, raises questions about whether the plan ran afoul of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, according to Alexandra Wrage, the president and founder of Trace International, an organization that helps companies comply with anti-bribery laws. “What you describe is certainly worrying,” she said.
The Trump Organization, the White House, and Michael Cohen did not respond to requests for comment.
For his part, Sater is scheduled to testify before the House Intelligence Committee on March 27. The committee members will undoubtedly have plenty of questions.
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Six Tips for Preparing for the Mueller Report, Which May or May Not Be Coming
Being investigative journalists means we’re constantly asking questions. But these days, it also means people are asking us questions. One we hear a lot nowadays: “When is the Mueller report coming — and what will it say?”
Our answer: We don’t know. But we’ve realized that perhaps we can be more helpful than that. We don’t have insider information on special counsel Robert Mueller’s office. (Sorry!) But we have spent lots of time investigating the president and his businesses. And we thought we’d share some of the perspectives we’ve gained.
Here are six things to keep in mind.
We don’t know what Mueller will report, when he will report it or even whether we’ll be able to read it. That’s because Congress changed the law after special prosecutor Kenneth Starr’s salacious tell-all on President Bill Clinton. When Mueller is done, he has to give a report to Attorney General William Barr. But Barr can choose to keep the report confidential. Barr only has to give a summary to Congress. If Barr doesn’t make Mueller’s actual report public, Democrats will almost surely subpoena it. Then get ready for a fight.
Stop focusing on “collusion.”
“Collusion” has come to be a kind of shorthand for ... basically doing something bad with Russia. But the term is both too vague and too narrow. For one thing, “collusion” is not itself a clearly defined crime. It is a crime to a conspiracy against the United States — for which there is a high bar: proving an intent to undermine the government.
Remember: We already know a lot.
We already know Trump had a hidden conflict of interest involving Russia during the campaign. Despite publicly denying it, Trump was to develop a tower in Moscow while he was running for president. That means Trump had interests involving Russia — which voters didn’t know about — that could have been influencing his policy positions. That’s all problematic on its own.
We also know that Russian government interests hacked the emails of the Democratic National Committee, handed them to Wikileaks, and that at least one Trump ally, Roger Stone, was in touch with Wikileaks.
Don’t expect answers to everything, or even most things.
That’s not Mueller’s job. He is a prosecutor. His job is first and foremost to look for crimes. And while he can, and has, looked beyond Russian interference in the election, he’s unlikely to dig into everything. And, of course, there are lots of areas worthy of scrutiny beyond Russia: Trump’s .
Mueller is not alone.
There are lots of active investigations looking into all these issues. A partial rundown of just the ones we know about: Federal prosecutors in Manhattan are investigating the inauguration and other matters, the New York attorney general is investigating the Trump Foundation, and the District of Columbia’s attorney general and the state of Virginia are suing Trump over emoluments. There are also a whole host of coming congressional investigations.
The final judgments on Trump’s actions will be political, not legal. (Caveats apply.)
Whatever Mueller ultimately files, he is very unlikely to charge the president with a crime. Since Watergate, the Department of Justice has had a policy that a sitting president should . And Mueller is a stickler for the rules.
Having said that, Trump does face significant .
So: Stay tuned. Stay patient. And while you wait for the report, check out our conversation with On The Media – they’ve created a handy “ .”
What We’ve Learned From Michael Cohen
For a year now, Trump, Inc. has been digging into the president’s business. We’ve reached out repeatedly to the Trump Organization with questions. Mostly, we haven’t gotten answers.
Yesterday was different.
Michael Cohen worked for a decade as the president’s in-house attorney and fixer. In his testimony before the House Oversight Committee, he offered a detailed, insider account of alleged fraud, secrecy and cover-ups.
In many cases, what he described connected to the very stories we’ve been digging into:
-- How Cohen .
-- Evidence of possible , citing issues we revealed.)
-- How Trump often changed the value of his assets, sometimes to seem richer, sometimes to lower his taxes, like .
Trump, Inc. hosts Andrea Bernstein and Ilya Marritz sat down to review what we’ve learned and what it means for ongoing investigations into the president and his business. Dan Alexander from Forbes joined them.
How a Nigerian Presidential Candidate Hired a Trump Lobbyist and Ended Up in Trump’s Lobby
This week, Trump, Inc. goes inside the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. Located in the Old Post Office, the hotel is at the center of three lawsuits alleging President Donald Trump is violating the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause barring the president from taking gifts from foreign governments.
We stayed the night.
Among the many prominent guests we saw: Nigerian presidential candidate Atiku Abubakar and his entourage. Nigeria’s elections were last weekend, and Abubakar was the main challenger to the incumbent president out of a crowded field of candidates. After a tightly contested race, he came in second.
Abubakar’s visit is surprising for several reasons. He had been for Abubakar.
A 2010 on foreign corruption dedicated an entire chapter to Abubakar and his wife. The report detailed their efforts to transfer $40 million in “suspect funds” into the U.S. through offshore accounts while Abubakar served as vice president.
Abubakar has never been arrested or charged, either in the U.S. or Nigeria, and says he has never taken bribes. He has also called the reports of his immigration ban “misinformation.”
Last year, Abubakar hired a lobbyist, Scott Mason, who was a former Trump campaign adviser. Disclosures filed by Mason show he lobbied Congress, the State Department and the National Security Council on “ .”
House of Representative lobbying disclosure for Scott Mason from Holland & Knight for Atiku Abubakar.
Mason and his lobbying firm did not respond to requests for comment.
Abubakar’s party also hired another firm close to Trump: Ballard Partners, run by “The Most Powerful Lobbyist in Trump’s Washington.” Filings by the firm say only that it was working on “advocacy services relative to US-Nigeria bilateral relations.”
James Rubin, a partner at the firm, said they were hired to work on “promoting free and fair elections” in Nigeria.
The visa status of individuals is confidential, but Reuters has reported that the U.S. government Abubakar’s visa ban after a push by the lobbyists.
A spokesperson from the State Department declined to comment on Abubakar’s case. But the spokesperson said, “In cases where the secretary of state has credible information that officials of foreign governments have been involved in significant corruption … those individuals and their immediate family members are ineligible for entry into the United States.”
Abubakar isn’t the only foreign political figure to patronize the Trump International Hotel in Washington since the 2016 election; there’s a long list of others. Dignitaries from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Malaysia and Azerbaijan have all lodged at the Old Post Office. And this past year, the Trump Organization in foreign profits to their hotels.
Who Was Behind the Plan to Give Saudi Arabia Nuclear Power, and What Was Their Agenda?
For a year, “Trump, Inc.” has been digging into the 2017 inauguration. That reporting led us to look closely at the man Donald Trump picked to run the event, Tom Barrack, a wealthy businessman who’s been friends with Trump for decades.
As we were finishing our Barrack episode — how the Trump administration pursued a plan to export nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia.
The plan had been championed by then-national security adviser Michael Flynn, who could have profited from it. The efforts continued despite warnings from ethics officials and staff at the National Security Council.
And who was in talks to lead the initiative? Tom Barrack.
The House investigation confirmed by one of our ProPublica colleagues, Isaac Arnsdorf, that goes back to late 2017. So we decided to bring Isaac in for this podcast extra to help us understand who was behind the plan and what they wanted.
Barrack has declined our requests for an interview, and Flynn’s lawyer and the White House have not responded.