The revelations about the June 2016 meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya raise a number of questions. Does taking the meeting constitute illegal collusion with a foreign entity? What exactly was discussed? What did then-candidate Trump know?
There’s another question that’s fundamental to understanding how we even got here: why would Trump Jr. accept a meeting with a Kremlin-linked lawyer whose name he didn’t even know? The short-but-stunning answer, according to a Times report on Monday and backed up by emails that Trump Jr. himself tweeted out on Tuesday, is that Trump Jr. agreed to take the meeting after music publicist Rob Goldstone told him Veselnitskaya’s had dirt on Hillary Clinton, which was part of a Russian government effort to help his father’s campaign. The long answer starts three decades ago, and involves Trump’s hopes for a Trump Tower Moscow, a beauty pageant, and a Russian pop star.
Trump's Early Efforts to Do Business in Russia
Donald Trump’s attempts to bring his business to Russia date back to at least 1986, when he was seated next to Soviet Ambassador Yuri Dubinin at a luncheon. “One thing led to another,” Trump wrote in his 1987 book The Art of the Deal, “and now I’m talking about building a large luxury hotel across the street from the Kremlin in partnership with the Soviet government.”
Trump and then-wife Ivana, who speaks Russian, traveled to Moscow to scout out potential sites and “met with a lot of the economic and financial advisers in the Politburo,” according to Trump’s spokesman.
Nothing came of that project, but throughout the ’90s Trump proposed other building projects in Russia, filed at least eight trademarks in the country, and sold many condominiums in Manhattan’s Trump World Tower to “wealthy people getting their money out of what had been the Soviet Union,” as Bloomberg reported. Over the years, Trump’s business, personal, and political ties to Russia became so extensive that Politico needed seven charts to map them out.
Donald Trump Jr. first appears in the timeline of Trump’s Russia ties in 2006, when he traveled to Moscow with his sister Ivanka to meet with potential business partners. They were shown around by Felix Sater, a Russian-American businessman with mob ties who worked with the Trump Organization for many years, though Trump has testified that he barely knew him.
Sater was a partner in Bayrock Group, a Trump Tower tenant founded by former Soviet official Tevfik Arif. Bayrock was a key partner for Trump in the 2000s, working with him on several real estate development projects, including Trump SoHo, and scouting out deals in Russia and elsewhere.
In June 2008, Trump Jr. told investors in Moscow that the Trump Organization wanted to build housing and hotels in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Sochi, and license the Trump name to other developers. At a real estate conference in New York several months later, Trump Jr. said he had made about half a dozen trips to Russia in the past 18 months. He said it “really is a scary place”:
It is definitely not an issue of being able to find a deal – but an issue of ‘Will I ever see my money back out of that deal or can I actually trust the person I am doing the deal with?’ As much as we want to take our business over there, Russia is just a different world. Though the legal structure is in place for what we have today, and even 99 percent is covered, that 1 percent not covered could be 100 percent covered over there because it is a question of who knows who, whose brother is paying off who, etc.
However, Trump Jr. added: “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets; say in Dubai, and certainly with our project in SoHo and anywhere in New York. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”
Trump Brings Miss Universe to Moscow
In June 2013, Trump announced that the next Miss Universe beauty pageant, which he owned, would be held in Moscow. The move stemmed from Miss Universe 2012’s appearance in Russian pop star Emin Agalarov’s music video “Amor.” Miss Universe representatives then visited Moscow, and introduced Trump to Emin and his father Aras Agalarov, a billionaire Russian real estate developer. Aras has been called the “Donald Trump of Russia,” as he has a similarly ostentatious style and likes to put his name on buildings.
In an interview with Forbes shortly after the November 9, 2013 pageant, the Agalarovs explained that they were eager to bring the pageant to Moscow to raise the profile of Crocus City Hall, a concert hall they had opened four years earlier. They said it cost them $20 million to host the pageant, and about a third of that was the licensing fees paid to Trump.
Trump said he wanted to take the pageant to Russia because “Moscow right now in the world is a very, very important place,” and noted “one of the great families in Russia is our partner in this endeavor.” Trump was likely eager to develop relationships that could help him achieve his longtime goal of expanding his business in Russia. As Politico notes, Trump seemed particularly excited about potentially meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Putin didn’t show up to the pageant, and according to Aras Agalarov, he canceled a meeting with Trump at the last minute, though he sent him a note and a decorative box as a gift. (Trump has publicly contradicted himself on whether he ever met Putin prior to last week’s G20 summit.) He did manage to strike up a friendship with Aras Agalarov, who has won several contracts from the Kremlin and received Russia’s Order of Honor from Putin in 2013.
After returning to New York, Trump bragged to Real Estate Weekly that “The Russian market is attracted to me,” and, “I have a great relationship with many Russians, and almost all of the oligarchs were in the room.” He also gave the Agalarovs a special thank you on Twitter:
Later that month Emin released his video for “In Another Life,” in which he falls asleep during a board room meeting, dreams about Miss Universe contestants frolicking in his apartment, then wakes up to an angry Donald Trump. He delivers his signature line at the time: “You’re fired.”
The Trumps' Friendship With the Agalarovs
The Trumps continued their relationship with the Agalarovs long after the pageant. In March Emin told Forbes that he performed for Trump at one of his golf courses and was in his New York office shortly before he launched his campaign. After Trump won the presidential election, Emin congratulated him on Instagram and posted a video he sent him in 2014 for his 35th birthday.
Emin said Trump sent him and his father handwritten notes thanking them for their congratulatory messages, and claimed he’d exchanged messages with Trump Jr. in January.
He also said they planned to build a Trump Tower right next to an Agalarov Tower in Moscow, and had picked out the land and signed a letter of intent with the team in New York. But the campaign thwarted Trump’s longtime dream. “He ran for president, so we dropped the idea,” Agalarov said. “But if he hadn’t run we would probably be in the construction phase today.”
The last piece in the puzzle is Rob Goldstone, who’s confirmed that he set up the meeting between Trump and attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya. He is a former British tabloid reporter who says he’s worked with Michael Jackson, Julio Iglesias, Cyndi Lauper, and James Taylor.
He currently represents Emin Agalarov, and has freqently traveled between Russia and the U.S. According to the Guardian, his Instagram shows he made at least 19 visits to Russia since the spring of 2013, and he once described Moscow as his second home. His posts show he was in Moscow ten days before the Trump Tower meeting.
Goldstone expressed his support for the Trump campaign in several posts, and posted a photo of himself wearing a “Russia” shirt after Trump’s win with the caption “Hedging bets.”
“I reached out to Donald Trump Jr. and he agreed to squeeze us into a very tight meeting schedule,” Goldstone said in a statement. “At the meeting, the Russian attorney presented a few very general remarks regarding campaign funding and then quickly turned the topic to that of the Magnitsky Act and the banned U.S. adoption of Russian children — at which point the meeting was halted by Don Jr. and we left. Nothing came of that meeting and there was no follow up between the parties.”
Veselnitskaya’s clients include several Russian state-owned businesses and the son of a senior government official. She has been lobbying against the 2012 Magnitsky Act, which the U.S. passed to punish those suspected of being involved in the death of Russian tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who uncovered a tax-fraud scheme that implicated several Putin allies. Russia retaliated by barring Americans from adopting Russian children.
She said in a statement that “nothing at all about the presidential campaign” was discussed during the Trump Tower meeting, and she has “never acted on behalf of the Russian government,” or discussed the issues she raised “with any representative of the Russian government.”
It’s a colorful cast of characters, but apparently they didn’t make much of an impression on Trump Jr. In March he told the Times that he never participated in any campaign-related meetings with Russian nationals.
“Did I meet with people that were Russian? I’m sure, I’m sure I did,” he said. “But none that were set up. None that I can think of at the moment. And certainly none that I was representing the campaign in any way, shape or form.”