When Donald Trump talks about his desire to have good relations between the U.S. and Russia, it's not a recent attraction. Trump's attempts to expand his business and his brand there date back decades, and this history casts a shadow over his pro-Russian foreign policy. As a presidential candidate, he courts Putin's favor, extending the charm offensive intended to build the Trump real-estate empire.
"Wouldn't it be nice if actually we could get along with Russia?" Trump asked at a recent Republican presidential debate. It's a line he's used in rallies as well. Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin have exchanged praise, and Trump said he "would probably get along with him very well."
Trump's attraction to Russia seems to be mutual. There is a Russian-language website that collects Trump news and offers sales of Trump books and products. There's even a Trump 2016 Russian-language mock campaign site.
What Trump rarely talks about is his decades-long effort to do business in the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Russia. Good U.S.-Russian relations are potentially very lucrative for the Trump Organization. The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
In the 1980s, Trump was often seen on news shows offering his services to negotiate with the Soviets. "Why don't you negotiate the SALT talks for Reagan, Donald?" a man on the street once yelled at Trump, according to a 1990 profile of Donald and Ivana Trump in Vanity Fair. In 1987, Trump traveled to Moscow and Leningrad to discuss building hotels there. He even met with the Soviet ambassador to the U.S.
"It's a totally interesting place," Trump said at the time. "I think the Soviet Union is really making an effort to cooperate in the sense of dealing openly with other nations and in opening up the country." In a 1997 New Yorker profile, Trump talked about his trips to Russia to explore having the Trump Organization take part in skyscraper and hotel development projects in Moscow, including the reconstruction of the Moskva and Rossiya Hotels.
"That's a very big project; I think it's the largest hotel in the world," Trump told Russian politician Alexander Ivanovich Lebed at the time. "And we're working with the local government, the mayor of Moscow and the mayor's people. So far, they've been very responsive."
Lebed, a former Russian presidential candidate, was eager to help Trump get established in the Russian market. "If Trump goes to Moscow, I think America will follow," he told Trump.
Trump traveled to Russia in the 1990s with developer Howard Lorber, whom Trump recently told the New York Times was one of his best friends. Lorber has "major investments" in Russia, according to Trump.
Negotiations over the two hotels eventually fizzled, but in 2008 the Trump Organization was at it again, announcing it planned to build elite residences and hotels in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Sochi, and license the Trump brand for other projects. Donald Trump Jr., the candidate's son, made the announcement in a speech at the 2008 "Real Estate in Russia" conference.
The younger Trump made over half a dozen trips to Russia on behalf of the Trump Organization in the two years during which the U.S. real estate market was collapsing during the Great Recession. "The emerging world in general attributes such brand premium to real estate that we are looking all over the place, primarily Russia," Trump Jr. told a Manhattan audience in September 2008. He said that while Russia was on the Trump Organization's "A-list" of emerging markets for investment, doing business there carried risks due to corruption and "because it is a question of who knows who, whose brother is paying off who, etc."
Trump Sr.'s interest in Russian real estate development escalated in 2013. He met with Russian partners including developer Aras Agalarov to discuss building a replica of his SoHo residential development project in Moscow. Trump's other parter in the SoHo deal was Alex Sapir, son of Georgian billionaire Tamir Sapir, a well-connected real estate developer in Russia.
"The Russian market is attracted to me," Trump told Real Estate Weekly. "I have a great relationship with many Russians, and almost all of the oligarchs were in the room."
That was also the year that Trump brought his Miss Universe pageant to Moscow. Trump invited Putin to the event, although the Russian president ultimately didn't attend. The event was held at the Crocus City Hall in Moscow, which Agalarov owns.
"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?" at the time.
While in Moscow for the pageant, Trump announced that he was planning to build a skyscraper in Moscow. He gave no details and there's been no news about the project since.
During this presidential campaign Trump has repeatedly espoused positions that are closer to Moscow's policies than his rivals' are. He calls for the U.S. to leave Syria and "let Russia fight ISIS." He believes the U.S. shouldn't lead the international effort to help Ukraine fight Russian intervention. He said that there isn't enough evidence to prove Russia is to blame for the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17.
Before he was a presidential candidate, Trump's hunger to be popular in Russia was less troubling. Now it is a conflict of interest.
At minimum, there is the appearance of wrongdoing: The candidate's foreign-policy positions are conveniently aligned with his long-standing business agenda. But what's good for the Trump Organization isn't necessarily good for America.
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