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Why Trump might have needed to enlist help from the very top of Russia’s government

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This week on “Trump, Inc.,” 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 business interests involving Russia during the 2016 presidential campaign — which he denied — that could have been influencing his policy positions. As the world has discovered, Trump was negotiating 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.

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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 company with two projects in Williston that match Rozov’s descriptions, including approved plans for a mall/hotel/water-park. Rozov’s name doesn’t appear on company filings, but a person familiar with the projects confirmed they are what Rozov was bragging about in his letter. Oil prices cratered and the mall/hotel/water-park was never built.

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    Here is a rendering of the aborted plan:

Rozov did not respond to an email seeking comment.

  • 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 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 the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project. (We were unable to reach Dvoskin for comment.)

  • We also found a possible 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 filling with skyscrapers.”We can build Moscow upwards, but then we’ll all flee from here,” Sobyanin said. “I’ll do everything in my power to stop Moscow from being built up with 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.

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Sater, meanwhile, is scheduled to testify before the House Intelligence Committee on March 27. The committee members will have plenty of questions.

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