Scuttled Trump Tower Moscow project back in limelight after Cohen guilty plea

Michael Cohen leaves Federal District Court after pleading guilty to charge
Michael Cohen leaves Federal District Court after pleading guilty to charges related to lying to congress in New York on Nov. 29, 2018. Copyright Justin Lane EPA
By Allan Smith with NBC News Politics
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Trump promised a Trump Tower in Moscow on Twitter in 2013.


For years, President Donald Trump flirted with the idea of opening a massive, Trump-branded skyscraper in Moscow.

After holding his Miss Universe pageant there in 2013, Trump tagged Russian billionaire developer Aras Agalarov in a tweet and promised that "Trump Tower-Moscow" was next.

The project never came to be. But the Trump Organization's attempts to get a deal green-lit caught the attention of congressional investigators and special counsel Robert Mueller probing Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and whether there was any collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian officials.

Michael Cohen leaves Federal District Court after pleading guilty to charges related to lying to congress in New York on Nov. 29, 2018.
Michael Cohen leaves Federal District Court after pleading guilty to charges related to lying to congress in New York on Nov. 29, 2018.Justin Lane

On Thursday, after the president's former longtime lawyer, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty in federal court to a charge brought by Mueller that he lied to Congress about the scope and status of the project, the potential business deal was thrust back in the spotlight.

Efforts to build Trump Tower Moscow were pursued by the Trump Organization well into the president's 2016 campaign, despite Trump's repeated claims that he had no business interests in Russia, prosecutors said in court documents.

When did Trump begin pursuing a Trump Tower in Moscow?

The Washington Post, citing sources familiar with the matter, reported last year that discussions about a Moscow tower began in September 2015, as Trump's presidential campaign was in full swing, and that Cohen, a vice president at the Trump Organization, was the lead negotiator on the project.

The arrangement — as is the case for a number of Trump-named ventures — involved an investor, who was unidentified by The Post, building the project under a licensing agreement with Trump that required his name be placed on the tower.

Trump personally signed a letter of intent to pursue a Trump Tower in Moscow in October 2015, Buzzfeed News and ABC News reported.

The Post notes that these moves hardly marked the beginning of Trump's interest in doing a real estate deal in Russia. For more than three decades, Trump sought to build a property in Moscow, beginning with a failed 1987 effort to partner with the Soviet government on a hotel.

"Russia is one of the hottest places in the world for investment," Trump said in a 2007 court deposition, the Post reported, adding, "We will be in Moscow at some point."

Buzzfeed, in May 2018, reported that the discussions to build a tower were so advanced that architectural renderings of the proposed skyscraper existed, showing "a sheer, glass-encased obelisk situated on a river" which "would have soared above every other building in Moscow."

What did the Moscow project entail?

An internal Trump Organization document obtained by CNN last year showed that the letter of intent included details of the proposed project, such as the Trump Organization netting a $4 million upfront fee without any upfront costs, receiving a percentage of the sales, and retaining control over marketing and design of the skyscraper.

Trump would have needed the approval of the Russian government to pursue the project, which is why the deal has come under such scrutiny from investigators looking into possible collusion. Cohen earlier told the House Intelligence Committee that the project was abandoned once the Trump Organization couldn't get those necessary approvals, saying the abandonment of the project was not connected to Trump's campaign.

Cohen also told Congress that he didn't receive a response after he reached out to Russian President Vladimir Putin's press office in January 2016 for assistance getting the project going. But according to the plea deal, that wasn't true. Cohen actually had heard back from Putin's press team and spoke on the phone with a Russian official.

The Kremlin had denied ever responding to Cohen's request for help.

According to Mueller's charging document, Cohen also discussed traveling to Russia, but did not ultimately make the trip.

As a candidate, Trump said in July 2016 that he had no financial interests in Russia.

"I will tell you right now, zero, I have nothing to do with Russia, yes?" he told reporters.


On Thursday, addressing reporters just after Cohen entered his guilty plea, Trump said his former attorney was "lying" in exchange for a reduced sentence. Trump added that his namesake company's effort to build the Trump Tower in Moscow was "a well-known project" he ultimately scrapped.

"We were thinking about building a building," he said. "I decided ultimately not to do it. There would have been nothing wrong if I did do it."

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