After President Trump’s nearly four years in office, we still do not have a good answer as to why the president has repeatedly deferred to Vladimir Putin on major issues. This is a central question that we face as a country, especially its consequences for American policies on Ukrainian sanctions, on the issue of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, on the trustworthiness of our United States intelligence agencies, recently also on the contretemps over possible Russian bounties for the killing of American soldiers in Afghanistan and finally on the US presidential election.
As these scandals flare and recede into the next crisis, our focus on solving this mystery seems to subside as well. We must not lose our attentiveness to what is behind Trump’s baffling relationship with Putin — our national security depends on it.
Although we have no official answer, we have a set of clues, stretching back decades. Trump himself has admitted it over and over again. He wants to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. That has been his ambition since July 1987, when he made his first journey to the Russian capital. Nothing indicates that has changed since he took office. Financial observers speculate that he could conceivably earn up to $300 million in licensing fees and other revenues for the project — the payoff he has been seeking all his life. As a self-proclaimed multibillionaire businessman and a famously boastful “dealmaker,” Trump has been on the prowl insatiably for a real estate prize that will display his superior talents and enhance his already self-described billions of dollars in wealth.
Trump’s hunt for treasures in Russia, though, has been bumpy from the start. In his first go-around 33 years ago, Trump visited Moscow, with his wife at the time, Ivana, a Russian speaker, on the invitation of the Soviet ambassador to the US, Yuri Dubinin, to investigate developing a hotel. Nothing came of the visit.
Nine years later, in 1996, Trump returned to Moscow on his own, scouting out hotel and residential sites. He proposed at the time to invest $250 million in Russia, still economically raw after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and put his name on two Moscow luxury buildings. While there, he also registered his trademark, thereby protecting the names “Trump Tower” and other Trump monikers. His plans, once again, went nowhere.
Ten years elapsed before another spurt of activity. Trump sent his children to Moscow in 2006 — first Ivanka and later Donald Jr., who alone made six trips over an 18-month period. Trump himself went to Moscow in 2007 to announce that he was establishing Trump Vodka. Still no progress on the main real estate prize.
In November 2013, Trump made a spectacle in Moscow by hosting the Miss Universe pageant. He used the occasion to seek out many more top Russian officials for an agreement on a potential Trump Tower. At one point, he even sought a meeting with Putin himself — but failed. He once more came away empty-handed.
But he did not give up. The next year, he again sent Ivanka and her now-husband, Jared Kushner, to Moscow to look again for a site for a Trump Tower.
In 2015, even as he began his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, he was still searching for a Russian partner. He instructed his emissaries to continue working their various contacts in Moscow. Now he proposed a Trump Tower that would be a bold glass obelisk 100 stories high. By October, he signed a nonbinding letter of intent to construct his building.
In January 2016, even as the Republican primaries were underway, he asked Michael Cohen, his erstwhile personal lawyer, to offer Putin a free penthouse, valued at $50 million, atop his planned tower. Over the next six months, Cohen kept in touch with various key Russians about the venture. Cohen later claimed to the Mueller investigation that he had dropped his Moscow efforts in January, but eventually admitted that he had, in fact, persisted with them through June 2016.
In late November 2018, almost two years into his presidency, Trump confessed that he kept trying for the Moscow deal throughout his campaign because he figured that should he lose, he would still be able to return to it and conclude an agreement.
Now, two years later and in the midst of another presidential election year, we no longer hear discussions about a possible Trump Tower in Moscow. After 33 years of persistent effort, is it truly possible that Trump has given up on his quest? Trump and Putin have had more face time during his nearly four years in office than they had any time before Trump’s inauguration. What exactly have Trump and Putin talked about during their series of personal meetings, held in the strictest secrecy, during Trump’s time in office? We can never really know until the contents of his meetings with Putin are made public, yet the answer remains critical to our democracy and national security.
As another instance of Trump’s soft-pedaling criticisms of Russia comes and goes, we must not stop asking questions about Trump’s long-curious embrace of Putin. The answer may be lying in the development plans of the ever-elusive Trump Tower in Moscow.
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Stephen Schlesinger is the author of three books, including “Act of Creation: The Founding of The United Nations,” which won the 2004 Harry S. Truman Book Award. He is a senior fellow at the Century Foundation in New York City and the former director of the World Policy Institute at the New School (1997-2006) and former publisher of the quarterly magazine, The World Policy Journal. In the 1970s, he edited and published The New Democrat Magazine; was a speechwriter for the Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern; and later was the weekly columnist for The Boston Globe’s “The L’t’ry Life.” He wrote, with Stephen Kinzer, “Bitter Fruit,” a book about the 1954 CIA coup in Guatemala.
Thereafter, he spent four years as a staff writer at Time Magazine. For 12 years, he served as New York State Governor Mario Cuomo’s speechwriter and foreign policy adviser. In the mid 1990s, Schlesinger worked at the United Nations at Habitat, the agency dealing with cities.
Schlesinger received his B.A. from Harvard University, a certificate of study from Cambridge University and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. He lives in New York City.