Donald Trump for decades dreamed of building a Trump Tower in the heart of Moscow, a plan that flared and fizzled several times over the years, most recently when his presidential campaign was gaining momentum.
That last plan led Trump's longtime lawyer Michael Cohen to plead guilty Thursday to a charge brought by the special prosecutor looking into possible Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Cohen admitted he lied to Congress about key details in the negotiations for the Moscow tower, most notably that those talks stretched much deeper into the presidential campaign than previously thought, to June of 2016.
Trump, speaking to reporters Thursday, disputed Cohen's timeline and suggested his former fixer was telling prosecutors what they wanted to hear to save his own skin. As for why the most recent deal failed, Trump said he made the decision himself for one main reason.
"It was very simple," he said. "I was very focused on running for president."
Trump's plans for a Trump Tower in Moscow went back as far as 1996 when the future president paid a visit to the Russian capital to check out building sites on land being developed by a U.S. company.
That idea fell through, along with plans to revamp the dilapidated Hotel Moskva next to the Kremlin, but the real estate mogul raised the prospect of a "super-luxury residential tower" bearing his name on other sites he visited on his three-day stay in the city.
"Moscow is going to be huge," Trump told Playboy magazine in a 1997 interview.
Trump revived the idea in 2013 during his visit to Moscow as owner of the Miss Universe pageant. Trump later said he had discussed the idea with Aras and Emin Agalarov, a father-and-son Russian development team close to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Trump reportedly scouted a potential site, but the idea again faded.
The tower idea came back yet again in October 2015, when Andrey Rozov, an obscure Russian real estate developer, signed a letter of intent sent by Cohen to advance the construction of a Trump World Tower that would feature 250 luxury condos, no fewer than 15 floors of hotel rooms, commercial and office space, a fitness center and an Ivanka Trump spa.
It was a potentially lucrative deal for Trump's company, handing it $4 million in upfront fees plus possibly millions more from a cut on everything from food and banquet fees to spa charges. His share on the first $100 million in condo sales alone would reach another $5 million.
Rozov's signed letter was sent back to Cohen by Felix Sater, another Trump world figure who had worked on and off for the Trump Organization and operated as a government informant following a 1998 conviction in a stock fraud case.
Sater sent Cohen an email expressing optimism: "Let's make this happen and build a Trump Moscow. And possibly fix relations between the countries by showing everyone that commerce and business are much better and more practical than politics."
Donald Trump Jr. and Ivanka Trump were copied in on emails about the project in late 2015, according to a person close to the Trump Organization. In one email, Ivanka Trump even suggested an architect for the building, the person said, noting the Trump Organization provided the emails to congressional committees. The company's email traffic about the project ends in January 2016, said the person, who wasn't authorized to speak publicly about the matter and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Like the previous failed projects, the Rozov-helmed effort soon ran aground. According to Cohen's testimony in 2017 and his plea agreement, negotiations with Rozov's group stalled, and the two Trump associates turned to aides to Russian President Vladimir Putin to move the project forward.
Cohen told congressional investigators last year that he had sent an email in January 2016 to Dmitry Peskov, Putin's spokesman. Cohen told the committee he never heard back from Peskov and the tower deal collapsed by the end of that month.
But according to Cohen's new statement to prosecutors, the tower deal remained viable as late as June 2016, after Trump had vanquished his Republican presidential rivals and was mounting his general election campaign against Hillary Clinton. Cohen said he kept Trump, named as "Individual 1" in the plea, updated about the deal's progress, and also "briefed family members of Individual 1 within the company about the project."
Cohen said in his plea that he also spoke by phone with an assistant to Peskov — identified in the plea as "Russian Official 1" — in January 2016 and outlined the project and "requested assistance in moving the project forward."
According to the plea, Cohen later discussed traveling to Moscow to jump-start the deal. In May 2016, a month after Trump had emerged the winner of the GOP primaries, Sater — identified as "Individual 2" — told Cohen that Peskov wanted to meet him in mid-June at an international business forum in St. Petersburg and "possibly introduce you" to Putin or Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.
Trump, who is in Argentina for the G-20 summit, recalled Friday on Twitter "happily living my life" as a developer before running for president after seeing the "Country going in the wrong direction (to put it mildly)."
"Against all odds," he continued, "I decide to run for President & continue to run my business-very legal & very cool, talked about it on the campaign trail. ... Lightly looked at doing a building somewhere in Russia. Put up zero money, zero guarantees and didn't do the project. Witch Hunt!"
BuzzFeed News reported Thursday that Trump's company considered giving the Moscow tower's penthouse apartment to Putin. Sater told BuzzFeed: "My idea was to give a $50 million penthouse to Putin and charge $250 million more for the rest of the units. All the oligarchs would line up to live in the same building as Putin."
Sater and Cohen continued to email about the foundering project well into June 2016, soon after a much-scrutinized meeting at Trump Tower in New York between Trump's son Don Jr., son-in-law Jared Kushner, campaign chairman Paul Manafort and several Russian attendees, purportedly to discuss the possibility of "dirt" on Hillary Clinton.
On June 14, Cohen met Sater in the tower lobby and told him his potential trip to St. Petersburg was off.
Thursday, Trump suggested his consideration of a Moscow tower was all part of being a businessman who was also running for president.
"I decided ultimately not to do it," he said. "There would be nothing wrong if I did do it."
"There was a good chance that I wouldn't have won, in which case I would have gone back into the business, and why should I lose lots of opportunities?"
Associated Press writer Chad Day in Washington contributed to this report.