President Donald Trump’s company planned to give a $50 million penthouse at Trump Tower Moscow to Russian President Vladimir Putin as the company negotiated the luxury real estate development during the 2016 campaign, according to four people, one of them the originator of the plan.
Two US law enforcement officials told BuzzFeed News that Michael Cohen, Trump’s personal lawyer at the time, discussed the idea with a representative of Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s press secretary.
The Trump Tower Moscow plan is at the heart of a new plea agreement by Cohen, who led the negotiations to bring a gleaming, 100-story building to the Russian capital. Cohen acknowledged in court that he had lied to Congress about the plan in order to protect Trump and his presidential campaign.
The revelation that representatives of the Trump Organization planned to forge direct financial links with the leader of a hostile nation at the height of the campaign raises fresh questions about President Trump's relationship with the Kremlin. The plan never went anywhere because the tower deal ultimately fizzled, and it is not clear whether Trump knew of the intention to give away the penthouse. But Cohen said in court documents that he regularly briefed Trump and his family on the Moscow negotiations.
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BuzzFeed News first reported in May on the secret dealings of Cohen and his business associate Felix Sater with political and business figures in Moscow.
The two men worked furiously behind the scenes into the summer of 2016 to get the Moscow deal finished — despite public claims that the development was canned in January, before Trump won the Republican nomination. Sater told BuzzFeed News today that he and Cohen thought giving the Trump Tower’s most luxurious apartment, a $50 million penthouse, to Putin would entice other wealthy buyers to purchase their own. “In Russia, the oligarchs would bend over backwards to live in the same building as Vladimir Putin,” Sater told BuzzFeed News. “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.” A second source confirmed the plan.
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Sater, a brash real estate promoter who pleaded guilty to racketeering in 1998 and became a longtime asset to US law enforcement and intelligence agencies, had worked with the Trump Organization on deals in the past and said he came up with the idea. Cohen, Sater recalled, said, “Great idea.”
Cohen would not comment. Cohen’s attorney, Guy Petrillo, did not return a detailed message. The Trump Organization also did not return a message seeking comment. A spokesperson for the Kremlin declined to answer questions about the project.
Trump had personally signed the letter of intent to move forward on the Trump Tower Moscow plan on Oct. 28, 2015, the day of the third Republican primary debate.
On Thursday, shortly after news broke about Cohen’s guilty plea, Trump told reporters, “There was a good chance that I wouldn’t have won” the presidential election, “in which case I would have gotten back into the business, and why should I lose lots of opportunities?”
According to the criminal information filed against Cohen Thursday, on Jan. 20, 2016, he spoke with a Russian government official, referred to only as Assistant 1, about the Trump Tower Moscow plan for 20 minutes. This person appears to be an assistant to Peskov, a top Kremlin official whom Cohen had attempted to reach by email.
Cohen “requested assistance in moving the project forward, both in securing land to build the proposed tower and financing the construction,” the court document states.
Cohen had previously maintained that he never got a response from the official, but in court on Thursday he acknowledged that was a lie.
Two FBI agents with direct knowledge of the Trump Tower Moscow negotiations told BuzzFeed News earlier this year that Cohen was in frequent contact with foreign individuals about the real estate venture — and that some of these individuals had knowledge of or played a role in 2016 election meddling. The identity of those individuals remains unknown.
Developing a tower in Russia had long been a dream of the Trump Organization, which pursued a deal there for three decades. After Trump announced his candidacy in the summer of 2015, Sater saw an opportunity to revive the development.
“I figured, he’s in the news, his name is generating a lot of good press,” Sater told BuzzFeed News earlier this year. “A lot of Russians weren’t willing to pay a premium licensing fee to put Donald’s name on their building. Now maybe they would be.”
So he turned to his old friend, Cohen, to get it off the ground. They arranged a licensing deal, by which Trump would lend his name to the project and collect a part of the profits. Sater lined up a Russian development company to build the project and said that VTB, a Russian financial institution that faced US sanctions at the time, would finance it. VTB officials have denied taking part in any negotiations about the project.
The back-and-forth carried into the summer, when Sater said that top bankers and government officials wanted to meet with Cohen and Trump in Russia.
Cohen said that Trump planned to go after the Republican convention in July. Cohen pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about this, and has acknowledged that he did so to protect the president. ●
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Jason Leopold is a senior investigative reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles. He is a 2018 Pulitzer finalist for international reporting, recipient of the IRE 2016 FOI award and a 2016 Newseum Institute National Freedom of Information Hall of Fame inductee.