All through the hot summer campaign of 2016, as Donald Trump and his aides dismissed talk of unseemly ties to Moscow, two of his key business partners were working furiously on a secret track: negotiations to build what would have been the tallest building in Europe and an icon of the Trump empire — the Trump World Tower Moscow.
Talks to construct the 100-story building continued even as the presidential candidate alternately bragged about his relationship with Vladimir Putin and rejected suggestions of Russian influence, and as Russian agents worked to sway US public opinion on Trump’s behalf.
While fragments of the Trump Moscow venture have trickled out — most recently in a report last night by Yahoo News — this is the definitive story of the Moscow tower, told from a trove of emails, text messages, congressional testimony, architectural renderings, and other documents obtained exclusively by BuzzFeed News, as well as interviews with key players and investigators. The documents reveal a detailed and plausible plan, well-connected Russian counterparts, and an effort that extended from spearfishing with a Russian developer on a private island to planning for a mid-campaign trip to Moscow for the presidential candidate himself.
The tower — a sheer, glass-encased obelisk situated on a river — would have soared above every other building in Moscow, the architectural drawings show. And the sharply angled skyscraper would have climaxed in a diamond-shaped pinnacle emblazoned with the word “Trump,” putting his name atop the continent’s tallest structure.
Michael Cohen, the president’s embattled personal fixer, and Felix Sater, who helped negotiate deals around the world for Trump, led the effort. Working quietly behind the scenes, they tried to arrange a sit-down between Trump and Putin, the documents show. Those efforts ultimately fizzled. But the audacious venture has been a keen focus of federal investigators trying to determine if the Trump campaign colluded with the Kremlin.
Last month, Senate Intelligence Committee staffers peppered Sater for hours with questions about the Trump Moscow project. Sater testified that Cohen acted as the “intermediary” for Trump Moscow and was eager to see the deal through because he wanted to “score points with Trump.”
Sater also testified that Trump would regularly receive “short updates about the process of the deal.” Cohen has said that he briefed Trump three times on the deal, all before the end of January 2016. Cohen, the White House, and the Trump Organization did not return messages seeking comment.
Special counsel Robert Mueller planned to ask Trump himself about his discussions with Sater and Cohen about the Trump Moscow project, according to the New York Times. One of Mueller’s questions was: “What communication did you have with Michael D. Cohen, Felix Sater, and others, including foreign nationals, about Russian real estate developments during the campaign?” Additionally, Mueller intended to query Trump about any discussions he had during the campaign “regarding any meeting with Mr. Putin.”
Even before the appointment of Mueller as special counsel in May 2017, FBI agents investigating Russia’s interference in the election learned that Cohen was in frequent contact with foreign individuals about Trump Moscow — and that some of these individuals had knowledge of or played a role in 2016 election meddling, according to two FBI agents. The agents declined to name those individuals. Both agents have detailed knowledge about the bureau’s work on the collusion investigation that predated Mueller’s appointment.
In public statements, Cohen has said that he informed Trump the deal was dead in January 2016, but new records show he was still working on it with Sater at least into June. In May, six weeks before the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Sater asked Cohen when he and Trump would go to Moscow. In a text message, Cohen replied: “MY trip before Cleveland. Trump once he becomes the nominee after the convention.”
Throughout the nine-month effort, Sater, who was born in the Soviet Union and worked for years as an undercover source for US intelligence agencies and the FBI, told Cohen he had connections to top Russian officials and businessmen: Arkady and Boris Rotenberg, brothers who grew up with Putin and were considered his “shadow cabinet”; Andrey Molchanov, a billionaire Russian politician Sater was introduced to by a close personal friend, who proposed building the tower on his property; and a former member of Russia’s military intelligence to whom Sater passed photographs of Cohen’s passport to obtain a visa.
Whatever the significance of the negotiations to the election, the men took measures to keep the plans secret. Text messages often ended with a simple “call me.” They communicated, at times, via Dust, a secure, encrypted messaging application. Sater once warned that they “gotta keep this quiet.”
But now, the story can be told.
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Spinning in Putin’s chair
For three decades, Donald Trump came up short in Moscow.
The first attempt to build a signature tower in the Russian capital was in 1987, when he visited the Soviet Union to scout locations. In 1996, his company announced another “exploratory trip” that came to nothing. In 2005, he set his sights on an abandoned pencil factory before that deal flickered and failed. In 2013, after hosting the Miss Universe pageant there, Trump tweeted, “TRUMP TOWER-MOSCOW is next.”
His children tried, as well. Donald Trump Jr. visited six times during an 18-month period beginning in 2008, describing it as a “scary place” to do business because of what he saw as inherent corruption in Russia. During a 2006 visit, Donald Jr. was joined by his sister Ivanka and Sater, who said Trump Sr. asked him to chaperone. At the time, Sater was with a development company called Bayrock Group, which helped scout locations and secure financing for the Trump Organization’s licensing deals across the globe.
For Ivanka and Donald Jr., Sater arranged a tour of the Kremlin. Sater, as would be the case over and over in his life, had an inside connection. He phoned an old friend, a Russian billionaire, whom he knew through his Bayrock connections. The billionaire sent a fleet of cars and guards to escort them through the Kremlin, and when a tour guide pointed out Putin’s office, Ivanka Trump asked if she could sit in his chair at an antique desk. One of the guards said, “Are you crazy?”
“I said, ‘What is she going to do, steal a pen?’” Sater recalled. “He let us in. She sat behind the desk, spun in the chair twice, and that was that.”
The tallest tower in Europe
After Trump announced his candidacy in July 2015, Sater saw the opportunity of a lifetime: Why not parlay the presidential run into a business deal?
“I figured, he’s in the news, his name is generating a lot of good press,” Sater told BuzzFeed News. “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.”
The first step was to get the Trump Organization to sign on, so Sater arranged a meeting sometime in September 2015 with Cohen in Manhattan. The two men were old friends who had hung out as teenagers in Brooklyn. Their paths intersected again in the 2000s at Trump Tower, where Sater was an adviser and Cohen later became one of Trump’s attorneys. (Sater had once occupied the same office, three doors down from Trump, that Cohen used in Trump Tower.)
The plan was fairly simple. Trump no longer built towers, but he licensed his name and expertise to give real estate projects an air of luxury. These licensing deals were especially lucrative for the Trump Organization, pulling in millions in fees and, often, a cut of the sales. At the meeting in late September, Sater said he agreed to line up the developer and the financing; Cohen would get Trump to sign on the dotted line.
The building, originally called Trump World Tower Moscow, was supposed to be the tallest in Europe at well over 100 stories. Sater said he intended to negotiate an even split between himself and the Trump Organization: as much as $100 million or more, which would have amounted to 30% of the sales. “But first I needed to get more meat on the bones and show the Trump Organization that they needed me,” he told BuzzFeed News.
Sater used a network of contacts from his days in both business and intelligence to line up potential suitors. On Oct. 9, he emailed Cohen to say he planned to meet with Molchanov, the billionaire developer, to try to persuade him to provide the land on which to build Trump Moscow. Molchanov did not return a message seeking comment.
On Oct. 12, he again emailed Cohen. Their surrogates in Moscow would be meeting with Putin and a “top deputy” just two days later, and they had financing: VTB Bank President and Chairman Andrey Kostin was on board to fund the project, Sater said in an email.
The bank was a dicey choice. VTB was under US sanctions at the time, with American citizens and companies forbidden to do business with it. Asked by congressional investigators if he knew the bank was blacklisted, Sater responded: “Of course. I wasn’t seeking funding, the local development partner would have. Trump Organization never gets financing from local partners.”
“Mr. Kostin or any other VTB Group’s senior representatives never held any negotiations on any matter relating to the construction of the Trump Tower," a VTB spokesperson said in a statement. "We’d like to stress that no VTB Group subsidiary ever had any dealings with Mr. Trump, his representatives or any companies affiliated with him.”
The licensing agreement came together relatively quickly. Sater turned to a wealthy Moscow developer he knew from the days when Ivanka spun around in Putin’s chair: Andrey Rozov. His company, IC Expert, became the developer, and the sides traded proposals. At one point, as the letter of intent was passed back and forth during the negotiations, the Trump Organization changed an upfront fee from $100,000 to $900,000. On Oct. 28, 2015, the day of the third Republican presidential debate, Trump personally signed the letter of intent.
In a celebratory email sent from his Trump Organization account, Cohen asked Sater and Rozov that the “nature and content of the attached LOI not be disclosed” until later and said “we are truly looking forward to this wonderful opportunity.”
“No such thing as a former Russian spy”
About a week after Trump signed the document, Sater and Rozov, the developer, went on vacation to the Bahamas. Rozov rented Little Whale Cay, a private island, for $175,000, and the two men went diving and spearfishing. In an email, Sater told Cohen that another, unidentified friend was flying in to join them. This mystery individual, who is not named in the documents and whom Sater would not identify, knew two of the richest and most powerful men in Russia, the Rotenberg brothers.
In the 1960s, Arkady Rotenberg joined the same judo club as a young Putin, and they have remained close ever since. Arkady Rotenberg now controls a wide swath of interests in Russia, from banking to construction. His younger brother, Boris, controls SGM Group, a massive construction company. Sater saw the mystery man, who had worked with the Rotenbergs, as his entrée to the brothers.
Over cocktails and cookouts on the island, Sater told BuzzFeed News, he “was pitching the shit” out of the mystery man. Trump had recently praised Putin on TV, so Sater emailed Cohen saying, “Get me the clip.” His plan was to have the mystery man pass it to the Rotenbergs. Neither the brothers nor Rozov returned messages seeking comment.
“Everything will be negotiated and discussed not with flunkies but with people who will have dinner with Putin and discuss the issues and get a go-ahead,” Sater wrote to Cohen on Nov. 3. “My next steps are very sensitive with Putin’s very, very close people. We can pull this off.”
On Dec. 1, Sater emailed Cohen, asking him to send him photographs of his passport to facilitate a trip to Moscow.
The following day, reporters for the Associated Press met with Trump on the campaign trail and asked him about Sater. “I’m not that familiar with him,” Trump replied.
Negotiations for Cohen to visit Russia began to heat up. On Dec. 13, Sater emailed that he had an old friend on the phone with him right then, who was trying to arrange the trip. This friend is a former member of the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence unit that the US intelligence community believes interfered during the 2016 election.
Sater had known the spy for decades. He was one of Sater’s most reliable contacts during the two decades he worked as a confidential source for US law enforcement and intelligence agencies. The man, who is not being named because CIA officials say his life could be in jeopardy, delivered to Sater Osama bin Laden’s satellite phone numbers in 1998 and, later, handed over photographs of a North Korean official seeking nuclear weapons.
The man is no longer formally associated with the GRU, but Sater told Senate investigators he understands that “there is no such thing as a former Russian spy.” The former spy declined to comment.
On Dec. 17, Cohen forwarded a Google alert to Sater. Putin had described Trump as “talented” and “a very colorful man.” Cohen wrote: “Now is the time. Call me.”
Two days later, Sater told Cohen that their invitations and visas were being arranged by VTB Bank, and that Kostin, the bank’s powerful president and chairman, would meet Cohen in Moscow. Key to getting VTB on board was the former GRU spy; Sater told congressional and special counsel investigators that the former spy said he had a source at VTB Bank who would support the deal.
“Kostin will be at all meetings with Putin so that it is a business meeting not political,” Sater wrote to Cohen. “We will be invited to the Russian consulate this week to receive invite and have visa issued.”
But the Russians still needed Cohen’s passport. That afternoon, Cohen sent iPhone photographs of his passport, including the first page with his passport number, photograph, and other identifying details. The pages match those shared with BuzzFeed News last May. Sater told BuzzFeed News that he sent them to the former GRU spy.
On Dec. 19, Sater asked for Trump’s passport as well.
Cohen wrote: “After I return from Moscow with you with a specific date for him.”
Sater: “What do you mean?”
Cohen: “It’s premature for his and I am the one going.”
“I will not let you fuck with my job”
Around Christmas 2015, polls had Trump at the top of the Republican ticket.
But Cohen was antsy. He traveled to St. Barts with his family and grew impatient waiting for the invitation to Moscow. Four days after Christmas, he emailed Sater: “No response from Russia?”
The next day: “Where are they?”
Sater: “I’m waiting for them after New Year’s.”
The two men had known each other since they were roughneck teenagers hanging out in Brooklyn. Sater, who was born in the Soviet Union and came to the US when he was 6, became a stockbroker, lost his license after a bar brawl, then helped scam investors out of $40 million in a stock fraud. He escaped prison time for that crime by becoming a valuable confidential source for US intelligence agencies and the FBI, doing everything from locating al-Qaeda training camps to spying on Russia's military-industrial complex to going undercover to catch cybercriminals.
Cohen, meanwhile, grew up in Long Island, got his law degree, and worked as a personal injury attorney in Queens. He was an owner of a failed casino boat venture in Florida, and his family amassed taxi medallions and real estate holdings in New York City before he landed a job as Trump’s personal fixer.
Cohen and Sater grew closer during their time at the Trump Organization. Both men hooked up again sometime in 2006 and were intimately familiar with how the company structured its deals across the globe.
But now, Cohen lashed out at his friend with a fusillade of angry text messages on Dec. 30. “One month plus since the signing of the LOI that I wasted my time on. I put the others all on hold and still, despite every conversation with you, nothing.” He went on: “I will not let you fuck with my job and playing point person.” And he revealed his deep-seated need for Trump’s approval: “Not you or anyone you know will embarrass me in front of Mr. T when he asks me what is happening.”
Like Cohen, Sater was also supposed to visit St. Barts over the holidays with his family, but he wrote Cohen that he was too hurt and embarrassed by a recent ABC News story that quoted Trump, from a 2013 deposition, saying he wouldn’t know Sater if he walked in the room.
Cohen: “I don’t give a shit about the story that lasted all of one day. No one picked it up because no one cares.”
Sater: “It lasted one day because I kept my mouth shut for you and your team.” He added: “The schmuck that I am I said no comment. Because you told me to kill it, and we have bigger fish to fry.”
The messages ended with a sharp rebuke from Cohen: “Not going to argue with you. Please don’t reach out to anyone any longer regarding this.”
But Sater refused to give up. The following morning, New Year’s Eve 2015, he sent Cohen an image of a letter from GenBank — not VTB Bank, as they had earlier discussed — inviting the men to Moscow for a visit.
Just nine days earlier, the US Treasury Department had sanctioned GenBank for operating in Crimea after the disputed Russian takeover. GenBank became the first Russian financial institution to move into the Crimean peninsula.
Sater told Cohen that GenBank operates “through Putin’s administration and nothing gets done there without approval from the top. The meetings in Moscow will be with ministers — in US, that’s cabinet-level and with Putin’s top administration people. This likely will include Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s press secretary. To discuss goals, meeting agenda and meeting time between Putin and Trump.”
Cohen was incensed. “First it was a government invite, then VTB and then some third-rate bank signed by a woman Panamarova with no title. It’s like being invited by Independence Savings Bank. Let me do this on my own. After almost two months of waiting you send me some bullshit letter from a third-tier bank and you think I’m going to walk into the boss’s office and tell him I’m going there for this? Tell them no thank you and I will take it from here.”
Sater: “Michael a lot of work has been done and it’s not a third-rate anything.”
Cohen: “We’re done. Enough. I told you last week that you thinking you are running point on this is inaccurate. You are putting my job in jeopardy and making me look incompetent. I gave you two months and the best you send me is some bullshit garbage invite by some no name clerk at a third-tier bank. So I am telling you enough as of right now. Enough! I will handle this myself.”
He added, “Do you think I’m a moron? Do not call or speak to another person regarding MY project.”
“We would like to respectfully invite you to Moscow”
Even though Cohen vowed to go with an “alternate,” it is unknown whom he meant. Two FBI agents told BuzzFeed News that Cohen spoke to multiple Russians about Trump Moscow. They did not name the individuals, and Sater, who suspected Cohen was working his own sources, said he never learned their identities.
But if Cohen truly had contacts, he didn’t act like it. On Jan. 21, he tried to reach Peskov — the Kremlin’s press secretary, whom Sater had mentioned in his emails to Cohen — by writing to a general email address for media inquiries.
“I respectfully request someone, preferably you, contact me so that I might discuss the specifics as well as arranging meetings with the appropriate individuals,” Cohen wrote to Peskov.
Peskov later said that he did not respond to Cohen.
Four days later, Cohen received a letter from Andrey Ryabinskiy, a Russian mortgage tycoon and boxing promoter. “In furtherance of our previous conversations regarding the development of the Trump Tower Moscow project,” Ryabinskiy wrote, “we would like to respectfully invite you to Moscow for a working visit.” The meeting would be to tour plots of land for the potential tower, to have “round table discussions,” and to coordinate a follow-up visit by Trump himself. Ryabinskiy did not return a message left with his attorney.
It is not clear how Cohen responded, but Sater asked Cohen for travel dates for both Cohen and Trump the same afternoon Ryabinskiy sent the letter. “Will do,” Cohen wrote.
Early the next morning, Sater asked if Cohen could take a phone call with “the guy coordinating” — whom Sater later testified to the Senate Intelligence Committee was the former GRU officer. Cohen said he could indeed take the call. It is not clear how the conversation went, but Sater’s subsequent email suggests it was positive: “It’s set, they are waiting and will walk you into every office you need to make sure you are comfortable for DT trip,” Sater wrote.
But after Jan. 27, communications between Cohen and Sater appear to go dark. And in a statement he released a week before he was scheduled to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee last September, Cohen said the Trump Moscow effort “was terminated in January of 2016,” which Cohen noted was “before the Iowa caucus and months before the very first primary.”
But the venture did not end in January.
“The entire business class of Russia will be there”
The early months of 2016 were a crucial period both for Russian meddling in the election and for Trump’s political ascendancy. In March, hackers later revealed to be connected to Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate — or GRU, the same agency that Sater’s source once worked for — gained access to thousands of Democratic National Committee emails. Those emails would later be published slowly, mainly by WikiLeaks, creating a steady drumbeat of negative press about Hillary Clinton.
By May, Trump had rocked the political world, beating more than 10 candidates to lock in the Republican nomination as he headed toward the convention in Cleveland. That same month, Sater surfaced again in texts and emails to pitch Trump Moscow.
Sater has told investigators that during the first months of 2016, he and Cohen were using Dust, at Cohen’s suggestion, to communicate secretly about the Moscow project. Those messages, which were encrypted and are deleted automatically, have disappeared forever, Sater told BuzzFeed News. But on May 3, the day Trump won the Indiana primary and his top opponent Ted Cruz suspended his campaign, Sater sent Cohen an ordinary text message: “Should I dial you now?”
Sater told BuzzFeed News that he and Cohen had a conversation about setting up Cohen’s trip to Moscow to reignite the tower project. The next day, May 4, they discussed when in the presidential campaign Trump should take the extraordinary step of flying to a country at odds with the United States in order to negotiate a major business deal. Sater texted Cohen: “I had a chat with Moscow. ASSUMING the trip does happen the question is before or after the convention. I said I believe, but don’t know for sure, that it’s probably after the convention. Obviously the pre-meeting trip (only you) can happen anytime you want but the 2 big guys were the question.”
Cohen wrote back that day: “MY trip before Cleveland. Trump once he becomes the nominee after the convention.”
Sater: “Got it. I’m on it.”
The following day, Sater told Cohen that Peskov — the press officer whom Cohen had written to in January — “would like to invite you as his guest” to an economic forum in Russia. The country’s top government and finance officials would gather at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, Sater said, and Peskov “wants to meet there with you and possibly introduce you to either Putin or Medvedev.”
“The entire business class of Russia will be there as well. He said anything you want to discuss, including dates and subjects, are on the table.” He concluded, “Please confirm that works for you.”
“Works for me,” Cohen said.
Two weeks later, Sater told Cohen he was filling out a visa application for the two of them. And on June 13, with the Republican convention due to open in just over a month, Sater forwarded Cohen a letter from Alexander Stuglev, the head of Roscongress, a Russian economic organization that hosts the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, formally inviting them. Stuglev did not respond to requests for comment.
The next morning, Sater texted Cohen four times, and the two men met at about 2:45 p.m. in the atrium of Trump Tower. Sater wanted to go to the Russian consulate that day, in order to get the visas in time for the Economic Forum, which started four days later. But Cohen, Sater recalled, demurred, and so the trip to St. Petersburg never happened.
“He said, ‘We’ll go after Cleveland,’” Sater said, referring to the Republican convention. “So I figured that’s what we’d do.”
Sater kept holding out hope — working his sources in Russia right through the convention — until July 26, 2016, when Sater, while relaxing in the backyard of his Long Island home, read a tweet by Trump and knew right then that the deal was dead.
“Fuck me, I thought to myself. All that work for nothing,” Sater told BuzzFeed News.
He poured himself a big glass of scotch, he recalled, and lit a cigar. ●
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.