WASHINGTON — President-elect Donald Trump’s controversial soft spot for Russia is based on decades of courting wealthy Russians to buy condos in his luxury high-rises and invest in his other real estate ventures, a close look at his business dealings reveals.
Trump first traveled to Moscow in the 1980s, to discuss renovating hotels there. After several bankruptcies made it hard to raise money in the United States for his high-end hotel and condominium projects since the 1990s, Trump, and later his children, traveled to Moscow to talk deals and attract buyers, according to interviews with people who have worked with Trump over the years and news accounts. They show far greater commercial ties between Trump and Russia than generally known.
Real estate brokers in New York, Florida and Dubai told USA TODAY that Trump properties still attract high-end buyers from Russia, as well as from other countries.
Dolly Lenz, a real estate broker in New York, said she sold about 65 units in Trump World Tower, a condominium tower at 845 U.N. Plaza in Manhattan, to Russian buyers looking for real estate investments in the late 1990s. “I had contacts in Moscow looking to invest in the United States,” Lenz said. “’What do you have to recommend?’ They all wanted to meet Donald. They became very friendly.”
Ilya Reznik, who said he’s sold dozens of condominiums to Russians in Trump properties in south Florida, said his clients like Trump’s reputation for high quality luxury that’s priced right. “They’re businessmen, not too many politicians," Reznik said.
Gil Dezer, whose family built six Trump buildings with their own money in south Florida, said Russians buy Trump properties for the brand name. Dezer developed the property under Trump’s name, meaning Trump received a royalty fee at the time of the sale, “and the name stays on the building, subject to a list of requirements in the condo documents,” he said.
Back in 2008, Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr. told investors in Moscow that the Trump Organization had trademarked the Donald Trump name in Russia and planned to build housing and hotels in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Sochi, and to sell licenses to other developers, according to the Russian daily Kommersant.
“Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets; say in Dubai, and certainly with our project in SoHo and anywhere in New York,” Trump Jr. said at the time. “We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia. There's indeed a lot of money coming for new-builds and resale reflecting a trend in the Russian economy and, of course, the weak dollar versus the ruble."
These business dealings explain Trump's comfort level with a country — and its authoritarian president, Vladimir Putin — at a time when President Obama and both parties in Congress are alarmed over a series of Russian actions, the most recent being CIA allegations that the Russian government interfered in the presidential election to help Trump defeat Hillary Clinton.
Trump this week named Rex Tillerson, the CEO and chairman of ExxonMobil as his nominee for secretary of State. The nomination of Tillerson, who received an excellence award from Putin in 2014 and has partnered with Putin's ally and Russian oil executive Igor Sechin, has alarmed Republican and Democratic members of Congress.
The Trump Organization did not respond to a request for comment. Company lawyer Michael Cohen told the Financial Times in October: “The Trump Organization does not have any properties in Russia and the press’ fascination with this narrative is both misleading and fabricated. Perpetuation of this false connection ... or any connection with Russia altogether — is yet another example of the press’s liberal bias towards Mr. Trump.”
The Obama administration and Congress also have assailed Putin for seizing Crimea from Ukraine and for teaming up with Syrian President Bashar Assad in a brutal military campaign against rebels that has killed civilians estimated in the hundreds of thousands.
Trump, however, has ignored Putin's crackdown on individual freedoms and praised his strong leadership style, called the CIA allegations about election meddling "ridiculous," suggested during the campaign that he might be willing to let Russia keep Crimea and raised the prospect of working with Russia to end Syria's long civil war.