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Opinion: Trump’s hunger for Russia projects

— An ice-blue 14-story office tower called Ducat Place III is the building that President Trump might have constructed here. But like so many other Trump adventures in Russia, this one proved a tantalizing but futile dead end.

Trump is angrily dismissive when questions are raised about his Russian contacts. He calls the investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III a “witch hunt” and media reports about his Russia connections “fake news” and “fabrication.” He tweeted in January, shortly before his inauguration: “I HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH RUSSIA — NO DEALS, NO LOANS, NO NOTHING!”

As the Mueller investigation accelerates this week with the indictment of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and the plea deal reached with former campaign foreign-policy aide George Papadopoulos, the context of the probe becomes newly important. How did Trump accumulate his network of Russian business contacts in the years before the 2016 campaign? What’s the prehistory of Trump and Russia?

The simple truth is that Trump has been hungry for Russia projects for more than three decades. He has repeatedly touted plans for a Moscow mega-development and has courted a steady stream of investors from the former Soviet Union for ventures in New York, South Florida and other locations.

With Russia, as with so many other aspects of Trump’s business and political life, he has been more pitchman than builder. He kept trying to construct his Moscow tower — in well-documented efforts in 1987, 1996 (when he explored the Ducat Place deal) and 2013 — but never succeeded. What’s clear, reviewing the facts, is that Trump’s claim he had “nothing to do with Russia” over the years is nonsense.

The Russian moneymaker for Trump in the 2000s turned out to be investment in U.S. properties bearing his name. Russians were eager to move their capital into fancy condos in New York and Florida.

Trump’s business deals in South Florida illustrated his allure for Russian real-estate buyers. He sold his name to a string of six condo projects in an area called Sunny Isles Beach, known as “Little Moscow” because it had so many Russian-speaking residents. Trump pumped the market there and walked away unscathed when it crashed.

Helping build the Trump-Russia pipeline in the fragile 2008 market was Donald Trump Jr. At a June 2008 event in Moscow, he touted plans to build condos and hotels in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Sochi.

At a New York real-estate conference in September 2008, Trump Jr. was frank about the tide of Russian money supporting the family business. “In terms of high-end product influx into the U.S., Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets. ... We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia,” said the young Trump.

Trump Jr. explained in a May 2012 interview in Riga, Latvia, prior to his speech at a real-estate conference there why the Trump Organization saw the former Eastern bloc as crucial: “It’s a part of the world that now you’re starting to see some amazing architecture, some incredible real estate, you’re seeing a real big boom in wealth. ... We have something that’s very relevant in that sector.”

The apex of Trump’s personal interest in Russia may have been 2013, when he brought the Miss Universe pageant to Moscow and talked, yet again, of building a Trump Tower there. His business partner in the pageant was Aras Agalarov, a billionaire Azerbaijani-Russian shopping-mall developer. RT reported during that visit that Trump wanted to construct a Moscow “skyscraper” with Agalarov’s possible participation.

The mystery that animates this Trump-Russia saga — and Mueller’s investigation — is the June 2016 meeting where Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya met with Trump’s inner circle.

It helps to recall the long history of Trump’s business dealings with Russia when you read the June 3, 2016, email to Trump Jr. from Rob Goldstone, the publicist for Agalarov’s pop-singer son, Emin. Goldstone proposed a meeting to discuss an offer by Russia’s “Crown prosecutor” to “provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary [Clinton].” To which Trump Jr. famously replied: “I love it.” The Trump team insists nothing came of it.

The Mueller investigation is still in its opening round, and it’s far too early to make any judgments about Trump’s own actions. A member of Trump’s inner circle says he recently advised the president, “This is the most innocent you’ve ever been of any allegation.” But to reach a judgment, you first must understand the history of Trump’s fascination, bordering on obsession, with Russian business deals.

— David Ignatius is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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