For a trip that would later spawn political intrigue and legal fallout, Donald Trump’s 2013 visit to Moscow was surprisingly short. It appears he spent no more than two nights there on his jaunt to the Miss Universe pageant he co-owned. Yet what happened in that narrow window of time reverberates almost four years later.
Through that weekend, Trump hobnobbed with Russian-Azerbaijani pop star Emin Agalarov, the son of the pageant’s host. It was Emin who last year had his manager, Rob Goldstone, arrange a meeting in New York between Donald Trump Jr. and a Russian lawyer to discuss dirt on Hillary Clinton. Goldstone, who’d handled press for the pageant, initiated the now infamous email chain — made public on Tuesday — that shows the younger Trump pursuing information for his father’s campaign that he was told came from Russia’s government.
Along with after-midnight partying, Trump’s visit provided him a chance to meet Russia’s financial elite. In one instance, he dined at the Nobu Moscow Japanese restaurant with more than a dozen Russian executives and business tycoons, including top executives of state-controlled Sberbank PJSC, Russia’s biggest bank, which sponsored the pageant.
The Nobu meal was organized by Sberbank Chief Executive Officer Herman Gref, a longtime ally of President Vladimir Putin, and Aras Agalarov, the father of the pop singer, Bloomberg previously reported. Agalarov is the founder of Crocus Group, one of Russia’s largest real-estate companies, which was hosting the Miss Universe contest at one of its concert halls.
Staying at the Ritz
As multiple probes scrutinize Trump ties to Russia, nearly every moment of that November 2013 weekend in Moscow is fraught with potential significance. In retrospect, it’s a microcosm of both his business world and the legal storm now engulfing his presidency.
Trump’s lodging has also become a source of controversy. According to Aras Agalarov, Trump stayed at the Ritz-Carlton hotel that weekend. The infamous Trump “dossier,” prepared by a former British spy hired to dig up dirt on the candidate during the 2016 campaign, included an unverified but widely reported assertion that Trump cavorted with prostitutes during a 2013 stay in that hotel’s presidential suite. Trump has denied the episode occurred.
Reconstructing the weekend hour-by-hour is partly possible through participants’ use of social media, interviews, flight records and contemporaneous news reports.
It was during that weekend that Agalarov, the developer, met with Trump and his SoHo hotel partners, Alex Sapir and Rotem Rosen, to discuss a potential Moscow project, Real Estate Weekly reported two days after Trump’s return. The deal never happened. In another meeting, Trump saw vodka tycoon Roustam Tariko, the founder of Russian Standard Corp., another Miss Universe sponsor, according to Tariko.
“The weekend in Moscow appears to be a major source of connections for the Trump family with different Russian interests,” said William Pomeranz, deputy director of the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. Even seemingly innocuous connections made in Moscow have now entangled Trump “in a web that he cannot seem to extricate himself from,” Pomeranz said.
Trump Jr.’s decision to meet with the Russian lawyer, and to bring brother-in-law Jared Kushner and campaign manager Paul Manafort along with him, is the most recent and possibly most damaging thread. The younger Trump said in a statement Tuesday that the lawyer he met at Emin’s urging wasn’t a Russian government official and didn’t supply political opposition research.
President Trump tweeted Wednesday that his son was “innocent” and called the controversy “the greatest Witch Hunt in political history.” The Agalarovs denied they were in any way intermediaries of the Russian government, a family lawyer said.
The future U.S. president’s journey to Moscow began in North Carolina, where he attended the birthday tribute to evangelist Billy Graham on Thursday, Nov. 7, 2013. Federal Aviation Administration flight records obtained by Bloomberg through the Freedom of Information Act show Trump’s Cessna jet took off from Asheville, North Carolina, at 9:57 p.m. that night, landing at New York’s La Guardia Airport at 11:05 p.m.
The flight records, which don’t include names of passengers, don’t show any subsequent international departures for either of Trump’s planes. Instead, Trump made the flight on a Bombardier Global 5000 private jet owned by Phil Ruffin, his partner in the Trump International Hotel and Tower in Las Vegas, according to the New York Times.
Trump surfaced on Friday, Nov. 8, in a Facebook post by Nobu Moscow. He was posing in daylight outside the restaurant with Emin, wearing a red tie and a dark overcoat.
This was likely the two-hour meal organized by Sberbank’s Gref and the elder Agalarov, who owns the Nobu franchise in Moscow and closed the restaurant for the event. Over plates of sushi, Trump and his Russian hosts discussed interest and currency rates and the prospect of a breakup of the European Union, which Trump dismissed as unlikely, Agalarov said. “We talked about business but not his business,’’ he recalled in an interview last year. He has given varying accounts of how long Trump’s visit lasted, from two days to as many as six.
That same evening, Trump headed to Agalarov’s Crocus City complex, also the site of the next day’s pageant, to attend the developer’s 58th birthday party. The venue was Backstage Restaurant, a 7,500-square-foot space with a stage from which the contest’s 87 participants sang "Happy Birthday to You," according to Russian society websites that published photos. Trump posed with locally famous singers and sat for some of the meal at a round table to the left of the reigning Miss Universe, American Olivia Culpo.
The next day, Saturday, Nov. 9, Facebook posts show Trump at the Ritz, sitting at the end of an oval, wood table in a hotel conference room. He was there filming a music video for Emin, in which he delivers his signature “You’re fired” line from “The Apprentice” TV show.
That afternoon, in the hours leading up to the Saturday night pageant, Trump reappeared on Twitter, announcing, “I’m in Moscow for Miss Universe tonight,” followed by another tweet: “I was just given a great tour of Moscow – fantastic, hard working people. CITY IS REALLY ENERGIZED! The World will be watching tonight!”
Separately, Aras Agalarov said he showed Trump around Moscow during the trip, inspecting different sites with an eye toward building a Trump Tower together, though it’s unclear whether this is the same tour Trump tweeted about.
For the rest of Saturday evening, social media posts follow Trump from a press conference to the pageant itself.
After Venezuela’s Gabriela Isler was crowned Miss Universe, Trump, the contestants and other guests retreated to a vodka-soaked after-party in a hangar-like convention space in the same exhibition center on the outskirts of Moscow where the contest had been held. Dance floors and bars surrounded a VIP seating area with white sofas and low-slung, white tables. The party’s scheduled start time was 1 a.m. — Sunday morning, at that point.
American rock band Panic! at the Disco, which had performed at the pageant, put on a second set for the 1,200 after-party attendees. Organizers charged 450,000 rubles ($13,700 at the time) for six-person tables, and 300 individual tickets were on sale for 10,000 rubles, according to Crocus Group. Guests included Aerosmith singer Steven Tyler and American figure skater Tara Lipinski, according to a press release from Russian Standard, whose vodka and logo were prominently displayed.
Trump doesn’t drink alcohol and made it clear to organizers before the weekend that he would avoid vodka, Aras Agalarov said. Instead, he had Diet Coke.
One person Trump had apparently hoped to meet, but didn’t, was Putin. In June 2013, he tweeted about the possibility the Russian president would attend the beauty pageant and become his new best friend. A Kremlin spokesman confirmed Putin had been invited to the pageant but didn’t go.
At some point on Sunday, Nov. 10, Trump jetted home to New York, where that evening he tweeted about his return: “I just got back from Russia-learned lots & lots. Moscow is a very interesting and amazing place! U.S. MUST BE VERY SMART AND VERY STRATEGIC.”
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