In 2013, Donald Trump was desperate to do business in Russia. So he used his Miss Universe pageant and an odd relationship with a Russian pop star to make it happen.
Donald Trump visited Moscow for the Miss Universe pageant in 2013. While he was there he was desperate to meet Vladimir Putin, a man whose praises he had repeatedly sung.
The following is an edited extract from the book Russian roulette by Michael Isikoff and David Corn, which details the beginnings of the future President's complex relationship with Russia.
It was late in the afternoon of November 9, 2013 in Moscow, and Donald Trump was getting anxious.
This was his second day in the Russian capital and the brash businessman and reality-TV star was running through a whirlwind schedule to promote that evening's extravaganza at Moscow's Crocus City Hall: The Miss Universe pageant, in which women from 86 countries would be judged before a worldwide television audience estimated at one billion.
Trump had purchased the pageant 17 years earlier, partnering with NBC. It was one of his most prized properties, bringing in millions of dollars a year in revenue and, perhaps as important, burnishing his image as an iconic international playboy celebrity.
While in the Russian capital, Trump was also scouting for new and grand business opportunities, having spent decades trying — but failing — to develop high-end projects in Moscow. Miss Universe staffers considered it an open secret that Trump's true agenda in Moscow was not the show but his desire to do business there.
Yet to those around him that afternoon, Trump seemed gripped by one question: Where was Vladimir Putin?
From the moment five months earlier when Trump announced Miss Universe would be staged that year in Moscow, he had seemed obsessed with the idea of meeting the Russian president. "Do you think Putin will be going to the Miss Universe Pageant in November in Moscow — if so, will he become my new best friend?" Trump had tweeted in June.
Once in Moscow, Trump received a private message from the Kremlin, delivered by Aras Agalarov, an oligarch close to Putin and Trump's partner in hosting the Miss Universe event there.
"Mr Putin would like to meet Mr Trump." That excited Trump.
The American developer thought there was a strong chance the Russian leader would attend the pageant. But as his time in Russia wore on, Trump heard nothing else. He became uneasy. "Is Putin coming?" he kept asking.
With no word from the Kremlin, it was starting to look grim. Then Agalarov conveyed a new message. Dmitry Peskov, Putin's right-hand man and press spokesman, would be calling any moment. Trump was relieved, especially after it was explained to him that few people were closer to Putin than Peskov. If anybody could facilitate a rendezvous with Putin, it was him. "If you get a call from Peskov, it's like you're getting a call from Putin," Rob Goldstone, a British-born publicist who had helped bring the beauty contest to Moscow, told him. But time was running out. The show would be starting soon, and following the broadcast Trump would be departing the city.
Finally, Agalarov's cell phone rang. It was Peskov, and Agalarov handed the phone to an eager Trump.
Trump's trip to Moscow for the Miss Universe contest was a pivotal moment. He had for years longed to develop a glittering Trump Tower in Moscow. With this visit, he would come near — so near — to striking that deal. He would be close to branding the Moscow skyline with his world-famous name and enhancing his own status as a sort of global oligarch.
During his time in Russia, Trump would demonstrate his affinity for the nation's authoritarian leader with flattering and fawning tweets and remarks that were part of a long stretch of comments suggesting an admiration for Putin. Trump's curious statements about Putin — before, during, and after this Moscow jaunt — would later confound US intelligence officials, members of Congress and Americans of various political inclinations, even Republican Party loyalists.
What could possibly explain Trump's unwavering sympathy for the Russian strongman? His refusal to acknowledge Putin's repressive tactics, his whitewashing of Putin's abuses in Ukraine and Syria, his dismissal of the murders of Putin's critics, his blind eye to Putin's cyber attacks and disinformation campaigns aimed at subverting Western democracies?
Trump's brief trip to Moscow held clues to this mystery. His two days there would later become much discussed because of allegations that he engaged in weird sexual antics while in Russia — claims that were not confirmed. But this visit was significant because it revealed what motivated Trump the most: the opportunity to build more monuments to himself and to make more money. Trump realised he could attain none of his dreams in Moscow without forging a bond with the former KGB lieutenant colonel who was the president of Russia.
This trek to Russia was the birth of a bromance — or something darker — that would soon up-end American politics and then scandalise Trump's presidency. And it began in the most improbable way — as the brainstorm of a hustling music publicist trying to juice the career of a second-tier pop singer.
Trump's Miss Universe landed in Moscow because of an odd couple: Rob Goldstone and Emin Agalarov.
Goldstone was a heavy-set, gregarious bon vivant who liked to post photos on Facebook poking fun at himself for being unkempt and overweight. He once wrote a piece for The New York Times headlined, "The Tricks And Trials Of Traveling While Fat". He had been an Australian tabloid reporter and a publicist for Michael Jackson's 1987 Bad tour. Now he co-managed a PR firm and his top priority was serving the needs of an Azerbaijani pop singer of moderate talent named Emin Agalarov.
Emin — he went by his first name — was young, handsome and rich. He yearned to be an international star. His father, Aras Agalarov, was a billionaire developer who had made it big in Russia, building commercial and residential complexes, and who also owned properties in the United States. After spending his early years in Russia, Emin grew up in Tenafly, New Jersey, obsessed with Elvis Presley. He imitated the King of rock'n'roll in dress, style, and voice. He later studied business at Marymount Manhattan College and subsequently pursued a double career, working in his father's company and trying to make it as a singer. He married Leyla Aliyeva, the daughter of the president of Azerbaijan, whose regime faced repeated allegations of corruption. After moving to Baku, the country's capital, Emin soon earned a nickname: "the Elvis of Azerbaijan".
Emin cultivated the image of a rakish pop star, chronicling a hedonistic lifestyle on Instagram by posting shots from beaches, nightclubs and various hot spots. He brandished hats and T-shirts with randy sayings, such as "If You Had A Bad Day Let's Get Naked". But his music career was stalled. For help, he had turned to Goldstone.
In early 2013, Goldstone was looking to get Emin more media exposure, especially in the United States. A friend offered a suggestion: Perhaps Emin could perform at a Miss Universe pageant.
The event had a reputation for showcasing emerging talent. The 2008 contest had featured up-and-comer Lady Gaga. (Trump would later brag — with his usual hyperbole — that this appearance was Lady Gaga's big break.) About the same time, Goldstone and Emin needed an attractive woman for a music video for Emin's latest song — and they wanted the most beautiful woman they could find. It seemed obvious to them that they should reach out to Miss Universe.
This led to meetings with Paula Shugart, the president of the Miss Universe Organisation, who reported directly to Trump. She agreed to make the reigning Miss Universe, Olivia Culpo, available for the music video. (Within the Miss Universe outfit, Culpo, who had previously been Miss USA, was widely considered a Trump favourite.) And over the course of several conversations with Shugart, Goldstone and Emin discussed where the next Miss Universe contest would be held. At one point, Emin proposed to Shugart that Miss Universe consider mounting its 2013 pageant in Azerbaijan. That didn't fly with Shugart.
At a subsequent meeting, Emin revised the pitch. "Why don't we have it in Moscow?" he suggested. Shugart was interested but hesitant. The pageant had looked at Moscow previously. It had not identified a suitable venue there and it was fearful of running into too much red tape. "What if you had a partner who owns the biggest venue in Moscow?" Emin replied. "Between myself and my father, we can cut through the red tape."
A native Azerbaijani, Aras Agalarov was known as "Putin's Builder". He had accumulated a billion-dollar-plus real estate fortune in part by catering, like Trump, to the super-wealthy. One of his projects was a Moscow housing community for oligarchs that boasted an artificial beach and waterfall. Agalarov had been tapped by Putin to build the massive infrastructure — conference halls, roadways and housing — for the 2012 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vladivostok. He had completed the project in record time. That venture and others — the construction of soccer stadiums for the World Cup in Russia and the building of a superhighway around Moscow — had earned Agalarov Putin's gratitude. Later in 2013, Putin would pin a medal on Agalarov's lapel: "Order of Honour of the Russian Federation".
When Shugart first mentioned to Trump the idea of partnering with a Russian billionaire tight with Putin to bring the Miss Universe contest to Moscow, the celebrity developer was intrigued.
At last, here was an inside track to break into the Russian market. And Agalarov agreed to kick in a good chunk of the estimated $20 million pageant budget. Trump was all for it. A Putin-connected oligarch would be underwriting his endeavour.
But the deal had to include something for Emin. Trump's Miss Universe company guaranteed that Emin would perform two musical numbers during the show. He would be showcased before a global television audience. He and Goldstone believed this could help him achieve his dream — cracking the American pop market.
In June 2013, Trump arrived in Las Vegas to preside over the Miss USA contest, which was owned by the Miss Universe company. Goldstone, Aras Agalarov and Emin were in town for the event. Emin posted a photo of himself outside Trump's hotel off the Vegas strip wearing a Trump T-shirt and boasting a hat exclaiming "You're Fired" — the tagline from Trump's hit television show The Apprentice. Trump had yet to meet the Agalarovs. But when they finally got together in the lobby of his hotel, he pointed at Aras Agalarov and exclaimed, "Look who came to me! This is the richest man in Russia!" (Agalarov was not the richest man in Russia.)
On the evening of June 15, the two Russians and their British publicist were planning a big dinner at CUT, a restaurant located at the Palazzo hotel and casino. Much to their surprise, they received a call from Keith Schiller, Trump's longtime security chief and confidant, informing them that his boss wanted to join their party.
Sure, they said, please come.
At the dinner for about 20 people in a private room, Emin sat between Trump and Goldstone. Aras Agalarov was across from Trump. Michael Cohen, Trump's personal lawyer who acted as the businessman's consigliore, was on the other side of Goldstone. Also at the table was an unusual associate for Trump: Ike Kaveladze, the US-based vice president of Crocus International, an Agalarov company. In 2000, a Government Accountability Office report identified a business run by Kaveladze as responsible for opening more than 2000 bank accounts at two US banks on behalf of Russian-based brokers. The accounts were used to move more than $1.4 billion from individuals in Russia and Eastern Europe around the globe in an operation the report suggested was "for the purpose of laundering money". His main client at the time was Crocus International. (Kaveladze claimed the GAO probe was "another Russian witch-hunt in the United States".)
Trump was charming and solicitous of his new partners. He asked Aras what kind of jet he owned. A Gulfstream 550, Aras answered. But the Russian billionaire quickly noted that he had a Gulfstream 650 on order. "If that was me," Trump replied, "I would have said I was one of only 100 people in the world who have a Gulfstream 650 on order." It was a small Trumpian lesson in self-promotion. And Trump, proud of himself, turned to Goldstone to emphasise his point: "There is nobody in the world who is a better self-promoter than Donald Trump."
After the dinner, part of the group headed to an after-party at a raunchy nightclub in the Palazzo mall called The Act.
Shortly after midnight, the entourage arrived at the club. The group included Trump, Emin, Goldstone, Culpo and Nana Meriwether, the outgoing Miss USA. Trump and Culpo were photographed in the lobby by a local paparazzo. The club's management had heard that Trump might be there that night and had arranged to have plenty of Diet Coke on hand for the teetotaling Trump. (The owners had also discussed whether they should prepare a special performance for the developer, perhaps a dominatrix who would tie him up on stage or a little person transvestite Trump impersonator — and nixed the idea.)
As The Act's scantily clad dancers gyrated in front of them late that night, Emin, Goldstone, Culpo, and the rest toasted Trump's birthday. (He had turned 67 the day before.) Trump remained focused on Emin and their future partnership. "When it comes to doing business in Russia, it's very hard to find people in there you can trust," he told the young pop singer, according to Goldstone. "We're going to have a great relationship." The next night, towards the end of the Miss USA broadcast, Trump hit the stage to announce that the Miss Universe pageant would be held the coming November in Russia. In front of the audience, the Agalarovs and Trump signed the contract for the event.
Trump landed in Moscow on November 8, having flown there with casino owner Phil Ruffin on Ruffin's private jet. (Ruffin, a long-time Trump friend, was married to a former Miss Ukraine who had competed in the 2004 Miss Universe contest.) Trump headed to the Ritz-Carlton, where he was booked into the presidential suite that Obama had stayed in when he was in Moscow four years earlier.
There was a brief meeting with Miss Universe executives and the Agalarovs. Schiller would later tell congressional investigators that a Russian approached Trump's party with an offer: He wanted to send five women to Trump's hotel room that night. Was this traditional Russian courtesy — or an overture by Russian intelligence to collect kompromat (compromising material) on the prominent visitor? Schiller said he didn't take the offer seriously and told the Russian: "We don't do that type of stuff."
Trump was soon whisked to a gala lunch at one of the two Moscow branches of Nobu, the famous sushi restaurant. (Nobu Matsuhisa, its founder, was one of the celebrity judges for the Miss Universe telecast. Agalarov was one of the co-owners of the restaurant; another co-investor was actor Robert De Niro.) An assortment of Russian businessmen was there, including Herman Gref, the chief executive of Sberbank, a Russian state-owned bank and one of the co-sponsors of the Miss Universe pageant.
Trump was treated with much reverence. He gave a brief welcoming talk. "Ask me a question," he told the crowd. The first query was about the European debt crisis and the impact that the financial woes of Greece would have on it. "Interesting," Trump replied.
"Have any of you ever seen The Apprentice?" Trump spoke at length about his hit television show, repeatedly noting what a tremendous success it was. He said not a word about Greece or debt. When he was done with his remarks, he thanked them all for coming and received a standing ovation. (Later, Aras Agalarov, reminiscing about this lunch, would note, "If [Trump] does not know the subject, he will talk about a subject he knows.")
Gref, a close Putin adviser, was pleased with his face time with Trump. "There was a good feeling from the meeting," he later said. "He's a sensible person ... [with] a good attitude toward Russia."
Trump next went to the theatre in Crocus City Hall. It was the day before the show. This was Trump's chance to review the contestants and exercise an option he always retained under the rules of his pageants: to overrule the selection of judges and pick the contestants he wanted among the finalists. In short, no woman was a finalist until Trump said so.
At each pageant, Miss Universe staffers would set up a special room for Trump backstage. It had to conform to his precise requirements. He needed his favourite snacks: Nutter Butters and white Tic Tacs. And Diet Coke. There could be no distracting pictures on the wall. The room had to be immaculate. He required unscented soap and hand towels — rolled, not folded.
In this room would be videos of the finalists who had been selected days earlier in a preliminary competition and the other contestants, particularly footage of the women in gowns and swimsuits. Here, a day or two before the final telecast, Trump would review the judges' decisions.
Frequently, Trump would toss out finalists and replace them with others he preferred. "If there were too many women of colour, he would make changes," a Miss Universe staffer later noted. Another Miss Universe staffer recalled: "He often thought a woman was too ethnic or too dark-skinned. He had a particular type of woman he thought was a winner. Others were too ethnic. He liked a type. There was Olivia Culpo, Dayanara Torres [the 1993 winner], and, no surprise, East European women." On occasion, according to this staffer, Trump would reject a woman "who had snubbed his advances".
Once in a while, Shugart would politely challenge Trump's choices. Sometimes she would win the argument, sometimes not.
"If he didn't like a woman because she looked too ethnic, you could sometimes persuade him by telling him she was a princess and married to a football player," a staffer later explained.
That night, Aras Agalarov hosted a party at Crocus City Hall to celebrate his 58th birthday. Various VIPs were invited. Trump by now was exhausted. He spent much of the time sitting with Shugart and Schiller. At one point, Goldstone approached him with a request from Emin. The pop star was filming a new music video. Could Trump the next day shoot a scene that would be based on The Apprentice? Trump agreed, but it had to be early — between 7.45 and 8.10 in the morning. Sure, Goldstone said. Twenty-five minutes of Trump would have to do.
About 1.30 A.M., Trump left the party and headed to the Ritz-Carlton hotel a few blocks from the Kremlin. This would be his only night in Moscow. According to Schiller, on the way to the hotel, he told Trump about the earlier offer of women, and he and Trump laughed about it. In Schiller's account, after Trump was in his room, he stood guard outside for a while and then left.
The morning of November 9, Trump showed up for Emin's shoot.
He was needed for the final scene. The video would open with a boardroom meeting with Emin and others reviewing Miss Universe contestants. Emin would doze off and dream of being with the various contestants. Enter Trump for the climax — Emin wakes up with Trump shouting at him: "What's wrong with you, Emin? Emin, let's get with it. You're always late. You're just another pretty face. I'm really tired of you. You're fired!"
Trump's bit would only last 15 seconds. Yet soon Emin would release a video that he could promote as featuring the world-famous Trump.
The rest of the day was as hectic as the first: a press conference with 300 Russian reporters and more interviews, including one with Roberts in which Trump was pressed again about Putin.
Do you have a relationship with Putin and any sway with the Russian leader, Roberts asked him. Trump was unequivocal: "I do have a relationship." He paused. "I can tell you that he's very interested in what we're doing here today. He's probably very interested in what you and I are saying today. And I'm sure he's going to be seeing it in some form."
Trump could barely contain his praise for the Russia's president.
"Look, he's done a very brilliant job in terms of what he represents and who he's representing. If you look at what he's done with Syria, if you look at so many of the different things, he has really eaten our president's lunch. Let's not kid ourselves. He's done an amazing job ... He's put himself at the forefront of the world as a leader in a short period of time."
But Trump's comments about a "relationship" with Putin were, at this point, wishful thinking. The word had spread through the Miss Universe staff that Trump fiercely craved Putin's attendance at the pageant. In preparation for Putin's possible appearance, Thomas Roberts and Mel B were taught several words in Russian to welcome the Russian president — "hello," "thank you," and so on. With her cockney accent, Mel B had trouble pronouncing the Russian words. She was told she had to get this right because Putin might come.
By late afternoon, Trump's anxiety was palpable. There had been no word. He kept asking if anybody had heard from Putin. Then Agalarov's phone rang. "Mr Peskov would like to speak to Mr Trump," Agalarov said.
Trump and Peskov spoke for a few minutes. Afterwards, Trump recounted the conversation to Goldstone. Peskov, he said, was apologetic. Putin very much wanted to meet Trump. But there was a problem nobody had anticipated: a Moscow traffic jam. King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima of the Netherlands were in town and Putin was obligated to meet them at the Kremlin. But the royal couple had gotten stuck in traffic and were late, making it impossible for the Russian president to find time for Trump. Nor would he be able to attend the Miss Universe pageant that evening.
Putin wanted to make amends, though. Peskov conveyed an invitation for Trump to attend the upcoming Olympics, where perhaps he and Putin could then meet. He also told Trump that Putin would be sending a high-level emissary to the evening's event — Vladimir Kozhin, a senior Putin aide. And, Peskov told Trump, Putin had a gift for him.
It was a crushing disappointment for Trump. But he quickly thought of how to spin it, suggesting to an associate that after the telecast they could spread the word that Putin had dropped by. "No one will know for sure if he came or not," he said.
Extract from Russian roulette: The Inside Story Of Putin's War On America And The Election Of Donald Trump by Michael Isikoff and David Corn, published by Hachette Australia, $27.99, out March 20.
The book can be purchased through iTunes.