It sounded like a scene from a Cold War spy movie: Donald Trump Jr. was in a helicopter flying low on the outskirts of Russia’s capital city.
“Buzzing the treetops outside Moscow at 100 knots,” Trump Jr. tweeted, adding the aircraft was flying “below radar in closed airspace,” for reasons he did not explain.
It was June 2011, and the future president’s son was on a business trip to Moscow, where Trump Jr. had recently become a regular — and admiring — visitor.
“I really prefer Moscow over all cities in the world,” he had told an audience a few years earlier.
While President Donald Trump’s handful of trips to Russia have been meticulously scrutinized, a review of his son’s public statements spanning several years, as well as social media posts and interviews with Russia experts, shows that Donald Jr. spent far more time in the country than his father did and developed personal ties there that continued beyond the November election.
That might help to explain why Trump Jr. was so receptive to an approach last summer by a Russian lawyer promising dirt on Hillary Clinton which, as an intermediary told him in an email, was part of a Kremlin effort to assist his father’s campaign. “I love it,” Donald Jr. responded, agreeing to a meeting that may have put him in legal jeopardy.
The connection was made through Emin Agalarov, the pop-singer son of a Moscow real estate mogul who had hosted the November 2013 Miss Universe pageant, a franchise then owned by Donald Trump. Trump Jr. had attended the event and befriended Emin Agalarov there. Agalarov’s agent, Rob Goldstone, connected Donald Jr. with the lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya.
California Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told reporters on Tuesday that the Russian approach to Trump Jr. was consistent with Kremlin tradecraft.
“They’ll look for relationships,” Schiff said. “Who had [the Trump family] done business with? They go to the son who knows the son of the now-president,” he said, referring to Emin Agalarov and Donald Jr.
Until this year, Trump Jr. had mostly positive associations with Russia, a country he had visited repeatedly dating to at least 2006. That was the year that Felix Sater, a Russian-born real estate developer and Trump business partner, took Trump Jr. and his sister Ivanka to meet potential business partners in Moscow. Trump Jr. would return frequently — at least six more times by fall 2008, he said at a September 2008 real estate conference, according to a trade media report from the event.
At the conference, he showed a deep familiarity with the Moscow real estate market and the Russian economy.
A crucial visit came in November 2013, when Trump Jr. traveled to Moscow for the Miss Universe pageant and met Emin Agalarov, whose father, Aras Agalarov, is a real estate and construction mogul allied with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The Agalarovs had advanced talks with the elder Trump for the licensing rights to a tower project in Moscow. Trump designated Donald Jr. to oversee the project, according to a Yahoo News report on Tuesday.
The project was halted after Trump declared his candidacy for president in 2015. But Trump Jr. remained in touch with Emin Agalarov, who told Forbes in March that he had exchanged messages with Trump Jr. as recently as January.
Trump Jr.’s June 2016 meeting with Veselnitskaya was not his only notable interaction with a figure with ties to Moscow during the presidential campaign.
In May 2016, he shared a table at a National Rifle Association dinner with Alexander Torshin, a Russian central bank official and former legislator, according to an account Torshin gave Bloomberg last year.
And three weeks before Election Day, Trump Jr. flew to Paris, where he attended a conference at the Ritz-Carlton hotel on ending the Syrian civil war. The event was hosted by an obscure French think tank whose founders have worked closely with Russia’s government, which plays a major role in the Syrian conflict. The think tank later nominated Putin for the Nobel Prize, calling him a “peacemaker.”
Some Russia experts say it would not be surprising if Kremlin officials had used a Trump family member as a means of trying to influence a potential U.S. president.
[T]here is evidence that Trump Jr. was not naive about the true nature of Russian society. Even as he touted the money the Trump Organization was making from wealthy Russians — “in terms of high-end product influx into the US, Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets,” he said at the 2008 real estate conference — he also acknowledged the dark side of the country he had come to love.
“As much as we want to take our business over there, Russia is just a different world,” he said, one where any investment is at risk “because it is a question of who knows who, whose brother is paying off who, etc.”