WASHINGTON — Before Donald Trump's lawyer was pitching the Kremlin on building a Trump Tower in Moscow, the future president was negotiating to put his name on a building in a separate glitzy real estate development outside the Russian capital.
The Russians dubbed the proposed suburban development "Manhattan," and a "Trump Tower" would have been its centerpiece, according to congressional testimony and news reports.
Trump's partner in this earlier project was Aras Agalarov, an oligarch with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the same man whose promise of dirt on Hillary Clinton set in motion the infamous June 2016 meeting at the original Trump Tower in New York.
Two Congressional aides told NBC News the Agalarov project is now drawing new scrutiny from House and Senate investigators in the wake of the revelation in court documents that Trump lawyer Michael Cohen lied to Congress about his dealings on a separate, competing Russia real estate project. Cohen was also negotiating to build a Trump Tower in a separate part of the city.
The Trump Organization asked for written questions and did not respond to them. A lawyer for the Agalarovs, Scott Balber, said it was misleading to suggest that Aras Agalarov is close to Putin, but he declined to respond to specific questions.
Trump's interest in the Agalarov proposal, which he and Agalarov began considering shortly after the men met at the Miss Universe Pageant in Moscow in 2013, reinforces the extent to which he repeatedly sought a business deal in Putin's Russia, despite his protestations during the 2016 election campaign that he had "nothing to do with Russia."
"For the record, I have ZERO investments in Russia," Trump tweeted in July 2016.
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It wasn't for lack of trying. The Agalarov deal was one of five ultimately unsuccessful efforts to put the Trump name on a building in Russia, dating back to his first trip there in 1987, as he laid out in his memoir, "The Art of the Deal." A second attempt in 1996 fizzled, as did a 2005 plan with Felix Sater, the same Russian-born businessman who partnered with Cohen in another attempt in 2015 — one that wasn't abandoned until Trump had all but secured the Republican nomination for president.
The Agalarov proposal was the fourth of five. The parcel on which the tower was to be built in Krasnogorsk, northwest of Moscow, remains vacant. Other development has gone forward in the area, which is known as Crocus City, after the Agalarov's company, Crocus Group. A large shopping mall opened in 2015. But the concept of a retail and hotel center seems to be sputtering — a proposed Marriott hotel on the site never materialized.
In a little-noticed interview with Forbes magazine in July 2017, Aras Agalarov's son Emin said his family and Trump had signed documents to go forward with the deal, only to abandon the plan once Trump decided to run for president.
"He ran for president, so we dropped the idea, because obviously at this point his interests are slightly different," Agalarov was quoted as saying. "But if he hadn't run for president, we would probably be in the construction phase today, because he's a great person, very trusted on our side and a great developer."
He added, "It's basically an empty piece of land to this day."