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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.
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."
Agalarov later denied documents were ever signed, but that denial was contradicted more recently in congressional testimony.
Ike Kaveladze, who represented the Agalarov family in the United States, testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee that Trump signed a letter of intent in early 2014, and that negotiations lasted for more than a year. Donald Trump Jr. represented the Trump family, he testified.
"I believe the first communication I received in regards to the project happened in December of 2013. And I believe my last communication in regards to the project was some time in October, November 2014," said Kaveladze, who was testifying about his role as a participant in the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting in New York. Trump announced his presidential campaign in June 2015.
Kaveladze's account different from that of his employer. He said the Trump organization by late 2014 appeared to lose interest in the site, and Donald Trump Jr. told him the company was busy with other overseas projects.
In November 2014, Trump announced the development of the Trump International Hotel & Tower in Baku, Azerbaijan. That project was never finished, and in April 2018 the building was badly burned in a fire.
The project was dogged by allegations that Trump's local partner was corrupt and had dealings with front companies for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
By 2015, Trump's focus in Russia had turned to a different Moscow deal, one being pursued by his lawyer, Cohen, and a partner, Sater.
In November, Cohen pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about the timing of that deal. He admitted that negotiations went on longer than he had first claimed — through at least June 2016, in the middle of the presidential campaign.
Trump mentioned neither Trump Tower project on the campaign trail. The closest he came was at a July 2016 press conference, when he said that "numerous developers … wanted to develop property in Moscow and other places. But we decided not to do it."
He also said, "I have nothing to with Russia. I have nothing to do with Russia — for anything."