In 2015, at a time when Donald Trump had not yet declared his candidacy for United States president, U.S. spies recorded Russian officials already discussing meetings with Trump associates and advisers, according to an explosive report published Wednesday afternoon by The Wall Street Journal. Trump announced what, at the time, appeared to be a long-shot presidential bid on June 16, 2015.
According to the Journal article by investigative reporter Shane Harris, in the course of their routine surveillance of Russian government officials, U.S. intelligence agencies picked up conversations in which the Russians talked about meeting with the Trump pals at locations outside of the United States. But what specifically those meetings were about and which Trump associates were mentioned was not made clear by the sources Harris cites in his Wednesday report.
Read the full Wall Street Journal report on the overheard Russian conversations regarding Trump advisers and business partners by visiting this link.
At the time, Harris reported, the American spies did not grasp the significance of the Russian government conversations regarding Trump's circle of acquaintances. Trump was not yet a presidential candidate, and — though he would later deny it — he had extensive business dealings with prominent and wealthy Russians and had even attempted a major real estate project in Moscow itself.
In fact, as Yahoo! News investigative reporter Michael Isikoff reported on Wednesday, Trump in 2013 formed a business partnership with Russian billionaire Aras Agalarov with the aim of building a "Trump Tower" real estate development in Russia's capital city. Agalarov is often referred to as "the Trump of Russia." Read Isikoff's full report on the "Trump Tower Moscow" deal by visiting this link.
The Moscow Trump Tower development was mothballed when the Russian economy took a sharp downturn in the following years — an economic crisis driven largely by the United States and international sanctions against Russia following its annexation of Crimea, which had previously been part of Russia's neighboring Ukraine, ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2014.
Trump placed his son, Donald Trump Jr., in charge of the Moscow project and his daughter, Ivanka Trump, personally visited Moscow to scout locations for the site of the Trump Tower project there, Isikoff reported. Trump has attempted to lift sanctions on Russia since early his term, a move that could make the dormant Trump Tower Moscow project possible again. But so far, the Trump administration has been thwarted in its attempt to ease the sanctions.
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Agalarov has appeared in U.S. news reports over the last several days as the apparent broker of a meeting in June 2016 between Trump Jr. — with Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner and then-campaign manager Paul Manafort — and a Russian lawyer who offered damaging information on Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. The supposedly "incriminating" information came from top levels of the Russian government according to an email sent by Rob Goldstone, a music publicist who represents Agalarov's son Emin, a Russian pop singer.
Harris earlier broke a story in the Journal revealing that a longtime Republican opposition research specialist sought to obtain Clinton's personal emails from Russian computer hackers. In his Wednesday report on the taped conversations of Russian officials, Harris reports that though the discussions of Trump associates by Russian officials appeared "vague and inconclusive" in 2015, following the revelations this week about Trump Jr.'s meeting with a Russian lawyer and the meeting's connections to Agalarov, investigators will now take a harder look at the content of those tapes.
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