The Day Trump Came to Moscow: Oligarchs, Miss Universe and Nobu

  • Meeting with top group of Russian financiers, industrialists
  • They discussed a possible Trump Tower and inspected sites

The last time Donald Trump made an appearance in Moscow was November 2013 for the Miss Universe contest he famously owned. It was a glittering event filled with carefully choreographed photographs and parties. Then another, more private, invitation arrived: Come to Nobu to meet more than a dozen of Russia’s top businessmen, including Herman Gref, the chief executive officer of state-controlled Sberbank PJSC, Russia’s biggest bank.

Gref, who was President Vladimir Putin’s economy minister from 2000 to 2007, organized the meeting together with Aras Agalarov, the founder of Crocus Group, one of the country’s largest real-estate companies, which was hosting the beauty pageant at one of its concert halls.

Trump with Agalarov at the Miss Universe Pageant in Moscow, on Nov. 9, 2013.

Photographer: Victor Boyko/Getty Images

“There was a good feeling from the meeting,” Gref said in an interview. “He’s a sensible person, very lively in his responses, with a positive energy and a good attitude toward Russia.”

Trump’s two-hour gathering at Nobu, a 15-minute walk from the Kremlin, suggests that the president-elect’s circle of contacts in Russia is wider than previously reported and includes a close confidant of Putin’s. 

Trump’s links to Russia have been increasingly scrutinized, especially since he dismissed findings by U.S. intelligence agencies that the Kremlin directed hacking of the Democratic National Committee to help his campaign. Calls for a broad Congressional probe have added to questions about how Trump’s past business ambitions in the country might have influenced his desire for a closer relationship between Washington and Moscow. The Trump Organization did not respond to a request for comment.

There’s no evidence to suggest that Trump’s contact with Gref or any others he met in Moscow in 2013 had anything to do with recent events. But Gref is a powerful figure who holds regular meetings with Putin, while Sberbank is close enough to the Russian government for the U.S. to have imposed sanctions on the bank’s subsidiaries in 2014 in response to the Ukraine conflict.

Herman Gref

Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

Gref declined to say anything more about Trump when contacted last week. Sberbank was one of the official sponsors of the beauty contest and many of the Nobu guests came from the bank. The gathering enabled Gref and Trump to get to know each other better, Agalarov said.

“We organized it on the day,” Agalarov said in an interview earlier this year. “There were a lot of people speaking about a wide range of things. They asked different questions. Trump answered. He didn’t ask questions."

Agalarov, who owns the Nobu franchise in Moscow, closed the restaurant for the event. Over plates of sushi, Trump and his Russian hosts discussed interest and currency rates and the prospect of a breakup of the European Union, which Trump dismissed as unlikely, Agalarov said. “We talked about business but not his business,’’ he recalled.

Trump’s visit left a lasting impression. Three years later, Trump, Agalarov and his son, pop singer Emin, are on the cover of “Time to Eat,” Crocus Group’s current magazine at Nobu’s entrance. It shows Trump leaving his autograph on a Hollywood Boulevard-style Alley of Fame in Agalarov’s Vegas mall on the city’s outskirts.

Trump apparently hoped to meet Putin but didn’t. In June 2013, he tweeted about the possibility Putin would attend the beauty pageant and become his new best friend.

Not a ‘Presidential Format’

“It was clear that Putin would never have come to Miss Universe because it wasn’t a presidential format,” Agalarov said. And “Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin] wasn’t able to come to the meeting. That’s all.”

Trump has repeatedly cast doubt on contentions by U.S. intelligence services that Russia meddled in the U.S. election, leading some to suggest that his ties to Russia are influencing his views. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, has called the claims “rubbish.”

Still, Trump’s connections in Russia remain largely mysterious. After returning to New York that November, Trump told Real Estate Weekly that he was in talks with Agalarov and three other groups about a Trump Tower in Moscow. 

“The Russian market is attracted to me,” he said. “Almost all of the oligarchs were in the room.”

Site Visits

Agalarov said he and Trump agreed to do a real-estate deal during that visit but nothing ever came of it. As Agalarov tells it, he showed Trump around Moscow and they inspected different sites.

“We knew he had the idea of building Trump Tower” in Moscow, he said. “We agreed, but nothing was signed.”

Trump’s election has been warmly received by Russian officials and businessmen alike. Agalarov said he’d corresponded with Trump during the campaign and congratulated him on his victory.

One face conspicuously absent from the Nobu gathering was vodka tycoon Roustam Tariko, the founder of Russian Standard Corp., another Miss Universe sponsor. Tariko said he met Trump separately during his visit to Moscow after first getting to know him in the mid-2000s during business trips to New York.

“I’ve known Donald Trump for many years,” Tariko said in a June interview. “I’ve always found it interesting to talk with him.”

— With assistance by Anna Baraulina, Gregory White, Jake Rudnitsky, and Chris Strohm

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