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.
The younger Trump, now the focus of charges of collusion with the Kremlin, was such a frequent presence in the city that he even had a favorite landmark: the colorful onion-domed St. Basil’s cathedral on Red Square.
“St. Basil’s Cathedral Moscow to me one of the cooler structures I know,” Trump had tweeted during his June 2011 visit. “Have 2C this each time here.”
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 Goldstein, 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.
In a Tuesday night interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity, Trump Jr. dismissed his meeting with Veselnitskaya as “a nothing,” while allowing that “[i]n restrospect, I probably would have done things a little differently.”
He also would not say that the meeting was his only encounter with Russians during the campaign.
"I’ve probably met with other people from Russia,” he added, though "not in the context of actual, a formalized meeting or anything like that."
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 when 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.
“We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia,” he said of Trump Organization properties. “There’s indeed a lot of money coming for new-builds and resale reflecting a trend in the Russian economy and, of course, the weak dollar versus the ruble.”
It is unclear how regularly Donald Jr. returned to the country since then. But he chronicled his June 2011 visit to Moscow, beginning with a tweet that said, “Heading [to] the airport to go to Moscow for business. I really have to stop traveling so much!!!"
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 elder Trump for the licensing rights to a tower project in Moscow. Trump designated Donald Jr. to oversee the project, according to a Tuesday Yahoo! News report.
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 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.
Last May, he had shared a dinner table at a National Rifle Association dinner with Alexander Torshin, a former Russian legislator and central bank official, 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.” The precise reasons for Trump Jr.’s trip to Paris remain unclear, and the Trump Organization has not responded to queries about whether he was paid for his appearance.
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.
“In an environment where no one really trusts anyone else, there’s a huge incentive to work with your family members since you know them better. Against that backdrop, it makes perfect sense that elements of the Russian national security and business establishment wanted to put as many lines in as possible to the Trump family, either for purely mercenary purposes or more nefarious reasons,” said Andrew Weiss, a former Clinton White House official who handled Russia issues now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
But there is evidence that Trump Jr. was not naïve 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 was at risk “because it is a question of who knows who, whose brother is paying off who, etcetera.”
“It really is a scary place,” he added.