Russian President Vladimir Putin dismissed a question Monday about whether the Russian government holds compromising material about President Donald Trump, offering as evidence his claim that he was not even aware of Trump’s visits to Russia as a private businessman.
However, Russian government officials – including Putin’s top spokesman – knew Trump was in Moscow in November 2013 to host the Miss Universe pageant and were told about the real estate developer’s eagerness to meet with Putin while he was there, according to people familiar with the conversations who have recounted them to congressional investigators.
Trump had also visited Russia to explore the possibility of building a Trump Tower in Moscow on several previous occasions.
Russia is known to collect information on foreign government officials and business leaders through surveillance at hotels and other locations.
A 2016 research dossier funded by the campaign of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and compiled by a former British spy alleged that Trump was motivated to assist Russia in part because he knew that the Russian government held a video of him engaged in embarrassing personal behavior while visiting the Moscow Ritz-Carlton hotel.
Trump has long denied the allegation, terming it a “disgrace” and “fake news.”
During a news conference in Helsinki after meeting with Trump, Putin did not explicitly deny that Russia has compromising information about Trump or his family.
Instead, he offered a winding response about how little he knew of Trump’s travels to Russia.
Putin said that he “did hear these rumors” about Russia collecting compromising material on Trump. But, he said, “when President Trump visited Moscow back then, I didn’t even know that he was in Moscow.”
“I treat President Trump with utmost respect, but back then, when he was a private individual, a businessman, nobody informed me that he was in Moscow,” he added. “It’s difficult to imagine another nonsense of a bigger scale than this. Well, please, just disregard this issue and don’t think about this anymore again.”
Putin’s answer came near the end of an extraordinary joint appearance with Trump during whichTrump declined to side with the findings of U.S. intelligence agencies that have concluded Putin interfered with the 2016 presidential election.
Trump said that if Putin had such material on him, “it would have been out long ago.”
On Monday, the top two Democrats in Congress suggested that Trump’s performance during the joint news conference was a sign that Russia does indeed have damaging information on the U.S. leader.
In an interview with Fox News’ Chris Wallace after the news conference, Putin added, “We don’t have anything on them, and there can’t be anything on them.”
Putin told Wallace that the Russian state doesn’t “have enough manpower” to monitor all foreign businessmen who visit. “That’s not part of our plans, and it’s clear that we did nothing of that kind against Mr. Trump.”
Before his 2013 trip to Moscow, Trump worked assiduously to get a message to Putin about his visit. In sworn testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, two pageant organizers revealed that Putin’s closest aides were in contact with organizers about the possibility of a meeting.
In June 2013, five months before the pageant, Trump publicly tweeted that “do you think Putin will be going to The Miss Universe Pageant in November in Moscow – if so, will he become my new best friend?”
The Washington Post reported in March that Trump also wrote a personal letter to Putin inviting him to the beauty pageant, scrawling at the bottom of the typed letter a postscript that said he was looking forward to seeing “beautiful” women during his trip to Moscow. It is unclear if Putin received the note.
More than a month before the pageant, Aras Agalarov, a Russian billionaire who financed the event, called a Russian government official and asked if Putin would meet with Trump during the event.
Ike Kaveladze, an Agalarov employee, told the Senate committee that he was in the room when Agalarov made the call and told the “official about the contest, the Miss Universe contest, and then secretly requested the meeting between Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin.”
Rob Goldstone, a music promoter also involved in the event, told the Senate committee that Trump’s desire for Putin to attend the event was “the gorilla in the room” for months leading up to the Moscow event.
He said Trump ultimately received a phone call on the day of the pageant from Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s top spokesman, informing him that Putin was too busy receiving the new king of Holland and would not be in attendance.
But after the pageant, Putin sent Trump a traditional Russian lacquered box containing a personal note, Agalarov told The Post in an April 2016 interview.
After Monday’s news conference, Goldstone wrote on Twitter that he knows “for sure” that Putin was aware of Trump’s presence at the pageant. He promised to reveal his full story in his forthcoming book, “Pop Stars, Pageants & Presidents: How an Email Trumped My Life.”
This is not the first time Putin has claimed that he did not know Trump was in town.He made a similar assertion in a March interview with NBC, saying that he did not know until after the fact that Trump had visited Moscow, despite efforts by Trump and his associates to arrange a meeting through Putin’s staff.
“Donald came here to Russia when he was not even nominated,” Putin said. “I did not even know that he had been to Russia. I learned about it only afterward, when I was told that as it turned out he had been to Russia.”
(c) 2018, The Washington Post · Rosalind S. Helderman