Donald Trump and the Russian with the Million-Dollar Watch
Eight years ago, I came across an interesting item in the Russian publication Vedemosti. A reporter decided to take a close look at the ridiculously expensive watches worn by Russian government officials.
Vedomosti found the most expensive watch on the wrist of Vladimir Resin, the former deputy mayor of Moscow.
He was photographed wearing an extremely rare Swiss watch made of platinum called the La Pressy Grande Complication model, which retails for more than $1 million. (The original story is gone, but you see another version here.)
It was interesting to learn that Resin met with Donald Trump during early business forays into Russia in the 1990s. This was an interesting moment for two larger-than-life characters: The Russian city official with the million-dollar watch and the future American president looking to do his first overseas deal in Moscow.
Trump has insisted that he has no loans, no deals, and no business, but it’s not for want of trying. In the mid 1990s, Trump was trying to put his name something in Moscow. But no matter what he wanted to build, renovate or brand, Trump had to go through Resin, who for two decades oversaw construction in Russia’s capital city as deputy mayor.
Resin listed his work as his only hobby in his official biography, but it was a different kind of labor that earned him a $1 million watch. Moscow government officials welcomed foreign partners into their hotels — and demanded their own pound of flesh in return. “Corruption is a very, very big problem,” an anonymous Western hotel executive told Businessweek in a story about the Russian hotel wars during Resin’s time in office.
Trump had reportedly grown interested in the Moscow luxury apartment market after noticing how many Russians were buying space in Trump Palace, Trump Parc and Trump Plaza towers in New York.
In November 1996, Trump traveled to Russia to explore the possibility of replicating the success of Trump Tower in Moscow. In a news conference at Moscow’s Baltschug Hotel, Trump announced he planned to invest $250 million to build two “super-luxury” residential towers to be called Trump International and — surprise — Trump Tower, both of which he said “Moscow desperately wants and needs.”
“Moscow is going to be huge, take it from the Trumpster!” he told Playboy magazine.
It’s not clear whether Trump had the money to do deals in Moscow because 1996 was a difficult time for the future president. Although Trump claimed to be worth $2 billion, partial tax returns published by The New York Times revealed that Trump declared a loss of $916 million for the previous year. During his Moscow trip with then-wife Marla Maples, Trump had to suffer the indignity of flying commercial airlines. “We had to wait about an hour in London for a flight, right out there with all the other passengers,” Marla told Playboy. “Well, you can imagine how that went over with Donald.”
Trump met with Resin during his 1996 visit to Moscow. The Moscow Times quoted one of Trump’s partners in the deal, David Geovanis, as describing Resin as “one of the key people in charge of attracting foreign invest to the Moscow real estate market.” Geovanis added that the city was “very receptive” to Trump’s developments in Moscow.
Except they weren’t. Maybe the whole build-a-tower-in-Russia was just another in a long series of self-promotion. Or maybe Resin put his foot down. Resin said he wasn’t interested in having a glass-and-steel tower in the middle of Moscow. “We are not building any towers in the old part of the city,” he told the ITAR-Tass news agency. “We are not going to turn the ancient city into a Manhattan.”
Resin had other ideas for Trump. In December 1996, Resin offered him the chance to invest in a pair of decrepit Moscow hotels, the Hotel Rossiya, just off Red Square, and the rundown Hotel Moskva. The city controlled the hotels through a joint-stock company.
Back in New York, Trump seemed excited about the prospects of putting his imprint on the Moskva or the Rossiya when he met in with Alexsandr Lebed, who at the time was viewed as a potential successor to Russian president Boris Yeltsin. A profile in The New Yorker quoted Trump telling Lebed:
“We are actually looking at something in Moscow right now, and it would be skyscrapers and hotels, not casinos. Only quality stuff. But thank you for defending me. I’ll soon be going again to Moscow. We’re looking at the Moskva Hotel. We’re also looking at the Rossiya. That’s a very big project; I think it’s the largest hotel in the world. And we’re working with the local government, the mayor of Moscow and the mayor’s people. So far, they’ve been very responsive.”
The Moskva was a small, venerable Moscow hotel that is now run by the Four Seasons. The Rossiya was another matter.
The Rossiya, a 3,000 room concrete box and Europe’s biggest hotel, intrigued Trump, but it was a nightmare. The Economist magazine called it “Russia’s hotel from hell.” The city had tried without success to close it in 1994 because it was overrun by rats and cockroaches. Renovating it would cost a small fortune.
The Rossiya was also plagued by an even more dangerous problem: Organized crime. The hotel’s general director, Yevgeny Tsimbalistov, was shot dead in a December 1997 contract killing apparently, according to The Economist, for trying to reorganize things in a way that upset the balance of power between the gangs. And Tsimbalistov’s murder was one in a string of four murders of Moscow hotel executives in an 18-month period from 1996 to 1998.
Then there were the all-powerful city officials to deal with, like Resin.
Trump wisely passed on the fortresslike Rossiya, and the hotel was eventually razed in 2006 to make way for a new development.
Trump, however, did show some interest in the other Moscow hotel Resin offered him, the Moskva. Trump submitted a proposal for a $175 million renovation of the crumbling Moskva with the top floor converted into luxury apartments. Trump promised to turn the hotel around in 18 months.
In January of 1997, Resin told Interfax that an agreement with Trump’s representatives was “practically reached”. In the end, the Moskva deal fizzled out, too.
I should note that two of Trump’s friends longtime friends brought him to Moscow, Howard Lorber and Bennnett S. LeBow. Lorber’s New Valley LLC partnered with Trump on Moskva deal and LeBow’s Liggett-Ducat Ltd. subsidiary helped out on the would-be tower in Moscow. Today, Lorber is president and CEO and Bennett is chairman of the Vector Group, the parent company of both the Liggett tobacco firm and New York real estate giant Douglas Elliman. Both men are close friends and supporters of Trump.
By 2004, Resin had changed his mind about skyscrapers in Moscow. A $5 billion development plan called for 60 skyscrapers to be built, with the tallest reaching 116 floors. Resin flew to New York to to discuss the project with Trump’s representatives. As far we know, nothing came of that meeting.
Today, Resin serves in the lower house of Russia’s parliament, the Duma, as a member of Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party. In 2010, he was named acting mayor of Moscow when President Dimtry Medvedev fired his boss, Mayor Yuri Luzhkov. Resin resigned the following year.
The fact that nothing came of Trump’s meeting of the man with the million-dollar watch is somewhat reassuring, given the president’s questionable judgment as president in foreign affairs and his rumored ties to Moscow. No doubt Trump could have done a deal in Moscow had he wished. And he probably wanted to — “Moscow’s going to be huge” — and putting his name on one of the world’s biggest hotels might have been tempting. In the end, we hope, he found the cost or the risk of dealing with men like Resin, or both, too high.
The American right is the greatest threat to American Democracy…