Mueller team asks about Trump's Russian business dealings as he weighed a run for president

Source: CNN | February 27, 2018 | Kara Scannell, Pamela Brown, Gloria Borger and Jim Sciutto

(CNN) – Investigators for special counsel Robert Mueller have recently been asking witnesses about Donald Trump’s business activities in Russia prior to the 2016 presidential campaign as he considered a run for president, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Questions to some witnesses during wide-ranging interviews included the timing of Trump’s decision to seek the presidency, potentially compromising information the Russians may have had about him, and why efforts to brand a Trump Tower in Moscow fell through, two sources said.

The lines of inquiry indicate Mueller’s team is reaching beyond the campaign to explore how the Russians might have sought to influence Trump at a time when he was discussing deals in Moscow and contemplating a presidential run.

Mueller was appointed to investigate Russian meddling in the 2016 campaign. The President claims that any investigation of his family’s finances would be a breach of the special counsel’s mandate.

Two of the sources said they do not know from the questions asked whether Mueller has concrete evidence to indicate wrongdoing.

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Investigators asked one witness when Trump became serious about running for President, a person familiar with the matter said, adding that investigators seemed very interested in when Trump actually decided to run and how that coincided with his business ventures.

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Several lines of questioning to witnesses have centered on the 2013 Miss Universe pageant, which was held in Moscow, and unsuccessful discussions to brand a Trump Tower Moscow, two sources said.

For the pageant, Trump partnered with Aras Agalarov, and his son, Emin Agalarov, billionaire real estate developers in Russia. In congressional testimony last year, Donald Trump Jr. said that “preliminary discussions” to build a tower in Moscow began between the Trump Organization and the Agalarovs after the Miss Universe pageant. Trump tweeted with excitement about the potential project, saying “Trump Tower-Moscow is next.”

But the plans fell through. Rob Goldstone, a publicist for pop star Emin Agalarov, told Yahoo News last year that the Trump Tower deal was scrapped because “the economy tanked in Russia” from harsh sanctions imposed by Western countries.

One of the sources said, based on the questions, that Mueller’s team was focused on the financing of the Miss Universe Pageant, such as who paid for what and what money was paid to whom.

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A second area of focus was what happened during the event. The source said questions also focused on meetings Trump had with Russian business people or government officials, leading the source to believe the investigators were probing the possibility of “kompromat,” or compromising material, on Trump.

Along these lines, the source said, investigators were interested in logistics surrounding Trump’s hotel room in Moscow: Who was there? Who would have access to it? Who was in charge of security? Who was moving around with him during the trip?

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Trump’s past business dealings have been an area of interest to counterintelligence officials. CNN has previously reported that before the special counsel’s appointment in May, the FBI had combed through the list of shell companies and buyers of Trump-branded real estate properties and scrutinized the roster of tenants at Trump Tower reaching back more than a half-dozen years.

Investigators have looked at the backgrounds of Russian business associates connected to Trump surrounding the 2013 Miss Universe pageant.

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