Dispatch October 3, 2018

The Trump Corruption Story Is Also a Russia Story


President Donald Trump’s Russia connections began with money. The allegations in yesterday’s explosive investigation by The New York Times into the origins of Trump’s wealth not only expose staggering financial malfeasance and alleged tax evasion but also suggest a critical explanation for why Trump needed to turn to Russian money in the first place: His father was no longer there to bail him out.

The New York Times’ groundbreaking report shows that Trump’s persona as a “successful” businessman was a total myth.

Over and over again, Fred Trump bailed out his son, all while creatively dodging taxes.

  • Donald Trump, designated the heir to his father Fred Trump’s business empire, experienced numerous failures early on which threatened the family wealth. In the early 1990s, Trump’s businesses began to go under; as The New York Times describes it, “Trump Shuttle was failing to make loan payments within 15 months. The Plaza, drowning in debt, was bankrupt in four years. His Atlantic City casinos, also drowning in debt, tumbled one by one into bankruptcy.”
  • In the face of these financial problems, Fred Trump lent his son “at least $60.7 million,” far more than the $1 million Trump claims to have received.
  • In one notable example, Trump’s Castle casino didn’t have the funds to make a bond payment. Fred Trump sent his bookkeeper to the casino with a check for $3.35 million. The bookkeeper “bought $3.35 million worth of casino chips and left without placing a bet.” This “illegal $3.5 million loan” was critical for Trump, who “narrowly avoided defaulting on his bonds.”
  • If his father had forgiven Trump’s loans, he would have had to pay massive taxes. Instead, the two men found a workaround “that [appeared] to constitute both an unreported multimillion-dollar gift and an illegal tax write-off.” Through this scheme, Trump’s father “dodged roughly $8 million in gift taxes and $5 million in income taxes.”

In 1997, Fred Trump shifted his empire to his children, removing a pillar that had been stabilizing Donald Trump’s shaky endeavors; Wall Street took note.

  • Trump and his siblings took over their ailing father’s empire in 1997, eventually selling it off entirely in 2004. Trump received a $177.3 million cut from this sale ($236.2 million today).
  • But by the mid-1990s, banks had taken note of Trump’s numerous business failures and begun refusing to lend to Trump, citing “the Donald Risk.” Despite successfully profiting from the sale of his father’s empire, Trump’s financial problems continued to snowball.

Without support from his father or loans from US banks, Trump turned to alternative financing, much of it sourced from Russia and other former Soviet states.

  • Enter Michael Cohen and Felix Sater. Seeking new financing channels and new business partners, Trump turned to two questionable men, both with links to the former Soviet Union: Felix Sater and Michael Cohen.
    • Sater is a Russian-American real estate developer with links to the Russian mafia. His organization, the Bayrock Group, helped the Trump Organization secure financing from multiple Russia-linked sources in the early 2000s.
    • Cohen joined the Trump Organization in 2006. He quickly became Trump’s “fixer,” facilitating everything from shady business deals to hush money for Trump’s mistresses.
  • Trump goes global. Beginning in the mid-2000s, Trump pursued projects in notoriously corrupt locales like Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Panama, where investigators and journalists have uncovered evidence of potential money laundering and other violations of international corruption laws.
  • Deutsche Bank was one of the only financial institutions willing to lend to him. According to The Wall Street Journal, “Since 1998, the bank has led or participated in loans of at least $2.5 billion.” Deutsche Bank was also implicated in a “ten-billion-dollar Russian money laundering scheme.” Struggling to repay a $640 million loan after the 2008 financial crash, Trump sued a group of lenders led by the bank for $3 billion their roles in causing the crisis, only for Deutsche Bank to countersue for an unspecified amount. Yet the cases were ultimately settled—and Deutsche Bank reopened its line of credit with Trump, who still owes the bank hundreds of millions of dollars, through its private-wealth-management side.
  • After the financial crisis, Trump was somehow able to spend hundreds of millions in cash on properties after the financial crisis, despite suffering a “string of commercial bankruptcies.” The Washington Post reported in May that “In the nine years before he ran for president, Donald Trump’s company spent more than $400 million in cash on new properties—including 14 transactions paid for in full, without borrowing from banks—during a buying binge that defied real estate industry practices and Trump’s own history as the self-described ‘King of Debt.’”
  • For example, a recent examination of Trump’s Scottish golf courses raised more questions than answers. Quartz assessed that the investments in his Scottish golf courses “appear to make little business sense. The Trump Organization has already shelled out hundreds of millions on two golf courses in the country in the last 12 years, and both have performed terribly.” Where was this money coming from? According to a 2013 Boston radio interview with golf journalist James Dodson, Eric Trump told Dodson that Trump golf courses heavily relied on funding from Russia. (Eric Trump has denied the reporter’s claim).

Corrupt business activities left Trump vulnerable. The pattern of corrupt behavior, which began in Trump’s youth, likely provided ample opportunities for a country like Russia to compromise Trump before he even entered office.

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin is an expert at weaponizing the corruption of others to achieve his foreign policy goals. As Adam Davidson of The New Yorker has written, the Kremlin may not be holding the kind of kompromat on Trump the Steele Dossier alleges; they may simply be evidence of his decades of criminal behavior that could bring his most prized possession—his international brand—crashing to the ground.

The New York Times investigation makes it clear that Trump’s seemingly boundless corruption extends back decades. That corruption formed the basis for one of the largest political scandals in history: the Trump campaign’s collusion with Russia.