Explainers November 30, 2017

Trump’s Business in Russia, and Russia’s Business in Trump

President Donald Trump has attempted to distance himself from allegations of collusion by asserting that he has no business interests in Russia. That’s not for lack of trying; Trump’s efforts to establish a hotel in Moscow go back at least to 1987, when, according to his book The Art of the Deal, he discussed the possibility with the Soviet ambassador Yuri Dubinin. But the questions regarding the Trump campaign’s collusion with the Russian government go beyond whether Trump has business in Russia. It is just as, if not more, important to understand the many ways that Russia has business in Donald Trump.

That Kremlin-linked entities invested significantly in Trump’s properties over the years is not inherently nefarious; since the fall of the Soviet Union, wealthy Russians have invested heavily in real estate in the West. However, in the context of a president under several investigations for his connections to the Kremlin, Russia’s outsize role in Trump’s reemergence from financial tribulations that nearly destroyed his real-estate empire merit additional attention. What emerges is the story of a man indebted to Russia through the oligarchs that Putin helped create and now controls.

The Early Years: Trump Business in Trouble

Many of Trump’s businesses spent the 1990s on the verge of collapse. Abraham Wallach, who became the Trump Organization’s executive vice president for acquisitions in 1990, compared joining the company to “getting on the Titanic just before the women and children were moved to the lifeboats.” In 1990, the Trump Organization was reportedly $3.4 billion in debt, with Trump himself liable for over $800 million; the next year, as several of Trump’s hotels and casinos reportedly accumulated millions in debt, the New Jersey Casino Control Commission concluded, “Mr. Trump cannot be considered financially stable.” In 1992, Trump defaulted on the debt of his airline, Trump Shuttle, turning it over to U.S. Airways.

In Trump’s own telling, his fortunes turned around in 1995, when Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts, the company through which he owned and operated many of his properties in Atlantic City and elsewhere, held an initial public offering. In truth, Trump’s financial struggles continued. Contrary to Trump’s own lofty predictions—he mused to Vanity Fair’s Edward Klein that the IPO might raise $4 billion—he only managed to raise $140 million; meanwhile, according to his tax returns from that year (which remain the only of Trump’s tax returns available to the public), Trump declared a loss of nearly $916 million. His businesses continued to struggle, with his casinos posting $66 million in losses by the end of 1996 and another $42 million in 1997. The problems lasted well into the 2000s: Trump’s flagship companies declared bankruptcy in both 2004 and 2009, with Trump resigning from his position as head of the board of Trump Entertainment Resorts in 2009.

Compounding Trump’s financial problems was the Wall Street stigma his business failures attracted. The Guardian has reported that, in the 1990s, “Wall Street banks, which had previously extended him credit, turned off the tap;” according to The New York Times, bankers went so far as to coin the phrase “Donald risk” to describe the widespread aversion to lending to Trump. In 2013, one banker told The Atlantic, “If a major institution in New York—whether it was a Chase or a Goldman or a law firm or something—wanted to have a building built … I can give you almost 100 percent assurance that Donald would not be on the list.”

The Russian-Fueled Comeback

So how then did 15 Trump-branded projects break ground between 1998 and 2012?

Given that Trump has defied decades of political tradition by assiduously refusing to release his tax returns, it’s impossible to truly get to the bottom of Trump’s finances. But the public record is more than enough to demonstrate that the answer, in part, lies with Russia.

With the collapse of the Russian economy in 1998, Russian oligarchs who had made their fortunes buying up formerly state-held assets sought to stash their money in international real estate. The Trump Organization offered an appealing haven for several reasons, ranging from its ostentatious gold-plated aesthetic to a reputation for lax reporting standards (the company has, after all, paid multiple record-breaking fines for insufficient adherence to anti-money-laundering protocol). As a result, several Trump-branded projects from 1998 onward received significant financing from sources with ties to Russia, most notably the Bayrock Group and Deutsche Bank, which is one of the few major financial institutions to still lend to Trump—and which paid $630 million in penalties for involvement in a $10-billion Russian money-laundering scheme in 2017. In the process, the Trump Organization developed relationships with not only the Russian government but also the kind of Eastern European oligarchs known for carrying out the Russian government’s wishes.

Russia also provided many of the buyers for Trump-branded real estate. According to a Bloomberg investigation into Trump World Tower, which broke ground in 1998, “a third of units sold on floors 76 through 83 by 2004 involved people or limited liability companies connected to Russia and neighboring states.” Reuters, meanwhile, has reported that  “at least 63 individuals with Russian passports or addresses have bought at least $98.4 million worth of property in seven Trump-branded luxury towers in southern Florida.”

And the Trump Organization reportedly welcomed the clientele. For example, a 2013 article in The Nation about the influx of Russian money in Miami real estate noted that Elena Baronoff, a Russian-American socialite once described on the cover of a Russian magazine as “The Russian Hand of Donald Trump,” operated a real-estate company catering to Eastern European buyers out of the lobby of the city’s Trump International Beach Resort. The New Republic has also extensively documented how the Trump Organization actively sought Russian buyers, so much so that the area around Trump Sunny Isles in Florida became known as “Little Moscow.” Some of the individual deals have attracted attention, most notably the Russian fertilizer magnate Dmitry Rybolovlev’s 2008 purchase of one of Trump’s mansions in Palm Beach for $53 million more than Trump had paid for it four years earlier.

Trump SoHo, which broke ground in 2007, typifies how the Trump Organization benefited from financing coming out of Russia and the former Soviet Union. Much of the project’s financing came from the Bayrock Group, a real-estate company headquartered in Trump Tower and founded by the Kazakhstan-born former Soviet official Tevfik Arif. Several funders of the project, including Arif, Tamir Sapir, and Alexander Mashkevich, hail from the former Soviet Union and have reported ties to the current Kremlin; many have also faced allegations of corrupt and criminal behavior, ranging from money laundering to smuggling to involvement in a prostitution ring. The same can be said for some of the property’s clientele; for example, Viktor Khrapunov, who formerly served as mayor of Almaty, Kazakhstan, and as that country’s energy minister, allegedly purchased condominiums in the building using money stolen from state coffers and laundered through a network of offshore shell companies.

The Russian Connections

Perhaps the most notable connection emerging out of Trump SoHo is the Russian-American real-estate developer Felix Sater, who formerly served as the managing director of the Bayrock Group. Sater, who served a year in jail in the 1990s for stabbing a man in the face with a margarita glass, became an FBI informant in Moscow after pleading guilty to involvement in a $40-million stock-fraud scheme orchestrated by the Russian Mafia (the records for the conviction have since been sealed). Sater joined the Bayrock Group in 2001 and helped secure financing for the Trump SoHo, leaning heavily on sources linked to Russia. After leaving Bayrock in 2009, he retained an office in Trump Tower and received Trump-branded business cards identifying him as a “senior adviser to Donald Trump;” Sater has said he had a “friendly” relationship with Trump and met with him “numerous times,” although the Trump Organization has disputed his account.

Sater has been involved in at least two attempts to develop a Trump Tower Moscow. According to The Washington Post, the Trump Organization contracted with Bayrock to develop a high-rise in the Russian capital, which was reportedly far enough along to choose a site before falling through. More notably, Sater was involved in an effort to establish Trump Tower Moscow during the early stages of the 2016 presidential campaign, eliciting a signed letter of intent from the Trump Organization in October 2015. In November 2015, Sater reportedly emailed Michael Cohen, his longtime friend and the Trump Organization’s lawyer, about the project, writing, “I will get Putin on this program and we will get Donald elected … our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it.” The deal ultimately fell through in January 2016.

Sater also provides an example of a business connection attempting to transition into the political realm. Along with the email to Cohen, which seems to suggest that Sater sees developing Trump Tower Moscow as part of a broader strategy to ensure Trump’s election, Sater was involved in an attempt during the transition to influence the administration’s policy on Russia. In January 2017, Sater and Cohen reportedly worked with the Ukrainian politician Andriy Artemenko to deliver a policy proposal rolling back sanctions against Russia to the incoming National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. Under the plan, Russia would withdraw its troops from Eastern Ukraine, while Ukraine would hold a referendum on whether to “lease” Crimea to Russia; in return, the U.S. would lift the sanctions it placed on Russia after the 2014 invasion of Crimea. Sater has repeatedly declined to comment on the matter, and there is no indication that the administration considered or acted upon the proposal.

Trump SoHo is far from the only Trump Organization project to derive funding from questionable Russia-linked sources. Another example is the Trump International Hotel and Tower Toronto, which in June 2017 dropped its affiliation with the brand, and is now simply the Adelaide Hotel Toronto. The project, which broke ground in 2007, was so financially embattled that, as the Toronto Star described in October 2017, “every investor lost money on Trump Tower Toronto” except Trump himself. In 2010, facing mounting costs and a dearth of investment, the building’s developer Alexander Shnaider received a sudden windfall when a then-unknown investor purchased an $850-million stake in Shnaider’s steel company Zaporizhstal. In May 2017, The Wall Street Journal revealed the source of those funds: the Russian state-owned development bank Vnesheconombank, or VEB. The Trump Organization has distanced itself from the project, claiming that, despite reports in 2012 that Trump had a minor ownership stake, the company “was not the owner developer or seller” of the property, was not involved in the financing, and “did not hold” equity. Shnaider, meanwhile, has offered conflicting accounts as to how much of the money from VEB ended up in the project: His lawyer at first told The Wall Street Journal that $15 million from the sale went into the property, but Shnaider has since said he is “not able to confirm that any funds went into the Toronto project.”

The Trump Organization has also pursued multiple projects in former Soviet states. The New Yorker’s Adam Davidson has written extensively on developments in Baku, Azerbaijan, and Batumi, Georgia, where the Trump Organization has dealt with companies and oligarchs with extensive histories of corruption and ties to not only Russian entities but also, in Azerbaijan, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. These projects, Davidson argues, are worrisome not only because of the specific actors involved but also because they leave the president open to accusations of abetting corruption abroad and demonstrate the Trump Organization’s tendency to skimp on due diligence, which could expose Trump to prosecution under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, or FCPA.

For all of Trump’s protestations, then, there is ample evidence that the Trump Organization has repeatedly done business with Russian investors and clients. Indeed, it’s worth noting that Trump not only did not deny this fact until he began running for president but actually spoke about it frequently, boasting of the amount of Russian money that flowed through his projects in numerous interviews. So, too, did his sons, Donald Jr. and Eric: In 2008, Donald Jr. told investors in Moscow that “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets,” while Eric reportedly told a golf reporter in 2014 that the Trump Organization was able to expand during the financial crisis because “We don’t rely on American banks. We have all the funding we need out of Russia.”

Why Trump is Different

As mentioned above, Trump is not the only real-estate developer to have dealings with Russian individuals and entities. Aside from the questions about the FCPA and Trump’s repeated lies about his involvement with Russia since he began running for President, those deals wouldn’t necessarily even be especially suspicious.

But most real-estate developers with extensive financial ties, and possibly debts, to a hostile foreign power do not then run for president, and most presidents do not evince such unprecedented obeisance to a hostile foreign power that a Special Counsel is appointed to investigate whether the president’s campaign colluded with that nation’s government. As a result, Trump’s long history of accepting money from Russian investors and clients takes on additional significance as the beginning of his relationship with Russia and the potential underpinnings for their collusion in the 2016 election.