45 Watch III: Russian Edition!


45 Watch III: Russian Edition!

Prevyet! Or hello and welcome to your dispatches from the 2017 Scold War! Despite the many denials from Donald Trump, the cozy relationship enjoyed by our Comrade-in-Chief with Sarah Palin’s “next-door neighbors” seems to run dangerously deep. This week’s focus is on one major alternative fact that is easy to disprove, but doing so uncovers a winding plot of unscrupulous characters, questionable business deals and disconcertingly ambiguous criminal connections to old Mother Russia.

Russian Addressing

Throughout his campaign and his now monthlong presidency, Trump has insisted that he has “nothing to do with Russia.” As has become too worryingly consistent, Trump’s words contradict his actions — and his other words. Even if you put aside the many positive things Trump has said about Putin and Russia over the past year, and the U.S. intelligence community’s certainty that the Russian government directed an email hacking campaign targeting Trump’s Democratic party rival, Trump’s financial dealings show a strikingly close relationship to Russian bureaucrats, businesses and billionaires.

For 30 years, Trump has had financial interests in Russia and with Russian businessmen. In 1987, Trump visited Moscow to discuss developing luxury hotels, a plan that failed as the U.S.S.R. began to dissolve. In 1996, as he was finalizing his Taj Mahal and Trump Castle bankruptcies, Trump announced a $250 million investment into placing his name – Trump International and Trump Tower – on existing hotels in Moscow, which also never came to fruition. Add in a failed 2007 launch of Trump Vodka in Moscowand the picture is quite clear: Trump has spent multiple decades trying to penetrate the Russian market.

Many Russians have also been interested in his properties. “I had contacts in Moscow looking to invest in the United States,” said Dolly Lenz, who sold 65 units of Trump World Tower in the 1990s to Russian investors. “They all wanted to meet Donald. They became very friendly.”

At a real estate conference in 2008, Trump’s eldest child, Donald Jr., made it very clear that Russia is closely tied to the Trump family. “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets; say in Dubai, and certainly with our project in SoHo and anywhere in New York. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia,” he had said.

Trump has clearly been involved with Russia, and as a businessman — no matter how many of those said businesses have failed and debt he has accumulated— he was within his rights to do so. But now that he’s the president, it has grown into a larger issue of possible corruption and conflicts of interest. Without knowing his full business ties, it’s impossible to tell if his connections to Russia are putting U.S. interests at risk by directly rewarding Trump family coffers and putting the president in compromising situations, as the now infamous Russian dossier has brought to light. The easiest way to track his connections is by taking a closer look at the people involved with him.

Women’s march in Washington on January 21, 2017 > Flickr/Susan Melklsethian

Michael Flynn

After a record-breaking stint for shortest tenure as national security adviser, Flynn was forced to resign when it was revealed through intelligence leaks that he had numerous phone conversations with Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak, in which Flynn said that sanctions imposed by Obama along with the expulsion of Russian diplomats from the U.S. in response to Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election (hacking that was thoroughly encouraged by Trump) would be removed once Trump took office. And, as promised, Trump eased the sanctions within a week of taking the White House.Shortly after being named to his role, Flynn was interviewed by the FBI regarding his calls to Kislyak, after which Flynn publicly maintained that his conversations were harmless and did not involve discussions of sanctions. The leaked intelligence on the calls contradicted Flynn’s claims. (In defense of Flynn, the truth is something he has a hard time grasping. He once tweeted, along with his son who was forced to step down as his father’s chief of staff because of his tweets, a truly fake news story claiming Hillary Clinton was involved in a child sex-trafficking ring.) On January 26, just after the FBI interviews of Flynn, then-acting Attorney General Sally Yates pointed to the inconsistencies in Flynn’s public stance with intelligence reports from his calls to demonstrate to the White House that Flynn could be vulnerable to Russian blackmail, charged with a felony for lying to the FBI and be in violation of the Logan Act. Four days later, Yates was fired for not defending Trump’s Muslim travel ban.

Paul Manafort

In March 2016, Manafort, who worked for a firm known as the “torturer’s lobby” because of its clientele of brutal dictators, was selected to lead Trump’s campaign for the White House. Six months later, Manafort was the first Trump official forced to step down after it was revealed that he secretly directed at least $2.2 million to two lobbying firms in Washington while working on behalf of the pro-Russian political party of then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. Manafort was in direct violation of a federal law requiring that lobbyists must publicly declare when they represent foreign leaders. Manafort consulted for Yanukovych up until the Ukrainian president was forced into exile for his Russian ties. Vladimir Putin helped Yanukovych find safe passage into southern Russia. After Yanukovych’s exile, Ukraine’s National Anti-Corruption Bureau revealed handwritten ledgers designating $12.7 million in cash payments to Manafort. Although Manafort was quickly replaced by Steve Bannon, he rejoined the Trump campaign three months later to advise on Cabinet selections.

Carter Page

He was first mentioned as a foreign policy adviser by Trump in March 2016.  But by September, Page was forced to leave the Trump campaign after U.S. intelligence officials began to investigate his ties to senior Russian officials. During that summer, Page turned bewildered heads when he gave two separate speeches praising Putin and Russia as stronger and more reliable than the Obama administration. But Page is more than an avowed Russophile; he has deep financial ties to that country. He was a former investment banker in Moscow for Merrill Lynch and now heads Global Energy Capital, a New York-based consulting firm focused on oil and gas deals in Russia and Central Asia. Page garnered the attention of U.S. officials a few years ago after taking numerous trips to Russia. A Yahoo report quoted a U.S. official aware of Page during those years as saying: “He was pretty much a brazen apologist for anything Moscow did.” Page even blamed Obama’s sanctions on Russia after the invasion of Crimea for driving down the stock price of Gazprom, a gas and energy companyof which Page is an adviser and investor.

Wilbur Ross

Ross, whose confirmation vote for secretary of Commerce is scheduled for February 27, also has close ties to Russian oligarchs. The billionaire investor is a top shareholder of the Bank of Cyprus, known to have deep Russian connections. After the 2013 European debt crisis almost collapsed the bank, a group led by Ross bailed it out, gaining an 18% stake in the process. Ross is still listed as vice chairman of the bank, known to hold “billions in deposits from wealthy Russians —some of it presumably dirty money or funds deposited there to escape Russian taxation.” The second largest shareholder of the bank is a group led by Viktor Vekselberg, “a Russian billionaire and associate of Putin who served on the management board of Russian oil giant Rosneft.”

Women’s march in Washington on January 21, 2017 Flickr>Mark Dixon

Rex Tillerson

The former CEO of ExxonMobil was confirmed as secretary of State, despite much opposition. Prior to being CEO, Tillerson led the company’s Russia operations, managing ExxonMobil’s “dealings in the country’s Sakhalin-1 oil and gas project, building a partnership with the state-owned Russian oil firm Rosneft in the late 1990s and early 2000s.” Afterward, Tillerson was working on developing a $500 billion deal with Rosneft to develop Russia’s energy reserves in the Black Sea and Arctic. The prospect of the historic deal earned Tillerson the Russian 2013 Order of Friendship award from Putin. Igor Sechin, Russia’s deputy prime minister, boasted that the “project, in terms of its ambitions, exceeds sending man into outer space or flying to the moon.” One little thing, however, brought the deal to a halt: Obama’s sanctions on Russia for the illegal invasion and annexation of Crimea.

A $500 billion deal described as being more important than the moon landing? It’s clear why Tillerson and other members of the Trump administration are so keen on removing Russian sanctions: There’s an astronomical amount of money involved.

And, that’s just a list of the known Russian connections of only five people involved in Trump’s campaign over the past year. There’s an even larger list of Russian and former Soviet officials and billionaires who’ve had financial and political connections with Trump:

In 2008, Dmitry Rybolovlev, a Russian billionaire, paid Trump $95 million for the massive Maison de L’Amitie estate in Palm Beach, Florida. Trump had purchased the mansion through a bankruptcy auction in 2004 for $41 million. Though the deed said it was sold to County Road Property LLC, Rybolovlev’s real estate agent confirmed that the company was just a front for the billionaire. The broker who gave Rybolovlev a tour said “he bought it and never lived in it.” Although on the surface, this deal could be seen as a hidden payment to Trump, the Russian billionaire has been known to splurge (his 22-year-old daughter bought a New York City apartment for $88 million) and has reason to hide his money (in May 2015, he lost $4.8 billion to his wife in a divorce settlement, of which he got $4 billion back on appeal a year later).

– Aras Agalarov, another Russian billionaire, paid $20 million to bring Trump’s Miss Universe Pageant to his Crocus City Hall venue just outside Moscow in 2013. Trump traded fawning tweets with Agalarov’s son, Emin, and appeared in a video filmed by him after the pageant.

– Tevfik Arif, a Kazakh-born former Soviet official, founded the Bayrock Group, which partnered with Trump to build Trump SoHo Hotel in 2010 and other properties. Two years later, Arif was charged, and later acquitted in a Turkish court, for running a prostitution ring on a yacht. During the development of the Trump properties, Bayrock listed Patokh Chodiev, Alijan Ibragimov, and Alexander Machkevich as strategic partners — a trio of Kazakh billionaires with alleged connections to Russian organized crime.

Bayrock’s managing director, Russian-born Felix Sater, is a Russian-mob connected criminal who “served a year in prison for stabbing a man in the face with a margarita glass during a bar fight, pleaded guilty to racketeering as part of a mafia-driven ‘pump-and-dump’ stock fraud and then escaped jail time by becoming a highly valued government informant.” Sater has claimed to be Trump’s representative in Russia and “billed himself as a senior Trump adviser, with an office in Trump Tower.”

– Dmytro Firtash, a Ukrainian billionaire, is hiding from U.S. extradition in Austria. Firtash, who has well-documented connections to Manafort, was indicted by a federal grand jury for “masterminding an international titanium-mining racket.”

– Sergei Millian is president of the Russian-American Chamber of Commerce in the USA (RACC), a small organization based out of Millian’s apartment that advocates for improved commercial connections between the two countries. Millian says he signed a contract with Trump after meeting him in 2007 to promote Trump’s real estate projects in Russia. A Financial Times investigation into Millian revealed his connection to “Rossotrudnichestvo, a Russian government organization that promotes Russian culture abroad…[which] was under investigation by the FBI for using junkets to recruit American assets for Russian intelligence.”

– Semion Mogilevich, a Russian mob boss, is one of the most powerful criminal leaders in the world. Only recently was he removed from the FBI’s top-ten most-wanted list for masterminding a fraudulent stock scam. He’s believed to “be involved in weapons trafficking, contract murders, extortion, drug trafficking, and prostitution on an international scale.” Mogilevich allegedly gave Dmytro Firtash his start, a Ukrainian billionaire closely connected to Manafort and on the run from a U.S. federal indictment.

These are just the known connections between the Trump administration and Russia. This list doesn’t include bombshell revelations in the Russian dossier compiled by former British spy Christoper Steele, which is now gaining credibility as more of its details are found to be true, in addition to the fact that his apparent source, Oleg Erovinkin, an ex-KGB officer, was found dead in the back seat of his car three weeks after Buzzfeed first released the dossier.

What emerges from these disparate details is a shadowy world of competing business interests, shady criminal characters, and unchecked and unaccounted for conflicts of interest. Each piece individually may not amount to much. But group it altogether and, at the very least, you have a veritable nesting doll of conflicting interests and intrigue. With Trump still refusing to release his taxes — which, with all the above connections makes him look more suspicious —the criminal speculation will only grow. Do svidaniya! Until next time.

Read Trump Watch I here

Read Trump Watch II here

About The Author

Obaid H. Siddiqui

About Obaid H. Siddiqui

Obaid H. Siddiqui is a freelance writer and journalist based in Philadelphia. He is a contributor to the anthology “All-American: 45 American Men on Being Muslim.” He can be followed on Twitter @OhSiddiqui.

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