Analysis

Round 2 and Trump’s denial: ‘I don’t know Putin’

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Republican Donald Trump admitted he has avoided paying taxes for many years, and he dismissed his horrific language about women caught on tape as simply “locker-room talk” during a more controlled performance in the second presidential debate Sunday night.

And when it came to the critical national-security issues that we are watching closely at PutinTrump.org, Trump developed a sudden case of amnesia about his oft-repeated praise for Russian leader Vladimir Putin, as well as his own business dealings with Russian oligarchs. He also flatly denied the U.S. intelligence community’s charges that Russia is attempting to interfere with the U.S. election by cyber hacking – and even contradicted his running mate on the best approach to Russia in dealing with ISIS.

Here’s what Trump said in Sunday night’s debate and what the record actually shows in response:

Statement 1: “I don’t know Putin.”

Politifact called Trump on this back in August when he first started to distance himself from the Russian strongman. Here are some direct quotes from Trump over the past three years:

“I do have a relationship, and I can tell you that he’s very interested in what we’re doing here today.” (MSNBC, 2013)

“…I own Miss Universe, I was in Russia, I was in Moscow recently and I spoke, indirectly and directly, with President Putin, who could not have been nicer, and we had a tremendous success.” (National Press Club address, 2014)

And of course Trump has repeated time and again that he believes Putin is a “stronger leader” than President Obama.

Statement 2: “I think it would be great if we got along with Putin so we could fight ISIS together.”

Last week, during the vice presidential debate, Trump’s running mate Mike Pence was singing a completely different tune on the threat Putin represents: “And the small and bullying leader of Russia is now dictating terms to the United States to the point where all the United States of America – the greatest nation on Earth – just withdraws from talks about a cease-fire while Vladimir Putin puts a missile defense system in Syria.”

On Sunday night, when moderator Martha Raddatz reminded Trump of Pence’s strong words on Russia, Trump said: “He (Pence) and I haven’t spoken, and I disagree.”

Statement 3: “ … she doesn’t know if it’s the Russians doing the hacking. Maybe there is no hacking.

In July, Trump explicitly invited Russia to hack into American systems to find emails deleted from Hillary Clinton’s servers – and he hit the missing-email issue hard again in Sunday’s debate. His dare came amid questions around the hack of the Democratic National Committee’s emails: “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.”

Also in July, Trump refused to call on Putin to stay out of the election, “I’m not going to tell Putin what to do. Why would I tell him what to do? Why do I have to get tough on Putin? I don’t know anything other than that he doesn’t respect our country.”

On Friday, the U.S. government officially accused Russia of hacking the campaign in order to influence the election. “The U.S. Intelligence Community is confident that the Russian Government directed the recent compromises of e-mails from U.S. persons and institutions, including from U.S. political organizations,” said a joint statement from the Department of Homeland Security and the Director of National Intelligence. “. . . These thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the U.S. election process.” The DNC had previously reported that its investigation had pointed to Russian hackers.

And hacks into two state election systems have been tracked to servers in Siberia, confirmed by the owner of the servers.

Statement 4: “I know nothing about the inner workings of Russia. I don’t deal there. I have no businesses there.

As pointed out last month on PutinTrump.org, there is an abundance of evidence of Trump’s business dealings with Russian investors and oligarchs. Slate has reported extensively about Trump’s relationships with Russian investors going back two decades. And even Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., has bragged: “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”

A recent ABC News investigation suggests Trump’s business ties with Russia are vast, potentially in the range of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Up next: As the campaign intensifies over its final four weeks, look for Trump to continue to be at odds with his running mate about the Russian threat, or try to forget or fudge his positions on Russia and his relationship with Putin. The final face-off between the presidential candidates will be Wednesday, Oct. 19, in Las Vegas.

Sources: The Washington Post, Politifact, CNN, The New York Times, Slate, ABC News, The Independent

Trump, taxes and the Russians: What we don’t know

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How deep are Donald Trump’s financial ties to Russia? And how entangled are his business interests with Vladimir Putin’s Russian nationalist interests?

The public needs to see Trump’s full tax returns in order to know the answers – a reasonable expectation because every other presidential candidate since Gerald Ford has released tax returns. Expect the issue of Trump’s refusal – and the question about what he’s hiding – to come up again when Trump and Hillary Clinton face off in Debate No. 2 on Sunday night.

The New York Times began to shine a light into the dark hole that has been Trump’s tax returns when it published a portion of Trump’s 1995 tax records last weekend. These showed nearly a billion dollars in losses that year, which “could have allowed him to legally avoid paying any federal income tax for up to 18 years.” This suggests zero paid in taxes despite potentially earning a billion dollars in income to support his opulent lifestyle.

Trump has claimed that his 92-page financial disclosure form – with its extensive small-print details on assets and income – reveals enough about his financial empire.  But Politifact argues Trump’s tax returns would show much more: For example, we still don’t know Trump’s “effective tax rate, the types of taxes he paid, and how much he gave to charity, as well as a more detailed picture of his income-producing assets.”

Beyond those unanswered questions lie Trump’s financial connections with Russia.

A recent ABC News investigation suggests Trump’s business ties with Russia are vast, potentially in the range of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Trump has said, “For the record, I have ZERO investments in Russia,” but he has never said Russians have no investments in him or his real estate developments.

Writing in The Hill in August, columnist Patrick Tomlinson suggested that Trump won’t release his full tax returns because he may be in hock to some very questionable people:

“…it is well known that most of the major U.S. based banks haven’t done business with Donald Trump in a very long time. He’s proven to be a bad bet, with multiple bankruptcies on his record, failed casinos, and a history of screwing over vendors and other small businesses…

“As a result, Trump would need loans to take advantage of new opportunities as they present themselves. Loans that his diminished reputation and sketchy repayment history has made difficult to obtain. For the last twenty years, Trump’s go-to has been German-based Deutsche Bank, but even that relationship has soured as Trump has burned them on several occasions and the bank has faced its own pressures and troubles from outside their relationship.

“So where does a cash-poor billionaire go when they need a quick payday loan,” Tomlinson asks? Russian oligarchs or the mafia, he suggests.

Fox News contributor George Will told an interviewer that Russian oligarchs are the most likely sources of his funds: “Perhaps one more reason why we’re not seeing his tax returns – because he is deeply involved in dealing with Russian oligarchs and others. Whether that’s good, bad or indifferent, it’s probably the reasonable surmise.”

That’s also what some members of Congress believe, as quoted in The Guardian: “It’s likely those tax returns will show major income for Trump and his family from Russia – from Russian business interests, from Russian oligarchs,” said Chris Murphy, a senator from Connecticut. “It will show that the decisions he will make on whether to turn on or off sanctions against Russia could have a multimillion-dollar impact on his wealth. That’s not embarrassing, that’s disqualifying.”

Exactly how much money Trump has taken in from Russian sources, and how much he owes Russians in return, will never be fully known until more of his tax returns are leaked to the press, or the candidate releases them. It is unprecedented that candidate Trump refuses to do so.

This is more than an issue of financial disclosure; it’s an issue of national security. Does Trump’s pro-Putin foreign policy – questioning NATO and calling for an end to sanctions against Russia (imposed because of their takeover of the Crimea region in Ukraine) – come from his national security convictions or because these have an impact on his wealth?  Is his motivation to cozy up to Putin a financial one with a conflict of interest? Or, is this actually a principled stand, even though it goes against 70 years of bipartisan foreign policy consensus?

Candidate Trump could end the speculation and settle this central question – how much is he beholden to the Russians? – simply by releasing his full tax records.

Next up: We’ll be watching Sunday night as Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump meet for their second presidential debate. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

Sources: The New York Times, The Washington Post, Politifact, ABC News, The Hill, The Wall Street Journal (paywall), The Guardian

FOLLOW THE MONEY FROM RUSSIA TO TRUMP

follow_the_money_imageOne of the bigger unknowns about Donald Trump’s finances, without benefit of his tax returns, is how much direct or indirect investment in his business empire comes from Russian oligarchs and other former Soviet sources.

What is known, is that Russian money has kept some of his various development entities afloat and that may be one reason for his extremely favorable treatment of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian policies since the start of Trump’s campaign. Writing in Slate about “Putin’s Puppet,” Franklin Foer collected the history of what he called Trump’s slavish devotion to Russian leaders and investors going back more than two decades:

“Russians helped finance his projects in Toronto and SoHo; they snapped up units in his buildings around the world – so much so that he came to target them, hosting cocktail parties in Moscow to recruit buyers. (His tenants included a Russian mobster, who ran an illegal poker ring in the Trump Tower and accompanied Trump to the staging of the Miss Universe contest in Moscow.) Even when he built a tower in Panama, he narrowcast his sales efforts to draw Russians, as the Washington Post has reported. “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets,” Trump’s son, Donald Jr., bragged. “We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”

The Wall Street Journal (paywall) reports many U.S. banks have shunned Trump, but not the Frankfurt-based Deutsche Bank, which is a well-known conduit for money from Russian oligarchs, according to The New Yorker.

The Journal: “Other Wall Street banks, after doing extensive business with Mr. Trump in the 1980s and 1990s, pulled back in part due to frustration with his business practices but also because he moved away from real-estate projects that required financing, according to bank officials. Citigroup Inc., J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. and Morgan Stanley are among the banks that don’t currently work with him. At Goldman Sachs Group Inc., bankers “know better than to pitch” a Trump-related deal, said a former Goldman executive.”

Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo concluded, “it is an open secret on Wall Street that none of the big banks will do business with Trump because he’s not trustworthy.

Trump’s most recent financial disclosure as a candidate, released in May 2016, shows that he owes at least $250 million to banks (Wall Street Journal blog Moneybeat). He has multiple loans of more than $50 million apiece from the German bank, according to an investigation by Mother Jones. That raises other questions:

“Two of those megaloans are held by Deutsche Bank, which is based in Germany but has US subsidiaries. And this prompts a question that no other major American presidential candidate has had to face: What are the implications of the chief executive of the US government being in hock for $100 million (or more) to a foreign entity that has tried to evade laws aimed at curtailing risky financial shenanigans, that was recently caught manipulating markets around the world, and that attempts to influence the US government?”

Russia has strategically supported right-wing populist and authoritarian parties in Eastern and Western Europe that tend to support Russian interests. This financial support could potentially prove disruptive to NATO cohesion and the Western consensus against an expansionist Russia. Among those getting Russian help are the French National Front and Marine Le Pen, former Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi, Golden Dawn in Greece, Ataka in Bulgaria, and Jobbik in Hungary, among some 15 right-wing political parties that are believed to have Russian support of one kind or another.

The New York Times has reported: “The Kremlin’s goal seems to be to sow division, destabilize the European Union and possibly fracture what until now has been a relatively unified, if sometimes fragile, consensus against Russian aggression.” Russian support for Trump fits right in with this pattern.

Foer concludes in Slate:

“A Trump presidency would weaken Putin’s greatest geo-strategic competitor. By stoking racial hatred, Trump will shred the fabric of American society. He advertises his willingness to dismantle constitutional limits on executive power. In his desire to renegotiate debt payments, he would ruin the full faith and credit of the United States. One pro-Kremlin blogger summed up his government’s interest in this election with clarifying bluntness: ‘Trump will smash America as we know it, we’ve got nothing to lose.’ ”

Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright told Business Insider: “Vladimir Putin could not dream up a better presidential candidate than Donald Trump to help him move his grand vision forward.”

Albright, who supports Hillary Clinton, listed some of the reasons why the Kremlin would favor Trump: “Donald Trump, beyond just praising [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, has defended his most unacceptable behavior and proposed a series of pro-Kremlin policies,” adding that Trump would be open to easing sanctions on Russia and recognizing the country’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula in Ukraine. “He has stoked European disunity, celebrated Brexit, and casually predicted the break-up of the European Union,” Albright said. “[He] even encouraged Russian espionage in a US election.”

Sources: Slate, Wall Street Journal (paywall), The New Yorker, Talking Points Memo, Mother Jones, The New York Times, Business Insider

MONEY FOR MANAFORT

Paul Manafort has resigned as Trump’s Campaign Chairman after a staff shakeup. That may be because of an Aug. 14 The New York Times investigation linking Manafort to undisclosed cash payments of nearly $13 million from the pro-Russian political group, the Party of Regions, in the Ukraine. Manafort was a consultant for former Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych for five years before he was ousted from power and fled to Russia. The payments came to light through an investigation by Ukraine’s National Anti-Corruption Bureau. Manafort later denied ever receiving any off-the-books cash payments or having ever worked for the Ukraine or Russian governments. The Times reports:

Handwritten ledgers show $12.7 million in undisclosed cash payments designated for Mr. Manafort from Mr. Yanukovych’s pro-Russian political party from 2007 to 2012, according to Ukraine’s newly formed National Anti-Corruption Bureau. Investigators assert that the disbursements were part of an illegal off-the-books system whose recipients also included election officials.

In addition, criminal prosecutors are investigating a group of offshore shell companies that helped members of Mr. Yanukovych’s inner circle finance their lavish lifestyles, including a palatial presidential residence with a private zoo, golf course and tennis court. Among the hundreds of murky transactions these companies engaged in was an $18 million deal to sell Ukrainian cable television assets to a partnership put together by Mr. Manafort and a Russian oligarch, Oleg Deripaska, a close ally of President Vladimir V. Putin. …

“He understood what was happening in Ukraine,” said Vitaliy Kasko, a former senior official with the general prosecutor’s office in Kiev. “It would have to be clear to any reasonable person that the Yanukovych clan, when it came to power, was engaged in corruption.”

Source: The New York Times

A HIDDEN PATH FOR MONEY, INFLUENCE

 The Associated Press unearths more details about the trail of Russian money linked to Trump‘s now former Campaign Chairman Paul Manafort in a story revealing Manafort assisted Ukraine’s pro-Russia governing party in funneling money to two Washington lobbyist firms via a nonprofit organization. This path sidestepped U.S. Justice Department rules requiring lobbyists to disclose that they represent foreign leaders or political parties. The AP reports:

Manafort and business associate Rick Gates, another top strategist in Trump’s campaign, were working in 2012 on behalf of the political party of Ukraine’s then-president, Viktor Yanukovych.

People with direct knowledge of Gates’ work said that, during the period when Gates and Manafort were consultants to the Ukraine president’s political party, Gates was also helping steer the advocacy work done by a pro-Yanukovych nonprofit that hired a pair of Washington lobbying firms, Podesta Group Inc. and Mercury LLC.

The nonprofit, the newly created European Centre for a Modern Ukraine, was governed by a board that initially included parliament members from Yanukovych’s party. The nonprofit subsequently paid at least $2.2 million to the lobbying firms to advocate positions generally in line with those of Yanukovych’s government.

That lobbying included downplaying the necessity of a congressional resolution meant to pressure the Ukrainian leader to release an imprisoned political rival.

The lobbying firms continued the work until shortly after Yanukovych fled the country in February 2014, during a popular revolt prompted in part by his government’s crackdown on protesters and close ties to Russia. …

Gates told the AP that he and Manafort introduced the lobbying firms to the European Centre nonprofit and occasionally consulted with the firms on Ukrainian politics. He called the actions lawful…

Source: The Associated Press

RUSSIAN INVESTMENTS IN TRUMP

Trump says he doesn’t have investments in Russia, but that’s not the whole story. It appears that Russians have big investments in Trump’s developments. Trump claims he doesn’t know where the money comes from, but it is clear he has sought to capture the enormous amounts of capital pouring out of the former Soviet Union. By his own admission, The Financial Times says, Trump “has agreed to serve as the public face of a murky business.” The paper describes one relationship this way:

During the first decade of this century, Donald Trump began doing business with an unlikely partner — Bayrock, a New York property developer founded only a few years before by a Soviet-born newcomer to the US named Tevfik Arif.

The Republican presidential nominee and Bayrock were both based in Trump Tower and they joined forces to pursue deals around the world — from New York, Florida, Arizona and Colorado in the US to Turkey, Poland, Russia and Ukraine. Their best-known collaboration — Trump SoHo, a 46-storey hotel-condominium completed in 2010 — was featured in Mr Trump’s NBC television show The Apprentice.

Yet when Mr Trump testified under oath in 2011 about his relationship with Mr Arif’s company, he confessed that he found his partners puzzling. Mr Trump said he knew what they did. But he said he was unsure of exactly who they were. …

 

Mr Trump’s Bayrock blind spot gains significance in the context of this year’s presidential race. Mr Trump has taken a stance on Russia that is at odds with US political orthodoxy — praising President Vladimir Putin’s leadership skills and saying he would consider lifting sanctions imposed on Russia after its 2014 annexation of the Crimean peninsula in Ukraine. Critics have asked whether Mr Trump’s business interests might be colouring his policies.

 

Source: The Financial Times (paywall)

“MONEY POURING IN FROM RUSSIA”

A deeply reported story in the Washington Post describes Trump’s 30-year history of business dealings with Russian oligarchs and government officials. These dealings began in the 1980s when there was still a Soviet Union. Trump’s many business deals and activities include bringing the Miss Universe Pageant to Moscow in 2013. Of more serious consequence has been heavy Russian investments in Trump’s properties and businesses, as acknowledged by Trump’s son Donald Jr. Maybe that’s why Russian President Vladimir Putin is a man Trump thinks he can do business with. Meanwhile, the Post says that most American political and national security leaders see Putin as “a pariah who disregards human rights and has violated international norms” and who remains a top geopolitical threat to America’s national security interests. The Post:

Since the 1980s, Trump and his family members have made numerous trips to Moscow in search of business opportunities, and they have relied on Russian investors to buy their properties around the world.

“Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets,” Trump’s son, Donald Jr., told a real estate conference in 2008, according to an account posted on the website of eTurboNews, a trade publication. “We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”

The dynamic illustrates the extent to which Trump’s worldview has been formed through the lens of commerce rather than the think tanks, government deliberations and international diplomatic conferences that typically shape the foreign policy positions of presidential candidates.

It also reflects Trump’s willingness to see world leaders through his own personal connections. In a Republican Party in which an ability to stand up to Putin has been seen as a test of toughness, Trump’s relationship with the Russian leader is instead one of mutual flattery.

Source: The Washington Post