Sunday, July 24, 2016

Trump – Putin’s Pawn In The Oval Office

Ken O'Brien

Is it plausible that a self-centered egotist who has only shown interest in his business concerns and in letting no personal slight go unnoticed would suddenly embrace a campaign for the benefit of so many people he has long considered beneath him?

Lithuanian wall mural
Thirty-five years ago Republicans claimed credit for the collapse of the Soviet Union under Ronald Reagan.

Now that same party has nominated a candidate for President of the United States who is financially and emotionally beholden to Russian oligarchs. 

Donald Trump’s candidacy is driven by the goal of securing a position that will allow him to trade American interests for the benefit of his dreams of an international real estate empire.

Throughout his career Trump has viewed his relationship with politicians as little more than a means to an end. The end is the favorable treatment of his real estate interests. The means has been financial contributions.

Trump’s goals have been coupled with a character dominated by the view that all things are personal – both compliments and slights. And those personal interactions are to be reciprocated – by any means possible.

So what motivates a person consumed by a passion for his business goals to suddenly seem to forsake those interests to pursue a political agenda? 

The first thing to consider is where Donald Trump stood in relation to his business interests prior to the announcement of his Presidential campaign.

As 2015 dawned, Donald Trump’s business interests were facing an existential crisis.

The man who said “I am the king of debt” had been blackballed by all major U.S. banks.

NBC was on the verge of failing to renew his signature reality show “The Apprentice”.

His profligate style had resulted in loss of control of his Atlantic City interests.

He was dogged by an unrelenting series of failures in his efforts to extend his brand outside the real estate realm, - Trump Steaks, Trump Wines, Trump University, etc.

His international golf course operations continued to operate in the red.

His debt load has grown dramatically over the last year, from $350 million to $630 million. This is in just one year while his liquid assets have also decreased.

His quixotic pursuit of proof of his birther allegations against President Obama had reduced his national status to that of a political punchline.

Pre-dating this precipitous decline of his personal and business fortunes, Trump had long sought a business foothold in Russia.

In 1987, Trump traveled to Moscow and Leningrad to discuss building hotels there. He even met with the Soviet ambassador to the U.S.

In a 1997 New Yorker profile, Trump talked about his trips to Russia to explore having the Trump Organization take part in skyscraper and hotel development projects in Moscow, including the reconstruction of the Moskva and Rossiya Hotels.

“That’s a very big project; I think it’s the largest hotel in the world,” Trump told Russian politician Alexander Ivanovich Lebed at the time. “And we’re working with the local government, the mayor of Moscow and the mayor’s people. So far, they’ve been very responsive.”

Lebed, a former Russian presidential candidate, was eager to help Trump get established in the Russian market. “If Trump goes to Moscow, I think America will follow,” he told Trump.

Trump traveled to Russia in the 1990s with developer Howard Lorber, whom Trump recently told the New York Times was one of his best friends. Lorber has “major investments” in Russia, according to Trump.

Negotiations over the two hotels eventually fizzled, but in 2008 the Trump Organization was at it again, announcing it planned to build elite residences and hotels in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Sochi, and license the Trump brand for other projects. Donald Trump Jr., the candidate’s son, made the announcement in a speech at the 2008 “Real Estate in Russia” conference.

The younger Trump made over half a dozen trips to Russia on behalf of the Trump Organization in the two years during which the U.S. real estate market was collapsing during the Great Recession.

“The emerging world in general attributes such brand premium to real estate that we are looking all over the place, primarily Russia,” Trump Jr. told a Manhattan audience in September 2008. He said that while Russia was on the Trump Organization’s “A-list” of emerging markets for investment, doing business there carried risks due to corruption and “because it is a question of who knows who, whose brother is paying off who, etc.” 

Trump Sr.’s interest in Russian real estate development escalated in 2013. He met with Russian partners including developer Aras Agalarov to discuss building a replica of his SoHo residential development project in Moscow. Trump’s other parter in the SoHo deal was Alex Sapir, son of Georgian billionaire Tamir Sapir, a well-connected real estate developer in Russia.

“The Russian market is attracted to me,” Trump told Real Estate Weekly. “I have a great relationship with many Russians, and almost all of the oligarchs were in the room.”

That was also the year that Trump brought his Miss Universe pageant to Moscow. Trump invited Putin to the event, although the Russian President ultimately didn’t attend. The event was held at the Crocus City Hall in Moscow, which Agalarov owns.

“Do you think Putin will be going to The Miss Universe Pageant in November in Moscow - if so, will he become my new best friend?” Trump tweeted at the time. 

It is important here to reiterate Trump’s lack of creditworthiness.

After his 2004 bankruptcy and his long streak of lawsuits, the big banks decided he wasn’t worth the effort. They’d rather not touch the self-proclaimed “king of debt.” This sent him chasing less conventional sources of cash. BuzzFeed has shown, for instance, his efforts to woo Muammar Qaddafi as an investor. Libyan money never did materialize. It was Russian capital that fueled many of his signature projects—that helped him preserve his image as a great builder as he recovered from bankruptcy.

The money didn’t come directly. Hunting for partners with cash, he turned to a small upstart called the Bayrock Group, which would pull together massive real estate deals using the Trump name. Its chairman was a former Soviet official named Tevfik Arif, who made a small fortune running luxe hotels in Turkey.

To run Bayrock’s operation, Arif hired Felix Satter, a Soviet-born, Brighton Beach–bred college dropout. Satter changed his name to Sater, likely to distance himself from the criminal activity that a name-check would easily turn up. As a young man, Sater served time for slashing a man’s face with a broken margarita glass in a barroom brawl. The Feds also busted him for a working in a stock brokerage tied to four different Mafia families, which made $40 million off fraudulent trades. One lawsuit would later describe “Satter’s proven history of using mob-like tactics to achieve his goals.”Another would note that he threatened a Trump investor with the prospect of the electrocution of his testicles, the amputation of his leg, and his corpse residing in the trunk of Sater’s car.

What was Trump thinking entering into business with partners like these?

It’s a question he has tried to banish by downplaying his ties to Bayrock and minimizing Sater’s sins. (“He got into trouble because he got into a barroom fight which a lot of people do,” Trump once said in a deposition.)

But he didn’t just partner with Bayrock; the company embedded with him. Sater worked in Trump Tower; his business card described him as a “Senior Advisor to Donald Trump.” Bayrock put together deals for mammoth Trump-named, Trump-managed projects—two in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, a resort in Phoenix, the Trump SoHo in New York. Several of those projects broke ground, but they were a mere prelude.

“Mr. Trump was particularly taken with Mr. Arif’s overseas connections,” The New York Times  reported (after buyers of units in the Trump SoHo sued him for fraud). “In a deposition, Mr. Trump said that the two had discussed ‘numerous deals all over the world’ and that Mr. Arif had brought potential Russian investors to Mr. Trump’s office to meet him.” Trump described the scope of their ambitions: “[T]his was going to be Trump International Hotel and Tower Moscow, Kiev, Istanbul, etc., Poland, Warsaw.”

Based on its cast of characters, Bayrock itself was an enterprise bound to end in a torrent of litigation. The company’s finance chief Jody Kriss has sued it for fraud. In the course of the litigation, which is ongoing, Kriss alleged a primary source of funding for Trump’s big projects: “Month after month for two years, in fact whenever Bayrock ran out of cash, Bayrock Holdings would magically show up with a wire from ‘somewhere’ just large enough to keep the company going.” According to Kriss, these large payments would come from sources in Russia and Kazakhstan that hoped to hide their cash. Another source of Bayrock funding was a now-defunct Icelandic investment fund called the FL Group, a magnet for Russian investors “in favor with” Putin, as a lawsuit puts it. (The Daily Telegraph has reported that Bayrock mislabeled FL’s investment as a loan, in order to avoid at least $20 million in taxes.)

These projects are simply too ambitious, too central to his prospects, for Trump to have ignored the underlying source of financing.

 After his bankruptcy and business failures roughly a decade ago Trump has had an increasingly difficult time finding sources of capital for new investments. As I noted above, Trump has been blackballed by all major US banks with the exception of Deutschebank, which is of course a foreign bank with a major US presence. He has steadied and rebuilt his financial empire with a heavy reliance on capital from Russia. At a minimum the Trump organization is receiving lots of investment capital from people close to Vladimir Putin.

There’s Paul Manafort, Trump's nominal 'campaign chair' who now functions as campaign manager and top advisor. Manafort spent most of the last decade as top campaign and communications advisor for Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian Ukrainian Prime Minister and then President whose ouster in 2014 led to the on-going crisis and proxy war in Ukraine. Yanukovych was and remains a close Putin ally. Manafort is running Trump's campaign.

Trump's foreign policy advisor on Russia and Europe is Carter Page, a man whose entire professional career has revolved around investments in Russia and who has deep and continuing financial and employment ties to Gazprom. If you're not familiar with Gazprom, imagine if most or all of the US energy industry were rolled up into a single company and it were personally controlled by the US President who used it as a source of revenue and patronage. That is Gazprom's role in the Russian political and economic system. It is no exaggeration to say that you cannot be involved with Gazprom at the very high level which Page has been without being wholly in alignment with Putin's policies. Those ties also allow Putin to put Page out of business at any time.

More recently, Richard Burt, a Reagan administration official, has begun advising Trump on foreign policy. His criticisms of NATO and pleas for greater cooperation with Putin grow from a deeply felt realism. Yet his ideological positions jibe with his financial interests. Burt is on the boards of Alfa-Bank, the largest commercial bank in Russia, and an investment fund with a large position  in Gazprom.

Here's where it gets more interesting. As Talking Point Memo's Tierney Sneed explained, one of the most enduring dynamics of GOP conventions  is more mainstream nominees battling conservative activists over the party platform, with activists trying to check all the hardline ideological boxes and the nominees trying to soften most or all of those edges. This is one thing that made the Trump convention very different. The Trump Camp was totally indifferent to the platform. So party activists were able to write one of the most conservative platforms in history. Not with Trump's backing but because he simply didn't care. With one big exception: Trump's team mobilized the nominee's traditional mix of cajoling and strong-arming on one point: changing the party platform on assistance to Ukraine against Russian military operations in eastern Ukraine. For what it's worth (and it's not worth much) I am quite skeptical of most Republicans call for aggressively arming Ukraine to resist Russian aggression. But the single-mindedness of this focus on this one issue - in the context of total indifference to everything else in the platform - speaks volumes.

Trump’s advisers have stakes in businesses where the health of the Russian state is the health of the firm—where, in fact, the state and the firm are deeply entangled. The campaign isn’t just one man with an aesthetic affinity for Putin and commercial interests in Russia; his sentiments are reinforced and amplified by an organization rife with financial ties to the Kremlin.

 Over the course of the last year, Putin has aligned all Russian state controlled media behind Trump. As Frank Foer explains here, this fits a pattern with how Putin has sought to prop up rightist/nationalist politicians across Europe, often with direct or covert infusions of money. In some cases this is because they support Russia-backed policies; in others it is simply because they sow discord in Western aligned states. Of course, Trump has repeatedly praised Putin, not only in the abstract but often for the authoritarian policies and patterns of government which have most soured his reputation around the world.

During this presidential campaign Trump has repeatedly espoused positions that are closer to Moscow’s policies than his rivals' are. He calls for the U.S. to leave Syria and “let Russia fight ISIS.” He believes the U.S. shouldn’t lead the international effort to help Ukraine fight Russian intervention. Most recently he has threatened the cohesion of NATO, saying the U.S. might fail to honor its treaty commitments if certain financial considerations were not met.

It would also allow him to settle personal scores with those who ridiculed him for his birtherism pursuits while ingratiating himself to those who have praised his activities.

Before he was a presidential candidate, Trump's hunger to be popular in Russia was less troubling. Now it is a conflict of interest. At minimum, there is the appearance of wrongdoing: The candidate's foreign-policy positions are conveniently aligned with his long-standing business agenda. The simple reality is that those business interests pre-dated any political proclamations. And it is reasonable to assume that they might prove to be superior in precedence to America’s national interests. 

Implausible you say.

Is it more plausible that a self-centered egotist who has only shown interest in his business concerns and in letting no personal slight go unnoticed would suddenly embrace a campaign for the benefit of so many people he has long considered beneath him?

What’s good for the Trump Organization isn’t necessarily good for America.
Sections of this post have been taken from other articles.


  1. after reading this bull shit article the only sensible reaction is to vote for Hillary Clinton, the only shining star in the world. If you want it for free she is the one. if you don't think anything about yourself, she is the one. If you want assistance the rest of your life, she is the one. I was once a staunch Democrat. I can not take it anymore? Please look around. They want to keep you down, do everything for you. Keep you on subsidized housing give, give, give, when is enough enough. fed up. Who takes care of the middle class working person, fucking nobody. We can not do any worse than where we are now. Can't afford this any more. I would rather take a chance on real change. Hello, is anybody out there?????????
    Fucking done!!!!!! sorry for the swears but we need to wake up and smell the coffee again.

    1. Your invective loaded comment misses the mark entirely. Your problem is not with the Democrats, but with Ronald Reagan, See Reagan Was The Real Villain.


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