Trump-Russia, 2008 edition

As my readers know, I see 2008 as the critical year when Trump found himself on the hook with Russia.

It was the year that the Russian fertilizer king Dmitry Rybolovlev paid $95 million for Trump’s Palm Beach mansion, netting Trump more than $50 million in a shady transaction that Special Counsel Robert Mueller is said to be investigating.

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Donald Trump Jr. in Moscow in 2008

It was in 2008 that Donald Trump Jr. famously declared: “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets. Click here for the full quote from eTurbo News.

By his own account, Donald Jr. made “half a dozen trips to Russia” between January 2007 and June 2008.

It was in June 2008 that he appeared in Moscow as the keynote speaker for the “Real Estate in Russia” conference.

Don Jr. tantalized the crowd by telling them that a Russian was interested in buying his father’s Palm Beach mansion and announced plans to build elite housing and hotels in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Sochi and to license the Trump name.

The Russian projects never happened as developers balked at the costs of licensing the Trump name. Kommersant reported that, according to one Moscow developer, Trump was charging as much as a quarter of the project costs to put his name on the building.

But the money from Russia still poured into the Trump Organization. A man who claims to have sold Trump-branded properties in Russia at the time was a Belarusan American businessman named Sergei Millian.

“You could say I was their exclusive broker,” Millian told Russian state broadcaster RIA Novosti in April of last year. “Then, in 2007-2008, Russians bought dozens of apartments in Trump houses in the US. But I would not want to disclose specific amounts and names.”

Interestingly, Millian was also a source, apparently unwittingly, for former MI6 officer Christopher Steele’s Trump dossier.  (The White House and Trump consigliere Michael Cohen have dismissed him as a publicity-seeking hanger-on.)

Roger Khafif also hosted sales meetings in Russia for Trump for a property in Panama. “Russians like brands,” he told The Washington Post, “and Trump was famous in Russia” during the early 2000s real estate boom. “These were good days for Trump. He was the only man in town for real estate.”

And 2008 was also the year Trump invited a correspondent for Chayka, a Russian magazine, to breakfast at Trump Tower. Here is the lead of that story (translated by Google Translate):

Donald Trump invited us to report on a new project, which is largely designed for Russians.

The project was Trump SoHo, arguably the shadiest of all Trump’s shady deals. This was the project that employed Felix Sater, a felon with ties to Russian and American organized crime. Sater worked for Bayrock, a firm backed by Russian money close to Putin, according to a lawsuit filed by a former employee. Later, Sater worked for Trump himself.

The story goes on to quote Trump:

I have very good business relations with the Russians. A Russian recently bought a house for me in Florida for $100 million. Some Russians buy houses at 50 million each. Great buyers! People with good taste and good money understand the value of the Trump brand. It is always a guarantee of quality and a win-win location. Investing in “Trump,” you invest for sure. By the way, I really like Vladimir Putin. I respect him. He does his job well. Much better than our Bush.

Trump goes on:

Russian buyers got to taste the building we built in Palm Beach, Florida.

Maybe this is a mistranslation, but it’s not clear which Florida project Trump is referring to here.  Is he talking about  Trump Towers in Sunny Isles Beach, Florida, a development known as “Little Moscow”?  Is he talking about his planned tower in Palm Beach that was launched in 2007. Or is he talking about a sales event attended by potential Russian investors and celebrity guests like Regis Philbin at his Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach in January 2008?

And 2008 was also the year when Trump assured the Scottish government that he had the funds to build the “greatest golf course in the world” on the northeast coast near Aberdeen, Scotland. “The money is there, ready to be wired at any time,” Trump attorney George Sorial said. “I am not discussing where it is, whether it is in a Scottish bank or what, but it is earmarked for this project. If we needed to put the development up tomorrow, we have the cash to do that. It is sitting there in the bank and is ready to go.”

But 2008 was also a very challenging year for Trump and this, more than anything, may explain his tilt toward Russia. The global financial crisis put the squeeze on his finances and pushed him to the wall.  Within a year, Trump-branded projects in Tampa; Vancouver, Canada; Dubai; and Baja California went bust or were put on hold. Trump Entertainment Resorts, the operator of the Trump Taj Mahal, filed (again) for bankruptcy.

In December 2008 Trump made the fateful decision to sue his lender, Deutsche Bank, when he failed to make good on a $40 million guarantee on a loan for Trump International Hotel and Tower in Chicago. Amazingly, Deutsche Bank continued to lend to him. The bank now finds itself in the cross hairs of many Russia investigators.

Trump, of course, emerged from the wreckage of the financial crisis, and some think he did it with Russian money.  As Sir Richard Dearlove, former head of MI6, told Prospect Magazine, “what lingers for Trump may be what deals – on what terms – he did after the financial crisis of 2008 to borrow Russian money” when other banks and lenders would not risk the money.

Something happened around 2008 that tied Trump’s future to Russia. Was Trump the subject of Russian kompromat or blackmail? Did he meet Putin, as he long claimed he did? Did Russia give him much-need capital when no other banks would in the midst of the financial crisis?

I don’t know the answer, but I hope that someday, we will find out.

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