“I have nothing to do with Russia — no deals, no loans, no nothing!”
President Donald Trump capitalized and punctuated with an exclamation point his January 2017 tweet for one purpose: to loudly tell one and all that special counsel Robert Mueller was barking up the wrong tree.
This is an excerpt from the forthcoming book “The Russia Probe: What Did Trump Know, And When Did He Know It?,” due out in April.
Therefore, there was absolutely no reason to think that the Russians had any kind of hold on him. Fair enough, but then, how does that square with Trump’s boast in November 2013, “I have plans for the establishment of business in Russia. Now, I am in talks with several Russian companies to establish this skyscraper.”
This is the question Mueller is seeking the answer to when he subpoenaed the Trump organization’s financial records of business dealings with Russian politicians and business interests. Trump’s attorneys hit the roof and claimed variously that they had already turned over all relevant documents to Mueller and that he was badly overreaching.
He isn’t. The skyscraper that Trump wanted to build would have been right in the center of Moscow’s International Business Center. If his building deal had gone through, Trump Moscow Tower would have been sandwiched in between several other gargantuan storied hotel-business complexes in the area.
He would then have been perfectly positioned to do a lot of business at the Trump skyscraper with the growing parade of Russian tycoons, bankers and investors who conducted business dealings in the various complexes there.
Trump Moscow Tower didn’t happen. However, Trump’s pursuit of making money in Russia and off the Russians didn’t begin or end with the Trump Tower pitch. There’s a lot that is known about the history of Trump in Russia. And there’s a lot that’s not known but has been the subject of much speculation.
It’s the mystery behind Trump’s Russia dealings that raises the two biggest questions in the Russian election meddling probe. One, did the Russians have a hold on Trump? The other is, was their election manipulation a calculated effort to ensure Trump won the presidency in order for him to do more of their bidding once in the Oval Office?
Neither question can be answered with any real degree of certainty without an honest financial accounting of Trump’s wheeling and dealing with the Russians.
What’s known is that Trump first jumped on the Russian business bandwagon in the mid-1980s. He had the grand illusion then of building a big luxury hotel directly across from the Kremlin. That went nowhere.
A decade later he was back again with another announcement that he would build the “Trump International Complex” on land in Central Moscow. Like the earlier hotel and business complex plan, it was just that, a plan that went nowhere.
It did make Trump seem like a potential major player in Russian business circles. He was not shy about letting the world know that he was in tight with Russian political bigwigs, “And we’re working with the local government, the mayor of Moscow, and the mayor’s people. So far, they’ve been very responsive. I always go into the center.”
They may or may not have been as responsive as Trump claimed. The deals that he bragged about in Moscow’s center didn’t happen.
So, if Trump couldn’t make money in Russia, then do the next best thing and make money off of Russians in the U.S. By 2000, there were a lot of wealthy Russians who were looking to live and make money in the U.S.
The way for them to do that was to buy, or invest, in real estate in America. Trump was ready.
During the first decade of 2000, he sold, brokered and negotiated myriad deals with Russian buyers of condos and hotel properties that he owned or had interests in in South Florida. One of them was his own Palm Beach waterfront estate that he sold to a big shot Russian magnate.
On the surface, there was nothing inherently wrong or shady about any of these Trump-Russian property transactions. It did show, though, that he had a nose for following the money and during this period the money Trump sought was in the pockets of wealthy Russians who were more than willing to spend their loot with him.
Trump’s wheeling and dealing in Russia may have been nothing more than his desperate grasping to try and get rich in and off of the Russians with no political strings attached. Then again, it may have had political strings tightly wound around him.
It certainly made his “no deals, no loans, no nothing” with Russia tweet a lie. It further fed the suspicion that there may have been more to his relationship with President Vladimir Putin than the routine need to have a cordial and open communication with the leader of the country that is one of America’s greatest superpower rivals.
And even more problematic for Trump, it gives Mueller more ammunition to try and connect him to Russia’s election meddling; meddling that helped put him in the Oval Office. Mueller rightly seized at the chance to make that connection. To do that he must follow the money.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of the forthcoming “The Russia Probe: What Did Trump Know, And When Did He Know It?” (Middle Passage Press). He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One and the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.