Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin

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By Ballard Burgher

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Josh Marshall explores the disturbing relationship between Donald Trump and the regime of Russia under Vladimir Putin on Talking Points Memo.

Over the last year there has been a recurrent refrain about the seeming bromance between Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. More seriously, but relatedly, many believe Trump is an admirer and would-be emulator of Putin’s increasingly autocratic and illiberal rule. But there’s quite a bit more to the story. At a minimum, Trump appears to have a deep financial dependence on Russian money from persons close to Putin. And this is matched to a conspicuous solicitousness to Russian foreign policy interests where they come into conflict with US policies which go back decades through administrations of both parties. There is also something between a non-trivial and a substantial amount of evidence suggesting Putin-backed financial support of Trump or a non-tacit alliance between the two men.

Let’s start with the basic facts. There is a lot of Russian money flowing into Trump’s coffers and he is conspicuously solicitous of Russian foreign policy priorities.

I’ll list off some facts.

1. All the other discussions of Trump’s finances aside, 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. Trump has been blackballed by all major US banks.

2. Post-bankruptcy Trump has been highly reliant on money from Russia, most of which has over the years become increasingly concentrated among oligarchs and sub-garchs close to Vladimir Putin.

3. One example of this is the Trump Soho development in Manhattan, one of Trump’s largest recent endeavors. The project was the hit with a series of lawsuits in response to some typically Trumpian efforts to defraud investors by making fraudulent claims about the financial health of the project. Emerging out of that litigation however was news about secret financing for the project from Russia and Kazakhstan. Most attention about the projects has focused on the presence of a twice imprisoned Russian immigrant with extensive ties to the Russian criminal underworld. 

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 Deutschbank, 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.

Trump’s tax returns would likely clarify the depth of his connections to and dependence on Russian capital aligned with Putin. And in case you’re keeping score at home: no, that’s not reassuring.

4. Then 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.

5. 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 President who used it as a source of revenue and patronage. That is Gazprom’s role in the Russia 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.

6. 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 has most soured his reputation around the world.

7. Here’s where it gets more interesting. As TPM’s Tierney Sneed explained in this article, one of the most enduring dynamics of GOP conventions (there’s a comparable dynamic on the Dem side) is more mainstream nominees battling 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 the assistance to Ukraine against Russian military operations in eastern Ukraine…But the singlemindedness of this focus on this one issue – in the context of total indifference to everything else in the platform – speaks volumes.

To put this all into perspective, if Vladimir Putin were simply the CEO of a major American corporation and there was this much money flowing in Trump’s direction, combined with this much solicitousness of Putin’s policy agenda, it would set off alarm bells galore. That is not hyperbole or exaggeration. And yet Putin is not the CEO of an American corporation. He’s the autocrat who rules a foreign state, with an increasingly hostile posture towards the United States and a substantial stockpile of nuclear weapons. The stakes involved in finding out ‘what’s going on’ as Trump might put it are quite a bit higher.

There is something between a non-trivial and a substantial amount of circumstantial evidence for a financial relationship between Trump and Putin or a non-tacit alliance between the two men. Even if you draw no adverse conclusions, Trump’s financial empire is heavily leveraged and has a heavy reliance on capital infusions from oligarchs and other sources of wealth aligned with Putin. That’s simply not something that can be waved off or ignored.

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