President-elect Trump was not always reflexively pro-Russia, and the roots of his embrace of Moscow are relatively recent. And, like so much of his business career, Trump’s interest in Russia grew from financial desperation. During the 1990s, Trump found himself more than $4 billion in debt to more than 70 banks, and a series of bankruptcies, heavy financial losses, and debt restructuring lead almost all major American banks to simply refuse to do business with him.28 Consequently, beginning in the 2000s, he began to rely very heavily on foreign banks for his lending,29 and Russia—with its inner circle of wealthy oligarchs close to Putin and lax financial integrity laws—must have seemed like a cash cow to Trump.
As Slate editor Franklin Foer reported, Trump has attempted on at least five different occasions to launch large projects in Russia, including hotels, spas, and apartment buildings.30 Both Trump and his son, Donald Trump Jr., have made repeated trips to Moscow in efforts to ingratiate themselves. After one such trip, the senior Trump practically crowed that “almost all of the oligarchs were in the room” for one of his meetings.31 Yet, all of these attempts at launching major developments in Russia fizzled, and Donald Jr., who traveled to Moscow six times in one 18-month period alone, was left to observe of the Russian business environment, “It is a question of who knows who, whose brother is paying off who.”32
While Russia did not pan out as the location for grand new Trump developments, it did become an important wellspring for financial backing. In essence, Trump did not begin investing in Russia—rather, dark Russian money began investing in him. Trump has tried at times to deflect criticism of his deep Russia ties by tweeting, “I have zero investments in Russia,” but he has steadfastly refused to release his taxes or other information that would detail the level of Russian-linked investment in him.33
Time magazine recently observed, “The truth, as several columnists and reporters have painstakingly shown since the first hack of a Clinton-affiliated group took place in late May or early June, is that several of Trump’s businesses outside of Russia are entangled with Russian financiers inside Putin’s circle.” The article went on to note, “[I]t is Trump’s financing from Russian satellite business interests that would seem to explain his pro-Putin sympathies.”34
Historian Francis Fukuyama similarly pondered the reasons behind Trump never having “uttered a critical word about Putin,” suggesting that Putin had hidden leverage “in the form of debts to Russian sources that keep his business empire afloat.”35 And, certainly, the scramble for Russian money has entangled Trump with a web of murky figures and questionable associations, all of which seem to invariably link back to Putin and the Kremlin. Here are just some of the questionable Russian-linked individuals and associations tied to Trump:
Tevfik Arif and the Bayrock Group
Founded by former Soviet official Tevfik Arif, Bayrock Group is a development company with offices in Trump Tower in downtown Manhattan. According to Slate, 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.”36 Bayrock has been embroiled in long-running, complicated, and contentious series of lawsuits, initially launched by its former chief financial officer in 2010, that have alleged Bayrock has links to Russian criminal syndicates and $250 million in tax evasion. Bayrock’s former chief financial officer, Jody Kriss, suggested that, at moments when Bayrock was running low on funds, large infusions of cash would come in from Russia or Kazakhstan from shadowy investors hoping to hide their money.37 38 Bayrock has called these charges “baseless,” and while some of the lawsuits have been dismissed, other variations have been refiled and are ongoing. Trump and Arif have also settled a somewhat overlapping lawsuit for several million dollars in which it was claimed that they had misled investors in Trump SoHo.39
The New York Times notes that, according to one of this series of lawsuits against Bayrock, the company “brokered a $50 million investment in Trump SoHo and three other Bayrock projects by an Icelandic firm preferred by wealthy Russians ‘in favor with’ President Vladimir V. Putin.”40 The Times went on to report other key figures involved in these deals, including Soviet-born Bayrock associate Felix Sater—who declined to comment on dealings with Trump and Bayrock but who was “implicated in a huge stock manipulation scheme involving Mafia figures and Russian criminals”41—and founder of the Sapir Organization, Tamir Sapir, another former Russian-born real estate developer, now deceased, who lived in Trump Tower and was linked to Putin’s inner circle.42
The Washington Post noted that when Trump invested in real estate in Panama, wealthy Russians “became a key market” based on their findings from reviewing separate litigation filed in Florida.43 It came as no surprise then when, in 2008, Donald Jr. told a real estate conference, “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets.44
Given Trump’s reliance on Russian finance for his real estate deals, it was not surprising that he turned to Paul Manafort to serve as his de facto campaign manager during a significant stretch of the presidential race. Manafort is a lobbyist and mercenary political operative with a long and checkered past representing clients, many of whom are nefarious, for exorbitant sums, including important figures close to Putin. These previous clients, include Oleg Deripaska, a former member of the Soviet army “said to be ‘Putin’s favorite industrialist.’”45 In 2008 Deripaska was denied entry into the United States because of his ties to Russian crime syndicates.46 Interestingly, as The Washington Post notes, that same year, Deripaska sued Manafort in a Cayman Islands court, accusing him “of taking nearly $19 million intended for investments, then failing to account for the funds, return them or respond to numerous inquiries about exactly how the money was used.”47 According to the Post, court records show that as of August 2015, this suit is ongoing.48
Manafort also represented Putin’s handpicked Ukrainian autocrat, former President Viktor Yanukovych, who hewed a strong pro-Putin policy after Manafort and Russian intelligence services helped him secure an election win in Ukraine in 2010.49 As Franklin Foer notes, Manafort “became an essential adviser to the [Ukrainian] president.”50 And Time magazine reported that secret ledgers in Ukraine detailed $12.7 million in illegal and unreported payments to Manafort before Yanukovych fled into exile to—where else—Russia.51
Although Manafort resigned from the Trump campaign shortly after the story about the illicit Ukrainian payments appeared in the press, he has reportedly been advising the Trump transition team.52
Trump nominated Rex Tillerson to be the next secretary of state despite the Exxon Mobil Corp. CEO having no government or diplomatic experience. In fact, Tillerson’s primary qualification seems to be his very close and personal associations with Putin. In 2013, after sealing investment deals with Russia’s state-owned energy conglomerates two years prior, Tillerson was awarded the Kremlin’s “Order of Friendship,” Russia’s highest civilian honor, by Putin.53 In 2014, after Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine, Tillerson spoke out against U.S. sanctions imposed on Moscow, which blocked Exxon Mobil’s Russian deals and reportedly have cost the company more than $1 billion.54 Should the next administration lift these sanctions, “out of all the energy companies, Exxon would be the biggest beneficiary,” commented energy analyst Brian Youngberg at Edward Jones.55 Tillerson, who already holds more than $140 million in Exxon Mobil shares, has also, according to CNN, “been promised more than 2 million Exxon shares over the next decade. That nest egg, worth a stunning $184 million at current prices, poses ethical and legal questions given the tremendous impact the nation’s chief diplomat has over Exxon’s business.”56
Tillerson also has had a close personal relationship for over a decade with Igor Sechin57—a former KGB agent and close Putin ally—who is the head of the Russian oil conglomerate Rosneft and also maintains an extensive network of current FSB links.58 Sechin is one of those individuals currently under direct sanction by the U.S. Treasury Department because of Russia’s illegal occupation of Ukraine.59 The U.S. Treasury Department has said that, “Sechin has shown utter loyalty to Vladimir Putin – a key component to his current standing.”60 Hardline anti-American Russian officials have celebrated Tillerson’s nomination.61 Tillerson was also the director of Bahamas-based Russian-U.S. oil firm Neftegas.62 And, when it comes to potential conflicts of interest, Tillerson’s are matched only by those of Trump himself.
Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn
The former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, or DIA, retired Lt. Gen. Flynn has been selected by Trump to serve as his national security advisor. An avid distributor of fake news during the campaign, Flynn has demonstrated a remarkable inability to discern basic fact from fiction, which is extremely troubling considering he headed an intelligence agency and will be the Trump’s key adviser on issues of war and peace.63
Flynn, who was squeezed out of his position running the DIA due to claims of mismanagement in 2014, developed a cozy relationship with Moscow in recent years. Only 18 months after leaving his post at the DIA, Flynn was paid—although he refuses to reveal how much—to appear at a gala dinner in Moscow celebrating the anniversary of the Russian propaganda channel Russia Today.64 At the dinner, Flynn was seated at the head table with Putin.65 “It was extremely odd that he showed up in a tuxedo to the Russian government propaganda arm’s party,” a former Pentagon official told Politico.66 Flynn subsequently made regular appearances on Russia Today, for which he was also presumably paid, though he has refused to answer questions on the subject.67> At one point he declared, while appearing on the Russian propaganda channel, “[W]e have to try to figure out: How do we combine the United States’ national security strategy along with Russia’s national security strategy.”68
Although not specifically an issue with regard to Russia, as part of Trump’s transition team, Flynn has sat in on classified briefings, which may have violated ethics requirements, since he continued to consult for foreign clients at the same time.69 In addition, it was revealed that according to Defense Department documents, Flynn inappropriately shared classified military intelligence with foreign military personnel.70 Defense officials have disputed Flynn’s claim that he had permission to share the materials.
One of the very first names Donald Trump cited as a key foreign policy adviser was Carter Page, a person largely unheard of in foreign policy circles. Indeed, the only international credentials that he seems to possess based on his somewhat-inflated resume is an unusual fondness for Russian oligarchs.71 Page claims to have advised Russian state-held natural gas company Gazprom and told Bloomberg News that he still hold shares in the scandal plagued industrial giant.72 The Trump campaign briefly disavowed ties with Page after Western intelligence officials told well-regarded investigative journalist Michael Isikoff that Page had met with Igor Sechin—the Russian chief of oil giant Rosneft and former KGB officer during—the summer of 2016 and that the two had discussed the possibility of lifting U.S. sanctions against Russia.73 Isikoff also indicated that U.S. intelligence agencies had also received reports that Page met with Igor Diveykin in Moscow, who is believed to have played a key role in coordinating Russian intelligence activities related to the U.S. election.74 Page has denied those allegations.75
Unsurprisingly, Page, who made a trip to Moscow in December 2016, was one of the first individuals associated with the Trump team to make the transparently ludicrous suggestion that the Russian hacks were actually a “false flag” operation by the United States to make Russia look bad.76 Page has also made clear that Trump’s election would significantly boost the fortunes of some of his Russian confidants who have been hit by U.S. sanctions as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.77
Julian Assange and WikiLeaks
The international nonprofit organization publishing news leaks and secret information, WikiLeaks, served as a vital conduit for the Russian election hacks. In August, even The Intercept, no cheerleader for Hillary Clinton, observed, “The WikiLeaks Twitter feed has started to look more like the stream of an opposition research firm working mainly to undermine Hillary Clinton than the updates of a non-partisan platform for whistleblowers.”78 Indeed, WikiLeaks slowly bled out the hacks, making clear that their interest was not in transparency but in inflicting maximum damage on Clinton while distracting the media when negative stories on Trump emerged. For example, WikiLeaks released additional hacked material on Clinton literally minutes after Trump’s infamous “Access Hollywood” tape emerged.79 Alina Polyakova, deputy director of the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council, commented, “I think the Russian government is in fact using WikiLeaks: the connection seems pretty clear to me.”80 WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who is still resisting deportation related to rape charges in Sweden, claims WikiLeaks has no ties to Russia. Those claims, however, appear to be sharply undercut by diagnostics and investigations of the Russian hacks to date.81 It is also worth noting that Assange once was a talk show host on the Russian propaganda channel Russia Today. Additionally, at one point during his continued stint in the Ecuadorian embassy, where he has political asylum, Assange requested a Russian security detail.82
An infamous political operative who was implicated in Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal, Roger Stone, served as an adviser to the Trump campaign.83 He is also a former business partner to the aforementioned Paul Manafort. Stone repeatedly appeared to have advance knowledge of the timing and substance of the WikiLeaks hack releases designed to damage the Clinton campaign. Moreover, Stone admitted during the campaign that he had “communicated” with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.84 So, although less of an issue with regard to potential direct links to the Kremlin, Stone did appear quite eager to facilitate and promote WikiLeaks.
Steve Bannon and right-wing nationalists
Steve Bannon has been tapped as Trump’s senior counselor. He is also the former head of Breitbart News, which has actively courted—and many view as the mouthpiece of—white supremacist and anti-Semitic groups.85 It is no surprise that Bannon, Breitbart, and a constellation of right-wing nationalist groups all have strong threads that connect them to Putin and his policy of undermining Western democracies. Bannon has been openly supportive of Putin, praising him as “very, very intelligent” and as a man who adheres to “traditionalist values.”86 Likewise, David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan Imperial Wizard, has dubbed Russia and Putin as “the key to white survival” and, writing in 2005, said that “Putin and the Russian people dare to defend themselves from the powers of Jewish supremacism.”87
Russia has become a frequent stop for leading figures in right-wing nationalist circles. Putin and the FSB, for their part, see support for far-right groups and actors in Europe and the United States as key to undermining Western institutions and democracies.88
Born in Azerbaijan, Aras Agalarov is sometimes referred to as the Trump of Russia.89 Trump and Agalarov partnered on a Miss Universe Pageant in Moscow, and Agalarov has benefitted considerably from Russian government contracts, which The Washington Post notes is a sign of his “closeness to the Putin government.”90 Trump and Agalarov have been eager to partner on real estate developments in Moscow, just another example of the many conflicts of interest that Trump has failed to address. Trump even appeared in the music video of Agalarov’s aspiring pop-musician son, Emin.91
A former Reagan administration official, Richard Burt has advised Trump on foreign policy issues and has been sharply critical of NATO and urged greater cooperation with Putin.92
Burt is also on the board of an investment firm with large holdings in Gazprom and serves on the board of the largest commercial bank in Russia, Alfa-Bank.93 Burt is yet another pro-Putin Trump loyalist whose policy perspective appears to be well lubricated by financial interests in Moscow. Burt helped provide input to Donald Trump’s first major foreign policy speech of the campaign at the same time that he and a colleague received $365,000 in lobbying fees during the first half of 2016 to promote a natural gas pipeline controlled by the Russian government.94
Much of the focus on Trump’s slavish support of Putin suggests that it likely stems from his deep reliance on Russian finance propping up his often shaky real estate empire. However, those familiar with the hardball tactics of Russian intelligence agencies have also suggested that Trump may also be pressured due to damaging kompromat, or compromising information, gathered on him by the Russians during his trips to Moscow. The Guardian noted, “[T]he FSB may have videoed Trump inside the suite. There is no proof that any compromising video exists. But the FSB would certainly have been interested in this kind of stuff: this is, after all, what it does.”95 An anonymous former Western intelligence official indicated that he had shared with the FBI findings that the Russian intelligence services had compromised Trump after a long campaign to cultivate him for their own ends.96 The New York Times notes that a common Kompromat tactic is to ensnare politicians in sexually compromising positions.97 Perhaps the most notorious moment of Donald Trump’s campaign came as a result of the release of the now infamous “Access Hollywood” footage in which he crudely discussed grabbing women.
In addition to those individuals listed here, there were reports during the campaign that an unnamed Trump associate met clandestinely with a pro-Putin member of the Russian parliament.98 Adding fuel to this speculation is the fact that, after the U.S. presidential election, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov practically bragged of his close ties to the Trump campaign, saying, “Obviously we know most of the people from his entourage.”99
The bottom line, according to David Kramer, a former State Department official in the George W. Bush Bush administration, is that “[t]he relationships that Trump’s advisors have had with pro-Russian forces are deeply disturbing … Trump has staked out views that are really on the fringe.”100
Never before has a U.S. president appeared so deeply enmeshed and beholden to a foreign power whose interests are clearly hostile to our own.