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Trump's Ties to Russia

Last Updated:2017-May-17
Principal Writer:Rob Dennis

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What's the deal with Trump and Russia?

With U.S. intelligence agencies from the CIA to the FBI to the NSA concluding that Russia attempted to influence the 2016 presidential election, there is one key question at the core of it all...

Did the Trump campaign collude with the Russian government in its efforts to influence the election?  

Aside from an explosive but unverified dossier compiled for Donald Trump's political opponents by a former British intelligence officer, there is no evidence that it did. However, some details in the dossier reportedly have been corroborated by law enforcement and intelligence officials. Other connections between the Trump campaign and Russia have been well-documented, and more emerge nearly every day.

In addition, because Trump has refused to divest himself of his business interests, there are ongoing concerns about his financial connections at home and abroad, and the impact they could have on domestic and foreign policy - and even national security.

Trump is the first president with such a complex web of business interests, managed through hundreds of companies. He also was the first presidential candidate in four decades to refuse to release his tax returns, adding to the lingering suspicion.

Basic financial questions remain unanswered: What are his sources of income? Who has he done business with? To whom does he owe money?

Simply put, is Trump making decisions to benefit the United States or himself?

Cast of characters

Those embroiled in the investigation include a disgraced former national security adviser; a former Trump campaign manager who worked for a pro-Russia Ukrainian president; a Nixon dirty trickster; and the president's personal attorney, who has deep connections to Ukraine.  

Also of interest are Trump's business associates, including a Russian-born convicted racketeer who served time for felony assault; the head of a Russian-American business group who has been honored by the Russian government; and billionaire oligarchs with ties to the Kremlin.

Some of the cast of characters are heavy hitters in business, politics and the military, while others were relatively minor figures before they were drawn into Trump's orbit and then thrust onto the world stage.

Click on the chart for a larger version and a quick reference of people mentioned here

Trump's concerns

Trump has long pursued business deals in Russia and sought Russian buyers for his properties, garnering what one Trump associate described as "hundreds of millions of dollars" from Russian businessmen.

Members of the Trump campaign met with Russian officials during the campaign, when Russia apparently was intervening to help Trump win. At least one of them discussed sanctions against Russia with that country's ambassador to the United States before Trump took office.

Trump himself "warmly greeted" the Russian ambassador at a campaign event in April, and then later claimed he never met any Russian officials.

Suspicions have been brushed aside by the White House. If there is an inquiry, here are just some of the people who could find themselves testifying under oath.

Michael Flynn: Trump's former national security adviser

Michael Flynn resigned as national security adviser in February after it was revealed that he discussed Obama administration sanctions against Russia with Russian envoy Sergey Kislyak before Trump took office.

The Obama administration announced sanctions on Dec. 29 in retaliation for what intelligence officials said was Russian interference in the 2016 election to help Trump win the presidency.

The same day, Flynn discussed the sanctions with Kislyak, according to the Washington Post. Officials who "routinely monitor the communications of Russian diplomats" said Flynn "urged Russia not to overreact" to the sanctions and made it clear that "the two sides would be in position to review the matter after Trump was sworn in as president."

The next day, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced he wouldn't immediately respond to the sanctions.

Flynn has known Kislyak since 2013, when he visited Moscow as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). President Barack Obama fired Flynn in 2014 for insubordination. A year later, the retired three-star general returned to Russia as a paid speaker at a gala event, where he dined with Putin. The House Oversight Committee is investigating to see if Flynn broke the law by accepting payment for the event.  

In early March, Flynn's lobbying firm registered with the Justice Department as a foreign agent in connection with $530,000 of lobbying during the latter stages of the Trump campaign for a company linked to Turkey's authoritarian government.

Kislyak has acknowledged he was in contact with Flynn during the campaign. Flynn and Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner also met with the Russian ambassador at Trump Tower during the transition in December.

Paul Manafort: Trump's former campaign manager

Paul Manafort was named Donald Trump's campaign manager in May, 2016. He left the campaign in August as controversy grew over his foreign business ties.

Manafort has worked for and done business with despots and oligarchs around the globe, including former Ukrainian president and Putin ally Viktor Yanukovych.  

A lobbyist and political consultant, Manafort's career in Ukraine began in 2005 when he worked as an adviser to steel magnate Rinat Akhmetov, a supporter of the Party of Regions and its leader, Yanukovych.

Manafort helped elect Yanukovych prime minister in 2006 and then president in 2010. Manafort's team in Ukraine included Rick Gates, another top Trump campaign strategist.

In 2014, Yanukovych fled Ukraine amid violent protests and ended up living in Russia. Hours after Yanukovych left the country, protesters went to the presidential residence outside Kiev and discovered an opulent five-story mansion filled with antique beds, crystal chandeliers, solid-gold bathroom fittings and other priceless artifacts. The grounds contained a private zoo, a full-sized pirate ship, and an 18-hole golf course.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian investigators found handwritten ledgers showing $12.7 million in undisclosed cash payments designated for Manafort from 2007 to 2012. Manafort has denied receiving cash payments.  

Ukrainian prosecutors are investigating a group of offshore shell companies whose transactions helped pay for the luxurious lifestyles of Yanukovych and his cronies. Those deals included a partnership between Manafort and Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska in an abortive attempt to buy a telecom company called Black Sea Cable.

Officials from the Cayman Islands questioned Manafort in connection with a dispute over a $26.2 million investment by Deripaska, a close ally of Putin's who made his fortune in aluminum and for a time was barred from traveling to the United States because of concerns over possible ties to Russian organized crime. Deripaska has denied any such criminal connections.

Manafort also has done business with Dmitry Firtash, a pro-Putin Ukrainian oligarch who has been indicted by a federal grand jury in connection with an alleged conspiracy to bribe Indian officials for a titanium contract. The Justice Department is seeking to extradite Firtash from Austria. Minutes after an Austrian court approved the extradition request on Feb. 21, Firtash was arrested on a warrant from Spain, where he is wanted in connection with a separate money-laundering investigation. Firtash has denied the allegations.

A lawsuit filed on behalf of former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko claimed Manafort's business deals with Firtash were part of a "complex racketeering scheme, involving the laundering of money in the United States and abroad, and the payment of illegal kickbacks to Ukrainian government officials" in the Yanukovych administration.

A group including Manafort and Firtash negotiated an $895 million deal in 2008 to purchase the Drake Hotel in New York, according to court records. The deal eventually fell through.

The Tymoshenko lawsuit was dismissed on procedural and jurisdictional grounds.  

Manafort is one of the Trump campaign members reportedly under investigation for possible links to Russian officials. He has denied any relationship to the Russian government or Russian officials.  

Manafort's connections to Trump go back far further than his work in Eastern Europe - Manafort's firm lobbied on behalf of the Trump Organization in the 1980s.

Roger Stone: Trump friend and advisor

Roger Stone started his career in the Nixon administration, playing a minor role in the dirty tricks side of the Watergate scandal. He has been a friend of Trump's for 40 years and served as an adviser during the early stages of the presidential campaign. He was a principal in Manafort's lobbying firm (the "Stone" in Black, Manafort, Stone and Kelly.)

Stone appeared on the Kremlin-funded TV network Russia Today in January, denying that the Russians hacked into computers of the Democratic National Committee.

Stone has acknowledged exchanging private messages with "Guccifer 2.0," who claims to have been responsible for hacking the Democratic National Committee (DNC). U.S. intelligence agencies believe Guccifer 2.0 is a front for Russian military intelligence; the hacker denies this.

Stone said the exchanges took place in August, after he wrote an article for Breitbart News about Guccifer's role in the DNC cyberattack.

In August, Stone tweeted it would soon be "Podesta's time in the barrel." Seven weeks later, WikiLeaks released Hillary Clinton campaign chair John Podesta's private emails. Stone has denied being provided with the hacked materials in advance, but said he had "back channel communication with [WikiLeaks founder Julian] Assange" through "a good mutual friend."

Stone has been named as one of at least four Trump associates under investigation over alleged contacts with Russian intelligence. He denies the allegations, saying, "I would relish the opportunity to testify in public under oath on this issue."

Michael Cohen: Trump's personal lawyer

Michael Cohen is Trump's personal lawyer.

The New York Times reported in February that Cohen hand-delivered a pro-Russia peace plan for Ukraine to Flynn before the national security adviser resigned.

The proposal was brokered by Cohen, Trump business associate Felix Sater, and an obscure Ukrainian opposition politician named Andrii Artemenko, according to the Times. Cohen keeps changing his story about the plan, but Sater and Artemenko have confirmed the Times' account.

Cohen is married to a Ukrainian woman and once set up an ethanol business there. Before Cohen joined the Trump Organization in the mid-2000s, he partnered with Ukrainian immigrants in businesses ranging from taxis to casino boats.

The unsubstantiated dossier compiled by former MI6 officer Christopher Steele claims Cohen met with a Russian representative in Prague during the campaign to discuss Russia's hacking of Democrats. Cohen denies this, saying he's never been to Prague.

Carter Page: Former Trump campaign member

Carter Page is another former Trump campaign member under investigation for contacts with Russian officials, including a trip to Moscow in July that was approved by then-campaign manager Corey Lewandowski.

Two weeks after that trip, Page and fellow Trump campaign members Jeff Sessions and J.D. Gordon met with Russian ambassador Kislyak during an event at the Republican National Convention. Sessions did not disclose that meeting or another with Kislyak in September during his confirmation hearing to be attorney general. When the meetings were revealed, Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation.

Page has written critically about U.S. policy toward Russia in the Kremlin-funded news site Sputnik.

Page has worked with Sergey Yatsenko, a former deputy chief financial officer at Russian state-controlled gas company Gazprom.

Yatsenko told Bloomberg he worked with Page to help a Russian investor explore an oil investment in Iraqi Kurdistan, and to advise a Chinese investor looking to buy Russian oil assets.

In 2013, Page met with and passed documents to a Russian spy in New York. The Russian operative, Victor Podobnyy, was a member of Russia's foreign intelligence service, the SVR, working under diplomatic cover. Podobnyy was charged along with two others in 2015 as part of a Russian spy ring.

Page acknowledged being in contact with Podobnyy, but said he only "shared basic immaterial information and publicly available research documents."

Another member of the spy ring, Evgeny Buryakov, was working under cover at the Russian state-controlled Vnesheconombank in Manhattan. He pleaded guilty to conspiring to act as a foreign agent, and was sentenced to 30 months in prison.   The head of Vnesheconombank, Sergey Gorkov, met with Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner in December. The bank has been under sanctions since the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Trump might have chosen Page - a former Marine intelligence officer who worked as an investment banker for Merrill Lynch in Moscow from 2004 to 2007 - because he perceived that Page had deep connections in the Russian energy industry.

His biography on the website for Global Energy Capital - a company he founded - claims he "was involved in over $25 billion of transactions in the energy and power sector" and "was an advisor on key transactions" for Russian energy companies. But when Politico contacted Russia experts and energy experts to find out more about Page, nobody claimed to have heard of him. The same story indicates that Page appears to have exaggerated his involvement in those Russian transactions.

J.D. Gordon: Trump's campaign director of national security

J.D. Gordon was the Trump campaign's director of national security.

Gordon is a retired U.S. Navy commander who served as Pentagon spokesman from 2005 to 2009. He is the founder of Protect America Today, a Super PAC that ran ads for federal Republican candidates in the 2012 campaign.

Gordon, along with Sessions and Page, met with Russian ambassador Kislyak during an event at the Republican National Convention. Gordon has acknowledged that he pushed at the convention to remove language from an amendment to the Republican platform relating to arming Ukraine against pro-Russian separatists, because this was in line with Trump's views.

A strange link between a Russian bank and Betsy DeVos' husband

In Oct. 2016, Slate reported that a computer "server" registered to the Trump Organization had been frequently "pinged" by Alfa Bank - Russia's largest private commercial bank.

The activity from Alfa Bank made up 80 percent of the activity on the Trump server. Virtually all of the other activity on the server came from a company called Spectrum Health. Spectrum's chairman of the board is Dick DeVos - husband of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

There is no known information regarding the nature of the communications between the two companies and the server. However, Slate reported that activity increased "at election-related moments".

The server was renamed shortly after reporters from the New York Times questioned Alfa Bank about the server. Soon after that it was shut down.

Former Blackwater CEO said to establish Trump-Putin back channel

Erik Prince is the founder and former CEO of the private security firm formerly known as Blackwater USA.

Prince supported Trump's campaign for president, and reportedly advised Trump's transition team on intelligence and defense and visited the transition offices in December.

The following month, Prince met secretly in the Seychelles with a Russian close to President Vladimir Putin, the Washington Post reported. A Prince spokesman denied he had a role in the transition, and said the meeting had nothing to do with Trump.

The FBI is investigating the meeting, according to the Post.

Prince is the brother of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

Sergei Millian: Russian-American Chamber of Commerce

Sergei Millian, who was born in Belarus, has been president of the Russian-American Chamber of Commerce in the USA since 2006. He claims to have delivered more than 300 speeches about doing business in Russia. He also claims to have significant business ties to Trump going back to 2007, when Trump attended a "Millionaire's Fair" in Moscow.

Millian said he signed a contract to promote one of Trump's real estate projects in Russia and other former Soviet states. "You could say I was their exclusive broker," Millian told Russian state-run news agency Ria Novosti in April 2016. ?Then, in 2007-2008, dozens of Russians bought apartments in Trump properties in the U.S.?

He later told ABC news that the Trump Organization had received "hundreds of millions of dollars" through deals with Russian businessmen.

Millian participated in an all-expenses-paid trip to Moscow for 50 U.S. businessmen in 2011. The trip was organized by Yury Zaytsev, the head of the Washington, D.C., branch of the Russian government-run cultural exchange Rossotrudnichestvo.

Afterward, the FBI conducted interviews to find out if Russian intelligence had tried to recruit the Americans, Mother Jones reported: "The Americans who were questioned concluded the FBI suspects that Zaytsev and Rossotrudnichestvo have used the all-expenses-paid trips to Russia in an effort to cultivate young Americans as intelligence assets."

Millian was honored by the Russian government in 2015 for his work bringing U.S. and Russian businessmen together.

Toward the end of the 2016 presidential campaign, Millian began downplaying his relationship to Trump in response to questions by the Financial Times and others.

ABC news reported in January that Millian was the unwitting source for salacious allegations about Trump in Steele's dossier. Millian denied this in an interview on Russian television.

Felix Sater: Russian born mobster

In 1998, Russian-born Felix Sater pleaded guilty to racketeering for his role in a $40 million Mafia-linked stock fraud.

Sater later joined developer Bayrock Group, which was founded by a former Soviet commerce official and had its offices in Trump Tower in New York. Sater has testified that he met Trump and started pitching him ideas early on. In 2005, Trump signed a deal with Bayrock to explore building a Trump Tower in Moscow. That deal fizzled, but Trump continued to work with Bayrock.

In 2007, Trump licensed his name, in exchange for an 18 percent share of the profits, to the Trump SoHo hotel in New York. The hotel is a joint-venture between Bayrock and the developer, the Sapir Organization, which was founded by another Soviet émigré.

Sater, who worked at Bayrock until 2008, testified that he "handled all of the negotiations" for Trump's Moscow project, and that Trump asked him to escort his children Donald Jr. and Ivanka around the city when they traveled there in 2006. He said he spent 2010 working at the Trump Organization as Trump's senior adviser. Another man, Daniel Ridloff, worked for Bayrock for five years until 2010, when he joined the Trump Organization, spending eight months in "acquisitions and finance."

Both men worked in 2012 with Elvira Kudryashova, the daughter of former Kazakh minister Viktor Khrapunov. Lawyers for the Kazakh city of Almaty claim Khrapunov laundered hundreds of millions of stolen dollars, and that Kudryashova benefited from her father's laundering scheme. Khrapunov has denied the allegations.

According to the Almaty lawyers, the family paid $3.1 million to buy three condos in the Trump SoHo as part of the scheme.

During the campaign, Trump said he was "not that familiar" with Sater. Even after Trump occupied the White House, though, Sater still played a role in the pro-Russia Ukrainian peace plan.

Azerbaijan hotel

In 2014, Trump announced a five-star hotel in Baku, Azerbaijan, a former Soviet state considered one of the world's most corrupt regimes. His daughter, Ivanka Trump, visited the city in October 2014 to tour the hotel site and offer advice.

Trump partnered on the deal with the billionaire son and member-of-parliament brother of Azerbaijan's transportation minister, who has been accused of using his position to enrich his family and is suspected by U.S. diplomats of laundering money for Iran's military. The Trump Organization said in December that it had canceled the project. Trump reported earning at least $2.5 million on the deal.

A recent New Yorker article about the Baku hotel, which the magazine dubbed "Donald Trump's Worst Deal," noted that Trump may have violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which makes it a crime for an American company to benefit from a foreign partner's corruption, even unknowingly.


Closer to home, Trump licensed his name to the Trump International Hotel and Tower in Toronto.

Trump was a minority investor in the hotel with Russian-born billionaire Alex Shnaider, who co-founded the Midland Group international holding company with Ukrainian oligarch Eduard Shifrin. In October, Shifrin and his daughter were granted Russian citizenship by Putin's decree.

Trump's dealings

Donald Trump has explored building a Trump Tower in Russia since the late 1980s, in the waning days of the Soviet Union. In later years, as his conventional sources of capital dwindled following a series of lawsuits and four bankruptcies, Trump increasingly traded on his reality-TV celebrity to license his name to developers, rather than completing projects himself.

He has continued to pursue a Trump Tower in Moscow, most recently through an agreement with Aras Agalarov, an Azeri billionaire who has won several Russian state contracts. Putin has awarded Agalarov the Order of Honor of the Russian Federation.

The deal came about when Agalarov and his son, Emin, who are real estate developers in Russia, hosted the Miss Universe pageant that Trump brought to Moscow in November 2013.

The night of the pageant, the Agalarovs hosted a dinner for Trump along with Herman Gref, Putin's former economy minister and now CEO of the state-owned Sberbank PJSC, Russia's largest bank. Trump met with more than a dozen Russian oligarchs at the dinner.

After Trump was elected, Gref praised him as "a president of changes."

"I have met Trump and my impression from the interaction is very positive," he said. "I know several people from his team."

Trump also sought out Russian investors for his properties. One New York real estate broker told USA Today she sold at least 65 condos in Trump World Tower to Russian buyers. Another said he's sold dozens of units in Trump properties in South Florida to Russians.

In 2008, when the real estate market was collapsing due to subprime loans, Trump sold a mansion in Palm Beach for $95 million to Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev. Trump had bought the property at a bankruptcy auction four years earlier for $41.4 million.

During the presidential campaign, Rybolovlev's plane mysteriously arrived at airports in the same cities at the same times as Trump's. There is no evidence Trump or members of his campaign met with the Russian oligarch.

Wilbur Ross and the Bank of Cyprus

Rybolovlev acquired a 9.7 percent stake in the Bank of Cyprus in 2010, making him the largest shareholder in a financial institution that came to be controlled by Russian oligarchs. His stake was drastically reduced during the Cypriot financial crisis a couple years later.

In 2014, now Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross was among a group of investors who put $1 billion into the bank. Ross became one of two vice chairmen of the bank; the other was a former KGB associate of Putin's, Vladimir Strzhalkovskiy.

Strzhalkovskiy and other oligarchs ultimately were forced from the bank's board. Still, the bank's largest shareholder is Viktor Vekselberg, one of the richest men in Russia.

Ross and Vekselberg backed former Deutsche Bank AG CEO Josef Ackermann, a director of Vekselberg's Renova company, to be the Bank of Cyprus' chairman. Another Renova executive also was appointed to the board.

Deutsche Bank was fined $630 million in January to settle charges the bank helped to launder $10 billion in Russian money through its offices in Moscow, London and Cyprus between 2011 and 2015.

After Trump named Ross as his pick for commerce secretary, Ross said he would step down as vice chairman of the Bank of Cyprus.

Eric Trump claims golf course funding came from Russia

Golf writer James Dodson said Trump's son Eric Trump told him three years ago that the Trump Organization received Russian funding for its golf course projects.

Dodson, the co-author of Arnold Palmer?s autobiography, said he met Donald Trump during a visit to the Trump national golf club in Charlotte, N.C.

He said he asked Trump how he financed his golf courses, and Trump told him he had access to $100 million. Dodson said he then asked Eric Trump where the financing was coming from, since banks weren't funding golf construction because of the recession.

Dodson said Eric Trump responded, "Well, we don?t rely on American banks. We have all the funding we need out of Russia."

Eric Trump has denied the story.

Donald Trump, Jr

Trump's son, Donald Trump Jr., acknowledged the heavy influx of Russian money at a real estate conference in 2008, saying he had traveled to Russia six times in the previous 18 months.

"Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets," he said. "We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia."

In October, Donald Trump Jr. spoke at a private dinner in Paris organized by the Center of Political and Foreign Affairs, which ABC News described as "an obscure pro-Russia group that promotes Kremlin foreign policy initiatives." The group has nominated Putin for the Nobel Peace Prize.

In conclusion

Trump is by no means the only U.S. real estate magnate to profit from the flow of Russian cash. A New York Times investigation found a "stream of foreign wealth" from Russia and elsewhere flowing into high-priced Manhattan real estate through shell companies that keep buyers' identities hidden. Partly as a result of the Times' series, the Treasury Department announced it would begin identifying and tracking secret buyers in Manhattan and Miami-Dade County.

But Trump has refused to admit raking in Russian money or having anything to do with the country. He and his allies denied any meetings with Russian officials during the campaign, right up until those denials were proven to be false.

Testimony from those involved in Trump's business and campaign, along with scrutiny of the president's tax returns, would help define the true scope of those profits and connections, and perhaps provide an answer to the question of collusion.

The Republican-controlled House Intelligence Committee held its first public hearing about the Russia investigation in March. None of Trump's campaign members or business associates were on the witness list.

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