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Here Are The Four Basic Questions About Trump And Russia We Still Need Answered

As the House Intelligence Committee begins hearings on Russia and the 2016 election, let’s review what we do and do not know.

20/03/2017 14:03 SAST | Updated 20/03/2017 15:10 SAST
Bloomberg via Getty Images
President Donald Trump speaks on the phone with Vladimir Putin during the first official phone talks in the Oval Office of the White House, on Saturday, Jan. 28, 2017.

Do you know who Dmitry Rybolovlev is?

Do you know what a FISA warrant is? What about kompromat?

How about Felix Sater and Ziya Mammadov?

Trump’s praise of Vladimir Putin and allegations of Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee raised questions during the campaign. Since then, the public has been deluged with stories claiming Russian interference in the election and clandestine connections between Trump’s entourage and Russian officials.

But big questions remain unanswered ― and the relentless flood of incremental news stories makes things even more confusing.

As the House Intelligence Committee gears up for the first public hearings on the alleged Russian interference, what does a reasonable person need to know to begin to make an informed judgment about the evidence involving Russia and President Trump?

Some things are already clear. For example, there’s no question that Trump has deep connections to Russia that go back, at least, to his first trip in 1987, when the Soviet government arranged and paid for the real estate magnate to travel to Moscow. It’s also clear that Trump has long associated himself with ― and marketed his properties to ― Russians and Russian expatriates who profited from transformation of the old Soviet Union into the new Russia.

He’s made splashy public appearances with them, including at his 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow. And we know that he’s sold many millions in real estate in New York and Florida to wealthy Russians, and that his own son has said that Russians provided key investments in the Trump Organization. It’s also incontrovertible that he’s worked closely with Russian businessmen on real estate projects in the United States. And that he’s been involved in developments in former Soviet bloc countries.

We also know that whether or not the Russians helped Trump win the election, the swirling allegations against him and his denials ― first blaming his opponent’s campaign, then the intelligence community and now his predecessor in the White House ― have sewn considerable chaos.

But so much remains a mystery. These are the four fundamental questions that remain unanswered. What we learn in pursuing them may determine the future of American democracy.

  • Has illicit money, from Russia among other places, been key to Trump’s success?

  • Did Russia interfere in the U.S. election?

  • Was Trump complicit?

  • Or is all of this simply a ploy, a distracting disinformation campaign to delegitimize Trump’s presidency?

The story can be broken down into three broad areas: the Trump financial empire, the explosive dossier prepared by a former British intelligence agent and the presidential election and its aftermath.

THE MONEY

Did Trump keep his businesses afloat with millions in Russian money after many major American banks refused to lend to him?

Trump has had a rocky relationship with many large American banks since his casinos ran into trouble in the 1990s. After four of his companies filed for bankruptcy in 1991 and 1992, he struggled to keep his business afloat. His financial history, coupled with his penchant for litigation, added up to what has been called the “Donald risk.” So he tried other sources of financing, looking to foreign banks, wooing Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafiand doing a deal with a group of Hong Kong billionaires. But much of the money―and many of the people―who’ve backed him over the years have come from Russia and the former Soviet bloc.

In July, after reports surfaced that Russians had hacked the Democratic National Committee, Trump tweeted, “For the record, I have ZERO investments in Russia.” That might be true, but it doesn’t address whether Russians have investments with him. In January, he tweeted a more sweeping statement:

Trump has refused to release his tax returns, which could provide specific information about any Russian business ties. His financial disclosure form, which is public, doesn’t provide answers.

What is known about Trump’s financial connections with Russia comes from news reports, lawsuits, and other public records.

His own son may be the best source that Trump has taken money from Russian investors. At a 2008 conference in Moscow, Donald Jr. told a reporter from the trade publication eTurboNews: “And in terms of high-end product influx into the U.S., Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets; say in Dubai, and certainly with our project in SoHo and anywhere in New York. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”

It’s not clear whether he was referring to people and institutions who financed Trump’s projects, or to people who bought properties, or both.

Here’s what is clear. Trump has a complicated web of investments and debts, both inside and outside the United States. In one case, in 2012, there was a mysterious $50-million loan. In many cases, limited liability companies mask the identities of his business partners. The partnerships that are public, such as the Bayrock Group, raise questions about his past and current business associates. One of the partners in the Bayrock Group, a Russian-born man named Felix Sater, had served time in prison for stabbing a man in the face with the stem of a margarita glass, pleaded guilty in a Mafia stock manipulation scheme, and worked as a U.S. government informant on national security cases. These dubious characters continue to pop up. Sater resurfaced in February in connection with a proposal for a backdoor peace plan for Ukraine and Russia.

What we know from property records is that Russians bought tens of millions in Trump-branded real estate in the 2000s. As Russian real estate broker Ilya Reznik told the Financial Times, Russian could be heard everywhere in Trump properties on the Florida coast.

It’s common knowledge that wealthy Russians have used the United States, among other places, to move money out of their country. What’s not known is whether Russian investments in Trump developments or purchases of Trump apartments have been used by Russian oligarchs to stash dirty money or whether Trump merely benefited from capital flight.

Joe Skipper / Reuters
From left, the Trump Royale, The Trump Palace and the Trump International Beach Resort are shown in Sunny Isles Beach, Florida, U.S. March 13, 2017.

There have been public reports of Trump’s real estate transactions with oligarchs, but there’s been no coherent look at all of the individuals involved and their political ties. From Dmitry Rybolovlev, the Russian billionaire who bought a Florida mansion in 2008 from Trump for $95-million, to Viktor Khrapunov, the former energy minister of Kazakhstan who bought condos in 2013 at the Trump Soho who was later accused of money laundering, to Sergei Millian, the head of the Russian-American Chamber of Commerce who is said to be a source in the Trump dossier and who claims to have had a formal agreement with the Trump Organization to serve Trump’s Russian real estate clients, a claim disputed by the Trump Organization.

What is known is that Trump and his business built a complex web of real estate developments, licensing agreements and other deals that hasn’t been clearly untangled and presented to the public in a clear, cohesive way.

THE DOSSIER

Is it true that “the Russian regime has been cultivating, supporting and assisting Trump for at least five years?”

In the weeks before the election, journalists at major publications received a dossier filled with explosive and salacious allegations about Trump and his campaign. BuzzFeed published the 35-page document days before Trump’s inauguration. The dossier, prepared by former MI6 agent Christopher Steele, begins: “Russian regime has been cultivating, supporting and assisting Trump for at least 5 years.”

If true, this would mean that the president of the United States was an asset of Russian intelligence. That would be extraordinary. The part of the dossier that sounds most plausible, according to experts, is the idea that a high-profile American businessman and reality television star would be a target of Russian intelligence.

Trump, his family and his associates ― including his one-time foreign policy adviser Carter Page, former real estate business associate Felix Sater, and campaign manager Paul Manafort have taken many trips to Russia and the former Soviet bloc over the last 30 years. Trump and his organization have been involved in real estate deals in the United States that involve wealthy Russians. Trump and his organization have also had dealings with oligarchs from former Soviet bloc countries, including Ziya Mammadov in Baku, Azerbaijan. The answer to this question likely lies in the details of these interactions. Who did Trump and his associates meet with and when? Did he ― as he’s claimed ― travel in an entourage that would have made contacts with Russian intelligence impossible, or was he easily accessible to Russian intelligence traps? What about those who surrounded him?

The dossier alleges that a former top-level Russian intelligence officer had information that Trump’s “unorthodox behavior” in Russia over the years had given Russian intelligence officials enough material “to be able to blackmail him if they so wished.”

Trump, on the other hand, told reporters at a press conference after the dossier was published that he was aware that he might be a target for surveillance and acted cautiously.

When I leave our country, I’m a very high-profile person, would you say? I am extremely careful. I’m surrounded by bodyguards. I’m surrounded by people. And I always tell them ― anywhere, but I always tell them if I’m leaving this country, ‘Be very careful, because in your hotel rooms and no matter where you go, you’re gonna probably have cameras.’ I’m not referring just to Russia, but I would certainly put them in that category.

Trump’s trip to Moscow in 2013 for the Miss Universe pageant received extensive media coverage, but no one has published a conclusive report about what, if anything, happened at that time at the Ritz Carlton Hotel, site of one of the most salacious allegations in the dossier. According to the dossier, a source said that Trump booked the presidential suite at the Ritz Carlton and hired a number of prostitutes to perform “golden showers” in front of him. The dossier says that the hotel was known to be under FSB control with microphones and cameras in the rooms. The source said that several of the staff were aware of this incident. There has been reporting on Trump and the Ritz, but there is nothing definitive about the allegations. Did it happen, or is it a cruel rumor? And if it’s a rumor, who is spreading it and why?

Kommersant Photo via Getty Images
Donald Trump attends the finals of the Miss Universe 2013 competition in Crocus City Hall in Moscow on November 9, 2013.

The release of the dossier introduced an unfamiliar word into the lexicon: kompromat. The Russian word joins “compromising” and “material,” and it’s synonymous with blackmail. Whether a kompromat file exists on Trump, and, if so, what’s in it, is important because it would reveal what the Russian government might be holding over him.

The most serious, if far-fetched, charge in the dossier is that Trump is a traitor, actively working for a foreign government. The dossier alleges that Trump and his inner circle have accepted a “regular flow of intelligence from the Kremlin, including on his Democratic and other political rivals.” It also alleges that Trump was under surveillance by Russian intelligence, that he interacted with Russian intelligence agents, and that he was cultivated by Russian intelligence. Is any of that true? Or are these vicious, unsubstantiated lies, a politically motivated smear campaign designed to stop Trump’s conservative agenda, or even a Russian campaign to sow chaos?

This question, about Trump’s knowledge of a campaign by Russia to target him and whether he cooperated with Russians, is at the heart of this story. It’s important because it would answer the larger questions that loom over the Trump-Russia inquiry. Has Trump known for decades that he would be a potential target for Russian surveillance? Was he careful in his trips to Russia to avoid any entanglements? Did he surround himself with trusted associates during his travels? Was he ever approached directly by Russian intelligence? If so, how did he respond? Did Russian intelligence agents approach anyone in his inner circle, and did Trump know about it? Did Trump or his campaign coordinate with Russians during the campaign, or did the Russian DNC hacking happen without his knowledge?

We know that Trump has said that he’s never had any contact with Russian intelligence. But American intelligence officials have told The New Yorker that Trump was likely under Russian surveillance during his 2013 trip to Russia for the Miss Universe pageant. Trump has also said that he and his campaign never acted inappropriately in contacts with Russians. That may be true, but in a Feb. 14 story, American intelligence officials told the New York Times that phone records and intercepted calls reveal that Trump campaign staff and other associates had multiple contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the run-up to the presidential election, but gave no more specifics about the nature of these contacts.

Much remains unclear about Trump and his campaign’s contact with Russia. On Feb. 27, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes told the Washington Post there was no evidence of contacts between Trump campaign officials and Russian operatives and that he saw no need for a special prosecutor to conduct an inquiry on Trump’s ties. Nunes instead seemed focused on ferreting out the leakers.

THE ELECTION

Was Trump’s campaign working with Russian intelligence to coordinate hacking the DNC as part of a broader effort to influence the U.S. election?

The U.S. intelligence community has said that hackers with ties to the Russian government broke into the computer system of the Democratic National Committee and the private email of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta. A declassified report by American intelligence agencies put the blame squarely on Putin. “This was a conscious effort by a nation-state to attempt to achieve a specific effect,” Adm. Michael S. Rogers, director of the National Security Agency and commander of the United States Cyber Command told reporters. But the evidence hasn’t been made public, leaving the larger  question unanswered: Did anyone on Trump’s campaign know about the hacking and participate in any way?

Right before the election, a British journalist alleged that the FBI had obtained a FISA warrant to examine ties between Russia and people in Trump’s campaign, a story that has never been confirmed.

In December, Clinton strategist Podestahinted that he believed the Trump campaign knew about the hacking. He pointed to statements by Russian diplomats that they were speaking with the Trump campaign, as well as a tweet by Trump adviser Roger Stone that suggested Stone knew that Wikileaks had Podesta’s emails two months before the Wikileaks’ release. The Trump campaign has denied that it had any knowledge of the hacking campaign. Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff, has called such allegations “insane.”

EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ via Getty Images
Roger Stone speaks with media after meeting with President-elect Donald Trump at Trump Tower on December 6, 2016 in New York.

Some of Trump’s advisers do have close ties to Russia, but, so far, nothing has come out that links his campaign staff to the hacking. But there are many threads to follow.

From the admission by Stone that he communicated online with Guccifer 2.0, the hacker who claims to have penetrated the DNC, to allegations by Trump associates that the hacking investigation is red herring, a ruse created by U.S. intelligence to blame Russia for cyber espionage, the story is bewildering and bizarre. So who knew what and when, and what is the truth? It remains to be seen.

It’s not in dispute that members of Trump’s campaign staff were in contact with Russians in the lead up to the election and in the weeks before Trump’s inauguration. What’s unclear is the substance of those contacts. How many staffers met with Russians and why?

There’s nothing to suggest that Trump has ever met Putin. Trump invited Putin to Miss Universe  2013 in Moscow, but Putin sent his regrets ― and a carved wooden box ― to Trump instead. Trump has long admired the Russian leader. He sent out a tweet before Miss Universe, asking if Putin would be his “new best friend,” and he wrote admiringly of Putin’s annexation of Crimea. Trump famously praised Putin in the run up to the presidential election, at one point saying, “he has been a leader far more than our president has been.”

There’s also nothing to suggest any direct communication between Trump and Putin during the campaign. The person with the closest ties to both of them is probably Aras Agalarov, the Russian oligarch who hosted the Miss Universe pageant in November 2013. Agalarov, a billionaire and real estate developer in Moscow, made a deal that year with Trump to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. Agalarov has also been recognized for his service to Russia. During a public award ceremony at the Kremlin in 2013, Putin personally praised Agalarov. If there’s anyone who understands the precise nature of any connection between Trump and Putin, it’s likely to be him.

Finally, did Russian interference influence the results of the U.S. election? That might seem outlandish, but with all the other questions about Trump and Russia, it’s imprudent not to ask. Just as it’s essential to be open to the possibility that Trump’s Russia connections add up to nothing.

Abbie VanSickle is a reporter with the Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California, Berkeley.

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