Welcome to part one of Paste’s five-part series digging in to Donald Trump’s Russian connection. I have already written a few articles about Russian meddling in American affairs, with one last October titled “Donald Trump is the Kremlin’s Man: A Comprehensive Case for Russian Influence in the GOP Campaign.” In it, I highlighted how not only were high-level advisors like Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, and Roger Stone clearly connected to the Kremlin, but Trump’s rhetoric was straight out of Putin’s playbook. The title of that post and this series comes from what top security officials in the Baltic countries reportedly call our president: The Kremlin’s Man.
This series will use articles from well-established sources like The New York Times, The Financial Times, Bloomberg, The Washington Post and many, many others to demonstrate a pattern of President Trump’s behavior that is sympathetic to Kremlin interests while simultaneously downplaying or outright lying about his involvement. There is no original reporting and there will be no “smoking gun” here. As history has shown us, unless a Nixonian-type tape comes out, there likely will not be a “smoking gun” on this issue. Undeniable proof is a difficult thing to ascertain.
This series will not take on the certainty of a mass conspiracy that many Democratic operatives are currently engaging in—who have been writing their own John Grisham novels in order to avoid the unassailable fact that it was theirs and their candidate’s failure which handed the 2016 election to the most unqualified president in our nation’s history. Roughly 100,000 votes in a few states determined this election—enough for Russian meddling to swing it—but the fact that it was that close in the first place had nothing to do with the Kremlin and everything to do with the fact that Hillary Clinton promised more of the same neoliberal policies which have laid waste to middle classes across the Western world, all without providing much of a comprehensive solution for the millions of Americans currently stuck underneath the boot of crony capitalism.
Instead, I will simply highlight a pattern of behavior that all points in one direction: that Donald Trump has a cozier-than-disclosed relationship with people close to Vladimir Putin, and the intelligence community’s assessment that the Russian government aided his election chances has merit based on independent sources, along with the fact that the Kremlin has supported political parties across Europe that they believe to be aligned with their interests. Now, I clearly think that Donald Trump’s camp engaged in some nefarious nonsense with high-level Russians, but I do not know this, and I will do my best to not pretend as if I do. I don’t think there was some intricate conspiracy by the Russians to develop their own Manchurian candidate over the years like many other proponents of this theory assert, as it is far more likely that they were simply opportunist dogs who finally caught the car they have been chasing for a century, and Donald Trump served as an ideal vehicle for this pursuit.
This series will contain five parts. Tomorrow’s feature will focus on Trump’s extensive business dealings with Russian oligarchs with obvious connections to the Kremlin; Wednesday will investigate the disturbing number of high-level Russian officials who have been charged with treason or found dead since the election; Thursday will focus on the FISA court order which was allegedly aimed at people close to Trump before a much more narrow order aimed at two Russian banks was reportedly approved; and Friday will conclude with a unified theory as to how this all came together.
In order to establish this pattern, we will start with something simple and unassailable for today’s feature: a timeline of Donald Trump’s statements and widely verified reporting on his relationship as it pertains to Russia. He now consistently denies that he ever had anything to do with Russia, as exemplified by this tweet from earlier this year.
Russia has never tried to use leverage over me. I HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH RUSSIA – NO DEALS, NO LOANS, NO NOTHING!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 11, 2017
As his own actions and statements prove, this is demonstrably false.
The Trump-Russia Timeline
1986 — Yuri Dubinin, Soviet Ambassador to UN, invited Trump to Moscow to discuss building a hotel to demonstrate the Soviet Union's budding internationalism.
1986 — Trump confirmed this in his book Trump: The Art of the Deal when he said that Dubinin sat next to him at a New York Lunch, and he wrote “One thing led to another, and now I'm talking about building a large luxury hotel across the street from the Kremlin in partnership with the Soviet government.”
July 1987 — “It's [Moscow] a totally interesting place. I think the Soviet Union is really making an effort to cooperate in the sense of dealing openly with other nations and in opening up the country.”
December 1988 — Trump set up a meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev, but the eighth and final leader of the Soviet Union nixed those plans at the last minute.
December 1988 — Trump said the hotel project that Dubinin invited him to pursue failed because “in the Soviet Union, you don't own anything. It's hard to conjure up spending hundreds of millions of dollars on something and not own it.”
July 1991 — Trump's Taj Mahal files for bankruptcy.
March 1992 — Trump Castle files for bankruptcy.
March 1992 — Trump Plaza and Casino files for bankruptcy.
December 1992 — Trump Plaza Hotel in Midtown Manhattan files for bankruptcy.
November 1996 — At a news conference in Moscow, Trump didn't think he had ever been “as impressed with the potential of a city as I have been with Moscow” and announced plans to invest $250 million in a number of projects that never materialized.
1997 — The Russian government donated a bronze statue of Christopher Columbus that is six feet taller than the Statue of Liberty. Built by Zurab Tsereteli—a close friend of the Moscow mayor at the time—Trump attempted to erect this statue on his development on the Hudson River, as he told The New Yorker “It's got forty million dollars' worth of bronze in it, and Zurab would like it to be at my West Side Yards development, and we are working toward that end.” After being unable to find any major U.S. city to take the statue, it now resides in Puerto Rico.
November 2004 — Trump Hotels and Casinos Resorts files for bankruptcy.
October 2007 — Trump said to Larry King “Look at Putin—what he's doing with Russia—I mean, you know, what's going on over there. I mean this guy has done—whether you like him or don't like him—he's doing a great job.”
December 2007 — In a deposition stemming from a lawsuit that he filed against Timothy L. O'Brien who wrote TrumpNation: The Art of Being the Donald (which Trump lost), Trump said that “Russia is one of the hottest places in the world for investment. We will be in Moscow at some point.”
December 2007 — From that same deposition:
Question: “And what during those six months were you discussing with regard to this Moscow deal?”
Trump: “Just that it was a Trump International Hotel and Tower. It would be a nonexclusive deal, so it would not have precluded me from doing other deals in Moscow, which was very important to me.”
September 2008 — While speaking to Chayka, Trump said “I really like Vladimir Putin. I respect him. He does his job really well. Much better than our Bush.”
February 2009 — Trump Entertainment Resorts files for bankruptcy.
June 2013 — While announcing Moscow won the bid for Miss Universe, Trump said “Moscow right now in the world is a very, very important place. We wanted Moscow all the way.”
Do you think Putin will be going to The Miss Universe Pageant in November in Moscow – if so, will he become my new best friend?— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 19, 2013
September 2013 — Speaking about Vladimir Putin's editorial in the New York Times, he told CNBC “Well I thought it was an amazingly well-written—I was very surprised by it actually—very well written letter if you're from Russia, in terms of representing Russia. I thought he did an amazing job. He brought in so much. And it was tough. And I doubt that President Obama knew it was coming. I think this was a sneak attack and it was a very tough letter. When you read that the second and third time, you see how really tough it was.”
Maria Bartiromo asked Trump “What's the point of it?” and Trump replied “Well I think he wants to become the world leader and right now he's doing that because he's really embarrassing the United States, he's embarrassing the president. At the same time he's throwing a lifeline to the president. He's sort of got him in both ways, he's helping him in one sense, but he's really really badly embarrassing him. And he's making him look like he's the professor and the president is a schoolchild.”
Later in the interview, Bartiromo asked the obvious question, “but do people believe him?” and Trump quickly interrupted her, saying “Oh I think people do. I think people that have an open mind certainly read this letter—there are many things—he talks about Iraq, Iraq is a disaster for our country.”
October 2013 — Speaking to Larry King on RT—the Kremlin's propaganda network—Trump said about Putin “It's not a question of admire, I think he's done a very smart job. I think the letter was well crafted—very well crafted. And, I think he's done a very smart job, because it was all about Syria, and while he got President Obama off the hook, by getting him off the hook he took over Syria and Assad survives.”
November 2013 — While in Moscow for the Miss Universe Pageant, Trump said “I do have a relationship and I can tell you that he's [Putin] very interested in what we're doing here today. He's probably very interested in what you and I are saying today, and I'm sure he's going to be seeing it in some form. But I do have a relationship with him.”
November 2013 — While speaking to to Real Estate Weekly, Trump said “The Russian market is attracted to me. I have a great relationship with many Russians, and almost all of the oligarchs were in the room.”
November 2013 — While in Moscow for his Miss Universe pageant, Trump said “I have plans for the establishment of business in Russia. Now, I am in talks with several Russian companies to establish this skyscraper.”
@AgalarovAras I had a great weekend with you and your family. You have done a FANTASTIC job. TRUMP TOWER-MOSCOW is next. EMIN was WOW!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 11, 2013
Aras Agalarov is an Azerbaijani-Russian billionaire property developer, and a close Putin associate who was given the Order of the Honor of the Russian Federation. In 2014, Agalarov was also awarded the contract to build two stadiums for Russia's 2018 World Cup. He is the man standing to Donald Trump's left in the picture at the top of this story.
March 2014 — While speaking to CPAC, Trump said “You know, I was in Moscow a couple months ago—I own the Miss Universe pageant—and they treated me so great. Putin even sent me a present, beautiful present, with a beautiful note. I spoke to all of his people.”
Putin has become a big hero in Russia with an all time high popularity. Obama, on the other hand, has fallen to his lowest ever numbers. SAD— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 22, 2014
I believe Putin will continue to re-build the Russian Empire. He has zero respect for Obama or the U.S.!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 22, 2014
Putin has shown the world what happens when America has weak leaders. Peace Through Strength!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 28, 2014
May 2014 — While speaking to the National Press Club, Trump said “I spoke indirectly and directly with President Putin, who could not have been nicer.”
July 2015 — During a visit to his golf course in Scotland, he said “I think I'd get along very well with Vladimir Putin.”
November 2015 — During a Fox Business Republican Debate, Trump said “But, as far as the Ukraine is concerned, and you could Syria—as far as Syria, I like—if Putin wants to go in, and I got to know him very well because we were both on 60 Minutes, we were stablemates, and we did very well that night. But, you know that.”
April 2016 — In a very important speech at Washington's Mayflower Hotel that would set the stage for his foreign policy, Trump said “I believe an easing of tensions, and improved relations with Russia—from a position of strength only—is possible, absolutely possible. Some say the Russians won't be reasonable. I intend to find out.”
The Wall Street Journal reported that he met with the Russian Ambassador at this speech. Sergei Kislyak denies this, and Donald Trump offered a much less effusive “no recollection” denial. Per the WSJ report:
A few minutes before he made those remarks, Mr. Trump met at a VIP reception with Russia's ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Ivanovich Kislyak. Mr. Trump warmly greeted Mr. Kislyak and three other foreign ambassadors who came to the reception.
Here is a picture of Kislyak (on the right) attending the speech, so at the very least, we can confirm that they both shared the same space on the day in question.
May 2016 — In an interview with Bill O'Reilly, Trump said “And they're [Russia] going to respect us, and I've had a sort of semi-nice relationship with Putin—said very nice things about me.”
July 2016 — Trump told reporters on the campaign trail “The closest I came to Russia, I bought a house a number of years ago in Palm Beach, Florida. I bought the house for $40 million and I sold it to a Russian for $100 million including commissions.”
July 2016 — Trump said on ABC's This Week: “I have no relationship with Putin.”
He then followed it up with this bizarre exchange where George Stephanopoulos challenged him on the previous statements listed in this timeline.
Stephanopoulos: But I just want to clear this up, because you did say on three different occasions you had a relationship with him. Now you say there is none.
Trump: Well, I don't know what it means by having a relationship. I mean he was saying very good things about me, but I don't have a relationship with him. I didn't meet him. I haven't spent time with him. I didn't have dinner with him. I didn't go hiking with him.
He also contradicted his assertion in the Republican debate seven months prior.
Trump: We did 60 Minutes together—by the way—not together, together.
When pressed about the change to a long-standing GOP platform towards Ukraine at the RNC, changing “lethal defensive weapons” to “appropriate assistance,” Trump attempted to run away from any responsibility to the alteration.
Trump: “I wasn't involved in that. Honestly, I was not involved.”
Stephanopoulos: “Your people were.”
Trump: “Yeah. I was not involved in that. I'd like to—I'd have to take a look at it. But I was not involved in that.”
Stephanopoulos: “Do you know what they did?”
Trump: “They softened it, I heard, but I was not involved.”
July 2016 — During a press conference, he said, “I never met Putin, I don't know who Putin is. He said one nice thing about me. He said I'm a genius. I said thank you very much to the newspaper and that was the end of it. I never met Putin.”
Vladimir Putin never called Donald Trump a genius. He said ochen' yarkiy chelovek', ochen' talantlivy, which means, “a very lively (or vivid) person, very talented.” Putin chaffed at the suggestion that he complimented Trump to this degree, telling Fareed Zakaria in June of 2016:
“Why are you distorting everything?… Take a look at what I said—I said in passing that Trump is a vivid personality. And what, he's not vivid? He's vivid. But I didn't give him any other characterizations.”
Trump: I don't like Assad at all, but Assad is killing ISIS. Russia is killing ISIS and Iran is killing ISIS and they have lined up because of weak foreign policy.
Raddatz: Mr. Trump, let me repeat the question. If you were president, what would you do about Syria and the humanitarian crisis in Aleppo, and I want to remind you what your running mate said. He said provocations by Russia need to be met with American strength and that if Russia continues to be involved in airstrikes along with the Syrian government forces of Assad, the United States of America should be prepared to use military force to strike the military targets of the Assad regime.
Trump: Okay. He and I haven't spoken, and I disagree.
Raddatz: You disagree with your running mate?
Trump: I disagree.
It's true that Russia has bombed some elements of ISIS in Syria, but they have been far more focused on forces opposing the Assad regime, of which some are Western-backed. The Russians also dropped a cluster bomb on a UK outpost on June 16th of last year, so to portray them as pursuing American interests is at best, naive.
January 2017 — Speaking to the Wall Street Journal, Trump set the stage for dropping Russian sanctions, saying “If you get along and if Russia is really helping us, why would anybody have sanctions if somebody's doing some really great things?”
I don't know Putin, have no deals in Russia, and the haters are going crazy – yet Obama can make a deal with Iran, #1 in terror, no problem!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 7, 2017
February 2017 — In a press conference, Trump said “Russia is a ruse. I have nothing to do with Russia. To the best of my knowledge, no person that I deal with does.”
As we have seen time and time again, that is patently untrue. Michael Flynn had to resign because he had something to do with Russia, and this non-denial to Yahoo’s Michael Isikoff is all the proof you should need to confirm that he was paid by the Kremlin for speaking at their propaganda network’s birthday party.
Felix Sater—who will figure prominently into tomorrow’s story about Trump’s businesses—is another person that Trump dealt with who very clearly does have ties to Russia. The same convenient forgetfulness that Trump has recently displayed on this topic is not only limited to his own dealings with Russia.
November 2013 — In a deposition over a failed Ft. Lauderdale condo deal, Trump said “I don’t think he [Sater] was connected to the mafia. He got into a barroom fight, and in fact—he was supposedly very close to the government of the United States as a witness or something—but I don’t think he was connected to the mafia. He got into trouble because he got into a barroom fight, which a lot of people do. I don’t, because I don’t drink. But I don’t think he was connected to the mafia, but you know, again, I don’t know him very well, but I don’t think he was connected to the mafia.”
December 2015 — When speaking to the to AP, Trump said “Felix Sater, boy, I have to even think about it. I’m not that familiar with him.”
August 2016 — Felix Sater told Politico that he was at Trump tower in July 2016 for a “confidential” meeting, and that he gave $5,520 in July to the campaign. Records even show a $120 refund by the Trump campaign to Sater for over-payment in order to comply with campaign finance laws.
So Donald Trump claimed to not be familiar with Sater in 2015, despite the fact that two years prior to that, he felt familiar enough with him to rule out any mob ties for a twice-convicted felon who had been connected to four different crime families—including the Russian mob, and then Sater randomly shows up at Trump tower during the campaign and donates the maximum amount that he can.
Forbes obtained e-mails and other documents proving communication between Donald Trump Jr. and Sater. There are plenty of other examples of Donald Trump clearly having something to do with Russia over the years, as he hired the law firm Sojuzpatent to file at least eight trademarks in Russia between 1996 and 2008. This commercial for Trump Vodka, which features the words “Russia is vodka,” Vladimir Lenin, and faux-Cyryllic text may be all the proof we need to demonstrate this patently untrue narrative Trump is now just recently trying to spin.
Carter Page, who will play a starring role in the FISA section of this deep dive, is also subject to this selective amnesia by Trump. Per a Yahoo report:
Trump first mentioned Page’s name when asked to identify his “foreign policy team” during an interview with The Washington Post editorial team last March. Describing him then only as a “PhD,” Trump named Page as among five advisers “that we are dealing with.” But his precise role in the campaign remains unclear; Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks last month called him an “informal foreign adviser” who “does not speak for Mr. Trump or the campaign.” Asked this week by Yahoo News, Trump campaign spokesman Jason Miller said Page “has no role” and added: “We are not aware of any of his activities, past or present.” Miller did not respond when asked why Trump had previously described Page as one of his advisers.
None of this on its own is particularly damning. It sure looks like Trump just lies about Russia whenever it suits him. He was very clearly pursuing business interests in Russia in the late 2000’s, and especially in 2013 when he held his Miss Universe Pageant there, so his overtures to Putin could have simply been opportunistic fawning. He continued to boast about his relationship with Putin into the presidential campaign…up until it was reported that the Russians hacked the DNC. Donald Trump’s reported meeting with the Russian ambassador is above board, but his denial is what raises alarm bells. This is the pattern that everyone in his circle follows. They deny that meetings occurred, then when the reporting later comes out that they did in fact, take meetings, they walk it back all while asking “what’s the big deal?” Well, nothing had you told the truth from the start.
Toss in the fact that the White House took the extraordinary step to ask the FBI to publicly denounce an ongoing investigation, and there is enough smoke here for Congress to investigate whether a fire is causing it—with an open hearing on the subject beginning today. The Trump administration isn’t doing themselves any favors when they release emphatic statements like this about their contacts with Russian officials:
“This is a nonstory because to the best of our knowledge, no contacts took place, so it’s hard to make a comment on something that never happened.”
- Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a White House spokeswoman
When it is contradicted by a litany of sources, like Sergei Ryabkov, the Russian deputy foreign minister, who said to Interfax on November 10th of last year:
“There were contacts. We are doing this and have been doing this during the election campaign. Obviously, we know most of the people from his [Trump’s]entourage. Those people have always been in the limelight in the United States and have occupied high-ranking positions. I cannot say that all of them, but quite a few have been staying in touch with Russian representatives.”
Again, meeting with Russia’s top diplomat is not the issue, lying about it is—because the natural question then becomes “why lie about something you don’t have to lie about?”
After the election, Ron Wyden and six other members of the Senate Intelligence Committee sent a letter to former President Obama saying “we believe there is additional information concerning the Russian Government and the U.S. election that should be declassified and released to the public.” What those reports contain is anyone’s guess, but we do have a couple clues. When asked about the hacking allegations, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov coyly told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour: “We did not deny this, they did not prove it.” Mark Warner, the ranking Democrat on the committee, told the New Yorker “This may very well be the most important thing I do in my public life.”
Part two tomorrow: Trump’s business ties to Russian oligarchs.
Jacob Weindling is Paste’s business and media editor, as well as a staff writer for politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.