Posted by Curt on 25 July, 2016 at 7:39 pm. 48 comments already!


Julia Ioffe:

That blinding flash of light you saw this weekend? That was the byproduct of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, the American media’s two greatest obsessions, fusing into a single intoxicating storyline after the Democratic National Committee’s internal emails were hacked and made public with the apparent assistance of Russian hackers, and to the apparent glee of the Republican nominee. The conventional wisdom, after sifting through all the evidence, has reached a verdict, and it’s that Trump is Putin’s stooge, a veritable plant through which Putin plans to take over the United States.

Okay, I exaggerate. But not by much.

First, there was the Saturday piece by Josh Marshall in Talking Points Memo, alleging the following:

“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 for Trump or a non-tacit alliance between the two men.”

Then, Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook did the Sunday morning talk show circuit, telling everyone that the DNC hack n’ dump was done by the Russians to hurt Hillary and help Trump. “I think when you put all this together, it’s a disturbing picture, and voters need to reflect on that,” he toldJake Tapper.

Soon, even seasoned political reporters were hyperventilating. “What do you think of Trump as a Putin plant?” one of them wrote to me.

Here’s what I think: we don’t know yet, really.

Let’s look at what we know, or what we think we know:

Trump has been desperately trying to do business in Moscow since 1987. He tried to open luxury real estate properties there then, then again nine years later in 1996, then again in 2005, then again in 2013.

Sketchy? Not really. In 1987, Russia — then the Soviet Union — started opening up in much the same way that Cuba is opening up now: cautiously, slowly, trying to balance the Communist Party’s primacy with a much-needed injection of capitalism because, for one reason or another, the command economy wasn’t giving the country’s people enough to eat. Trump was just one of many, many Western businessmen who smelled opportunity and tried to cash in on it, much the same way people are now eyeing development opportunities in Cuba. When a country is in such a state of disrepair and so underdeveloped, and has such a mythical status in the American imagination, there is so much to be done and, by extension, tons of money to be made.

In 1996, when Trump tried to build high-end condominiums in Moscow with financing help from U.S. tobacco companies, Russia was the wild, wild, capitalist West. The Soviet economy was still being dismantled; factories, mines, and the like were being sold for a song to anyone who could give cash to the perennially broke Yeltsin government. It is hard to overstate exactly how much easy money there was to be made. American and British businessmen rushed to Russia — Bill Browder, Boris Jordan — and became billionaires almost overnight.

(By the way, 1996 was the year Paul Tatum, an American businessman from Oklahoma, was gunned down in the street in a contract killing so that his local partner and the Moscow government could take over his business. What was that business? A luxury hotel. When did Tatum first start coming to Russia to explore the local market? 1985.)

Those good times came to an abrupt end in 1998, after a massive financial crisis and government default nearly wiped out the entire Russian economy. So what was Trump doing trying to build in Trump Tower in Moscow in 2005? Let’s just say he wasn’t alone. Beginning in 2000, oil and commodity prices began skyrocketing and Russian GDP began climbing by 4.7 percent in a bad year and 8 to 10 percent when times were good. Moscow became the world’s newest, glitziest boomtown. There were constant news stories about the excesses of Russian nightclubs and restaurants and hotels and fashion and decor. Russians couldn’t get enough Maseratis and Apple products and Gucci and Prada and anything else the West wanted to sell them. With all that new oil money sloshing around, Western businesses were again trying to get in on the bonanza. Trump’s decorating sense is perfectly in line with what the Russian nouveaux riches thought of as luxury at the time. Not trying to build a hotel in a place like that, so in love with the gaudy and the bling-y, and so flush with cash, would have been criminally stupid.

Let me suggest something: The fact that Trump, after so many attempts and with such warm intentions toward the country, was not able to build anything in Russia– when Ritz Carlton and Kempinski and Radisson and Hilton and any number of Western hotel chains were able to — speaks to his abysmal lack of connections to influential Russians. Since his first foray into Russia in 1987, the head of state changed four times — Gorbachev, Yeltsin, Putin, Medvedev, Putin — but one thing stayed constant: In such a deeply personalized system of patronage, nothing could’ve been built without the right people inside the Kremlin helping you maneuver in the complicated web of whose palm to grease. The fact that pretty much every major hotel chain in the world was able to build something in Moscow but Trump wasn’t speaks to his inability to navigate this shadowy world, and to his weakness as a businessman. If Trump truly was in bed with Putin, there would be a Trump Tower in Moscow by now, if not several.

Trump did business with shady people from the former Soviet Union. How, exactly, is it surprising that someone in the real estate business in New York and Florida gets buyers from the former Soviet Union? There’s a lot of money washing around the elites of this resource-rich space, and many of them, like their Persian Gulf and Chinese counterparts, are parking their money outside their volatile and unpredictable home countries in places like the London and New York real estate markets. Much of the time, it’s done in a fairly non-transparent fashion, through shell companies that own shell companies that own shell companies, mostly because nobody wants to be overtly doing business with a shady Kazakh or Russian oligarch — who also want privacy. See, for example, this New York Times investigation of the luxury residences in the Time Warner Center in Manhattan. Guess who owns, but doesn’t live in, many of the units?

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