The Trump and Putin Thing, A Detailed Response

Steve Helber

Not long after I wrote this post on Trump and Putin over the weekend I saw a twitter conversation suggesting I'd overstated various facts or included mainly speculation. That exchange included Jeffrey Carr who said he would and did write a point by point "fact-checking" of the piece. This seems to have been done basically in good faith and various people have referenced it. So I wanted to take a moment - honestly, a fairly long moment - to respond in detail.

As I've said a few times over the last few days, people who have questions should follow the links in the original piece and make their own judgment. I still recommend that. Still, this gives an opportunity for me to expand on a number of points, which I welcome. Here's Carr's piece on Medium. Below I've numbered his critiques and responded to them in turn.

It probably won't surprise you that I think I am able to show that the criticisms are either insubstantial, wrong or mere semantic distinctions that don't touch the substance of the argument in any material way. But as I said, you be the judge. And even better, read the links in the original article and see if I am fairly and evenhandedly representing the reporting of others and the facts as we know them.

1. "The increase in Trump’s debt load came from a Bloomberg estimate. An estimate is what’s done when accurate data isn’t available. So while Josh accurately quoted an estimate (not a fact), it’s also important to note that the Trump Organization disputed it according to Bloomberg. Josh failed to note that." This criticism strikes me as quite insubstantial. Trump posits his net worth at roughly $10 billion. No independent analyst places it remotely close to that number. Most put it in the range of between $2 billion and $4.5 billion, though some credibly suggest an even lower number. Trump reveals very little documentary information about his wealth or his company. Thus virtually everything we know is by definition "estimates." Read the article and you'll see these numbers are not pulled out of the sky. It's a detailed, documentary analysis. Most of the run up in debt comes from a small number of publicly documented loans, most notably one from DeutscheBank for the DC Post Office project. Given the Trump Organization's cosmic lack of credibility when it comes to anything about his net worth, leverage or anything else, the fact that Trump's people disputed the numbers is basically irrelevant. Since Trump shares little documentation about his wealth and frequently lies about it, the alternative is simply to say nothing about his finances because everything is an 'estimate'. That makes no sense.

2. "There’s no evidence that Trump has been blackballed. There is evidence that some big U.S. banks don’t want to work with him, but Deutsche Bank has lent him $300 million since 2012." This seems like largely a matter of semantics. "Blackballed" is certainly a charged word. Would you settle for: all major US banks except DeutscheBank have ceased to do business with Trump because of the high risk of lending him money and because of a long history of unscrupulous business practices? I'm not sure what the "but" before Deutschebank is meant to imply since his sole reliance on Deutschebank was part of my argument. This claim about Trump's relationship with the big banks is based in part on my own reporting; it is an open secret on Wall Street that none of the big banks will do business with Trump because he's not trustworthy.

But again, it's amply attested in top American business publications.

From a Wall Street Journal write up on Trump doing all his business with DeutscheBank ...

Other Wall Street banks, after doing extensive business with Mr. Trump in the 1980s and 1990s, pulled back in part due to frustration with his business practices but also because he moved away from real-estate projects that required financing, according to bank officials. Citigroup Inc., J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. and Morgan Stanley are among the banks that don’t currently work with him.

At Goldman Sachs Group Inc., bankers “know better than to pitch” a Trump-related deal, said a former Goldman executive.

In a recent New York Times article discussing Trump's relationship with major US banks, we find this ...

While some bankers said they had a personal relationship with Mr. Trump, a majority of those interviewed about him said they had never met him, and either had not done business with him or would not do so because of past dealings that did not end well.

And this ...

A review of FEC documents showed "no indication that entities associated with Mr. Trump had lending relationships with most of the country’s biggest banks, including Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley."

And this ...

Mr. Trump’s complicated history with Wall Street goes back to the early 1990s, when three of his casinos ran into financial trouble; the Trump Taj Mahal filed for bankruptcy. Creditors often ended up with pennies on the dollar, and the failures soured Mr. Trump’s relationship with a number of banks.

At one point, Mr. Trump was responsible for about $900 million personally before his businesses were restructured. Several bankers on Wall Street say they are simply not willing to take on what they almost uniformly referred to as “Donald risk.”

Another risk with dealing with Mr. Trump is his proclivity to sue. Deutsche Bank got a taste of his litigious side in 2008 when he sued it and a group of other financial institutions to avoid paying the $40 million that he had personally guaranteed on a $640 million construction loan connected to the Trump International Hotel & Tower in Chicago.

There is a voluminous discussion of this in the financial press going back years. Indeed, the Deutsche Bank suit has left Trump out in the cold with an entire division of Deutsche Bank. So he's half out there too. Each of these articles also note that Trump's business model has also changed. He's moved away from major building projects to non-capital-intensive licensing deals. So he doesn't need to borrow a lot.

But that does not seem entirely true. There's the Chicago project that led to the lawsuit with Deutsche Bank. There's Trump Soho, which I mentioned in my first post(Russian money). There's the DC Post Office project (DeutscheBank). Trump does do projects which require significant borrowed capital. But the big banks won't do business with him. 'Blackballed' may be too strong a word for your tastes. But there's ample evidence that none of the largest US banks will do business with him anymore because he's a bad risk, hyper-litigious and shifty.

I think I'm on solid ground on this one. He can't get money from the big banks with the exception of Deutsche Bank. So he has to go elsewhere.

3: "As a luxury real estate developer, Trump sells to Russian and Chinese ultra-high net worth individuals because that’s who has been buying expensive real estate. In 2014, however, Russian investment money started drying up and Chinese investors filled the void." As I noted in my original piece, the money flows from Russia are not just individual purchases of luxury real estate. They also include providing capital for major projects. The fact that post-2014 sanctions have reduced the Russian purchase of high end real estate seems sort of beside the point and actually notable in a way I'll get to in a moment.

4: On Paul Manafort's work in Ukraine ... "Paul Manafort‘s DC lobbying firm has taken so much money from so many despots, dictators, and human rights abusers ($900,000/yr from Ferdinand Marcos alone) that it’s been named as a top five firm in The Torturer’s Lobby(.pdf). He was paid $700,000 in an ISI operation (Pakistan’s Intelligence service) during the 90’s. And yes, Manafort was one of many political campaign advisors to deposed Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych from 2004–2010, and made at least $63,750 during a six-month period." Yes, Manafort has worked for a lot of foreign dictators. This is the heart of his rep. But this is rather misleading. Ferdinand Marcos was overthrown 30 years ago. The 90s, well, they happened 20 years ago.

This seems like an effort to make Yanukovych sound like one of many foreign kleptocrats Manafort works for. Perhaps so over the course of 40 years. But what's he done recently? Like in the last ten or 15 years? The big thing is working for Viktor Yanukovych.

Here's a few grafs from a Politico article that was, notably, written in 2014, before Manafort's business dealings had any obvious political import. So we can rule out any effort to pump up Manafort's role to damage Trump ...

Manafort’s friends describe his relationship with Yanukovych as a political love connection, born out of Yanukovych’s first downfall when he was driven from power by the 2004 Orange Revolution. Feeling that his domestic political advisers had failed him, Yanukovych turned to a foreign company, Davis Manafort, which was already doing work for the Ukrainian oligarch Rinat Akhmetov. The former Ukrainian PM and Manafort, the Georgetown-educated son of a Connecticut politician, hit it off.

Manafort’s firm had a set of international clients and produced an analysis of the Orange Revolution that Yanukovych found instructive, according to one operative involved in Yanukovych’s political rehabilitation. Manafort became, in effect, a general consultant to Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, shaping big-picture messaging, coaching Yanukovych to speak in punchy, American-style sound bites and managing teams of consultants and attorneys in both Ukraine and the United States ahead of an anticipated Yanukovych comeback. While it’s difficult to track payments in foreign elections, a former associate familiar with Manafort’s earnings say they ran into the seven figures over several years.

After Yanukovych’s 2010 victory, Manafort stayed on as an adviser to the Russia-friendly president and became involved in other business projects in Eastern Europe. In 2012, then-U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine John Tefft told the newspaper Ukrainska Pravda that he had met with Manafort, though he declined to elaborate on the American’s role there.

This sounds very much like the relationship I described. Yanukovych wasn't one of many of Manafort's clients that I'm just cherry-picking. And Manafort wasn't one of many US advisors. It was a key relationship for both men. And business deals which grew out of the Yanukovych relationship were part of it.

5. On Trump's Europe and Russia policy advisor Carter Page ... "Josh focused exclusively on Page’s relatively brief tenure advising Gazprom and completely excluded his connection with Ukraine’s billionaire philanthropist Victor Pinchuk. It was his friendship with Pinchuk that got him the Merrill Lynch appointment to Moscow in the first place. Why exclude it? Because unlike Gazprom, there’s no connection between Pinchuk and Putin that Josh could exploit. Josh’s claim that 'Those ties allow Putin to put Page out of business at any time' is a mystery to me because Page left Gazprom in 2007 and has made very little money from Russia ever since; especially after sanctions hit in 2014." I don't think it requires an ascription of bad faith on my part that I didn't note Page's relationship with Pinchuk. It precedes the relationship with Gazprom. And yes, Gazprom is the big thing I'm focused on for reasons I note in the original piece.

So did Page leave Gazprom in 2007 and make very little money from Russia ever since? Let's look at what the article we're both referencing actually says after Page post-2007 (I've highlighted passages which makes Russia and Gazprom particularly seem to play a key and continuing role in Page's work) ...

After returning to New York, Page says he took a buyout from Merrill in 2008 to start his own firm, known as Global Energy Capital LLC. He traveled to Turkmenistan that year, talking about raising a $1 billion private equity fund to buy assets in the former Soviet republic, and meeting with top government officials.

The fund never materialized—the global financial crisis struck later that year—and since then, Page says he’s mostly done low-profile advisory assignments, such as counseling foreign investors on buying assets in Russia. In some of the deals, he’s worked with Sergey Yatsenko, a former deputy chief financial officer at Gazprom who is now an official adviser to Page’s firm.

“He understands what's going on in Russia,” Yatsenko says. “He doesn’t make strong judgments.”

Yatsenko says he worked with Page on helping a Russian investor explore an oil investment in Iraqi Kurdistan, and advising a Chinese investor looking to buy Russian oil assets in Eastern Siberia. Page wouldn’t discuss specific deals.

Another project involved developing natural-gas-powered vehicles in Russia, possibly in partnership with Gazprom, Yatsenko says. But the sanctions put those talks on hold.

...

Besides drying up some of his potential deals, the sanctions have hurt Page in other ways. He says he’s an investor in Gazprom—he still attends the annual investor meetings—and blames the trade restrictions for helping drive down the stock.

I can't say how much money Page has made in Russia. But this summary suggests his efforts to make money since 2007 focus heavily on Russia and that his involvement with Gazprom as an advisor, possible business partner and investor remain substantial.

It does seem true that Page's prospects in Russia have dried up considerably since the sanctions imposed in 2014 after the annexation of Crimea. But this hardly counters my argument. Page points to removing the sanctions as one of his major goals. “So many people who I know and have worked with have been so adversely affected by the sanctions policy,” he told Bloomberg News.

Not surprisingly it's also one of Russia's major goals. This is where Page does business. So we don't need to assume anything nefarious just because they're aligned on this issue. But to say the sanctions that both Page and Russia want lifted have cut down on his business in Russia hardly undermines my argument. As to Putin's being able to put him out of business at any time, I would defer to the Russia hands among our readers. But it does not seem a big leap to say that someone who specializes in major energy concessions and investments in the Russian energy sector could have his ability to do business brought to a halt if Putin decided to do so.

6: "The article Josh used to source that “fact” only mentioned RT (Russia Today). This editorial in the Moscow Times hoped for a Clinton presidency: “The Moscow-Washington relationship promises to remain a rocky one and its management will require a steady hand, which a President Clinton is more likely to provide than a President Rubio, or, God forbid, a President Trump.” And just a few days ago, the Kremlin criticized Trump’s statement on NATO and Russia via TASS."

This is not true about the article I cited. The pro-Trump tilt of state-backed media in Russia, particularly English-language media intended for the Anglophone world, has been described and detailed basically everywhere. For this I suggest the Google.

7. "Totally indifferent? Not according to the very same Tierney Sneed article that Josh used as a source. Sneed wrote 'the Trump campaign had representatives at the platform meetings who were in communication with the delegates on the committee. They were very much aware of and involved in the process in the sense that they were talking to the delegates, Kobach said.' But total indifference was what Josh needed in order to make the leap to his “One Big Exception” — Ukraine. Trump wanted to soften the wording on providing military assistance to Ukraine to providing 'appropriate assistance'. Standing on its own, that’s actually a responsible change which is in agreement with a lot of other policy makers." It's never fun to be accused of writing or arguing in bad faith. But let's stick to the facts. This is at best a quibble over semantics. Carr cites Tierney Sneed's article in which Kris Kobach said the Trump campaign had representatives at the platform meetings. Other critics have pointed out that there were also platform changes on trade. But the reporting on this shows that the delegates did this not with pressure from Trump but on their own with a realization that the platform should conform more closely to the nominees key campaign promises. An Ohio delegate, Tracey Monroe-Winburn quoted by Politico put it: “I think we should take out TPP completely. We know that our presumptive nominee isn’t in favor of it, one … and we have some senators who are running across the country that were in support of it at one time.”

Let's look at what I actually wrote.

So party activists were able to write one of the most conservative platforms in history. Not with Trump's backing but because he simply didn't care. With one big exception: Trump's team mobilized the nominee's traditional mix of cajoling and strong-arming on one point: changing the party platform on assistance to Ukraine against Russian military operations in eastern Ukraine.

The reference to "most conservative platforms in history" is a reference to an intensified conservatism on social issues, which I don't think the people disputing this point disagree with me on. But again, look what I wrote. In a context of general indifference, there was only one issue where they decided to use strong arm tactics. This is true from every reported account I can find. The fact that there were some Trump representatives sitting in on the meetings or that the platform was changed in other ways to come into line with Trump's thinking, absent his team's intervention, doesn't undermine this point. Nowhere else did the Trump team put its foot down and insist and twist arms in a way that is not at all unprecedented (it's actually standard) but which conspicuously stood out in this platform process. This is at best a quibbling over details or semantics. Nothing I've seen undermines my point which is that this was the one place Trump asserted the nominee's customary power to bring the delegates into line.

Again, I'm quite happy to let the chips fall where they may here. Indeed, I welcome the scrutiny since it seems to be driving deeper looks into the various topics. I have pulled together reporting from a number of sources and supplemented it with some of my own. It paints a clear and deeply troubling picture. If you have questions, read the links and then read more reporting on the various issues I discussed.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.
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