Why Did Trump Dodge the Russia Question?

Cliff Owen

Yesterday, Rick Wilson, a Republican operative who has now moved into dissident status as a vociferous Trump critic, suggested that journalists ask Trump the following question: "Do you, or any of your business units have outstanding loans with Russian banks or individuals? If so, how much?”

Newsweek asked and got this answer from Trump spokesperson Hope Hicks: "Mr. Trump does not have any business dealings in/with Russia."

Alas, that wasn't the question - neither narrowly nor broadly.

The question isn't whether Trump has business in Russia but whether Russia has business in Trump.

We've already noted the extensive employment of Russian capital in Trump's Trump Soho project and the various business ventures discussed in this wider-ranging article in The Washington Post. Trump has made numerous attempts to build a luxury hotel in Moscow. According to the Post article, Aras Agalarov, a Moscow billionaire who has "served as a liaison between Trump" and Putin, said that on Trump's 2013 visit he and Trump signed an agreement "to build a Trump Tower in the heart of Moscow."

It's not clear from the Post article whether that agreement has now fallen through like all the earlier attempts, whether it's just on hold or whether it's currently moving forward. That would be good to know. The Agalarovs are close to Putin and have recently been given a parcel of lucrative state projects which are widely seen as a sign of the Russian leader's favor.

Perhaps the "in" Russia was Hicks out. But her flat statement also seems to fly in the face of the financing of Trump Soho and Trump's association with Felix Sater. Of course this also flies in the face of Donald Trump Jr's more general comments in 2008 that “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets" and “We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”

It is important to note that a good deal of what Trump Jr is likely referring to is the sale of luxury properties - mansions, golf course memberships, etc to Russian nouveau riche, just as Trump and many other developers have made a business of selling comparable properties to comparable individuals from China. That is worth exploring. But it is considerably less problematic than Trump's use of capital from people closely associated with Putin.

In any case, Hicks answer seems quite dubious in terms of whether or not Trump has "business dealings in/with Russia" and she ignores the real question of how reliant Trump is on Russian investment in his various projects. Trump's extensive business with Russia, Russian capital and Russian investors may be totally innocent. Lots of wealthy Americans do lots of business in Russia. Major US corporations do business in Russia. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that. Of course, they don't have the Russian security services quite likely running disruption operations on his behalf in a presidential campaign. They also aren't saying they'll pull the US out of NATO. It is not business with Russia per se but the totality of circumstances surrounding Trump's relationship with Russia that is at issue. Regardless, Hicks' answer flies in the face of voluminous reporting on Trump's business dealings.

Can some reporters still getting questions answered by the Trump folks re-pose the question as: How many of Trump's properties and business ventures have relied on or currently rely on equity investments from Russian nationals? And perhaps press a bit more on the "business in Russia" since her answer appears to be demonstrably false.

More soon from Josh's assignment desk.

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Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.
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