Donald Trump and Russia: a web that grows more tangled all the time
1 week ago Public Commentary 0
A key figure at the Republican national convention where Donald Trump was nominated for president has strong business ties with Ukraine, the Guardian has learned.
The party platform, written at the convention in Cleveland last week, removed references to arming Ukraine in its fight against pro-Russia rebels, who have received material support from the Kremlin. Trump’s links to Russia are under scrutiny after a hack of Democratic national committee emails, allegedly by Russian agents.
The coordinator of the Washington diplomatic corps for the Republicans in Cleveland was Frank Mermoud, a former state department official involved in business ventures in Ukraine via Cub Energy, a Black Sea-focused oil and gas company of which he is a director. He is also on the board of the US Ukraine Business Council.
Mermoud has longstanding ties to Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, who in 2010 helped pro-Russia Viktor Yanukovych refashion his image and win a presidential election in Ukraine. Manafort was brought in earlier this year to oversee the convention operations and its staffing.
Three sources at the convention also told the Guardian that they saw Philip Griffin, a long-time aide to Manafort in Kiev, working with the foreign dignitaries programme.
“After years of working in the Ukraine for Paul and others, it was surprising to run into Phil working at the convention,” one said.
The change to the platform on arming Ukraine was condemned even by some Republicans. Senator Rob Portman of Ohio described it as “deeply troubling”. Veteran party operative and lobbyist Charlie Black said the “new position in the platform doesn’t have much support from Republicans”, adding that the change “was unusual”.
Thousands of Democratic National Committee emails, meanwhile, were hacked and published by WikiLeaks on the eve of the party’s convention in Philadelphia this week. The mails showed that officials, who are meant to remain impartial, favoured Hillary Clinton and discussed ways to undermine her rival, Bernie Sanders. The leak led to the resignation of DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
The FBI is investigating, with all signs pointing to Russian involvement, though Moscow rejects this but experts argue Vladimir Putin has attempted in the past to damage western democracy, saying Russian security agencies have made cyberattacks on French, Greek, Italian and Latvian targets during elections. In 2014, malware was discovered in Ukrainian election software that would have robbed it of legitimacy.
Alina Polyakova, deputy director of the Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council, said: “We can’t say 100% that Mr Putin had a hand in any of this but this kind of meddling in other countries’ affairs is part of Russia’s toolkit. It’s a kind of asymmetric warfare. To me, this looks like something straight from the Russian secret service playbook, but I’m surprised at how brazen they’ve been.”
Trump and his campaign have denied any connection to the hack but on Wednesday he ignited a firestorm by calling on Russia to find 30,000 emails deleted from the private server used by Clinton while she was secretary of state in the Obama administration. “I think you will probably be mightily rewarded by our press,” he said. He later claimed that he was being sarcastic.
Analysts suggest three primary motivations for the WikiLeaks email dump, quite probably overlapping: doing harm to the US political process to undermine its credibility; doing harm to Clinton (WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is no friend); and boosting Trump, who has heaped praise on Putin and last week broke from Republican policy by suggesting the US would not automatically come to the aid of Nato allies and saying he would consider recognising Crimea as Russian territory.
James Rubin, a former assistant secretary of state now advising the Clinton campaign, said: “If you are the president of Russia and you have stated over and over again that you are concerned that the United States – through its enlargement of Nato, through its policies in Europe towards Ukraine, towards Georgia, towards other countries in Central Asia – [is] putting pressure on Russia, and you are the president of a country that has been seeking to undermine that process and roll back the independent Europe that’s whole and free and push it back, that’s your foreign policy objective.
“So then you look at the United States and you say, ‘Well, which party’s policies would be more likely to allow me to achieve my objectives?’ That’s the way that a Russian leader would think.”
With Democrats and journalists now trawling through Trump’s past dealings with “all the oligarchs”, as he once put it, as far back as the time of the Soviet Union, the candidate has repeatedly and angrily stated that he has “zero, nothing to do with Russia”. He has however continued to refuse to release his tax returns, which could prove his claim definitively.
If he doesn’t have anything to do with Russia today, Trump certainly has in the past. As far back as 1987, he was attempting to build branded hotels and condos in Moscow. “It’s a totally interesting place,” he said at the time. “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.”
His desire to build a Trump Tower near Red Square continued throughout the 1990s and in 2013 the businessman travelled to Moscow, hoping to meet Putin while taking in the Russian debut of his own Miss Universe beauty pageant.
Putin cancelled a meeting at the last minute, according to an oligarch who spoke to the Washington Post, but sent a gift and personal note. Trump did collect a a share of the $14m paid by investors including Aras Agalarov, a Azerbaijani-Russian billionaire property developer and close Putin associate, for bringing Miss Universe to Agalarov’s 7,500-seat Crocus City Hall.
In 2014, Trump told a press luncheon that he “spoke, indirectly and directly, with President Putin, who could not have been nicer”. A year earlier, he told MSNBC: “I do have a relationship and I can tell you that he’s very interested in what we’re doing here today.”
At the pageant in 2013, Trump was photographed with personalities such as the rapper Timati, who has since taken an outspoken pro-Kremlin position, recording a song with the refrain “my best friend is President Putin”.
Trump was also photographed with Miss Universe jury member Philipp Kirkorov, a flamboyant pop star who represented Russia at Eurovision in 1995. Kirkorov told the Guardian he first met Trump in 1994, when he performed at the businessman’s Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City, and spent time with him again in 1999 and 2013.
Kirkorov said he and Trump did not talk much about politics but rather “about life, about the beauty of Russian and American women”.
“I introduced Donald to the popular Russian-Ukrainian singer Ani Lorak,” Kirkorov said. “I know he’s a big connoisseur of female beauty, so he talked with her a lot the whole evening.
“He understands that friendship between America and Russia will lead only to positive events and an improvement in relations between our countries will be to everyone’s benefit, and I’m sure that’s why he has so many fans in our country.”
Agalarov is just one of several Russian billionaires tied to Trump. Discussing a possible Moscow hotel project with real estate website therealdeal.com in 2013, Trump boasted: “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”.
On another occasion he declared: “Moscow right now in the world is a very, very important place. We wanted Moscow all the way.”
In 2008, Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr, told a New York Russian real estate investors conference that a “lot of money [is] pouring in from Russia”. “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets,” he added.
A lot of the money was destined for the 46-storey Trump Soho hotel and condos project on Spring Street in New York City, which was partly funded by group of Russian and ex-Soviet state billionaires. After allegations of fraud by buyers, the project was embroiled in an investigation by the Manhattan district attorney. Trump and his partners settled out of court. There had been plans to build a replica building in Moscow. It never happened.
In 2008, Trump sold a six-acre oceanfront Palm Beach mansion for $95m – a record deal that netted him $53.6m. The buyer was Russian fertiliser billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev, who was reported in the Panama Papers leaks to have used offshore law firms to hide more than $2bn-worth of art works, including pieces by Picasso, Van Gogh and Leonardo, from his wife in advance of their divorce.
Yanukovych, Gazprom and more
For his part, Paul Manafort has been closely tied to Ukraine over the past decade, making millions from consulting work. He worked for Rinat Akhmetov, Dmitry Firtash and Oleg Deripaska, three major pro-Russia oligarchs, as an adviser.
Much of Manafort’s relationship with Firtash was exposed in a 2011 racketeering lawsuit that was later dismissed. It described Manafort as aiding the mogul in moving his wealth out of Ukraine and into overseas assets. Firtash is now under indictment in the US, and Deripaska is banned from entering the country due to ties with organised crime.
Manafort’s relationship with Deripaska has recently suffered. The mogul is suing Manafort in the Cayman Islands for allegedly disappearing with $19m of his money. Manafort also worked for Yanukovych and helped guide the pro-Russia candidate to victory in the 2010 Ukranian election. Yanukovych was overthrown in 2014 and is now exiled in Russia.
Another of Trump’s foreign policy advisers, Carter Page, is an investment banker with close links to Gazprom, the Kremlin-controlled gas company, and has long been an outspoken supporter of Putin. He has gone so far as to compare US foreign policy towards Russia under the Obama administration to slavery in the antebellum south.
Trump adviser Michael Flynn, a former US military intelligence chief, sat two places away from Putin at the state-funded TV network Russia Today’s 10th anniversary party last year.
The web of associations between Trump and Moscow remains ambiguous and intriguing. Asked if Putin and Trump could be actively colluding, Alina Polyakova of the Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center replied: “I don’t think it would be that direct. That would be stupid. Trump wants the power of denial.”
Chris Coons, a Democratic senator for Delaware, said: “That seems to be a striking allegation to make because that would be unbelievably irresponsible. I have heard in the last day troubling allegations of the relationship between Paul Manafort and players in the Ukraine who are very closely tied to Putin and the Kremlin but I have no evidence about it.”
Coons added: “At this point we should allow the intelligence community and our foreign policy leaders to pursue whatever leads there may be to whatever conclusion they will reach. I do think the degree of irresponsibility shown by Donald Trump in literally urging on an illegal surveillance act by a hostile foreign power raises strong enough questions that it merits investigation. It’s truly unsettling and something that deserves out attention.”
Jim Lewis, a senior vice-president and programme director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, noted that Russians had hacked into the DNC and its Republican counterpart in 2008 and 2012, but those hacks were not leaked.
“The difference this time is the leak,” he said. “We can say with some certainty that it’s Russian hacking, but we should be cautious about saying they were behind the leak.”
Direct collusion with the Trump campaign is probably not happening, Lewis said. “Let’s say you’re working with someone in the Trump campaign. How do you communicate with them? I think it’s unlikely given the practical difficulties.”
Joseph Schmitz, a foreign policy adviser to Trump, denied there was any direct relationship between the campaign and the Kremlin.
“We had to negotiate with Joseph Stalin when we had a common enemy called Hitler,” he said. “Bill Clinton went on vacation in Russia when he was a Rhodes scholar. That’s a fact. If anyone is in bed with Russia, it’s the Clintons.”
But, Polyakova said, should Trump win the election, “We would definitely have a closer relationship with Russia and it could endanger western security interests.”
“I would expect a lot of appeasement when it comes to Ukraine and Syria,” she added.
- This article was amended on 30 July 2016, to clarify Frank Mermoud’s role at the Republican convention.