GELFAND’S WORLD--The mass media over-cover a lot of immediate fads, and under-cover a lot of important stories. The big question for today is whether the media will pursue Donald Trump's involvement with Russian money and his friendliness towards Russian interests. The story has been gaining traction, but not as much as it merits.
The question isn't so much whether Donald Trump shows poor judgment in praising Vladimir Putin and insulting our allies -- that goes without saying. It's also not his media gaffe in which he invited the Russians to release Hillary's emails if they have them. The more serious question is whether the Russians have bought themselves a candidate. I don't want to go all National Enquirer on you, but it's possible to make a pretty good case, even if it's speculative.
We know that Trump has been in pretty severe financial difficulties at times. We know that American banks won't have anything to do with him. In the U.S., only Deutche Bank is willing to work with him. Over the past few weeks, a few thoughtful people such as Josh Marshal have wondered out loud whether Trump is beholden to Russian financial interests aligned with Putin. Marshall points out that Trump's "debt load has grown dramatically over the last year, from $350 million to $630 million." Marshall continues, "Post-bankruptcy Trump has been highly reliant on money from Russia, most of which has over the years become increasingly concentrated among oligarchs and sub-garchs close to Vladimir Putin." Others further out on the left have gone so far as to suggest that the Russians have overpaid Trump for real estate as a way to launder money.
A story in the Washington Post mentions a Florida deal: "Trump's partners on a Panama project traveled to Moscow in 2006 to sell condos to Russian investors, according to litigation filed in Florida. Trump also sold a mansion in Palm Beach in 2008 for $95 million to Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev, according to property records. Trump had purchased the mansion at a bankruptcy auction less than four years earlier for $41.4 million, records show." Was this, in effect, a multimillion dollar favor?
Back in the old days, J. Edgar Hoover spent a lot of time obsessing about people becoming susceptible to soviet blackmail. On the other side of the coin, free world fiction writers loved to insert plot twists in which the good guys found a weakness in some Russian diplomat and used it to blackmail him. It's likely that the fictional accounts were reflected in at least some real world events. Trump will be in bigger trouble than he is already if Americans start thinking about him as vulnerable to Russian influence due to secret debts.
The question is simple. Does Trump owe money to Russian financial interests?
I suspect that the question will continue to be asked: Does Trump have financial dealings with the Russians, enough to be horribly embarrassing to him if revealed? Would a situation of this type make Trump susceptible to a little Russian persuasion, shall we call it? We can expect that given this kind of leverage, Vladimir Putin wouldn't hesitate to use it. Putin doesn't mind invading entire countries. It's a lot easier to twist The Donald's arm for a few favors than to maintain a foreign military occupation.
Put it all together and you begin to wonder, is this the explanation for why Trump has been talking as if he were dictating the front page of Pravda in some pre-1989 incarnation? Let's put it this way: When have you ever heard an American presidential candidate try to undermine the NATO alliance?
Kevin Drum has been on the story, his latest post being titled Donald Trump's Top Ten Giveaways to Vladimir Putin. For a guy who loves giving speeches calling his political opponents weak, Trump is positively pathetic in giving away the store on Crimea, the eastern Ukraine, and NATO.
Kevin Drum, being a careful thinker and reporter, takes the argument right up to the brink: "As much as I loathe Putin, I'm not among those who now think Mitt Romney was right when he listed Russia as our #1 geopolitical threat. Conservative fearmongering on the subject leaves me cold. Nonetheless, this list is not a coincidence. There's something behind the scenes guiding it. But what?"
Not being a professor of finance, I don't have a strong sense about any of these speculations. But the clues lie in what Donald Trump didn't say when asked about Russian influence. As Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo points out, Trump states that he doesn't have any investments in Russia. That may actually be true, but it answers a different question than what is being asked. It isn't whether the Russians owe money to Trump, but whether Trump owes money to the Russians. That's the question that Trump has so far avoided.
This speculation is one more dot to be connected with his refusal to make his tax returns public.
Compared to these questions, Trumps silly remarks about asking the Russians to release Hillary Clinton's emails are minor stuff.
(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected])