Say you’re an oligarch in a country that loathes them but is powerless to do anything about their existence because the highest levels of government profit off their businesses, legal and not. While you might think you have it made, your position is actually quite precarious. Pull on your leash too much and start commenting on politics, and you might just find yourself in jail for tax evasion and embezzlement, or sent into exile according to the template that shut down a critical news channel first, and stealthily re-nationalized an oil empire soon after that.
You probably want to hedge your bets and find a country to which you can make a smooth exit, ideally spending a lot of time there and out of the government’s sight and mind. If things get bad, you can just pull your assets and stay abroad.
Many countries are happy to allow a wealthy foreign investor with millions in cash to set up shop permanently, as long as all that cash looks legitimate. And that condition could be a problem if you’re trying to wire it from a country under sanctions, or your income history has gaps indicating something shady went down.
Of course that’s why money laundering exists. One of the simplest ways to do it is to create a web of offshore companies strategically located in countries that don’t ask a lot of questions about where the money came from, but are just happy to take their cut. Many are the usual suspects in the Caribbean, but other favorites include the Seychelles, Cook Islands — which are now being called the Crook Islands by the natives thanks to their sudden surge in popularity as an offshore destination — and of course, Cyprus, which is heavily favored by Russians.
These offshore companies can cross borders, invest and transfer cash between each other, and after creating a frustrating enough web of transfers and exchanges, as many of them as vague and anonymous as possible mid-transit, they can invest in money-making ventures. Over time, they build small empires in their target destinations, which for Russians are often Switzerland and the UK, particularly London. But that’s fairly basic. The real pros are a lot sneakier than that, using charitable organizations and nonprofits as their identity shields.
These funds, as they’re called in Russia, are operated by LLCs that transfer assets, take out loans, and can make a single large organization doing all sorts of questionable deals and making eyebrow-raising purchases when viewed as a single entity, into a web of seemingly unrelated organizations with very different agendas. With enough records to have to sift through, they can hide their affiliations for years, often in plain sight, just because the web is too tangled to really unravel without a very good reason to spend months parsing paperwork.
Former Russian presidential placeholder, and current prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev could teach a master class in how these advanced schemes work. Using non-profits and LLCs run by his friends from law school, he was able to secure three massive compounds in Russia, a pair of yachts, run a secret mega-farm, an exclusive vineyard, turn an 18th century palace in his hometown of St. Petersburg into ultra-luxury condos, acquire a pair of yachts, and buy a castle and wine-making operation in Tuscany.
That’s impressive, but then again, he’s at the very top of the corrupt heap. Much smaller fish without command of government resources still have to do things the old fashioned way, through offshores and real estate projects.
Donald Trump And The Oligarchs
But if you have millions to launder, you can’t exactly just approach a developer and hand him or her a fat stack of cash you say came from Don’t Worry About It, LLC based in the Bahamas. Best case scenario, the deal will never happen. Worst case? Law enforcement will get involved.
You need to use friends and trusted business associates and a willing collaborator at your desired destination to create a reliable bridge for turning your sanctioned or dirty money into sweet real estate so it can be liquefied when units are being sold or rented. Ideally, that collaborator needs to be in a bind and be willing to look the other way and not ask questions.
Enter Donald Trump. Despite his continued bombast about being a brilliant businessman who turned a “small personal loan” from his father into an $8 billion fortune, his actual track record in business has been far from stellar.
He needed to be bailed out by his father in the 1970s, and then again in the 1980s to stave off bankruptcy. He ended up bankrupting multiple companies anyway and trying to hold banks hostage to forgive many of his debts after the Taj Mahal and Plaza Hotel were in dire straits. In 1995, his one year losses exceeded $916 million. Many of his businesses crashed and burned, and according to his ghost writer for The Art of the Deal, much of his business savvy was little more than bluster.
Throughout his career and to this day, Trump also insisted he was worth a lot more than any expert was willing to grant him, especially when they charted the tumultuous ups and downs of his wealth in the 1990s. But then, suddenly, by 2000, his holdings in real estate are booming and in demand.
A spider’s web of companies explodes under his watch, growing into more than 500 entities cited during his campaign and said to be “too complex to audit” by the public. This tangled organizational mess formed the cornerstone of his argument for not releasing his tax returns: that they were simply too voluminous and too complex to scrutinize.
So what happened that suddenly made Trump’s businesses turn around almost overnight? Well, in 1987, Trump visited Russia when it was still the USSR, offering to build new hotels in Moscow and St. Petersburg, then called Leningrad. He was rebuffed, as Gorbachev wasn’t ready to start allowing private ownership.
He returned in 1996, trying to build yet another hotel in partnership with a tobacco company. That deal also went nowhere, but Trump was able to successfully apply for Trump Russia trademarks. Ultimately, he never built anything there, but by the early 2000s, his units were suddenly a hit with wealthy Russians. His properties in Florida and NYC are especially popular, with Russian real estate agent Ilya Reznik telling the press that Coastal Miami is often pitched as Little Moscow.
At the same time, Trump partnered with a real estate developer called Bayrock, founded by Soviet-born Tevfik Ariv who set up office in Trump Tower. In 1999, Russian-born former gangster implicated in a Wall Street pump-and-dump scheme and money laundering, Felix Sater, joined Bayrock and would become a top Trump adviser. Sater claimed they would talk often, with him pitching ideas on a regular basis. By 2005, the duo is trying yet again to build a hotel in Moscow to no avail.
In 2006, Sater is taking Trump’s kids on tours of the Russian capital as Trump is busy registering his trademarks for use in future Russian properties that would never come to fruition. Trump’s name only shows up on one Russian product in 2007, a premium vodka.
That same year, Sater and Trump start building Trump SoHo along with three Russian oligarchs under investigation for money laundering. The project would ultimately start a criminal investigation in 2011, which Trump and his partners settled by refunding over $3 million in down payments on the condos.
Donald Trump And Money Laundering
Meanwhile, Trump was exploring a foray into reality TV about a St. Petersburg-based MMA fighter and his son, Donald Trump Jr., told the media that “Russians make up a disproportionate amount of Trump assets,” a claim his brother Eric would take even further in 2014 when he said that Trump has “all the money [he] needs from Russia” and cited golf-loving oligarchs investing over $100 million in the family business. Eric would later deny he ever said any such thing, playing into his father’s campaign against “the lying media and its fake news” when this story was dug up earlier this year by journalists.
The same year, the FBI started wiretapping offices in Trump Tower, investigating a Russian money laundering group run out of apartment 63A, implicating 30 people and involving assets owned by Trump in New York and Florida.
Around the same time, a lawsuit against Sater and Bayrock is gaining steam, accusing the two key Trump partners in evading taxes on $250 million through various real estate projects the trio would work on. Officially, Sater is no longer an advisor to Trump and says the two just sporadically kept in touch, although in 2016 he would max out contributions to Trump’s presidential campaign and praise him in American and Russian media.
And Sater was far from the only person with shady connections doing business with Trump. In 2008, oligarch and fertilizer magnate Dmitry Rybolovlev bought a Trump property for double what it was worth, which can be a classic money laundering technique meant to bake payments or bribes into what looks like a real estate deal. It seems hard to believe that Rybolovlev would think that a $41 million property more than doubled in value in less than a year.
Trump’s $125 million asking price for the so-called House of Friendship should’ve scared off any potential buyers, never mind get an offer at $95 million for a house in which the owner would never set foot and tear it down while doing absolutely nothing with it for eight years. Would he not get suspicious about the Russian billionaire wildly overspending on real estate?
As his Trump Towers Baku project shows, he seems to make it a point not to know where his partners’ and investors get their money, happy to look the other way while charging licensing and consulting fees, even though he’s legally on the hook for doing this due diligence.
When confronted, his company merely says that it’s not involved in any deals beyond licensing a brand name and image. In fact, his blinders about the identity of those backing Trump Towers Baku is a repeat of a 2010 deal in which a state-run Russian bank, which serves as a slush fund for Putin’s projects and is directly overseen by him was indirectly involved in a textbook case of money laundering.
The bank bought an $850 million stake in a Ukrainian steel mill through a mystery middleman, then sold it to Russian-Canadian investor Alexander Shaider. This investor who would then fund Trump International Hotel and Tower in Toronto, and pay the consulting and licensing fees to label it a Trump property and bring it under The Donald’s umbrella in the public eye. In fact, this is how Trump’s name ended up on so many buildings. It’s licensed while its true owners are out of sight, and out of mind.
If you’re keeping count, this is the third deal in which Trump seemed oblivious about who funded a lavish property on which he would stamp his name, and, as they say, once is an accident, twice is a coincidence, but three times is a pattern.
And further complicating his shot at plausible deniability when it comes to the bank behind the Toronto deal, Vnesheconombank, is that soon after Trump won the election, Jared Kushner was meeting a representative from this bank at the requests of Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak, and Michael Flynn.
Keep in mind that Kislyak is the same Russian ambassador who routinely met with numerous members of Trump’s campaign throughout 2016, discussing sanctions, Syria, and Crimea. If Trump really didn’t know what was going on, why is his son-in-law meeting with a bank that has spent years trying to avoid sanctions for laundering money for Putin’s inner circle and controlled by the Russian President himself? If we believe he was that oblivious, Trump’s ignorance of his own business operations would beggar belief.
Finally, he also failed to vet his partner in Trump Scion hotel opening soon in Dallas, who has deep ties in money laundering from Kazakhstan and Russia, and opened two offshores in Cyprus in 2008, which, again, is the favorite destination for Russian oligarchs’ exported cash. (The Scion deal ultimately fell apart due to public opposition to the project.)
In fact Trump named Wilbur Ross, the former vice-chairman of the Bank of Cyprus, as his commerce secretary. That bank was involved in deals involving Putin’s inner circle in 2015, and incidentally, Rybolovlev had a 9.9% stake in the bank until 2013, after which he divested for undisclosed reasons. It’s very possible that Ross actually has no role in any of this as former employees say he actually drove Russian oligarchs from the bank over his tenure, and the offshores were only used for a failed bid to build a casino.
But what we’re seeing is a pattern of Trump in the midst of wealthy foreigners engaged in money laundering schemes that center around real estate, and not bothering to vet any of them before doing business. Furthermore, there’s also the fact that he proudly claims to be the owner of more than 500 companies with very complex finances, which is a massive red flag in this context.
Creating and maintaining hundreds of LLCs to ostensibly do the same thing, like build hotels, condos, and homes, adds millions in bureaucratic overhead from payroll to tax filings. It wouldn’t be an issue if Trump ran a dozen corporations specializing in each vertical of his business, so having multiple companies under one umbrella is not at all unusual. Having so many doing the same things, however, is typically the same kind of warning sign for money laundering as being constantly told to recruit new salespeople is to pyramid schemes.
If you think that it would be a major oversight to allow people to create plausible deniability just by setting up enough legal entities with limited liability between themselves and their partners, you would be correct. It’s actually illegal under the FCPA, or the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which requires basic due diligence prior to making any deals with foreign citizens or in other nations. Domestically, RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) goes after opaque arrangements that hide crimes like tax evasion and money laundering to create plausible deniability.
In this light Trump’s sprawling empire with deep ties to corrupt Russians looks less like a thriving real estate business, but something a bit more nefarious. Deniability was so built into the way he operated that his lawyers didn’t want him signing his own financial disclosures. The Donald’s Sergeant Schultz cavalier approach to business and political conflicts of interest mirror Russian oligarchs. In 2015, as Trump began to eat up air time on American political talk shows in the same way that a starving man eats his first meal in days, Putin may have sensed an opportunity…