Before there was a hint of collusion with Russia, there were questions about Donald Trump’s finances. In those more innocent days, the questions were mainly about propriety — why wouldn’t he release his tax returns like other presidential candidates had? — and perhaps a hint of ox-goring: “Billionaire? He’s no billionaire!”
This week it has become clearer that questions about Mr. Trump’s finances, and those about whether his campaign cooperated with Russian hacking of the 2016 election, need to be asked in the same breath.
On Tuesday, we learned that a company linked to a Russian oligarch — as well as corporations with business before the administration — gave a total of more than $1 million to a shell company that the president’s fixer, Michael Cohen, set up just before the election to pay hush money to Stormy Daniels, the porn star who says she had sex with Mr. Trump in 2006.
Those corporations — AT&T, the pharmaceutical company Novartis and Korea Aerospace — paid the shell company, Essential Consultants, during last year. All do business with the federal government or can be affected by federal actions, such as possible controls on drug prices or the Justice Department’s lawsuit against AT&T’s proposed acquisition of Time Warner.
On Wednesday, Novartis said it had actually spent $1.2 million in total, $800,000 more than was originally reported, and AT&T said it had paid as much as $600,000, three times what had been reported. Both issued statements denying any wrongdoing but still leaving the impression that they were paying for access to the president or his fixer. Korea Aerospace told The Wall Street Journal that it had hired Essential for legal counseling regarding American accounting standards. Seriously.
This sort of suspicious cash was at the heart of a recent report by The Washington Post that found that in the decade before the election, Mr. Trump did something unusual for a real estate developer — he all but stopped borrowing money. Multiple bankruptcies had no doubt exhausted his welcome at any reputable bank, so perhaps the man who called himself the “King of Debt” became more prudent, or he simply faced reality. What happened next, though, was more unusual. Beginning in 2006, the Trump Organization spent $400 million in cash on various projects. The president’s son Eric said they were able to do that with cash generated by other Trump businesses, even at the height of the Great Recession. That explanation has raised the eyebrows of business experts.
It also contradicts what Eric and his older brother, Donald Trump Jr., said in the years before the word “Russian” became radioactive for them.
“Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross section of a lot of our assets,” Donald Jr. said in 2008. “We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”
The golf writer James Dodson said last year that during a visit to a Trump golf course in 2013, Eric told him of his family company’s financing: “Well, we don’t rely on American banks. We have all the funding we need out of Russia.”
Around the time Donald Trump said goodbye to American banks, he said hello to Mr. Cohen, a lawyer whose résumé, one might have expected, would have screamed, “Stay away!” to a legitimate businessman.
From at least 1999, according to a recent Times report, Mr. Cohen had dealings with Russian mob figures and began finding business deals in, and with people from, Russia and the former Soviet Union. By 2007, Mr. Cohen was working for the Trump Organization as a fixer and deal maker.
Even during the 2016 campaign, Mr. Cohen pursued plans for a Trump Tower in Moscow, coordinating with Felix Sater, a felon with ties to Russian mobsters who had worked on other deals with Mr. Trump.
After Mr. Trump’s election, while the F.B.I. was investigating whether his campaign helped Russian efforts to put Mr. Trump in the Oval Office, Mr. Cohen visited his boss in the White House. During that February 2017 visit, Mr. Cohen left for the national security adviser, Michael Flynn, a plan to lift sanctions against Russia, which had been imposed for its attacks on Ukraine. These sanctions had squeezed the sorts of people Mr. Cohen dealt with. The plan was proposed by Mr. Sater and a Ukrainian politician with ties to Paul Manafort, a former Trump campaign chairman.
Mr. Flynn has since pleaded guilty to lying about his contacts with Russians, and Mr. Manafort is under indictment on charges of financial crimes that involved Russians.
At the moment, Americans are lucky to have Robert Mueller, the special counsel, examining all of this. Mr. Mueller was appointed after Mr. Trump fired the F.B.I. director James Comey because of his frustrations with the Russia investigation. Mr. Mueller has been looking at Mr. Cohen’s affairsand records from the Trump Organization. And one question that Mr. Trump’s lawyers say Mr. Mueller wants to ask the president is what communication did he have with Michael D. Cohen, Felix Sater and others, including foreign nationals, about Russian real estate developments during the campaign.
Russians and cash — they’ve been a part of Mr. Trump’s life for years, and now they’re elements of the investigation into whether his campaign conspired with Moscow to corrupt American democracy. Mr. Trump’s affection toward the Russian president has led many to ask, “What does Putin have on Trump?” Maybe the ledgers will tell.
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