Trump’s tax re­turns could of­fer key an­swers to Rus­sia ques­tions

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - OPINION - Eu­gene Robin­son Colum­nist

WASH­ING­TON >> Why does Don­ald Trump say such nice things about Vladimir Putin and Rus­sia? What is Trump hid­ing in the tax re­turns he re­fuses to re­lease? And are those two ques­tions re­lated?

Vot­ers should de­mand an­swers. Un­til we get them, we can only spec­u­late about Trump’s weird ad­mi­ra­tion for a strong­man who pre­sides over a sys­tem of au­to­cratic crony­ism, flouts in­ter­na­tional law with his ter­ri­to­rial am­bi­tions, works against U.S. in­ter­ests in hotspots around the globe, and ap­par­ently might have even de­ployed com­puter hack­ers to med­dle in our elec­tion.

There may be noth­ing ne­far­i­ous here; per­haps Trump just ad­mires Putin’s swag­ger­ing style. But there are rea­sons to won­der whether Trump’s warm-and-fuzzy feel­ings are prompted by fi­nan­cial mo­tives.

Here’s what we know. In July, Trump said in a tweet that he has “ZERO in­vest­ments in Rus­sia.” If this is true, the more rel­e­vant ques­tion may be the ex­tent to which Rus­sian oli­garchs, by def­i­ni­tion be­holden to Putin, have in­vest­ments in Trump and his em­pire.

In 2008, Trump’s son, Don­ald Trump Jr., said at a New York real es­tate con­fer­ence that “Rus­sians make up a pretty dis­pro­por­tion­ate cross-sec­tion of a lot of our as­sets.” Re­fer­ring to the Trump Or­ga­ni­za­tion, where he works with his fa­ther, he added that “we see a lot of money pour­ing in from Rus­sia.”

That boast would make per­fect sense. Fol­low­ing the bank­ruptcy of Trump Ho­tels and Casi­nos Re­sorts in 2004 — which in­volved three casi­nos in At­lantic City and one in In­di­ana, and al­lowed Trump to get out from un­der an es­ti­mated $1.8 bil­lion in debt — banks be­came wary of lend­ing to Trump, ac­cord­ing to wide­spread re­ports.

A 2010 fed­eral law­suit al­leged that much of the money that fi­nanced the Trump SoHo lux­ury ho­tel de­vel­op­ment in Man­hat­tan, which broke ground in 2006, came from a shad­owy Ice­land-based cor­po­rate en­tity. The suit al­leges that “the money be­hind” the firm was “mostly Rus­sian,” and that the Rus­sians in­volved “were in fa­vor with Putin.”

Trump was not charged with any wrong­do­ing in the suit, but the suit does strongly sug­gest that if tra­di­tional lenders were re­luc­tant to get in­volved with Trump, Rus­sian money had no such com­punc­tions.

Which raises an ob­vi­ous ques­tion: To what ex­tent are Trump and the Trump Or­ga­ni­za­tion de­pen­dent on Rus­sian in­vest­ment? We have no way of know­ing. Ex­am­i­na­tion of Trump’s tax re­turns might pro­vide the an­swer.

We do know that Trump con­sid­ered Rus­sian oli­garchs prime cus­tomers for high-end prop­er­ties. In 2008, he sold a Palm Beach man­sion to bil­lion­aire Dmitry Ry­bolovlev for $95 mil­lion. Less than four years ear­lier, Trump had picked up the prop­erty at a bank­ruptcy auc­tion for $41 mil­lion — mean­ing he made quite a tidy profit. De­spite ear­lier claims to the con­trary, Trump now says he has never ac­tu­ally met Putin. He tried his best to do so in 2013, when he took his Miss Uni­verse pageant to Moscow, but Putin can­celed a planned meet­ing and sent a lac­quered box as a present in­stead, along with what was de­scribed as a warm note.

In his cam­paign, Trump has been con­sis­tent in call­ing for bet­ter re­la­tions with Rus­sia. He has ac­cepted Rus­sia’s an­nex­a­tion of Crimea as a fait ac­com­pli and sug­gested he might not come to the aid of the Baltic states if Rus­sia in­vaded. Trump’s for­mer cam­paign chair­man Paul Manafort did ex­ten­sive work on be­half of Vik­tor Yanukovych, the thug­gish Putin-backed Ukrainian pres­i­dent who was ousted in 2014 and now lives in ex­ile in Rus­sia.

As a gen­eral rule, I don’t be­lieve in con­spir­acy the­o­ries and I do be­lieve in co­in­ci­dences. But Trump’s chest-thump­ing “Amer­ica First” at­ti­tude to­ward the rest of the world seems to make an ex­cep­tion for Rus­sia, and we need to know why.

Trump sup­port­ers will say I’m spec­u­lat­ing with­out the rel­e­vant facts. I say pro­vide them: Re­lease the taxes, now.

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