Lawyers for US president Donald Trump say that a review of his income taxes shows that he made at least $100 million from Russian business ties in the past decade. Because his taxes don’t identify Russian buyers of Trump properties or Trump-branded goods separately from other buyers, the real figure could be considerably higher than that.
In a letter to Trump dated March 8 that was circulated by the White House today (May 12), attorneys from the Washington, DC law firm Morgan, Lewis, & Bockius said they had reviewed Trump’s tax returns over the past 10 years, at his request. “With a few exceptions,” his tax returns don’t show any income to the Trump Organization from Russian sources, debt owned by Russian lenders, or company equity owned by Russians, the letter says—then goes on to outline at least $100 million worth of exceptions.
As the investigations into Russian involvement in the US election intensify, Trump and his business’s ties to Russia have come under greater scrutiny. Republican senator Lindsay Graham said this week he wanted to know “if there are any Trump business ties to Russia that are inappropriate,” and White House press secretary Sean Spicer said May 9 that Trump had “charged a leading law firm in Washington” to send a letter to Graham showing he had “no connections” to Russia. Morgan, Lewis & Bockius has been Trump’s tax counsel since 2005, the letter notes.
The exceptions the lawyers found include:
- The $12.2 million in foreign income earned by Trump’s Miss Universe pageant in 2013, a “substantial portion” of which came from holding the annual pageant in Moscow.
- A Florida estate Trump Properties sold to a Russian billionaire in 2008 for $95 million, that it had purchased three years before for $41 million.
- Unspecified income from sales of goods or services to “Russians or Russian entities,” including sales or rentals of “condominiums, hotel rooms, rounds of golf, books, or Trump-licensed products,” which have never been separately identified on Trump’s tax returns as coming from Russian sources. Those amounts are “immaterial,” the lawyers write, without explaining how they came to that conclusion.
While Trump denied Russian business ties during his election campaign, he and his children have in fact spent the past decade talking openly about the Trump Organization’s business ties to Russia. As Quartz outlined earlier, they have bragged on several occasions about how much money they were making from Russian investors. Trump also made “hundreds of millions of dollars” from Russian businessmen, Sergei Millian, the head of a US-Russia business group who worked with Trump to market properties to Russians, told ABC last September.
Trump has been trying to invest in Russia since visiting Moscow with then-wife Ivana in 1987, but has failed at setting up a Trump-brand property there. Still, Trump told Russian journalists in 2008 (link in Russian) “I’ve always had very successful business relations with Russian,” and went on to mention the 2008 property sale.
Trump’s sons have also been vocal about the family’s business ties to Russia. His eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., told attendees at a September 2008 real estate conference in New York that he’d been to Russia six times in the previous 18 months, with great success. He said:
In terms of high-end product influx into the US, Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets; say in Dubai, and certainly with our project in SoHo and anywhere in New York. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.
Eric Trump, the president’s middle son, told a Russian journalist (link in Russian) in an undated interview (likely between 2005 and 2010) that “most of our buyers are foreign, among which there are very many Russians,” referring to the Trump Soho condos.
The Miss Universe pageant funding mentioned by Morgan, Lewis, & Bockius came from Aras Agalarov, a Russian real estate billionaire connected with the upper echelons of the Kremlin (link in Russian), who paid $14 million for the contest to be held in Moscow in 2013. While Trump was in Moscow, Agalarov also arranged a meeting for him with Herman Gref, formerly Putin’s economy minister, who is now CEO of state-controlled Sberbank, the country’s biggest bank.
When Trump returned to New York, he and Agalarov told Real Estate Weekly they planned to replicate Trump Soho in Moscow. “The Russian market is attracted to me,” Trump reportedly said. “I have a great relationship with many Russians, and almost all of the oligarchs were in the room.”
Even more recently, in 2014, Eric Trump told reporter James Dodson during a golf game that “we have all the funding we need out of Russia,” according to Dodson’s account to NPR. Dodson said Eric told him: “We’ve got some guys that really, really love golf, and they’re really invested in our programs. We just go there all the time.” (Eric called the account “Fake News” this week on Twitter).
Because the Trump Organization is a privately held company, the specific sources of income for its over 500 separate entities is impossible to determine. This means that the full extent of the Trump Organization’s Russia ties may never be known. The letter sent by Trump’s lawyers today is likely to do nothing to assuage critics who argue Trump’s business ties with Russia represent a presidential conflict of interest.