They’d show whether business dealings in Russia could give Putin leverage over the president.
By Timothy L. O’Brien July 17, 2018, 1:15 PM EDT
Timothy L. O’Brien is the executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion. He has been an editor and writer for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, HuffPost and Talk magazine. His books include “TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald.”
In case you’ve forgotten about them, President Donald Trump’s personal income tax returns still matter. So do the Trump Organization’s business relationships and finances. If you ever doubted either of those things, consider the president’s meeting in Helsinki on Monday with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
During their press conference, the subject of “compromising” information arose at the very end of their briefing.
“Sir, do you — does the Russian government have any compromising material on President Trump or his family?” Jonathan Lemire, an Associated Press reporter, asked Putin.
Trump shook his head and smirked, gazing down at his lectern. Putin chuckled.
“Yeah, I did hear these rumors that we allegedly collected compromising material on Mr. Trump when he was visiting Moscow,” Putin replied, before noting that it was impossible to gather intelligence on the multitude of Western businesspeople who visit Russia. Trump was never important enough in his pre-presidency days to warrant the Kremlin’s attention, he added.
“Well, it’s difficult to imagine utter nonsense on a bigger scale than this,” Putin said. “Please disregard these issues and don’t think about this anymore again.”
Trump then chimed in: “I have to say if they had it, it would have been out long ago.” He added that the Justice Department’s investigation of possible collusion between Trump’s campaign and the Kremlin during the 2016 presidential election was a “total witch hunt.” Then he called an end to the briefing and walked away with Putin.
Putin was probably referring to the infamous Steele dossier when he responded to the question of compromising material about Trump. That document, prepared by a former British spy during the 2016 campaign season as part of opposition research paid for by Hillary Clinton’s campaign, has proven to be unusually prescient in some of its assessments of questionable goings-on in Trumplandia.
The dossier provided an early assessment of possible intersections between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin and raised an alarm about the extent to which Russia may have cultivated or co-opted Trump and his team. Partisan infighting, and some of the report’s more sensational elements, turned the dossier into a political football — which makes it a useful foil for Putin. It allows him to chuckle when he’s asked about compromising information about the president of the United States.
But let’s forget about the Steele dossier. There are still a lot of unanswered questions about how Trump came by at least $400 million in cash to fund small-bore golf-course and real-estate deals between 2006 and 2015, as the Washington Post‘s Jonathan O’Connell, David Fahrenthold and Jack Gillum have noted. And there are still some projects, including the former Trump SoHo hotel in New York City and the Trump Turnberry golf resort in Scotland, that have murky financial pedigrees, as I have noted before.
Trump’s partners on the Trump SoHo had overt links to organized crime and the project’s funding, according to court filings, came in part from Eastern Europe as part of an alleged money-laundering scheme. (Some of Trump’s partners on the Trump SoHo disputed those allegations in court and the case was ultimately settled.)
Some of the cash that flowed into the Trump Organization’s coffers during the decade before Trump became president came from Russian buyers of condominiums at various Trump properties. But all of the Trump’s spending couldn’t be resourced that way, and the president’s son, Eric, told the Post that his family didn’t rely on loans or sales of existing properties when it went on its $400 million spending spree.
So where did the money come from? We actually don’t need Putin or the Justice Department to get an initial handle on that question. Trump himself could move things along by releasing his tax returns — in keeping with what every president before him since Gerald Ford has done.
I’ve seen Trump’s tax returns myself as part of a legal action that began in 2006 when he sued me for libel for a biography I wrote, “TrumpNation.” (Trump lost the suit in 2011; a court order precludes me from discussing specifics in the returns.) As I wrote in a May 2016 column about the tax returns, I suspect that Trump is hesitant to make them public because they would reveal, among other things, sensitive information about his business activities, conflicts of interest and financial pressures that might come to bear upon him in the White House. Pressure from places like Russia, for example.
Trump has made a point of saying that there was “no collusion” involving the Kremlin and his presidential campaign team whenever he criticizes Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. But Mueller has a broad mandate, and he’s also examining obstruction of justice as well as the Trump Organization’s business dealings.
Trump’s chummy deference to Putin, and the fact that he savaged his own country’s law enforcement and intelligence community in Putin’s company during the Helsinki press conference, left many of Trump’s long time apologists aghast on Monday. “Why act like such a captive to Putin?” they essentially asked.
But Trump didn’t say anything about Putin or collusion that he hasn’t said repeatedly over the last year. This time it happened to be in Putin’s company and it was televised globally. So no one should be surprised by what Trump said on Monday. Putin might have information about Trump’s finances that the president would rather keep under wraps.
Imagine if Trump were acquiescent to Putin because financial favors were exchanged, for example, for policy reversals involving the lifting of economic sanctions on Russia or supporting Russia’s military annexation of part of Ukraine. In that context, Trump’s finances — and his tax returns — touch on national security and the public interest.
It’s time for the president to release his tax returns publicly. If he won’t, then Congress and the Republican Party — if they are truly disturbed by Trump’s Helsinki performance — should demand that he do so.