The release of damning emails regarding Donald Trump Jr.'s contact with Russians during the 2016 campaign may turn out to be a blessing for the White House. The salacious, Hollywood-esque storyline of Russian election meddling draws attention away from more mundane, less exciting, but ultimately far more difficult to answer questions about financial connections between President Trump's business empire and Russia.
In 2004, President Trump paid $41.35 million for a Palm Beach, Florida, mansion formerly owned by Abe Gosman, a health-care executive. Dubbed "Maison de L'Amitie," the property at 515 N. County Road was classic Trump — huge, flashy, and resplendent in the "late Baroque brothel" style he favors. It is unclear how much time Trump or his family spent living in the property, being only one of many under his control at the time.
Barely four years later and without having made improvements, Trump sold the property to Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev. The sale to Rybolovlev, who made billions in an unglamorous industry by cornering the Asian market in potash (a fertilizer) with his company Uralkali, raised eyebrows for two reasons. First, the purchase price of $95 million was not only by far the most ever paid for a home in swanky Palm Beach, but also more than twice what Trump paid four years earlier. More curiously, Rybolovlev has never seen or visited the property — not before he agreed to pay that staggering price, nor since the sale was completed.
A Rybolovlev subsidiary called County Road Property LLC purchased the property and transferred it to a trust. In high-profile divorce proceedings with his wife over the next several years, Rybolovlev's explanation for the outsized purchase price and his intentions for the property changed frequently. When his divorce was finally settled in 2015, the home was demolished and divided into three lots.
Fast forward to 2016. Journalists found at least three instances in which Trump's campaign aircraft and Rybolovlev's private Airbus 319 landed in the same city within an hour of one another on the dates of Trump campaign rallies. Trump's claim that the two men never met despite their mammoth real estate transaction is tenuous, though characteristically the president categorized speculation about connections to Rybolovlev as baseless.
While any relationship between Trump and Rybolovlev is indeed limited to speculation at present, their curious real estate transaction is a well-documented fact. Now, as President Trump feels increasing heat from the investigation of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, the Palm Beach deal is one of many aspects of his personal and corporate finances with ties to Russia that are likely to come under scrutiny. Shortly after Trump made a strong statement opposing Mueller delving into his family's finances, it was reported that Mueller would indeed be doing so. This represents a major turning point; Trump's finances will be scrutinized not merely by the media and in online gossip but in an official investigation led by an ace team of government experts.
Maybe Rybolovlev is a spectacularly indifferent and poor investor. If that's the case, so be it. But otherwise, there are really only two potential explanations for the sale — and both are highly problematic for Trump.
One is that the property was purchased sight-unseen for the outsized sale price so that Rybolovlev could conceal assets for a divorce he believed was impending. This immediately raises the question of why Trump or his company would assist a person he claims he has never met in skirting the law to the tune of $95 million.
The other, more troublingly, is that the purchase price represents Russian interests seeking legitimate cover for making payments to Trump. There is no concrete proof of this. But in recent years, two members of Congress — Randy "Duke" Cunningham and Aaron Schock — have been indicted (and in Cunningham's case, incarcerated) for using the sale of a home at a wildly inflated price as cover for the payment of bribes by private interests. Purchasing property over its market value to conceal a transfer of funds is a common technique familiar to investigators of white-collar crime.
Again, no publicly available evidence points toward either of these conclusions at the moment. But if neither explanation is valid, then the question begs: What does account for the odd transaction?
As unpleasant as the hoopla surrounding meetings between Trump campaign personnel and family members and Russian officials in the summer of 2016 may be for the White House, that may end up being only a sideshow to the more important matter of Trump's extensive pre-election financial ties to Russians.
The release of emails regarding Donald Trump Jr.'s contacts during the campaign may, at least in the short term, be a blessing for the White House. The more salacious and engaging storyline of Russian election meddling draws attention away from more mundane, less exciting, and ultimately far more difficult-to-answer questions about financial connections between Trump's business empire and Russia. Mueller's intention to devote part of his investigation to those matters is an ominous sign for the White House that rather than fading away, the Trump-Russia problem is transforming into something much more serious.