The Washington Post Column

The ugly way Trump’s rise and Putin’s are connected

  • By
  • Anne Applebaum

There were at least eight people in the room on June 9, 2016, when two Trump family members and Donald Trump’s campaign manager met with a Russian lawyer and her extended team in Trump Tower. Focus your attention just briefly on one of them: Ike Kaveladze. Of course it will be important to learn, in due course, what he was really doing there. But in the meantime, we should spend a few minutes thinking about the peculiar financial culture — American as well as Russian — that he represents.

Though not exactly a celebrity, Kaveladze’s notoriety in certain circles stretches back more than two decades. Starting in the 1990s, his company, Euro-American Corporate Services Inc., set up more than 2,000 Delaware corporations on behalf of unknown, mostly Russian clients and used those companies to open bank accounts. According to a Government Accountability Office report on “Suspicious Banking Activities,” published in 2000, those bank accounts were then used to receive and send large amounts of money. The GAO found that two banks “facilitated the transfer of approximately $1 billion from Eastern Europe, through U.S. banks, and back to Eastern Europe by corporations formed for Russian brokers”; more than $800 million in total was deposited in 136 accounts that Euro-American Corporate Services and another Kaveladze company created at Citibank alone. Kaveladze has protested that what he had done was legal — and he was right. Delaware law really was so lax that it allowed unnamed Russians to send money in and out of the United States without much question.

Why did this matter? Because that kind of activity was a part of the business model that brought Vladimir Putin to power. As numerous books have documented — the best is “Putin’s Kleptocracy” by Karen Dawisha — Putin was one of a group of public officials, many affiliated with the old KGB, who systematically pillaged the Russian state. They drew money out of the state, often using commodities arbitrage or other methods, moved the money out of the country through shell companies, then brought it back to Russia and used it to buy companies and property. They became rich — many of them fabulously so. They then used that wealth to gain power.

Soviet-born businessmen such as Kaveladze, based in the United States and Europe, played significant roles in this system. But so did a range of U.S. and European bankers, accountants and lawyers. For two decades, Western real estate markets — New York, Miami, London — have also provided multiple safe places for Russian oligarchs (and many others) to spend money with complete anonymity. Last year, a Treasury Department investigation into shell companies that purchased luxury homes for cash in several U.S. metropolitan areas found that more than a quarter of such transactions in Manhattan and Miami actually involved someone engaged in “suspicious activity.”

The arrangement suited everybody: American real estate magnates, suddenly rich Russian oligarchs, the construction industry and many others. But underneath this boom there was a grim truth: An important chunk of the money that pumped up the New York luxury real estate market over the past two decades was money originally siphoned off from the Russian state. That was money that should have been used to build hospitals, schools and roads, but instead enriched officials such as Putin and the billionaires who surround him. In due course, Russian money also enriched Trump and his family: As Donald Trump Jr. said in 2008, “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets.”

In that sense the rise of Trump and the rise of Putin are connected. No wonder Trump feels such an affinity for the Russian president; no wonder he seeks him out at international meetings. And no wonder special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation has reportedly decided to look closely at past Trump family real estate transactions.

I’m sure there will eventually be a lot more to say about the details of the Trump-Russia financial relationship. But this story should make us ponder some larger themes, too. After all, the double rise of Trump and Putin might have been halted if only Western governments and financial institutions had acted, over the past two decades, as if they truly believed that these kinds of dealings are wrong. Laws were not enforced — or did not exist. Blind eyes were turned.

Even now, we could be doing much, much more. We could stop the registration of all anonymous companies in states such as Wyoming, Delaware and Nevada. We could make all property owners put their real names on public registers. We could listen to Global Witness and other activist groups that constantly point out the links between financial deals in New York and human rights abuse and poverty in faraway countries. Some of these changes are happening in Britain and Europe. But in the United States, where the political consequences of this ugly international system are now so dramatic, we have scarcely begun.