One-page letter from Trump lawyers about Russia raises many questions, provides few answers

He still hasn’t released his tax returns.

Demonstrators gather outside the White House a day after President Donald Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, Wednesday, May 10, 2017, in Washington. CREDIT: AP Photo/Evan Vucci
Demonstrators gather outside the White House a day after President Donald Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, Wednesday, May 10, 2017, in Washington. CREDIT: AP Photo/Evan Vucci

President Donald Trump’s lawyers, in a letter released on Friday, said that a review of the last 10 years of Trump’s tax returns revealed that “with a few exceptions” he has had no income from Russian sources — which, effectively, confirmed that Trump has received some income from Russian sources in the past 10 years.

There is no way to verify the claims in the letter, as Trump has yet to release his actual tax returns. According to reporting from AP, the White House asked Trump’s lawyers to prepare the letter after a request from Lindsey Graham. It is dated as being from March 8th, 2017.

According to Trump’s lawyers, he has received no income from Russian sources, and does not carry debt to Russian lenders. It also says that Trump has no equity investments in Russian entities, and that no Russian entities or persons have equity investments in Trump-owned business.

It then goes on, however, to list several exceptions — worth tens of millions — to these sweeping claims.

The first exception is the 2013 Miss Universe pageant held in Moscow. The second is a deal Trump struck with a Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev in 2008, to whom Trump sold a Palm Beach mansion for $95 million.

And, in the third exception, Trump’s lawyers say that “over the years, it is likely” that the Trump organization has engaged in business with Russian sources, “such as sales/rentals/fees for condominiums, hotel rooms, rounds of golf, books, or Trump-licensed products.”

It’s a broad loophole for a letter that claims to show that Trump has no income from Russian sources. While Trump’s lawyers acknowledge that such income from Russian sources is “likely,” previous reporting has all-but confirmed it.

In one example, at least 63 individuals with Russian passports have purchased property in luxury Trump-branded towers in Florida, spending at least $98.4 million, according to a review by Reuters. It’s unclear how much of that money went to Trump, who receives income from the property in a mix of flat fees and percentages, according to Reuters.

Trump’s lawyers argue that the amount of money from Russian sources coming from this last exception is “immaterial,” though they provide no evidence to back up this claim.

It’s also unclear, from the letter, where they draw the line to define what constitutes a “Russian” source: Did they consider only Russian government entities? Russian citizens? Wholly Russian-owned businesses? Did they include businesses that have Russian partners, or where a significant portion of the business — but not all of it — is Russian owned?

Before their father entered politics, Trump’s sons bragged about having access to Russian funding streams. At a real estate conference in 2008, Donald Trump Jr. bragged that they had a stream of Russian money “pouring in” to Trump businesses.

“And 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,” he said.

And, according to golf reporter James Dodson, at a golf outing at a Trump course in North Carolina three years ago, Eric Trump bragged that they had access to “all the funding we need out of Russia.” Eric Trump denies the report.

Without Trump’s tax returns the full extent of Trump’s dealings is impossible to determine, as is the actual scope, significance, and accuracy of his lawyers’ claims, and of Trump’s financial ties to Russia in general.

It’s also unclear why, if Trump believes that his actual tax returns will validate these claims, he continues to refuse to release them. During the campaign, Trump claimed that he couldn’t release his returns because he was under audit — despite the IRS repeatedly correcting him and saying that people are allowed to make their own returns public at any time, regardless of an audit. On Thursday, Trump changed his story again, suggesting that he might release his returns after he leaves office.