Baltimore City Paper

Trump, Putin, and Ownership of the Means of Seduction

Having the goods on someone garners instant and lasting respect, especially when that someone has no idea how you know.

I learned this in 2006, while researching Baltimore's uncanny tendency toward house collapses. John Elder, a former city-employed engineer who had gone into business as a plan-stamper for shady, quick-buck house-flippers, had an extensive criminal history, replete with drugs, grand theft, even hate crimes. In the mid '70s he stole a yacht and sailed it to Connecticut, where the feds arrested him. He ended up doing a couple years in Danbury FCI.


I happen to know a guy who also did some time there and then, so I called him to see if he remembered Elder. Pay dirt: Not only did my friend remember him, he sent me pages from his autobiography recounting their meetings. I asked Elder about these events, and he promptly turned about as pale as a white guy could get.

I never used my friend's details in my stories ("Collapse: Who inspects the work that makes buildings fall down?"). They weren't relevant to the issues at hand. But my intimate knowledge of Elder's worst moments of three decades ago made him think I knew—or could know—anything and everything about his sordid little life. After that, he always returned my calls.


I tell you all that so I can tell you this: Donald Trump is basically John Elder.

Under the bluster and braggadocio is fear. We all know that look.

It's the look of a man who is in way over his head, and doesn't know how he got there.

No one knows for sure how Vladimir Putin came to own Donald Trump, notwithstanding yesterday's public revelations about alleged hooker-piss-parties and illicit meetings between Kremlin officials and Trump's lawyer. That whole document could be bogus or, more likely, just some elements are. Intelligence services plant this kind of stuff in the press routinely, as a way to test loyalties, ferret-out leakers and discredit reporters and media companies it deems a threat.

But the evidence of Putin's power over Trump envelopes the incoming administration like a fog. It's everywhere and nowhere, invisible up close yet definitive from any reasonable distance.

Trump parrots Putin's boasts and denials. Trump hails Putin's leadership. Trump was bragging about his "relationship" with Putin years ago. And Trump, despite having very few business dealings in Russia, has made a lot of money from Russians.

Consider this house-flip:

In 2004 Donald Trump bought Abe Gosman's Palm Beach mansion and six-acre waterfront estate for $41 million, and claimed later to have spent $3 million renovating it. In 2008—after the real estate bubble burst—he sold it for $95 million, to Dmitry Rybolovlev, described variously as a "Russian oligarch" and "fertilizer tycoon." Allegedly the 165th richest man on Planet Earth, Rybolovlev was also charged in 1996 with murdering a business rival. But those charges went away, and Rybolovlev later claimed it was all a shake-down to force him to sell some shares in his formerly state-owned potash enterprise. That's how it goes, apparently, in Russian politics.


The sale of 515 N. Country Road, Palm Beach, FL to Rybolovlev was the largest single property deal ever in the U.S.A. The house was known as Maison D'Amitie (The House of Friendship). The Russian, who has left the property vacant for the past eight years and denied even owning it during his contentious divorce, now plans to demolish it. (It may be gone already; weirdly, the address has disappeared from the Palm Beach online property tax registry).

In 2013, as the local housing market had not quite recovered to its mid '2000s peak, Palm Beach County appraised the land and buildings at just under $60 million. Still $35 million less than Trump was paid in 2008.

In today's press conference, Sherri Dillon, one of Trump's lawyers, explained that the Emoluments Clause, a bit of Constitutional arcana forbidding U.S. government officials from being bought-and-paid-for by foreign kings, does not speak to "fair-value exchanges."

She used the example of foreign governments paying for their officials to stay at one of Trump's hotels. It's unclear that even that seemingly innocuous transaction would pass muster, even given Trump's new pledge to donate such revenue to the U.S. Treasury. But what about the Maison L'Amitie, still valued at only 2/3 of what Trump miraculously wrung from it just before Barack Obama took office?

How the President-elect managed to clear $51 million profit (and set an all-time high sales record) at the dead-bottom of the housing market is a mystery, just one of many surrounding Trump's relationship with the Russian Federation and its current oligarchy. Rybolovlev, himself, is "an outlier" within the world of Russian billionaires, having "no significant industrial assets anywhere," by Bloomberg's analysis. But money is money, and overpaying buys a lot more good will than knowing someone's dark secrets—until, perhaps, the person who has been overpaid is made to understand that those overpayments are the dark secrets.

"Russia has never tried to use leverage over me," Trump tweeted today. "I HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH RUSSIA - NO DEALS, NO LOANS, NO NOTHING!"


"Russians," Donald Trump Jr. reportedly said at a 2008 real estate conference, "make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets."

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