Donald Trump's Russia Money Links Remain Unclear After Letter From Russia-Connected Law Firm, Experts Say

Jonathan Vankin

Beleaguered by the ongoing investigation and widespread suspicions over his and his campaign's links to Russia, Donald Trump on Friday released a letter from his longtime tax attorneys declaring that Trump does not earn income from "Russian sources" and has no debts to Russian lenders. But experts who analyzed the one-page memo from Trump's lawyers are not convinced, and say that despite the letter's claims, there is still no way to know the extent of Trump's business dealing or financial entanglements with Russian business interests and the Russian government.

In another stunning twist, the firm that prepared the letter for Trump — Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP — has such deep ties to Russia itself that the firm was named the 2016 "Russia Law Firm of the Year," according to an announcement on the firm's own website.

In fact, the Morgan Lewis website states, the law firm maintains a busy Moscow office with more than 40 employees.

"Our lawyers are well known in the Russian market, and have deep familiarity with the local legislation, practices, and key players," the site states. The firm has represented Trump personally as well as his Trump Organization since 2005, according to a report by ABC News.

Democratic Senator Chris Murphy, who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called the Russia ties of the law firm that wrote the letter supposedly exonerating Trump from Russia ties "unreal." And Jack Blum, a Washington tax attorney who specializes in criminal financial matters, told ABC News that the letter from Trump's lawyers was "meaningless."

But though the lawyers said that their denial of financial ties between Trump and Russia was based on 10 years of Trump's tax returns, Trump and the attorneys refused to make those returns public to allow the claims in the letter to be checked and verified.

— Bradd Jaffy (@BraddJaffy) May 12, 2017

The letter from the attorneys appeared narrowly focused on business that Trump actually conducted in Russia. But there could be numerous sources of Russian income that do not fall under that description, according to an analysis by Mother Jones Magazine financial writer Russ Choma.

For example, according to a Reuters report in March, Russian investors bought nearly $100 million worth of property in Trump condominium developments in southern Florida. While Trump does not own the buildings in which the Russian investors purchased units, he does receive fees for each sale, as part of the licensing deal for the use of his name.

In addition, Trump partnered with two Russian oligarchs, Felix Sater and Tamir Sapir, as well as former Soviet Union official-turned-businessman Tevfik Arif, in a New York real estate project, the Trump SoHo Hotel. According to a series of lawsuits filed in connection with the project, Trump's Russian partners borrowed money from lenders in Russia to finance the hotel.

Trump's own family members have also contradicted Trump's and the lawyers' assertions that he has no business dealings in Russia. According to a report last week, Eric Trump told golf writer James Dodson — who had inquired about how the Trump Org financed its numerous golf course developments at a time when American banks were reluctant to finance golf courses — "We don't rely on American banks. We have all the funding we need out of Russia. We've got some guys that really, really love golf, and they're really invested in our programs. We just go there all the time."

As far back as 2008, Donald Trump Jr., who is also a top Trump Organization executive, told a group of investors, "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."

Not only his sons, but Trump himself — despite his current denials of any business interests in Russia -- as recently as 2013 told talk show host David Letterman, "I've done a lot of business with the Russians. They're smart and they're tough and they're not looking so dumb right now, are they?" In the same interview, Trump claimed to have met Russian President Vladimir Putin "once."

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