Trump, Russia, organized crime and Jean Claude Van Damme

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Donald Trump in 1997, with palm trees up his ass.

Trump keeps trying to minimize his interests in Russia but it’s apparent that Trump and Russia have had mutual interests for a very long time. Bloomberg has a very interesting article by Timothy L. O’Brien titled “Trump, Russia and a Shadowy Business Partnership” in which “An insider describes the Bayrock Group, its links to the Trump family and its mysterious access to funds. It isn’t pretty.”

But Trump and Russia go waaaay back, evident by this profile of Trump I came across by Mark Singer of The New Yorker from 1997 titled “Trump Solo.” It’s worth a read to get inside Trump’s mind a bit (like the part where he made his son Eric fast-forward through a VHS tape of the Jean Claude Van Damme film Bloodsport to get to the fight scenes), but Trump’s interests in Russia, even twenty years ago, are mentioned. I will quote at length.

A Russian artist, a Christopher Columbus statue and $40 million:

Back at the office, a Times reporter, Michael Gordon, was on the line, calling from Moscow. Gordon had just interviewed a Russian artist named Zurab Tsereteli, a man with a sense of grandiosity familiar to Trump. Was it true, Gordon asked, that Tsereteli and Trump had discussed erecting on the Hudson River a statue of Christopher Columbus that was six feet taller than the Statue of Liberty?

“Yes, it’s already been made, from what I understand,” said Trump, who had met Tsereteli a couple of months earlier, in Moscow. “It’s got forty million dollars’ worth of bronze in it, and Zurab would like it to be at my West Side Yards development”—a seventy-five-acre tract called Riverside South—“and we are working toward that end.”

According to Trump, the head had arrived in America, the rest of the body was still in Moscow, and the whole thing was being donated by the Russian government. “The mayor of Moscow has written a letter to Rudy Giuliani stating that they would like to make a gift of this great work by Zurab. It would be my honor if we could work it out with the City of New York. I am absolutely favorably disposed toward it. Zurab is a very unusual guy. This man is major and legit.”

Trump hung up and said to me, “See what I do? All this bullshit. Know what? After shaking five thousand hands, I think I’ll go wash mine.”

And another excerpt regarding a conversation with a former Russian army general about boxing and a potential real estate deal in Moscow:

When a call came a while back from Aleksandr Ivanovich Lebed, the retired general, amateur boxer, and restless pretender to the Presidency of Russia, explaining that he was headed to New York and wanted to arrange a meeting, Trump was pleased but not surprised. The list of superpower leaders and geopolitical strategists with whom Trump has engaged in frank and fruitful exchanges of viewpoints includes Mikhail Gorbachev, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George Bush, former Secretary of Defense William Perry, and the entire Joint Chiefs of Staff. (He’s also pals with Sylvester Stallone and Clint Eastwood, men’s men who enjoy international reputations for racking up massive body counts.) In 1987, fresh from his grandest public-relations coup—repairing in three and a half months, under budget and for no fee, the Wollman skating rink, in Central Park, a job that the city of New York had spent six years and twelve million dollars bungling—Trump contemplated how, in a larger sphere, he could advertise himself as a doer and dealmaker. One stunt involved orchestrating an “invitation” from the federal government to examine the Williamsburg Bridge, which was falling apart. Trump had no real interest in the job, but by putting on a hard hat and taking a stroll on the bridge for the cameras he stoked the fantasy that he could rebuild the city’s entire infrastructure. From there it was only a short leap to saving the planet. What if, say, a troublemaker like Muammar Qaddafi got his hands on a nuclear arsenal? Well, Trump declared, he stood ready to work with the leaders of the then Soviet Union to coördinate a formula for coping with Armageddon-minded lunatics.

The clear purpose of Lebed’s trip to America, an unofficial visit that coincided with the second Clinton Inaugural, was to add some reassuring human texture to his image as a plainspoken tough guy. Simultaneously, his domestic political prospects could be enhanced if voters back home got the message that Western capitalists felt comfortable with him. Somewhere in Lebed’s calculations was the understanding that, to the nouveau entrepreneurs of the freebooter’s paradise that is now Russia, Trump looked and smelled like very old money.

Their rendezvous was scheduled for midmorning. Having enlisted as an interpreter Inga Bogutska, a receptionist whose father, by coincidence, was a Russian general, Trump decided to greet his visitor in the lobby. When it turned out that Lebed, en route from an audience with a group of Times editors and reporters, was running late, Trump occupied himself by practicing his golf swing and surveying the female pedestrians in the atrium. Finally, Lebed arrived, a middle-aged but ageless fellow with a weathered, fleshy face and hooded eyes, wearing a gray business suit and an impassive expression. After posing for a Times photographer, they rode an elevator to the twenty-sixth floor, and along the way Trump asked, “So, how is everything in New York?”

“Well, it’s hard to give an assessment, but I think it is brilliant,” Lebed replied. He had a deep, bullfroggy voice, and his entourage of a half-dozen men included an interpreter, who rendered Inga Bogutska superfluous.

“Yes, it’s been doing very well,” Trump agreed. “New York is on a very strong up. And we’ve been reading a lot of great things about this gentleman and his country.”

Inside his office, Trump immediately began sharing with Lebed some of his treasured possessions. “This is a shoe that was given to me by Shaquille O’Neal,” he said. “Basketball. Shaquille O’Neal. Seven feet three inches, I guess. This is his sneaker, the actual sneaker. In fact, he gave this to me after a game.”

“I’ve always said,” Lebed sagely observed, “that after size 45, which I wear, then you start wearing trunks on your feet.”

“That’s true,” said Trump. He moved on to a replica of a Mike Tyson heavyweight-championship belt, followed by an Evander Holyfield glove. “He gave me this on my fiftieth birthday. And then he beat Tyson. I didn’t know who to root for. And then, again, here is Shaquille O’Neal’s shirt. Here, you might want to see this. This was part of an advertisement for Versace, the fashion designer. These are photographs of Madonna on the stairs at Mar-a-Lago, my house in Florida. And this photograph shows something that we just finished and are very proud of. It’s a big hotel called Trump International. And it’s been very successful. So we’ve had a lot of fun.”

Trump introduced Lebed to Howard Lorber, who had accompanied him a few months earlier on his journey to Moscow, where they looked at properties to which the Trump moniker might be appended. “Howard has major investments in Russia,” he told Lebed, but when Lorber itemized various ventures none seemed to ring a bell.

“See, they don’t know you,” Trump told Lorber. “With all that investment, they don’t know you. Trump they know.”

Some “poisonous people” at the Times, Lebed informed Trump, were “spreading some funny rumors that you are going to cram Moscow with casinos.”

Laughing, Trump said, “Is that right?”

“I told them that I know you build skyscrapers in New York. High-quality skyscrapers.”

“We are actually looking at something in Moscow right now, and it would be skyscrapers and hotels, not casinos. Only quality stuff. But thank you for defending me. I’ll soon be going again to Moscow. We’re looking at the Moskva Hotel. We’re also looking at the Rossiya. That’s a very big project; I think it’s the largest hotel in the world. And we’re working with the local government, the mayor of Moscow and the mayor’s people. So far, they’ve been very responsive.”

Lebed: “You must be a very confident person. You are building straight into the center.”

Trump: “I always go into the center.”

Lebed: “I hope I’m not offending by saying this, but I think you are a litmus testing paper. You are at the end of the edge. If Trump goes to Moscow, I think America will follow. So I consider these projects of yours to be very important. And I’d like to help you as best I can in putting your projects into life. I want to create a canal or riverbed for capital flow. I want to minimize the risks and get rid of situations where the entrepreneur has to try to hide his head between his shoulders. I told the New York Times I was talking to you because you are a professional—a high-level professional—and if you invest, you invest in real stuff. Serious, high-quality projects. And you deal with serious people. And I deem you to be a very serious person. That’s why I’m meeting you.”

Trump: “Well, that’s very nice. Thank you very much. I have something for you. This is a little token of my respect. I hope you like it. This is a book called ‘The Art of the Deal,’ which a lot of people have read. And if you read this book you’ll know the art of the deal better than I do.”

The conversation turned to Lebed’s lunch arrangements and travel logistics—“It’s very tiring to meet so many people,” he confessed—and the dialogue began to feel stilted, as if Trump’s limitations as a Kremlinologist had exhausted the potential topics. There was, however, one more subject he wanted to cover.

“Now, you were a boxer, right?” he said. “We have a lot of big matches at my hotels. We just had a match between Riddick Bowe and Andrew Golota, from Poland, who won the fight but was disqualified. He’s actually a great fighter if he can ever get through a match without being disqualified. And, to me, you look tougher than Andrew Golota.”

In response, Lebed pressed an index finger to his nose, or what was left of it, and flattened it against his face.

“You do look seriously tough,” Trump continued. “Were you an Olympic boxer?”

“No, I had a rather modest career.”

“Really? The newspapers said you had a great career.”

“At a certain point, my company leader put the question straight: either you do the sports or you do the military service. And I selected the military.”

“You made the right decision,” Trump agreed, as if putting to rest any notion he might have entertained about promoting a Lebed exhibition bout in Atlantic City.

Norma Foerderer came in with a camera to snap a few shots for the Trump archives and to congratulate the general for his fancy footwork in Chechnya. Phone numbers were exchanged, and Lebed, before departing, offered Trump a benediction: “You leave on the earth a very good trace for centuries. We’re all mortal, but the things you build will stay forever. You’ve already proven wrong the assertion that the higher the attic, the more trash there is.”

When Trump returned from escorting Lebed to the elevator, I asked him his impressions.

“First of all, you wouldn’t want to play nuclear weapons with this fucker,” he said. “Does he look as tough and cold as you’ve ever seen? This is not like your average real-estate guy who’s rough and mean. This guy’s beyond that. You see it in the eyes. This guy is a killer. How about when I asked, ‘Were you a boxer?’ Whoa—that nose is a piece of rubber. But me he liked. When we went out to the elevator, he was grabbing me, holding me, he felt very good. And he liked what I do. You know what? I think I did a good job for the country today.”

Sure, Trump has had interactions and dealings with people from a bunch of countries, but none, I think, have been so involved as his dealings with Russia, and it would be disingenuous to say otherwise.

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