The house wasn’t built for a Russian oligarch, although it looked the part. The 62,000-square-foot, 17-bedroom mansion is a palace of new-money flash, featuring Greek fountains, tennis courts, trompe l’oeil murals, underground parking for dozens of cars, and a 100-foot swimming pool and hot tub overlooking the ocean. It even had a faux-aristocratic name: “Maison de l’Amitie,” or the House of Friendship. It was the trophy of a Boston-area nursing home magnate, until he lost his fortune in 2004. That’s when Donald Trump scooped it up.
After paying $41 million for the place in November 2004, Trump called it “the finest piece of land in Florida, and probably the U.S.” He vowed to upgrade the structure into “the second-greatest house in America.” (Second, of course, to his nearby Mar-a-Lago resort.) But Trump had no intention of living there. He intended to flip it for a quick—and huge—profit. His initial asking price, less than two years after buying it, was $125 million. By the time Trump listed the property, in early 2006, the real estate market was already cooling off. The property sat on the market for about two years as a frustrated Trump churned through real estate brokers and slashed his price 20 percent. It wasn’t at all clear who might pay Trump three times his buying price for a neoclassical palace amid a looming recession.
In the summer of 2008, Trump found a solution to his problem in the form of one of the world’s hundred richest men: a 41-year-old Russian billionaire named Dmitry Rybolovlev. Then with a net worth that Forbesestimated at $13 billion, Rybolovlev had made his fortune in the wild west of 1990s post-Soviet Russia. He’d spent a year in prison on murder charges (he was later cleared) and wore a bulletproof vest when his own life was threatened. He would pay Trump $95 million for Maison L’Amitie in what was widely described as the most expensive U.S. residential property sale ever.The nature of Trump’s connection to Russia has exploded recently as a campaign issue, thanks to his friendly comments about Russian President Vladimir Putin; the ties that several of his advisers have to Moscow; his contrarian views on NATO and Ukraine, which happen to echo Putin’s; and his startling call on Wednesday for Moscow to find and release Hillary Clinton’s deleted private emails.
But the connection isn’t just political. Trump has repeatedly explored business ventures in Russia, partnered with Russians on projects elsewhere, and benefited from Russian largesse in his business ventures. “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets,” Donald Trump Jr. said at a real estate conference in 2008.Why did a Russian billionaire pay Trump so much money for a house the new owner is believed never to have set foot in, which he has denied owning, and which he now intends to tear down? The answer offers an important window into Trump’s kinship with Russia’s oligarchs, and what he likely sees in them as business allies. It is also a story of a classic Trump deal: a lucrative flip, figures on both sides that don’t really add up, and at the center, a house that may not have been what either party claimed.
In an interview, Trump shrugged off the Maison de l’Amitie sale as a “small deal,” compared to his other ventures, the way some people might refer to a summer cabin in the woods. “That was a house I bought for fun,” Trump said. He also downplayed his personal investment in the place, saying that he only made minor improvements to the property. “I cleaned it up a little bit, but not too much,” Trump told POLITICO. “The primary thing was, I painted it.” The implication, of course, would be that the price differential between his purchase and sale was almost entirely profit.
Back when Trump was trying to flip the house at a dizzying price, however, he claimed to have done far more. “I bought the land and gutted the house,” Trump told a reporter in late 2005. After the property went on the market, Shawn McCabe, vice president of Trump Properties in Florida, told Forbes that Trump had put in at least $25 million of his own money.Documents submitted in March to Palm Beach’s architectural commission by a private firm retained by the buyer suggest that the actual work was modest. They say Trump had the main house’s interior “remodeled, updating with a new kitchen and dividing a large room to create additional bedrooms and bathrooms,” along with “some minor interior alterations of doors, frames & windows.”
Perhaps Trump understood that the payoff he was demanding would have to come from outside the U.S. A new generation of ultra-wealthy foreigners had emerged in the previous decade, many of them Russians who had reaped mind-boggling wealth as formerly state-controlled industries were privatized, the spoils mostly shared among political cronies. By then, Trump had pursued or completed multiple deals with Russian partners. “We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia,” Donald Jr., said at that 2008 real estate conference.
Enter Dmitry Rybolovlev. Barely over 40 and worth a Forbes-estimated $12.5 billion in 2008, Rybolovlev was not exactly a familiar name on the Palm Beach social circuit. A former medical student who became a stock broker as the country transitioned from socialism to a market economy in the 1990s, he invested in heavy industry. In 1995, then just 29 years old, he was chairman of the Russian fertilizer giant Uralkali. Dubbed “the fertilizer king,” he would become one of the world’s wealthiest men, peaking at No. 59 on the Forbes 500 list.
Today, Rybolovlev is better known for other things. There was his record-setting purchase of an $88 million Manhattan apartment for his 22-year-old daughter; his ownership of Monaco’s pro soccer team; and recent accounts in the New York Times and The New Yorker of claims that an art broker who helped him purchase works by the likes of Picasso and da Vinci overcharged him by hundreds of millions of dollars.Trump has much in common with Russia’s oligarchs—billions in wealth, supreme self-confidence, a taste for trophies and a love of flaunting riches—and in recent years, he has gravitated toward them. In 2013, he partnered with the Russian real estate mogul Aras Agalarov to bring the Miss Universe pageant, which Trump owned at the time, to Moscow. Trump later boasted that “all the oligarchs” had attended the event. While in Moscow, Trump discussed plans for real estate projects there.
It is hard to verify the claim Trump made this week that he has no investments in Russia and that his dealings with Russians are very limited. His company is private and is not required to disclose its finances. In a break from modern presidential norms, Trump refuses to release his personal tax returns.
“The big question is whether any hard evidence comes out about whether Trump has any financial interests linked to Russia,” says Democratic consultant Jeremy Rosner, who served on Bill Clinton’s national security council staff. “And that’s why it’s so important that he release his tax records. Otherwise, we could have a Manchurian Candidate with the keys to the Oval Office who is under the control of a foreign power. And voters deserve very clear evidence that that is not the case.”