- Thomson Reuters
A private plane owned by a Russian oligarch who has ties to President Donald Trump and his secretary of commerce flew into cities where Trump was campaigning before the November election at least twice, flight data and photographs have shown.
The timing has raised questions about whether Trump met with the oligarch, Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev, while their planes were parked at the same time in Las Vegas in late October and then in Charlotte, North Carolina, in early November.
A White House official called the speculation “ridiculous” and characterized it as akin to a “conspiracy” in an email to Business Insider on Tuesday.
“No member of the Trump campaign or Mr. Trump met with Mr. Rybolovlev during the campaign or any other time,” said the official, who requested anonymity because the person was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
The official continued: “No one was even aware of the plane until receiving a similar email about this yesterday. For a press corps so obsessed with evidence, proof and feigning a general disgust at even the hint of conspiracy, this is pretty rich.”
MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and McClatchy have recently mainstreamed suspicion about the peculiar timing of Rybolovlev’s jet’s travels, particularly the plane’s presence in Charlotte on the same day Trump landed there to campaign in nearby Concord, North Carolina.
“This is garbage,” another White House official said when asked about the reports.
Photos had been circulating on social media of Rybolovlev’s Airbus A319, dubbed M-KATE, along with theories about why the jet – which spends most of its time flying between major European cities like London, Berlin, and Zurich, with sporadic trips to Los Angeles, Miami, and the Caribbean, according to flight records – flew to Charlotte the same day Trump did and stayed there for 22 hours afterward.
— Peze Locker (@PezeLocker) September 18, 2016
Flight-tracking data reviewed by Business Insider showed that M-KATE’s stops in Las Vegas and Charlotte on October 30 and November 3 are indeed outliers.
A 90-minute stop en route to Charlotte in the small city of Concord – where airport officials said the plane took on fuel – also raises questions, given how unlikely it is that a plane of that size would have needed to refuel to travel the 24 miles to Charlotte. Taking off only to begin an immediate descent would have also wasted fuel.
But the speculation about possible preelection encounters between Trump and Rybolovlev has also been fueled by the fact that it wouldn’t have been their first.
Rybolovlev, a multibillionaire who was an early investor in one of the world’s most lucrative fertilizer companies, bought a Palm Beach property from Trump for $95 million in 2008, two years after Trump had put it on the market for $125 million (after purchasing it for $41 million in 2004.)
2008 was a rough year for Trump. According to PolitiFact, that was the year Trump Entertainment Resorts missed a $53.1 million bond interest payment and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy to reorganize.
Rybolovlev’s cash infusion into Trump’s bank account is believed to be the most expensive home sale in US history. At that point, big banks were highly reluctant to loan to Trump, who had lost them money, as he wrote in his 2007 book, “Think Big: Make it Happen in Business and Life.”
“I figured it was the bank’s problem, not mine,” Trump wrote, according to The New York Times. “What the hell did I care? I actually told one bank, ‘I told you you shouldn’t have loaned me that money. I told you the goddamn deal was no good.'”
- Lionel Cironneau/AP
Rybolovlev has never lived in the mansion and has since torn it down. Both he and Trump have insisted that they never met at any point during the historic transaction.
“The president has said on several occasions, he sold a home in Palm Beach to a Russian once – that person is Mr. Rybolovlev,” the White House official said. “Mr. Trump did not meet with him during that transaction either, which took place in 2008.”
Reports over the past few days have also shone light on ties between Rybolovlev and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. As of 2013, Rybolovlev owned the largest share in the Bank of Cyprus – roughly 9.9%. One year later, Ross bought out the Cypriot bank from Russian oligarchs who had accused of using it to move their money to offshore accounts. At the time, Cyprus banks held $8.5 billion to $37 billion worth of Russian money, according to a German intelligence report cited by Der Spiegel.
Anna-Catherine Sendgikoski, a limo driver who had been waiting to pick someone up at the Charlotte airport’s terminal for private jets, told Business Insider that Trump’s plane landed “a few minutes” after Rybolovlev’s the morning of November 3. She said she noticed Rybolovlev’s plane “because of the strange numberless tail letters. MKATE.”
“I was curious and Googled MKATE,” Sendgikoski said. “That gave me the owners name along with all sorts of information. A few minutes later Trump’s plane lands. I put two and two together remembering that Trump had said he never met the Russian billionaire who bought property from him in a 10 million dollar deal.”
Reached for comment, Rybolovlev’s spokesman, Brian Cattell, said, “Mr. Rybolovlev and Mr. Trump have never met.” He declined to comment on why Rybolovlev’s plane had been in Charlotte on November 3 and whether Rybolovlev was on it.