Lawmakers in the U.S. Senate this week are tweaking 2017 budget legislation to allocate money for construction of the Mexican border wall, a priority of incoming president Donald Trump, but the budgetary maneuver faces a high hurdle to get past Democrats—and might not even be necessary.
A consortium of Russian businessmen, including one who is a close friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has come forward with a proposal to create a private fund that would pay for the wall, enabling Trump to meet his highest-profile campaign promise without taking money away from other U.S. priorities or adding to the federal deficit.
“We see the border security wall as a significant investment opportunity and also a vehicle for creating closer economic ties between our two countries,” says the consortium proposal, which was provided to the Trump transition team today. “Given the president-elect’s brilliant career as a businessman and builder, we are eager to work with him in making America great again.”
The consortium, called the Private Russian Capital Fund for U.S. Border Security, would raise up to $45 billion to pay for construction and initial operation of the wall. Investment in the fund would be open to anyone who contributes a minimum $1 million, but the bulk of the start-up capital, estimated at $15 billion, would come from the dozen members of the consortium, all of whom are Russian businessmen.
Vasily Vershenko, a close Putin associate who made billions as an investor in Gazprom (OGZPY), the state-run Russian oil conglomerate, is listed as the fund’s general partner.
Trump has not said whether he is interested in tapping private funds for the wall, but House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called the proposal a win-win. “It’s not every day that the United States is offered free money, but we believe that’s exactly what we’re getting here,” the lawmakers said in a joint statement today.
Vershenko is not well known outside Kremlin circles, but U.S. intelligence officials say he led the investment group that provided funds to the Trump Organization in the early 1990s and in 2004, when it was losing money and under bankruptcy protection. The group is believed to have provided hundreds of millions of dollars to Trump, enabling him to maintain his high-flying lifestyle even though his company for a several-year stretch was virtually worthless.
Michael Flynn, Trump’s pick for National Security Advisor, says he sees no reason for the government to turn down the offer. “Not only are they offering us a way to pay for the wall, but they know Trump,” he says. “They’ve worked with him. They know what a brilliant businessman he is. They know he drives a hard bargain and would never take Russian money if there were strings attached. What they’re doing, essentially, is giving us free money as a way to improve our relationship with Russia, which is why they want nothing in return. How often does an offer like that come along?”
Rex Tillerson, Trump’s pick for secretary of state, agreed. “When friends offer you free money, you should take it,” he said. “I can’t think of another instance in American history in which we’re offered free money. Usually it’s us offering other countries money, so we can influence their internal politics and bend them to our will. It’s always been a way for us to take advantage of other countries and advance our national interest at their expense. At long last, we get to be on the receiving end of free money. I think this shows how the Trump presidency will be unique in American history. He is bringing in free money thanks to his friends in a country that historically has been our adversary but now wants to be our friend. We are indeed entering a new age for America. I can’t see how anything can go wrong when you have such a brilliant businessman like Donald Trump leading us and such good new friends as the Russians.”
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