'This is ridiculous': White House official denounces 'conspiracy' about Trump and Russian billionaire

(L to R) White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon and White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus. Photo: Drew Angerer/ Getty Images.

A private plane owned by a Russian oligarch who has ties to President Donald Trump and his secretary of commerce flew into cities where the then-candidate was campaigning before the November election at least twice, flight data and photographs have shown.

The coincidence has raised questions about whether Trump met with the oligarch, Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev, while their planes were parked in Las Vegas, Nevada, and Charlotte, North Carolina, at the same time in late October and early November.

A White House official called the speculation “ridiculous” and characterised it 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 they were not authorised 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.

Flight tracking data reviewed by Business Insider showed that M-KATE’s stops in Las Vegas and Charlotte on October 30 and November 3 — with a stop in the small city of Concord, North Carolina, to refuel before flying to Charlotte — are indeed outliers. But the speculation about possible preelection encounters between Trump and Rybolovlev has also been fuelled by the fact that it wouldn’t have been their first.

Rybolovlev, a multi-billionaire who was an early investor in one of the world’s most lucrative fertiliser companies, bought a Palm Beach property from Trump for $US95 million in 2008, two years after Trump had put it on the market for $US125 million (after purchasing it for $US41 million in 2004.)

2008 was a rough year for Trump. According to PolitiFact, that was the year Trump Entertainment Resorts a $US53.1 million bond interest payment and was forced to file for Chapter 11 reorganization, or bankruptcy.

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. 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,'” Trump wrote, according to The New York Times.

Rybolovlev has never lived in the mansion and has since torn it down. He and Trump have both 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,” a White House official told Business Insider on Tuesday. “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 Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Rybolovlev.As of 2013Rybolovlev owned the largest share in the Bank of Cyprus — roughly 9.9%. One year later,Wilbur Ross bought out the Cypriot bank from Russian oligarchs who had allegedly been using it to move their money to offshore accounts. At the time, Cyprus banks held between $US8.5 billion and $US37 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 Charlotte airport’s terminal for private jets, told McClatchy that Trump and Rybolovlev’s planes appeared to be about 300 feet apart on the tarmac the morning of November 3. But she said she saw Trump walk off his plane and directly into his motorcade, and didn’t see anyone get in or out of Rybolovlev’s plane.

Rybolovlev’s spokesman, Brian Cattell, founding partner of CLP & Partners in New York, did not respond to requests for comment. But he declined to tell McClatchy why Rybolovlev’s plane had been in Charlotte on November 3, and whether Rybolovlev was on it.

“There are a lot of rumours and farfetched theories circulating online but none of them have any basis in fact,”Cattell said. “Mr. Rybolovlev has never met Donald Trump.”

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