Five days before the November election, a Russian billionaire’s jet wheeled to a stop at Charlotte Douglas International Airport.
Less than 90 minutes later, Donald Trump’s campaign jet arrived on the same tarmac for an afternoon campaign rally in nearby Concord.
Who was aboard Dmitry Rybolovlev’s luxurious jet and whether the planes’ near-simultaneous arrival facilitated another previously undisclosed Russian contact with Trump, his family or campaign associates remain unanswered questions.
The White House dismisses the matter as conspiratorial. A spokesman for Rybolovlev declined to say why he was in Charlotte. But their jets shared the tarmac at Charlotte for several hours before Trump left for a 7 p.m. rally near Raleigh on the same day.
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Trump and Rybolovlev, however, agree on this: They say they have never met, although Trump sold a Palm Beach mansion to the Russian fertilizer magnate for $95 million eight years earlier. Rybolovlev recently bulldozed the mansion and is selling the oceanfront property.
The proximity of their intersecting flights, coupled with evidence that Rybolovlev’s plane was also in Las Vegas briefly on the same day as Trump, Oct. 30, has fueled internet plots.
“This is ridiculous,” said a White House spokesperson, who was not authorized to speak for the record. “No member of the Trump campaign or Trump family traveled or met with Mr. Rybolovlev during the campaign or any other time. No one was even aware of the plane until receiving this email.”
MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and author David Cay Johnston discussed Rybolovlev’s plane on the air last Friday, and numerous blogs and partisan websites have speculated on the intersection.
Rybolovlev could put the speculation to rest, but his longtime spokesman — who has past ties to London operations of the alt-right news site Breitbart — wouldn’t say why the Russian billionaire’s airplane was in North Carolina.
“There are a lot of rumors and farfetched theories circulating online but none of them have any basis in fact,” said Brian Cattell, founding partner of CLP & Partners in New York. “Mr. Rybolovlev has never met Donald Trump.”
Cattell declined to say whether the oligarch had been aboard the plane when it landed in Charlotte, whether anyone associated with Trump was a passenger or whether its arrival was in any way connected with Trump’s campaign. If Rybolovlev were somehow assisting the campaign, it would constitute an illegal foreign donation.
Cattell was asked to explain why the plane was in Charlotte for nearly 22 hours before departing for Southern California at 8:39 a.m. on Nov. 4.
“Nothing further to add . . . I am afraid,” said Cattell, a past contributor to Breitbart, the alt-right news organization that was headed by Steve Bannon, who’s now Trump’s special White House adviser. Cattell said he is an external representative for “the Rybolovlev family office,” but until 2011 he was chairman of The Bow Group, a British conservative think tank. The Bow Group’s webpage includes a screen shot of Cattell on Russia Today, the television network that U.S. intelligence agencies say is a Kremlin propaganda tool.
A look at flight records for Rybolovlev’s aircraft over the past year shows numerous trips to Moscow and Switzerland, which he calls home. On Oct. 30, his jet landed in Las Vegas at 12:15 p.m. At 11 a.m. that day, Trump appeared before a crowd of 8,400 people at The Venetian, a hotel and casino owned by major Republican campaign benefactor Sheldon Adelson, who ultimately backed Trump’s presidential bid.
Rybolovlev’s plane was on the ground for two hours and two minutes. The plane had paused in Las Vegas on a trip from Burbank, California, to New York.
After the U.S. election, the plane spent time in the Caribbean islands of St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. Martin and made several trips to Miami and Burbank.
Rybolovlev, 50, made his fortune in the fertilizer business but no longer owns industrial assets. Wealth estimators say his fortune has shrunk from an estimated high of $13 billion to somewhere between $7 billion and $9 billion. He now runs an investment fund and is a part owner of the AS Monaco soccer team. He has been often photographed with Prince Albert II, a patron of the team.
Flight records show Rybolovlev’s plane was mostly in Europe and Russia for the first seven months of last year. It landed at Washington’s Dulles airport on July 31, stayed about 22 hours and left for New York. From August until late October it was all over Europe, including stops in Hungary, Croatia, Turkey and Greece. It then remained in the United States until the Caribbean swing that began in early December.
Rybolovlev made news in last year’s Panama Papers stories because of his offshore companies, which he used to effectively camouflage his ownership of high-priced art.
In 2010, the Russian oligarch became a nearly 10 percent shareholder in Bank of Cyprus, which catered to Russian businessmen. During a Cypriot banking crisis in 2013, he worked to shore it up, many news organizations reported at the time. Cyprus received help from Russia, whose state-owned companies stood to lose money on island investments.
Rybolovlev famously purchased Trump’s Palm Beach mansion for almost $95 million in 2008. The transaction made headlines because he paid almost $60 million more than Trump had, and Rybolovlev bought it amid the U.S. financial crisis, which imperiled real estate values.
Soon after the purchase, Rybolovlev’s marriage to wife Elena crumbled and she later was awarded what was believed to be the highest divorce settlement of modern times, $4.5 billion. It was eventually reduced, and the couple settled out of court. Even as Rybolovlev was buying Trump’s mansion, his wife accused him in court documents of infidelity and lavish sex parties on his yacht.
So why was the Russian oligarch, or at least his plane, in North Carolina just before the U.S. elections?
The Airbus 319 with the registration tail letters MKATE landed at Concord Regional Airport at 10:47 a.m. after an 89-minute flight from New York.
Concord, a small city neighboring Charlotte, is accustomed to seeing millionaire NASCAR drivers leave the airport in limousines, but this was extraordinary.
“Even Trump’s airplane is not that nice,” said Mike Dockery, president of Concord Air Center, who remembers looking up the tail numbers after the luxury jet, about the size of a 737-300, parked at his maintenance hangar. “It looks like a sheikh’s airplane.”
Officials at the city-owned airport could not provide details of the brief stop but confirmed that the jet did take on fuel there. Dockery’s son saw a man get off the plane and ride to the terminal in a golf cart, although it is not clear who he was. Trump’s motorcade arrived in Concord a few hours later.
The top limousine companies in the area, Silver Fox and Rose Chauffeured Transportation Ltd., have no record of ferrying Rybolovlev anywhere that day. The Ritz-Carlton and the historic Dunhill hotel, where celebrities have stayed in uptown Charlotte, have no record of Rybolovlev there under his name.
After an hour and 20 minutes in Concord, the Russian’s plane made a 24-minute hop to Charlotte Douglas International Airport, where it landed at 12:34 pm., according to publicly available flight records obtained by McClatchy.
Around 2 p.m. on Nov. 3, limo driver Anna-Catherine Sendgikoski was waiting for a client at the Charlotte airport’s terminal for private jets.
A plane with the letters MKATE caught her attention. It lacked the numbers displayed on most U.S.-registered planes, meaning it was foreign-owned. She took a picture, looked it up and learned the owner was a rich Russian.
About 20 minutes later, she said, a jet with Trump’s name emblazoned on the side landed. Sendgikoski took pictures of it, too.
Sendgikoski often posts on Twitter about her dislike of Trump. And that’s where she posted her photos on Nov. 3.
“It was just suspect to me, you know,” she said, adding that “it just seemed strange” that there was a Russian aircraft near Trump’s plane.
Sendgikoski said she watched Trump walk off his plane into a waiting motorcade. She said she didn’t see anyone get in or out of the Russian plane, which was about 300 feet from Trump’s.
It’s about a 40- to 45-minute drive from the Charlotte airport to the Cabarrus Arena and Events Center. Trump arrived there shortly before the rally started, recalled arena General Manager Kenny Robinson. That suggests Trump had little time before the event began. No one on the Trump staff had requested the use of a private area. The candidate and his entourage were sequestered behind a space set off with drapes and pipes.
Mike Tallent, chairman of the Cabarrus County Republican Party, attended the rally and remembers that Trump didn’t linger before or after the event.
“He came in, he came out, he did his thing and he was gone,” Tallent said.
Members of his family, however, lingered in North Carolina for the entire week. Son Eric and his wife, Lara, made appearances in Fayetteville and Raleigh. Daughter Ivanka was in Charlotte on Nov. 2. Donald Trump visited North Carolina more than a dozen times during the campaign season and carried the state over Democrat Hillary Clinton by nearly 4 percentage points.
Bell and Rothacker report for The Charlotte Observer.