By Dan Peak
The Commoner Call (11/23/17)
Dear Fellow Readers,
“Do you think they’ll get the president?”
– Kushner asked a friend, according to a person briefed on the conversation.
Kudos to Fresh Air this week. On Monday (11/20) the show ran How The Panama Papers Reveal Illicit Money Networks. Then on Tuesday (11/21) they aired Journalist Investigating Trump And Russia Says ‘Full Picture Is One Of Collusion’. In broad strokes these are the same story and are the key to Trump’s greatest risk with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation – his business longstanding and extensive, shadowy relationship with Russians.
You can access the audio and transcripts of both Fresh Air broadcasts here.
A 2015 Washington Post story reported that Putin Is The Wealthiest Person In The World; Money And Power.
A little background…
The Panama Papers added details to what was known with the corruption of Putin and his Russian oligarchs, who princes of the past do not exist without Putin’s personal permit. As Tsar, Putin is estimated to be the richest person in the world, worth $200 billion. But it’s not only Putin, it’s his oligarchs as well – they are his shield in return for their wealth:
“There’s an element there of thinking you can hit the guys around Putin as if it’s like a real oligarchy,” Gaddy said. “These oligarchs, the richest people in the world, their only protection in that society [is Putin]… This is like a Mafia operation. He makes sure that the key people around him are vulnerable.”
It’s money, but it’s also power, or power and money:
The rich and powerful is a small club. Members include Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich with his $500 million yacht docked in Palm Beach, just up the road from Mar-a-Lago, where Trump will spend Thanksgiving. It just so happens that Robert Mercer’s (Trump mega-donor, Breitbart owner) Sea Owl, only worth about $40 million, is moored in Palm Beach as well. Earlier this year Mercer’s Sea Owl was seen tied up near Dmitry Rybolvlev’s (last edition; bought Trump Palm Beach property for about $100 million) yacht in British Virgin Islands. I digress.
Putin is allegedly the richest and most powerful person in the world and he uses his oligarchs and offshore banking to run his organization.
Trump Business Runs Like Putin’s Business: Paradise Papers, Panama Papers
The Panama Papers is more a Russian focus, the Paradise Papers is more a Trump focus. In this column we covered the Paradise Papers story of Cypriot bank-linked Commerce Wilbur Ross’s investment in a company that does business with U.S.-sanctioned Russians and Putin’s son-in-law. The Wilbur Ross example is one and the same: Trump-Russia.
The Paradise Papers include a Jared Kushner Russia connection. As Forbes reported recently, Kushner was the conduit for Russian oligarch Yuri Milner’s investment in Twitter and Facebook: ‘Paradise Papers’ Disclosures Of Trump Administration-Russia Ties Warrant Congressional Hearings.
“First, the Kremlin connections of an investor with ties to Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and top adviser. Yuri Milner, a Russian tech mogul – and Russian citizen – who lives in Silicon Valley, invested $850,000 in Cadre, a real estate firm co-founded by Kushner.
“The papers show that Kremlin-controlled financial firms bankrolled key U.S. deals for Milner. One of those firms, VTB Bank, let Milner have $191 million, which he quietly invested in Twitter. And a subsidiary of Kremlin-controlled energy giant Gazprom funded a shell company that invested in a Milner-affiliated company that held roughly $1 billion in Facebook shares.”
The Kushner example is one and the same – Trump-Russia.
Even better, the Panama Papers include a revelation of former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort’s ties with Putin oligarch Oleg Deripaska, for whom Manafort offered a private briefing on the campaign. From the Fresh Air segment linked above, Terry Gross asks Jake Bernstein, reporter and author of “Secrecy World” to comment on Manafort’s ties to Russian oligarchs with money in offshore accounts:
“BERNSTEIN: So Paul Manafort absolutely used this system. He had bank accounts in Cyprus and in offshore accounts that he was using to sort of funnel money. And according to the Mueller indictment, this was a – money laundering – alleged money laundering. And he was in business with a number of Russian oligarchs – Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs who were absolutely, you know, practiced hands at using the secrecy world to move money around and to hide their activities.
“And one of them was a guy named Oleg Deripaska, who is a mining magnate in Russia, a billionaire who – very close to Putin – who had business dealings with Manafort and who shows up in both the Panama Papers and the Paradise Papers. In the Panama Papers he’s got companies that are doing mining deals in Africa. And in the Paradise Papers, he’s using Appleby Global, the law firm, to avoid taxes on private jets.”
In the last edition of the Russia Monitor we covered Trump’s sale of his Palm Beach property to Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev for roughly $100 million, which also drew the attention of Gross and Bernstein who explained the significance of the sale:
“GROSS: Another real estate deal that you write about in your book “Secrecy World” is Trump’s sale of a Palm Beach mansion to a Russian billionaire named Dmitry Rybolovlev. And this is a mansion that Trump bought at auction for $41.4 million. Then he sold it to this Russian oligarch four years later for $95 million. That’s more than twice as much as Trump bought it for. So that’s an interesting fact. Is it a significant fact?
“BERNSTEIN: I think it could be a significant fact. And I suspect that this is one of the things that Mueller is looking at. You know, the question is was that property transaction a form of payment for something else? It might not be. It might have just been, you know, as Trump says, an incredibly canny business deal. Or it might have been something a little bit more untoward.”
But the question becomes, you know, why would anyone do this? Why would a smart, saavy and successful businessman, you know, overpay so wildly for a mansion that he never actually lives in or spends any time in? Would you? It’s a big question mark. And it’s the kind of thing that’s – we might never know. Or there might be someone somewhere who will talk to a prosecutor and explain what’s really going on.
And here’s the connection to always keep in mind: Trump-Russia/Trump, Putin – it’s the same story:
“GROSS: So these connections that you’ve talked about between Trump and oligarchs from former Soviet bloc countries and from Russia – are these connections that would have been as clear had it not been for the leak of the Panama Papers?
“BERNSTEIN: No. The Panama Papers I think shed a lot of light on who these people were, on the business activities of his business partners. And they create sort of a composite of what these business partners look like. And what is so interesting is how – the commonalities that they share – you know, their dynastic approach to business, you know? It’s a family enterprise just like it is with Trump – their disdain for following the rules of any given nation and instead sort of embracing the anything-goes rules of the secrecy world, the fact that, you know, that – the deep Russian ties in this world.
“So this is – you know, we wouldn’t have really known a lot of this or been able to put the pieces together without these leaks. So I think it’s been crucial. And then with the Paradise Papers, we can really see, you know, how the people who came later, the people who funded Trump’s campaign, the people who are in Trump’s cabinet – how they use the secrecy world, too, you know, because they’re all incredibly wealthy. They are the American version of the Russian oligarch. And they’re, you know, billionaires who are pushing their own agendas but hiding a lot of their money through the secrecy world.”
Here’s a key worth repeating over and over to understand what is going on in the White House: “Trump’s cabinet is the American version of the Russian oligarchs.”
“The constellation of Russian connections circling around Planet Trump is quite extraordinary.”
– Luke Harding, author of Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money, and How Russia Helped Donald Trump Win. (See Fresh Air interview link at the beginning of today’s column.)
Luke Harding is a foreign correspondent for The Guardian, former Moscow bureau chief between 2007 and 2011, and author of Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money, And How Russia Helped Donald Trump Win. A key underpinning of Harding’s book, which came out this week and I am reading now, is his two meetings with Christopher Steele, the author of the Steele dossier which lays out a road map for investigating Trump-Russia.
Harding offers the same case put forward in our last column that Trump’s relationship with Russia goes back to the 1980’s, highlighting Trump’s first trip to Moscow in 1987.
“Gross: … You write that the Russians had their eyes on Donald Trump as early as the 1970’s when he married Ivana Trump, who is from Czechoslovakia. Why were they keeping an eye on him in the ’70s? What were they looking for?
“Harding: … but the point is that he would have been on their radar certainly by 1977 when he married Ivana, who came from Czechoslovakia, a kind of communist Eastern bloc country. And we know from Czechoslovak spy records de-classified last year that the spy agencies were in contact with Ivana’s father, that they kept an eye on the Trumps in Manhattan throughout the 1980’s. And we also know, from defectors and other sources, that whatever Prague learned, communist Prague, would have been funneled to the big guys in Moscow, to the KGB. So there would have been a file on Donald Trump.
“But I think what’s kind of interesting about this story, if you understand the kind of Russian espionage background, is Trump’s first visit to Soviet Moscow in 1987. He went with Ivana. He writes about it in “The Art Of The Deal,” his best-selling memoir. He talks about getting an invitation from the Soviet government to go over there. And he makes it seem kind of rather casual. But what I discovered from my research is that there was actually a concerted effort by the Soviet government via the ambassador at the time, who was newly arrived, a guy called Yuri Dubinin, to kind of charm Trump, to flatter him, to woo him almost. And Dubinin’s daughter, sort of who was part of this process, said that the ambassador rushed up to the top of Trump Tower, basically kind of breezed into Trump’s office and he melted. That’s the verb she used. He melted.
“… They were looking for narcissists. They were looking for people who were kind of – dare I say it – corruptible, interested in money, people who were not necessarily faithful in their marriages and also sort of opportunists who were not very strong analysts or principle people. And if you work your way down the list through these sort of – the KGB’s personality questionnaire, Donald Trump ticks every single box.”
But there is a new twist:
GROSS: …. Initially, Trump was happy to have the Russia investigation deflect attention away from his business dealings in China and other emerging markets because you say, unlike in Russia, these were substantial and involved the payment of large bribes and kickbacks.
HARDING: Well, again, we can’t prove this. But this is what the Steele dossier alleges. And it’s based on Steele’s own secret sources. And by the way, no one knows who they are, these secret sources. But I think one point, which is kind of very important on the sources, is that I’ve talked to friends of Steele’s. And what they point out is that these sources were not new. They’re not people that he kind of discovered yesterday. They are trusted contacts who essentially had proven themselves in other areas.
Shortly after this exchange, Gross and Harding wind down the interview. But this final statement raises questions about who is Steele and how does he work. While ‘Collusion’ addresses this in great detail, there is a parallel story unfolding in the news that speaks volumes about Steele’s integrity and why his dossier triggered a FBI investigation into Trump-Russia starting in July 2016.
All of this ties in with what unfolded in New York City this week, as featured in Sports Illustrated: One Week Into FIFA Trial Uncovers Bribes, Death Threats, More Corruption.
The news follows the court proceedings against three men charged with $150 million in bribes paid for broadcasting and hosting rights for international soccer. While three are on trial, 34 have been indicted, a number of which have already entered guilty pleas.
The story is MUCH broader, global and includes the FIFA awards to World Cup hosting rights awarded to Russia for the 2018 World Cup and Qatar for 2022 World Cup. The award processes are so tainted with bribes and corruption there is much discussion of reopening the award process for 2022.
Enter Christopher Steele: Yes, The Steele Dossier Christopher Steele
The person who delivered this story to the FBI is Christopher Steele. When the Trump-Russia Steele Dossier was brought to the attention of the FBI and US intelligence agencies Steele’s reputation was known and respected in western intelligence circles. And the FIFA story is a parallel to Trump-Russia, Russian bribes, Putin’s use of the oligarchs. The oligarchs are Putin’s front men, there are no written offers, no written quid-pro-quo, everything is deniable. This lack of the concrete is frustrating if you want ‘irrefutable’, but spy tradecraft is meant to avoid exactly that outcome.
Good news, Robert Mueller understands how to prosecute organized crime … and Trump-Russia.
We’ll end with a Luke Harding article from the Guardian from April 2017: British Spies Were First To Spot Trump Team’s Links With Russia.
It was the European intelligence agencies that saw the significance of the Trump campaign communications with Russians early:
“It looks like the [US] agencies were asleep,” the source added. “They [the European agencies] were saying: ‘There are contacts going on between people close to Mr Trump and people we believe are Russian intelligence agents. You should be wary of this.’
“The message was: ‘Watch out. There’s something not right here.’”
The article reports on the role of the European intelligence agencies but especially the role of the UK spy agency GCHQ. Trump at the time claimed to be a victim of Obama “wiretapping”, which former British MI6 chief, Sir Richard Dearlove described as “simply deeply embarrassing for Trump and the administration”. Dearlove was once Steele’s boss from Steele’s time with MI6.
Here is the final paragraph from the article:
“One source suggested the official investigation was making progress. “They now have specific concrete and corroborative evidence of collusion,” the source said. “This is between people in the Trump campaign and agents of [Russian] influence relating to the use of hacked material.”
The Panama Papers and The Paradise Papers are about how the rich get richer. A perfect reminder as we face the prospect of a GOP tax scam, put together by and for the benefit of the Trump cabinet. Think of it as the incorporation papers for the American version of the Russian oligarchy.
Trump-Russia shows how these exact same tools to hide wealth are used to foster corruption and in this case, even collusion with the intent of corrupting the US election.
There is a silver lining – the good guys win. The take-down of FIFA is an example of a global corrupt organization with many similarities to Trump-Russia including the Russian bribes to win the award of hosting the 2018 World Cup.
Let’s hope Trump-Russia ends up the same way – indictments and guilty pleas and, eventually, prison.