Thursday, March 15, 2018

Trump and His Associations with Russians and Criminals

Two recent articles delve into Donald Trump’s business and political activities and produce a troubling picture of the man who is the president of the United States.  The first is an article in The New Yorker by Jane Mayer: Christopher Steele, the Man Behind the Trump Dossier.  Much of Mayer’s piece deals with the astonishing sequence of events in which the FBI spent the months before the 2016 election publicly discussing Hillary Clinton’s emails and whether any classified material might have been exposed, while at the same time investigating Donald Trump as a possible agent acting in the interests of Russia and saying nothing about it to anyone.  That cluster-&#!! is best understood by reading her article. 

What is of interest here is the background provided on Christopher Steele, the ex-M.I.6 member who researched and produced the contentious dossier that first tied Trump to Putin and Russia.  He emerges as a man of skill and impeccable integrity who came to grief because he tried to do the right thing for the United States.  And what he learned needs to be heard by everyone.

Steele was well-known in US intelligence circles, having run the British agency’s Russia desk from 2006 to 2008.

“The British Secret Intelligence Service is highly regarded by the United States, particularly for its ability to harvest information from face-to-face sources, rather than from signals intelligence, such as electronic surveillance, as the U.S. often does. British and American intelligence services work closely together, and, while Steele was at M.I.6, British intelligence was often included in the U.S. President’s daily-briefing reports. In 2008, Michael Hayden, the C.I.A. director, visited the U.K., and Steele briefed him on Russian developments. The following year, President Obama visited the U.K., and was briefed on a report that Steele had written about Russia. Steve Hall, a former chief of the C.I.A.’s Central Eurasia Division, which includes Russia, the former Soviet states, and the Balkans, told me, ‘M.I.6 is second only perhaps to the U.S. in its ability to collect intelligence from Russia.’ He added, ‘We’ve always co√∂rdinated closely with them because they did such a great job. We’re playing in the Yankee Stadium of espionage here. This isn’t Guatemala’.”

In 2008, Steele decided to retire and form an investigative company with a colleague, Christopher Burrows.  They would call the company Orbis Business Intelligence, and its focus would be on their area of expertise: Russia and its dealings.  Surprisingly, two of their earliest cases involved criminal activities by people based in Trump Tower. 

“Steele’s first client after leaving M.I.6 was England’s Football Association, which hoped to host the World Cup in 2018, but suspected dirty dealings by the governing body, FIFI. England lost out in its bid to Russia, and Steele determined that the Kremlin had rigged the process with bribes.”

In the course of this investigation, it had been determined that corruption in FIFA was a world-wide issue.  Steele decided that what had been discovered should be followed up and expanded to include the entire organization.  He turned to the FBI as the only single agency with the resources to proceed.

“In 2011, Steele contacted an American agent he’d met who headed the Bureau’s division for serious crimes in Eurasia. Steele introduced him to his sources, who proved essential to the ensuing investigation. In 2015, the Justice Department indicted fourteen people in connection with a hundred and fifty million dollars in bribes and kickbacks. One of them was Chuck Blazer, a top FIFA official who had embezzled a fortune from the organization and became an informant for the F.B.I. Blazer had an eighteen-thousand-dollar-per-month apartment in Trump Tower, a few floors down from Trump’s residence.”

There was no reason to connect Trump to the FIFA business.  However, Steele encountered Trump Tower once again in a subsequent investigation when the FBI asked Steele to help in an investigation of a gambling and money-laundering ring.  In this case the target was a Russian identified as a member of organized crime in his home country.

“Several years ago, the F.B.I. hired Steele to help crack an international gambling and money-laundering ring purportedly run by a suspected Russian organized-crime figure named Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov. The syndicate was based in an apartment in Trump Tower. Eventually, federal officials indicted more than thirty co-conspirators for financial crimes. Tokhtakhounov, though, eluded arrest, becoming a fugitive.”

Could this association with Trump Tower be another coincidence?  That possibility became much less likely when Tokhtakhounov showed up seated near Trump at the Miss Universe contest in Moscow in 2013.  Steele was moved to make this comment.

“’It was as if all criminal roads led to Trump Tower,’ Steele told friends.”

One shouldn’t forget that Paul Manafort, known to Trump since the 1980s, and Trump’s one-time campaign chairman, showed up with a bunch of cash and began getting involved in Manhattan real estate.  In 2006, Manafort set up shop in Trump Tower.

One of the suspicious things about Trump’s relations with the Russians was that Trump repeatedly approached the Russians about joint business deals, but nothing seemed to come of it.  Was this the trait of a persistent real-estate entrepreneur, or was this a case of a businessman pursuing a hidden agenda?

Steele was well-aware of Russian actions attacking the institutions of other countries.

“Even before Steele became involved in the U.S. Presidential campaign, he was convinced that the Kremlin was interfering in Western elections. In April of 2016, not long before he took on the Fusion assignment, he finished a secret investigation, which he called Project Charlemagne, for a private client. It involved a survey of Russian interference in the politics of four members of the European Union—France, Italy, the United Kingdom, and Germany—along with Turkey, a candidate for membership. The report chronicles persistent, aggressive political interference by the Kremlin: social-media warfare aimed at inflaming fear and prejudice, and ‘opaque financial support’ given to favored politicians in the form of bank loans, gifts, and other kinds of support. The report discusses the Kremlin’s entanglement with the former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and the French right-wing leader Marine Le Pen. (Le Pen and Berlusconi deny having had such ties.) It also suggests that Russian aid was likely given to lesser-known right-wing nationalists in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. The Kremlin’s long-term aim, the report concludes, was to boost extremist groups and politicians at the expense of Europe’s liberal democracies. The more immediate goal was to ‘destroy’ the E.U., in order to end the punishing economic sanctions that the E.U. and the U.S. had imposed on Russia after its 2014 political and military interference in Ukraine.”

When Steele was tasked by Fusion GPS to investigate Trump’s ties to Russia, the Project Charlemagne work naturally provided a focus on political issues.  What he discovered frightened him.

“Steele’s sources claimed that the F.S.B. [the former KGB] could easily blackmail Trump, in part because it had videos of him engaging in ‘perverted sexual acts’ in Russia. The sources said that when Trump had stayed in the Presidential suite of Moscow’s Ritz-Carlton hotel, in 2013, he had paid ‘a number of prostitutes to perform a “golden showers” (urination) show in front of him,’ thereby defiling a bed that Barack and Michelle Obama had slept in during a state visit.”

“More significant, in hindsight, than the sexual details were claims that the Kremlin and Trump were politically colluding in the 2016 campaign. The Russians were described as having cultivated Trump and traded favors with him ‘for at least 5 years.’ Putin was described as backing Trump in order to ‘sow discord and disunity both within the U.S.’ and within the transatlantic alliance. The report claimed that, although Trump had not signed any real-estate-development deals, he and his top associates had repeatedly accepted intelligence from the Kremlin on Hillary Clinton and other political rivals. The allegations were astounding—and improbable. They could constitute treason even if they were only partly true.”

Hopefully, Special Counsel Robert Mueller will sort through all of this and come to some conclusion that will be convincing to the US public. 

Mueller’s investigation into related affairs seems to have delved into Trump’s business activities as well.  Little is known about where that aspect of the investigation is headed.  However, a second article appeared a few days ago in the San Francisco Chronicle that might shed some light: Russian criminals’ links to Trump could compromise him.  The article was written by Tom Adams and Dennis Aftergut.

“Tom Adams and Dennis Aftergut are retired attorneys. Adams, a founding partner of Adams Broadwell Joseph & Cardozo, has experience doing due diligence analysis for real estate transactions. Aftergut was a federal prosecutor and chief assistant city attorney of San Francisco.”

What the authors produce is a list of some of Trump’s major real estate projects and who his co-developers were.  The results are enlightening for the common reader.  One can only wonder what Robert Mueller thinks of all this.

“Connect the dots in public reporting on Trump’s financial dealings, and a business model comes to light, one based on association with crooks, money launderers — and lots of Russians.”

“Take Trump’s Panama tower. The project’s lead broker, Alexandre Henrique Ventura Nogueira, was a criminal; in 2009, he admitted to money laundering.”

“All-cash deals for condos — a red flag for money laundering — were commonplace at Trump Panama. Convicted drug-money launderer Colombian David Helmut Murcia Guzm√°n bought 10 condos. Suspected Russian money launderers Andrey Bogdanov and Ivan Kazanikov bought a dozen others. A former financial crimes prosecutor in Panama, Mauricio Ceballos, called Trump Ocean Club Panama ‘a vehicle for money laundering’.”

Trump was at one time heavily invested in casinos, a favorite place for money launderers to exchange tainted money for clean money.  Because of that, the US Bank Secrecy Act requires strict record keeping in the gambling industry.

“The Trump Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City, N.J., once paid a $10 million fine for willful violations of that act. It admitted doing it on purpose!”

The associations with crooks and Russians only deepened when Trump began licensing its name for use in real-estate projects.

“Trump’s partners in its SoHo project in Manhattan, as in other deals, were crooks. Felix Sater, a Russian, had pleaded guilty to money laundering and stock manipulation and a stabbing with the stem of wine glass. The FBI considered partner Tamir Sapir part of a Russian mob. Financing for that hotel came from an Icelandic bank close to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Three-fourths of the sales were all-cash.”

“At Trump Tower Toronto, the Trump Organization first partnered with Leib Waldman, who had fled the United States after pleading guilty to bankruptcy fraud and embezzlement. Then a Russian-born Canadian, Alex Schnaider, replaced Waldman. Shnaider had made fast money in the former Soviet Union and dealt with a Russian bank connected to Putin. Another foreign bank, accused previously of acting as a conduit for Russian money laundering, financed the project. The project incurred excessive construction costs — a trademark of money laundering — and went bankrupt while 400 other similar condo towers in Toronto succeeded.”

“In 2012, the Trump Organization partnered with a family referred to as ‘the Corleones of the Caspian,’ after the fictional Mafia family in ‘The Godfather’ films, to launch a hotel-condo project in Azerbaijan. Duffel bags of cash were used to pay contractors. Was money laundering during construction its real purpose? One thing’s for sure: No one who intended a luxury hotel to succeed would ever locate it on the wrong side of the tracks, where this one stood. It never opened.”

“The FBI is investigating Ivanka Trump’s role in the Trump Tower in Vancouver, British Columbia. Surprise: Tony Tiah Thee Kian, the financial backer of that project, is a crook. He pleaded guilty in 2002 and was fined $783,000 for submitting a false report to the Malaysian stock exchange. Tiah was forced to quit as CEO of his firm and barred from corporate boardrooms for five years.”

Having extensive business dealings with criminals doesn’t necessarily prove criminality on Trump’s part, although it behooves Mueller to look into this activity.  The authors claim that their goal in reporting these suspicious instances was to alert us that our president could be compromised not only because of election-related activities, but also because of a long history of business-related projects.

“A global trail of evidence suggests Russians and other foreign powers may know enough about crimes to compromise the president. Crimes by our leaders endanger our democracy and undermine America’s standing in the world.”

“Are Russians and others using their knowledge to compromise the president at our expense? We need to know.”

How true!

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