IMAGE CREDIT: NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
Trump’s Russian Rabbithole
As the inauguration date for PEOTUS Trump approaches, the evidence of his stunning unfitness mounts. Despite the lack of action we see from many legislators and some in the media, many others are tugging at the threads of Trump’s crazily-stitched together tapestry. Although it is difficult to parse out which unraveling thread is most disturbing, the tale of Trump’s Russian rabbithole is surely a contender.
The week in Trump’s great again America
As I write this we are in the midst of an intense, saturated news week. Trump himself has taken his usual approach: distracting from serious issues by jabbing cruelly at private citizens in the marginally dignified forum that is Twitter and demeaning the populous in the process. Sadly for him, I’ll be focusing on the serious issues here rather than his cause of the moment.
(Please note that none of this is to say that I don’t find his cyber bullying to be a serious issue. I do. Why he has yet to be banned from Twitter is a mystery, although the platform itself appears to be changing in reprehensible ways to accommodate him and people like him. Perhaps Twitter aspires to become the state-run social media outlet? But I digress.)
Last week the US intelligence community, in a rare display of consensus, presented documents describing Russian interference in our 2016 election to President Obama and Mr. Trump. The classified briefings last week were presented by CIA Director John Brennan, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, FBI Director James Comey, and NSA Director Admiral Mike Rogers—four of the most senior US intelligence chiefs.
CNN reported today that part of the package included classified documents that included allegations that Russian operatives claim to have compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump. CNN confirmed this with multiple US officials who have direct knowledge of the briefings. The information came, in part, from a former British intelligence operative who American intelligence officials believe to be credible based on past experience. US intelligence continues to investigate the allegations which originate from Russian sources.
Including the allegations about Mr. Trump was an extraordinary step. The nation’s intelligence leaders took this step so the PEOTUS would be aware that these allegations about him are being discussed and investigated—not just here in the US intelligence community, but also by other US government officials, senior members of Congress, and members of other intelligence agencies.
According to CNN, the intelligence officials also ostensibly wanted to show Mr. Trump that—regardless of what he and his camp repeat ad nauseam to the press and public—the hacking issue affected both political parties, even though the information released only hurt Hillary Clinton and the DNC. Finally, the synopsis revealed that members of the Trump team and the Russian government were in fact in communication continuously during the campaign.
In fact, CNN reports that it was these allegations concerning communications between the Russians and the Trump campaign that prompted Harry Reid, then-Democratic Leader of the Senate, to send a letter to FBI Director Comey in October. In the letter he wrote: “It has become clear that you possess explosive information about close ties and coordination between Trump, his top advisors, and the Russian government—a foreign interest openly hostile to the United States.”
Apparently although CNN confirmed that the intelligence chiefs did present this information to Trump and his team, no comment has been forthcoming from the Trump camp. (Of course, what can you say about these revelations that doesn’t sound ludicrous? Then again, sounding laughable has never stopped the Trump machine before. I feel certain Kellyanne Conway will rise to this occasion as she always has in the past, although at this point I must confess that I am more terrified than ever to, as she asks me to do, look into Trump’s heart to see what exactly is in there.)
CNN reviewed multiple documents which were the sources of the two page synopsis and spoke to multiple intelligence officials, foreign officials, and administration, law enforcement, and congressional officials with direct knowledge of the documents. US intelligence officials have confirmed that the former British operative and his sources are credible.
The synopsis itself was considered to be too sensitive to be widely released, so it was initially shared only with President Obama, the President-elect, and eight Congressional leaders. Senator McCain then gave a full copy to FBI Director Comey, only to learn that he already had one—and he had it since August 2016. That is because the former British intelligence operative provided a copy for the FBI in Rome back in August.
The former operative heads a private intelligence gathering firm that anti-Trump Republicans hired to investigate Mr. Trump during the primary season. After Trump became the GOP nominee, Clinton supporters also funded the investigation.
Clear and present unfitness
Let me be clear: I take no issue with and make no comment on the practice of engaging in urine play in private life. However, the allegations surrounding Trump’s activities in the Moscow Ritz Carlton are notable, not because they involve urine per se, but because they involve the ceremonial degradation of the sitting President of the United States and First Lady of the United States.
According to the sources in the document, Mr. Trump chose to stay in the same room as President and Mrs. Obama so he would be able to defile the bed they slept in—and defile it he did, with the help of multiple prostitutes he hired to urinate all over the bed. This was in 2013. The report also ensures that there is ample “embarrassing” material in Russian hands from subsequent visits to ensure the ability to blackmail Trump if needed.
In the wake of the extraordinary and dangerously unwise decision to force all politically appointed ambassadors to vacate their posts overseas by Inauguration Day, without exception, the revelation about this bizarre expression of hatred toward President and Mrs. Obama takes on new meaning. We can also see actions like asking the State Department to name officials working towards gender equality, or demanding that the Energy Department name those people working on climate change issues, in a new light: all of these things are connected to the unhealthy obsession Mr. Trump has with President Obama and things he perceives to be connected to him.
If a hotel bed in Moscow merits the urine of multiple prostitutes, you have to wonder what punishment President Obama’s people merit in the mind of someone with Mr. Trump’s level of obsession.
However, while this alone betrays a shocking level of unfitness, it’s not even the primary story here. Although the revelations in the document range from the salacious to the sinister, some of the most damning information concerns the close ties between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, the quid pro quo exchange between the Trump team and Russia, and the confirmed Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Ignoring the compromising information from the Moscow hotel room, realize that the document says that the Trump team knew that Russian intelligence was the source of the email leaks and that WikiLeaks was used as a go-between for plausible deniability. In return for leaking the emails, the Trump team agreed to deflect attention away from Russia’s transgressions in Ukraine—a priority for Putin.
Trump and his team delivered in what was their only notable departure from establishment Republican policy. In July 2016 Trump and his staffers worked hard to ensure that weapons and lethal support for Ukraine would not be on the Republican agenda—despite the objections of Republicans far more senior with extensive policy experience.
This obvious quid pro quo situation makes it clear that Trump, for whatever reasons, is disloyal and unreliable. He is, quite simply, unfit to govern.
Trump’s response? Thus far, a predictable Tweet: “FAKE NEWS – A TOTAL POLITICAL WITCH HUNT!”
And nothing more. (Of course at the time of this writing it is only 2:17am EST; perhaps in an hour or two he will have more inappropriate tweets to share with us.)
Playing Russian roulette with our election
The larger context of the most recent and rather shocking allegations are really just part of the bigger picture: the US intelligence community, in a united front, has stated in unequivocal language that Russian hackers influenced our 2016 election, ordered and led by Vladimir Putin. That is to say that the CIA, FBI, and NSA all agree that Russia was directly responsible for the hacks that damaged Hillary Clinton and the DNC.
These actions were intended as payback for what Putin perceived as Clinton’s and the US’s various actions against him and Russia. Putin held a personal grudge against Clinton, and this was his way of acting on that grudge.
For example, although there is no evidence that the US government released the Panama Papers, this was seen as a campaign against Russia and Putin blamed the US in part for it. The US also complained of Russian olympic athletes doping, and although there was no fabrication of any evidence against Russian athletes (and ample evidence that they were in fact doping), the complaint itself was an offense against Russia from Putin’s perspective.
The hacking was carefully orchestrated and flowed with the natural tenor of the election. After the embarrassing Hollywood Bus debacle, leaks of Clinton’s emails spiked. This was, the report discloses, a calculated response to her growing popularity at that point in early October as she outperformed Trump during the debates and “pussy grabbing” became part of our permanent national history.
Furthermore, the CIA and FBI agree with a high degree of confidence that the hacking was intended to install Trump as President. The NSA was less confident in this conclusion, although it did agree. Putin has close relationships with some Western business people and leaders with business ties to Russia. The report states that Putin might have hoped to cultivate this sort of relationship with Trump.
While this hacking campaign is in some ways unprecedented in terms of its impact on the US election, the US intelligence community affirms that it is also part of a larger and familiar Russian information campaign that makes use of multimedia to shape public opinion. The report confirms that while the hacking was executed by Russian intelligence and Russian military intelligence, it was not the hacking itself but the leaking which was critical to the strategy. US intelligence officials believe that Russian intelligence was the source of the leaks, including the information supplied to WikiLeaks.
Perhaps most disturbing, the report concludes that this will happen again. This was obviously a success for Putin and Russia, and they are likely to try it here and elsewhere in the future. The report states:
“We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump. We have high confidence in these judgments.”
“We also assess Putin and the Russian Government aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him. All three agencies agree with this judgment. CIA and FBI have high confidence in this judgment; NSA has moderate confidence.”
As of January 6, 2017, Trump refused to acknowledge the unanimous conclusions of the entire US intelligence community. In fact, he insisted that Russia had no affect on our election, and that no Republicans were hacked. He also stated that there should be no public discussion of the matter.
On January 8, 2017, Reince Priebus told Fox News that Trump believed Russia was behind the Democratic Party organization hacks, but made no further admissions. In other words, he has yet to acknowledge the lion’s share of the intelligence report and seems to be making no moves in that direction.
Trump has seized upon one element in the report (making it clear that someone in the camp is reading and understanding it, and that the group is choosing to ignore the majority of the information): the fact that US intelligence officials do not believe that the Russians compromised the counting of votes.
Obviously, Trump ignores or rejects outright the rest of the report because it conflicts with the narrative he has constructed about his “massive landslide victory” that he has referred to hundreds of times, and the legitimacy of his mandate, which is certainly in question.
I suppose we should take comfort in the fact that this time there was no interference with vote counting. Maybe there never will be—although many voting machines used in the US are very easy to hack, as has been proven numerous times with academic, peer-reviewed research.
However, the difference here may simply be that the fake news/email hacks were lower risk for Russia to execute. Given the high rewards the campaign yielded—Ukraine issue, check; Clinton gone, check; Trump in place, check—why take the tougher route unless you need to?
Fake news: from Russia, with love
The US intelligence report found that creating and disseminating fake news via websites and social media trolls was another piece of the Russian influence puzzle during our election:
“Russia used trolls as well as [its state-funded television network] RT as part of its influence efforts to denigrate Secretary Clinton. This effort amplified stories on scandals about Secretary Clinton and the role of WikiLeaks in the election campaign.”
“We assess with high confidence that the GRU used the Guccifer 2.0 persona, DCLeaks.com, and WikiLeaks to release US victim data obtained in cyber operations publicly and in exclusives to media outlets.”
RT and Sputnik, Russian state-run outlets, ran English-language videos including “Clinton and ISIS Funded with the Same Money.” Russian outlets also spread the idea that WikiLeaks had a “smoking gun” email that would “put Clinton in Prison.”
Trolling and fake news may not seem like a pressing issue, but in an election year in which millions of Americans appear to honestly believe wildly and even dangerously wrong things, fake news deserves our scrutiny. Case in point: the Pizzagate conspiracy theory which has already led to shots fired. Although there is no evidence for the theory at all, it persists, and next time those in the line of fire might not be so lucky.
Germany is taking this issue seriously. After a single inflammatory story claiming that muslims attacked a church was published by noted white supremacist troll site Breitbart, the German government immediately responded by denouncing the false report and making the investigation of fake news a priority.
Breitbart is reportedly planning to open bureaus in Germany and France with the express purpose of helping far right candidates get elected. The site has already published various screeds attacked Angela Merkel and Germany’s immigration policies.
German authorities see Russian hacking and fake news as a major threat to the democratic process. They are right about that. US intelligence officials would do well to investigate our own fake news problem in a transparent way, and false reports should be debunked by officials immediately whenever possible.
In response to the breaking of this report, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) admitted that she wished that more of the document would be released to the public: “I would hope that we could get more,” she said January 6, 2017. “I know we have to respect sources and methods. But I think that even Congress has the right to know more than they want to disclose to Congress, beyond the Gang of Eight.. . .But suffice to say, it’s stunning in its conclusions, and you’ll see some of it.”
Pelosi and other Democrats may be feeling frustrated that people like FBI Director Comey had all of this information throughout the end of 2016 and sat on it. Maybe they wish that the Obama administration did more to dispel fake news before it was too late. Perhaps that should be our official policy more generally, given how serious the consequences clearly are.
A precarious relationship with intelligence
In what can only be described as a foolhardy move (albeit an expected one from this distinguished career fabulist), Trump chose to openly reject the counsel of the entire US intelligence community in favor of his own ideas. Or, more accurately, the ideas of his friend, Vladimir Putin. In any event, the community pushed back, and here we are: at sea amidst an endless stream of golden shower jokes.
On January 5, director of national intelligence James Clapper reaffirmed the findings in the intelligence report before the Senate Armed Services Committee. He stated that he was “even more resolute” in his beliefs that Russia was behind the hacks, the leaks, the fake news, and the propaganda machine. He was also careful to highlight for anyone who was listening (in effect, everyone except the one person who needed to be listening) why Trump’s response was inappropriate.
Mr. Clapper acknowledged the obvious: intelligence agencies make mistakes occasionally. However, there is a major difference between a President showing skepticism about intelligence findings and a President disparaging the agencies themselves. The former is part of a healthy process, but the latter is hazardous for national security.
Imperiling the nation is nothing new for Trump, though; he has consistently blown off the intelligence community and accepted very few intelligence briefings. In fact, he skipped all but two such briefings in November 2016, and pledged in December to miss “most” of them even while in office. His reasoning centers upon his assertion that he himself is “smart” and therefore requires no intelligence briefings, along with his ongoing criticisms of the quality of the intelligence agencies themselves.
Mr. Trump’s refusal to act responsibly in this critical area is more than negligent. This behavior essentially ensures that he will be unable to handle threats facing our nation with any skill or wisdom. His actions are also corroding the legitimacy of these agencies which we all depend on for our safety and security every day.
Trump’s ongoing refusal to acknowledge the disturbing facts of the Russian election interference signals how he will handle any threat to our nation that is not in line with his personal agenda: he will ignore and deny them, regardless of how damaging they are to our fundamental rights and values. Even his failure to answer for the optics of his bizarre and bewildering bromance with Vladimir Putin is troubling, and speaks to an overall inability to handle even a basic public relations problem with any sort of grace.
President Obama took action after the intelligence report by instituting various sanctions against Russia. Some in Congress have called for a full investigation. Trump’s response to these completely predictable, inevitable steps? To openly assert that he believes Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks and apolitical opportunist, over the entirety of the United States intelligence community.
In the unlikely event that Mr. Trump remains in office and receives intelligence briefings often enough to avert disaster—and actually takes actions that would improve any given situation rather than exacerbate it—he will need to tell the nation what the danger is, and how we will respond. In other words, he will need to tell us that our intelligence community informed him of a clear and present danger, and that he decided upon a response. Will Americans still trust the intelligence community after an undisclosed period of time with Trump at the wheel? Or will he have damaged that relationship so badly that it is beyond repair?
Trump’s long love affair with Russia
Just as a child with broken crockery around him and crumbs on his face is asked repeatedly about a missing cookie jar, Trump has been asked many times about his obvious affection for Russian president Vladimir Putin. In typical Trump fashion, his responses have been wildly variant and confusing. For example:
November, 2013: When asked by Thomas Roberts of MSNBC whether he had a relationship with Putin: “I do have a relationship, and I can tell you that he’s very interested in what we’re doing here today. He’s probably very interested in what you and I am saying today, and I’m sure he’s going to be seeing it in some form.”
March 2014: “You know, I was in Moscow a couple of months ago. I own the Miss Universe Pageant and they treated me so great. Putin even sent me a present, a beautiful present.”
May 2014: “I was in Russia, I was in Moscow recently and I spoke, indirectly and directly, with President Putin, who could not have been nicer, and we had a tremendous success.”
November 2015: “As far as the Ukraine is concerned … if Putin wants to go in—and I got to know him very well because we were both on 60 Minutes. We were stablemates, and we did very well that night.” [NB it is a fact that they never appeared on 60 Minutes together and that in fact they were on separate continents at the time of the show.]
July 2016: “I have no relationship to—with him. I have no relationship with him.”
October, 2016 [multiple occasions]: “I don’t know Putin.”
November 23, 2016: “I spoke to Putin, as you know, he called me. . .I would say — when they used to say, during the campaign, Donald Trump loves Putin, Putin loves Donald Trump, I said, huh, wouldn’t it be nice. . .if we actually got along with Russia, wouldn’t it be nice if we went after ISIS together, which is, by the way, aside from being dangerous, it’s very expensive, and ISIS shouldn’t have been even allowed to form, and the people will stand up and give me a massive hand. You know they thought it was bad that I was getting along with Putin or that I believe strongly if we can get along with Russia that’s a positive thing.”
November 30, 2016: “. . .and remember, Putin has no respect for [Hillary Clinton] either. . .]
December 24, 2016: “Vladimir Putin said today about Hillary and Dems: ‘In my opinion, it is humiliating. One must be able to lose with dignity.’ So true!”
December 30, 2016: “Great move on delay (by V. Putin) – I always knew he was very smart!”
In any event, Trump has rejected the idea of Russia intervening on his behalf, and stated, “I have ZERO investments in Russia,” via tweet on the eve of the DNC convention and WikiLeaks revelation. (Of course without tax documents we would have no way to confirm that for ourselves.)
Fortunately, although Trump has been surprisingly adept at clouding this issue, there is more at work here than meets the eye. While there may not be a Trump business inside Russia, there are several outside Russia with Russian financiers who have close ties to Putin. There is also a long history of business and financial connections between Trump and wealthy Russians.
It’s hardly surprising that Trump had to look outside the US for money. His many bankruptcies and less than stellar business acumen make his ventures a risk that isn’t worth funding for many American banks. Now the Trump organization looks for alternative sources of funding, some of which are decidedly non-traditional and have direct ties to Russian financial interests. Add to this the business and political ties to Russia several of Trump’s advisors have and the reasons behind Trump’s behavior become clearer.
Back in 1986 Trump met with Soviet ambassador Yuri Dubinin at a lunch in New York and discussed Trump Tower. Dubinin invited Trump to Moscow to discuss the project with the Soviet tourism agency. In Trump’s own words from his book, Trump: The Art of the Deal: “One thing led to another, and now I’m talking about building a large luxury hotel across the street from the Kremlin in partnership with the Soviet government.”
Although this luxury hotel never came to be, Trump aides planned a visit to Trump Tower for Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and his wife, Raisa in 1988. According to Trump, Gorbachev wanted to visit because, “it’s become the hottest building in New York.” However, the plan, if it was ever made, fell through; the Gorbachevs visited landmarks in New York City and Trump greeted a Gorbachev lookalike in front of Trump Tower.
Trump’s Russian friendships continued during the Yeltsin years; in 1997 the Russian government donated a giant bronze statue of Christopher Columbus by Zurab Tsereteli, a close friend of the Moscow mayor, to Trump. He then tried to erect the massive statue on the Hudson river, but since it dwarfed the Statue of Liberty, this plan was rejected. The artwork ended up in Puerto Rico after multiple cities in the US cities refused it.
Also in 1997 Trump met with Aleksandr Ivanovich Lebed, the retired general and Russian presidential candidate. Their meeting was assisted by interpreter Inga Bogutska, a receptionist, who also happened to be the daughter of a Russian general. At that meeting Trump discussed building a hotel in Moscow.
The Trump Soho lawsuit describes Trump’s relationship with Bayrock, a business group underpinning Trump Soho, which began in 2000. Bayrock was funded by Russian criminal financial interests—read “the Russian mob.” “Tax evasion and money-laundering are the core of Bayrock’s business model,” the lawsuit said. “(But) there is no evidence Trump took any part in, or knew of, their racketeering.”
Of course he first came to partner with Bayrock after meeting Bayrock associate Felix H. Sater, a Russian immigrant with whom he worked closely at the Trump Organization, as emails and testimony in several lawsuits bear out. Mr. Sater, as it turns out, was convicted after a bar fight in 1993 and sent to prison, but this was merely his first offense. Five years later (two years before his business relationship with Trump began) Sater was implicated in a stock manipulation case involving Russian and American Mafia; that started his time as a confidential F.B.I. informant—one of two at Bayrock.
Salvatore Lauria, Sater’s associate, was the second. He brokered investments by Putin allies into various Trump deals on behalf of Bayrock. He also brokered investments by an Icelandic firm used by wealthy Russians that was later charged with corruption; the case was settled with no admission of guilt, to the relief, no doubt, of the investors, who were “in favor with” Putin, according to yet another lawsuit.
Although the initial claim in the case did not allege that Trump knew about these activities, Trump later made the principal partner of Bayrock a senior advisor in the Trump organization, and Bayrock financed multiple Trump projects all over the world. Franklin Foer of Slate reported:
“(Trump) didn’t just partner with Bayrock; the company embedded with him. Bayrock put together deals for mammoth Trump-named, Trump-managed projects—two in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, a resort in Phoenix, the Trump SoHo in New York.”
Bayrock’s founder, Tevfik Arif, originally from Kazakhstan, was a commerce official of the former Soviet era. The Sapir Organization was the other development partner for Trump SoHo; the founder of that business, Tamir Sapir, hails from the former Soviet republic of Georgia. The New York Times reports:
“Mr. Trump was particularly taken with Mr. Arif’s overseas connections. In a deposition, Mr. Trump said that the two had discussed ‘numerous deals all over the world’ and that Mr. Arif had brought potential Russian investors to Mr. Trump’s office to meet him. ‘Bayrock knew the people, knew the investors, and in some cases I believe they were friends of Mr. Arif,’ Mr. Trump said. ‘And this was going to be Trump International Hotel and Tower Moscow, Kiev, Istanbul, etc., Poland, Warsaw.’”
Bayrock was associated with the crime family of Viktor Khrapunov, ex-mayor of the city of Almaty, and a former Kazakh energy minister. In March, lawyers for Almaty told a US court that Khrapunov and his family “conspired to systematically loot hundreds of millions of dollars of public assets . . . and to launder their ill-gotten gains through a complex web of bank accounts and shell companies . . . particularly in the United States.” Three of those were part of Trump Soho.
Until it changed hands in a 2014 foreclosure sale, Trump enjoyed an 18 percent share of all Trump Soho profits. According to the Trump Organization, Bayrock and the Sapir Organization handled due diligence and apartment sales. The Trump Organization claims to have no knowledge of the Khrapunov family and to have done no business with them—although there is no doubt that Trump’s Bayrock partners have.
In 2008 a Fort Lauderdale project was being built, backed by Bayrock and others—the same group backing the redevelopment of the Hotel du Parc on the shores of Lake Geneva. This latter project was shown to be controlled by the Khrapunovs.
In a 2011 deposition, Mr. Trump claimed that he never really knew who owned Bayrock. The story is that despite all due diligence efforts and, presumably, interest in one’s own business succeeding, no one in the organization knew where any Bayrock money came from.
Of course Bayrock is just one good example. Trump’s first real estate deal in Toronto was actually a partnership with Talon International, two Russian-Canadian entrepreneurs, and many of his numerous deals in other places have some Russian connections.
Trump has boasted about his many meetings in the past with Russian oligarchs. During one trip to Moscow, Trump bragged that, “Almost all of the oligarchs were in the room” to meet with him and discuss global projects. Similarly, a disproportionate number of Trump Tower Panama clients were wealthy Russians, according to the Trumps themselves:
“Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia,” Trump’s son, Donald Jr., said.
According to Russian real estate broker Ilya Reznik and property records, throughout the 2000s, Russians were buying millions of dollars of Trump-branded real estate in the US, and on the Florida coast in particular.
In 2007, Trump 24K Super Premium Luxury Vodka debuted at the Millionaire Fair in Moscow in a bottle decorated with 24-karat gold. The fair was attended mainly by Russian oligarchs. The vodka venture went out of business.
In 2008 Trump sold his Palm Beach mansion to Dmitry Rybolovlev, a Russian billionaire, for $95 million. Trump claimed that he never met the oligarch and commented that “he just happened to be from Russia.” Meanwhile, Eric Trump was marketing Trump SoHo to Russians by remarking to Russian journalists, “the best property buyers are now Russian.” Trump himself said: “I really like Vladimir Putin.”
Sergei Millian, head of the Russian-American Chamber of Commerce, claimed in 2009 that he brought Russian money into Trump projects and said that there was a formal agreement between himself and the Trump Organization concerning Russian real estate clients. Although Trump denies this connection, Millian boasted about meeting him at the 2007 Millionaire Fair in Moscow.
Aras Agalarov, a real estate billionaire in Moscow, made the deal that brought Trump’s Miss Universe pageant to Moscow in 2013. Trump personally invited Vladimir Putin to the event, tweeting that Putin might be his “new best friend” if he attended. While Putin did not oblige, he did send Kremlin property chief Vladimir Kozhin, a trusted envoy. Agalarov claimed at the show that he had arrived at a deal to build a Moscow Trump Tower.
The Trump team
The Trump team itself has also caused alarm for many in Washington for its many ties with Russia.
Three of Trump’s main advisors stand out in terms of their Russian connections. All three have significant business and financial ties to Russian financiers, according to Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the former editor of the Op Ed page of The Wall Street Journal.
“Trump’s de facto campaign manager, Paul Manafort, was a longtime consultant to Viktor Yanukovich, the Russian-backed president of Ukraine who was overthrown in 2014. Manafort also has done multimillion-dollar business deals with Russian oligarchs.”
In August of 2016 The New York Times reported that a secret ledger in Ukraine showed $12.7 million earmarked for Manafort. This was connected to the party of pro-Russia ally and former Ukraine president Viktor Yanukovych, who illegally set aside the money for Manafort. Manafort countered that the money was not for him, but was for his “entire political team” including operatives and researchers.
Manafort quit the Trump team eventually based on pressure because of these ties, but not until August of 2016. Former Merrill Lynch banker Carter Page was Trump’s foreign policy advisor until September. He resigned only after the FBI investigation focusing on Manafort and him revealed numerous connections with Russians, and computer activity between Alfa Bank, a large Russian bank, and the Trump Organization.
“Trump’s foreign policy advisor Carter Page has his own business ties to the state-controlled Russian oil giant Gazprom. He recently delivered a speech in Moscow slamming the United States for its ‘hypocritical focus on ideas such as democratization’ and praising Russia for a foreign policy supposedly built on ‘noninterference,’ ‘tolerance’ and ‘respect.’ (Try telling that to Ukraine.)”
Michael Flynn, a former US Defense Intelligence Agency head, has been named national security adviser by Trump. Flynn has argued for closer links with Russia as has Trump.
“Another Trump foreign policy advisor, retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, flew to Moscow last year to attend a gala banquet celebrating Russia Today, the Kremlin’s propaganda channel, and was seated at the head table near Putin. Flynn is a regular guest on Russia Today; he refuses to say whether he gets paid.”
Former US ambassador Richard Burt helped draft a Trump foreign policy speech in April of 2016 as he was lobbying for a Russian-funded gas pipeline and being paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to do so. Burt also advises the owners of Alfa Group, who in turn are closely tied to the Kremlin.
Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson, former CEO of ExxonMobil, has a relationship with Putin that stretches back decades. He is already being rushed through the confirmation process despite lack of vetting, and is dodging questions about the relationship as I type these words. He has refused to comment on our country’s current sanctions against Russia or on Putin’s obvious war crimes, saying that each situation should be dealt with on a case by case basis; apparently he forgot to study for the exam.
From the outside
Various commentators have noted the exceedingly peculiar relationship Trump appears to have with Putin, and his affinity for all things Russian. Michael D’Antonio, author of “The Truth About Trump,”
argues that Trump finds the wealth and toughness of the Russian oligarchy appealing. “He’s practically Donald the Red,” he told the Financial Times. “He is very much focused on Russia and it certainly causes a person to wonder why.”
Author David Cay Johnston who wrote the biography, “The Making of Donald Trump,” thinks we have yet to see the full picture: “Every time Vladimir Putin is mentioned, Trump goes out of his way to express deep respect for him, which suggests there’s something very important which we simply don’t know.” Former US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul seems to agree with Johnston: “Why wouldn’t [Putin] want Trump to be president? He’s said things that support his policy.” McFaul concluded: “There’s a lot we don’t know.”
First of all, it’s clear that a foreign power has influenced our election process. It’s not yet clear how much. More of the information that’s known should be made public, and before January 20. The long and twisted relationship between Trump and Russia suggests that there is every reason to believe that more is going on here than meets the eye.
Experts in the defense and intelligence communities of the US and our allies have witnessed Russia’s cyber strategies in recent years. Hacking and releasing information, along with supplying plenty of false information, is a winning strategy for them. They will continue to use it. Germany, for example, is taking an active approach to preventing this; we need to follow that example.
We now more than ever need to know whether Trump is politically and/or financially indebted to Russians, the Kremlin, or Russian-affiliated interests. We need all of his financial information immediately. We need to know about every single debt, and how every former debt was paid or forgiven. We need all of that information for his family members as well. We need to see the entire Trump Organization picture.
If Trump takes office with a connection to Putin, the policy implications are clear. We will not retaliate against ongoing cyberattacks which will leave us even more vulnerable. We will stand by as Russia acts out in Ukraine, Syria, and wherever else they choose to brutally exercise their power. We will fail to stand up against Russia as a UN member when good policy would have us do so (and there are going to be several imminent emergencies that will demand that we do—I will cover them soon).
If conflict breaks out in the EU, Trump might be inclined to side with Russia—against our closest allies and most important economic partner. On the world stage it will be apparent who is driving the bus, and it will not be Trump.
Let’s not get to that point. Instead, let’s deal with this unprecedented level of foreign disruption of our democratic process right now. We need to know, before Trump takes office, everything about his long history with Russia and his financial affairs. We need to have all of the details of how Russia interfered in this election. We need to know whether they had help from any Americans in this project, and if so, if they were on Trump’s team. We need to know if Trump himself knew or should have known. We need to know who in Trump’s camp has been in contact with Russia and what they have been discussing. And we need to know about any financial or other assistance Russia may have provided to Trump.
If we wait until Trump is in office, the only people in our government who can possibly answer these questions will be under his command. There is already definitive proof that Trump is a habitual liar, if not a compulsive liar. Whatever modifier you use, he is a liar. A serial, reliable, liar. Clearly, we cannot rely on his leadership to reveal any of these critical truths.