Trump, Putin and the mob. Part 7: Jared Kushner, Erik Prince & the secret meetings connecting them
In December 2016, Jared Kushner held a secret meeting with the head of Vnesheconombank (VEB), a “former” KGB man named Sergey Gorkov, who was handpicked to run VEB by Putin himself. As I mentioned in Part 6, Gorkov previously worked for Bank Menatep, a bank known to be full of “former” Russian intelligence officials. As Putin himself has said, however, there are no former chekists — chekist being the all-encompassing term for Russian intelligence services under Vladimir Putin.
While VEB may have the word ‘bank’ in its name, it isn’t licensed to perform true banking operations. It’s often referred to as the Kremlin’s “piggy bank”, as it offers funding for projects that suit the interests of Putin and his closest associates. It was therefore particularly odd for Jared Kushner to secretly meet with Gorkov.
The attention this meeting drew raised red flags in the media and around Washington, but predictably, the media lost interest soon after the news broke and moved on to the next topic. However, I believe this particular meeting deserves another look and some additional context.
What may be particularly important but I’ve yet to see explored at length is the connection between Kushner’s meeting with VEB and Trump surrogate Erik Prince’s secret meeting the following month with the head of the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) in the Seychelles. This fund is run by a man named Kirill Dmitriev, and the RDIF was a 100% subsidiary of VEB until 2016. Even after the two separated, the RDIF and VEB remain closely linked.
While setting up a secret back channel with the Kremlin certainly could be part of the reason for these two meetings, it could’ve easily been one reason of many. Jared Kushner and Erik Prince have continued conducting business throughout Donald Trump’s presidency, after all, so it’s worth exploring if these two meetings had any impact on the business they’ve conducted.
Could these two meetings have been related? Was the real purpose of these meetings obfuscated by the Kremlin and Trump officials, as has often the case? George Papadopoulos now a felon convicted of lying to the FBI, knows all too well about the “cut-outs” the Russians regularly employ.
How often does the Kremlin do the same in their business dealings? If this is what happened, how do we to cut through the smoke and mirrors and make some sense of all this information? I suppose we’ll have to take it one step at a time.
How closely linked are VEB and the RDIF?
The connection between the RDIF and VEB used to be direct and quite simple. The RDIF was established in 2011 and was, for several years, fully owned by VEB. This was public knowledge and not an area of controversy until four years ago.
What changed? Putin invaded and annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. Within months, the Obama administration began to levy sanctions against businesses and individuals closely tied to the Russian government. VEB was one of the first to receive this punishment. In 2015, sanctions were enacted on the RDIF as well.
Perhaps in an effort to prevent further sanctions or restrictions, in March of 2016 the Russian government declared the RDIF to be a state-owned institution separate from Vnesheconombank. Regardless, two things have continued to be true: the RDIF remains under US sanctions, and the RDIF also remains extremely active in its investments abroad. The fund has found ways around conducting business with American companies directly, though there was a recent report from The Daily Beast which described Americans working for the fund.
At an even more basic level, Putin’s Russia has been labeled a Mafia State because corruption is not simply rampant; it’s systemic. Declaring any institution which was formerly the offshoot of VEB — i.e. Putin’s personal piggy bank — suddenly state-owned and a separate entity means what exactly? Without proper transparency and oversight, there’s simply little reason to make much, if anything, of this sudden distinction.
Putin’s government is staffed with his friends, family and former business associates. There is little to no action (certainly not billions of dollars of overseas investment) that comes out of Russia without Putin’s personal approval. So, it should come as no huge shock that several members of the RDIF and VEB boards also maintain jobs inside the Russian government. In the case of current Russian finance minister Anton Siluanov, he is currently listed as an active board member for both Vnesheconombank and the Russian Direct Investment Fund.
To understand just how closely the RDIF and VEB remain, take this example. On July 4, 2017, VEB signed an agreement to attract $882 million from China Development Bank (CDB) for innovations, including the development of blockchain technologies. The same article mentioned a separate statement in which VEB said it had signed a framework agreement with China Development Bank (CDB) under which the Russian lender will receive 50 billion rubles ($844 million) in financing over 15 years.
On the same day — July 4, 2017 — a separate report from Reuters discusses the RDIF’s decision to establish the Russia-China Investment Cooperation fund, worth $10 billion, jointly with the China Development Bank (CDB). The purpose? Direct investments in national currencies both in Russia and China.
Granted, that’s a lot of moving parts to keep straight, so let’s review what happened here. On the same day the RDIF agreed to a joint fund with the CDB, VEB agreed to not one but two deals with the same CDB. The deals included cooperation agreements lasting years and included billions of dollars in investments.
That’s a whole lot of crossover for two supposedly unrelated and separate entities. Especially two funds with direct ties to senior figures inside the Kremlin. Expecting those two groups to work entirely independent of each other beggars disbelief.
What to do about those Russian sanctions?
When the Obama Administration began to implement sanctions on Russia in early 2014 as a consequence of Putin’s invasion and annexation of the Ukrainian territory of Crimea, American investors in Russia became alarmed about the long-term consequences. Not only could their money be tied up in banks and investment funds which might be hit by sanctions, but the PR consequences could be devastating. People were, and are still as of this writing, dying in Ukraine as a result of Russian aggression.
What American would want to be linked to financing ultimately used for these operations? It made sense then, for three American businessmen on the board of the Russian Direct Investment Fund to quietly remove their names from the website and give no official press release on the matter. Their removal, however, did not go unnoticed, and two of the Americans whose names were removed included Blackstone Group founder Stephen Schwarzman and Apollo Global Management founder Leon Black. These men just so happen to have numerous dealings with Donald Trump and Jared Kushner.
The business connections to Apollo Global Management and Blackstone Group.
According to the New York Times, in 2013, well before Mr. Trump was even a candidate, Blackstone financed the purchase of a few warehouses and industrial buildings by Jared Kushner’s family company. The article goes on to list several other deals the two have done together, which shouldn’t come as a shock. Blackstone is the largest commercial real estate developer in the world, while Kushner (and Trump’s) business empires rely heavily on their real estate deals.
I mention Trump and Kushner together there because, while the two are often presented as separate entities, it can be difficult to see where one man ends and the next begins. Since Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner were married in 2009, Ivanka has participated in multiple deals in her father’s name, including several which used questionable financing. Those include Trump Baku, Trump Panama, and Trump Istanbul among others.
While Kushner and Ivanka may claim their business empires remain separate entities, this is difficult to imagine nearly a decade into their marriage. Sure, some speculation is required here, it’s also worth noting that Donald Trump has yet to release his tax returns. Jared Kushner has repeatedly failed to disclose his financial investments and various debts, even on government forms where he was legally required to do so. So, it’s fair to say there’s information the Kushner/Trump household would prefer remained hidden.
This is worth keeping in mind as the various conflicts of interest involving the Trump presidency mount. For instance, in the Spring of 2017, according to the New York Times,
Joshua Harris, a founder of Apollo Global Management, was advising Trump administration officials on infrastructure policy. During that period, he met on multiple occasions with Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, said three people familiar with the meetings. Among other things, the two men discussed a possible White House job for Mr. Harris.
The job never materialized, but in November, Apollo lent $184 million to Mr. Kushner’s family real estate firm, Kushner Companies. The loan was to refinance the mortgage on a Chicago skyscraper.
Even by the standards of Apollo, one of the world’s largest private equity firms, the previously unreported transaction with the Kushners was a big deal: It was triple the size of the average property loan made by Apollo’s real estate lending arm, securities filings show.
In addition to the loans to Kushner, Apollo Global Management has also recently done business with Trump surrogate Erik Prince. In August 2016, Apollo agreed to purchase Constellis Group and counted among Constellis Group’s subsidiaries was Academi, formerly known as Blackwater, which was founded in 1997 by Erik Prince. Prince’s sister, Betsy DeVos, is of course also Donald Trump’s Secretary of Education. Betsy’s husband, Rich DeVos, is the former CEO and founder of Amway, which has operated in China since 1995. Amway’s largest sales market remains in China, which is worth mentioning because Erik Prince is now heavily involved in the Chinese President Xi Jinping’s efforts to create Jinping’s $1 trillion One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative.
Since Trump’s inauguration, Blackstone Group’s Stephen Schwarzman has grown increasingly close to Jared Kushner. What common interest has brought the two together? Financial investments in China. Additionally, Schwarzman served as the chair of Trump’s Strategy and Policy Forum until the advisory council disbanded in August 2017. Schwarzman has been described as a “longtime friend” of Donald Trump by Politico, and he supported Trump during the primaries.
“Jared Kushner is the man,” Stephen Schwarzman said in December of 2016, shortly before Trump’s inauguration. It made sense then, of course. Jared Kushner’s data work on the Trump campaign was widely credited with Trump’s victory, and for those who wished to have a seat at the table, cozying up to Jared Kushner seemed like a good idea.
Even now, sixteen months into Trump’s (at best) turbulent presidency, Jared Kushner remains one of the president’s senior advisors, despite the fact that Kushner recently lost his ‘top-secret’ security clearance. Why is Kushner still there? Why has he continued to have the ear of his father-in-law, in the face of scandal after scandal? Perhaps because, while the media often portrays Donald Trump and Jared Kushner as having similar but separate business interests, they’re really one in the same.
Given all this, any potential crimes being investigated by Special Counsel Robert Mueller linked to Donald Trump or Jared Kushner could cause, at the very least, significant legal difficulties for the other man. After all, not only did Jared have a secret meeting the chairman of VEB, he also played a role in Prince’s meeting with the head of the RDIF.
How? Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ), the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, who set up this secret meeting in the Seychelles did so shortly after meeting with Jared Kushner and Steve Bannon in Trump Tower. The meeting occurred around nine days before Donald Trump’s inauguration. Is it a coincidence MbZ set up this meeting after talking with Kushner, or was it at Kushner’s behest?
Where Russian intelligence and Chinese intelligence meet.
During the 2016 campaign, by far the largest donor to the Trump super PAC ‘Make America Number 1’ was Robert Mercer, who donated a total of $15.5 million. The super PAC itself was run by Kellyanne Conway and Steve Bannon until they left to become Campaign Manager and Campaign CEO, respectively, for Donald Trump’s campaign. The PAC was then run by David Bossie until he too left to become Trump’s Deputy Campaign Manager. Since then, Robert Mercer’s daughter, Rebekah Mercer has run the super PAC.
While the Mercer family and their business activities are notoriously secretive, we do know the data firm Cambridge Analytica is largely owned by Robert Mercer. It’s interesting, then, to note the Make America Number 1 super PAC’s second largest expenditure during the 2016 campaign was Cambridge Analytica. Why? Because in addition to the second largest amount of expenditures going to a Mercer-owned company, Robert Mercer was the largest donor to the super PAC.
Essentially, Mercer controlled the flow of large sums of campaign money in both directions. This is an intriguing level of financial autonomy considering the IRS recently demanded $7 billion in back taxes from Robert Mercer.
In any case, Cambridge Analytica has received considerable news coverage these last few weeks. Alexander Nix, the CEO of Cambridge Analytica, was secretly filmed explaining the role his company played on Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. The video is well worth a watch, but it’s safe to say this new information is particularly troubling for Jared Kushner. According to Forbes, Jared Kushner had this to say in 2017 about the Trump campaign’s data operations:
“We found that Facebook and digital targeting were the most effective ways to reach the audiences. After the primary, we started ramping up because we knew that doing a national campaign is different than doing a primary campaign. That was when we formalized the system because we had to ramp up for digital fundraising. We brought in Cambridge Analytica. I called some of my friends from Silicon Valley who were some of the best digital marketers in the world. And I asked them how to scale this stuff. Doing it state by state is not that hard. But scaling is a very, very hard thing. They gave me a lot of their subcontractors and I built in Austin a data hub that would complement the RNC’s data hub. We had about 100 people in that office, which nobody knew about, until towards the end. We used that as the nerve center that drove a lot of the deployment of our ground game resources.”
Kushner, in his own words, admits to bringing in Cambridge Analytica into the campaign. Given Kushner’s admission and what has so far been covered in this article, it’s perhaps not too surprising to see a more direct link between Cambridge Analytica and Erik Prince. As first reported by journalist Wendy Siegelman:
Erik Prince is Executive Director and Chairman of Hong Kong listed Frontier Services Group “a leading provider of integrated security, logistics and insurance services for clients operating in frontier markets.”
The Executive Director and Deputy Chairman of Frontier is Mr. Ko Chun Shun, the same Johnson Chun Shun Ko who is a Director of Emerdata with Julian Wheatland and Alexander Nix of Cambridge Analytica. The address for Mr. Johnson Chun Shun Ko in the Emerdata listing is 3901 39 Floor, Far East Finance Centre, 16 Harcourt Road, Admiralty, Hong Kong, the same address as the Hong Kong headquarters for Frontier.
It’s important to remember our history here. Hong Kong is a former British colony, but it has been under the control of the Chinese government since 1997. It remains, officially, an autonomous region, but in any case, Erik Prince’s company is located in Hong Kong because Frontier Services Group is a Chinese-owned company. Erik Prince has also done business with Vincent Tchenguiz, formerly the largest shareholder of Cambridge Analytica’s parent company (SCL Group). The man who brought Prince and Tchenguiz together was Ari Harow, a former chief of staff to Israel Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu. Jared Kushner and his father, Charles Kushner, are of course longtime friends and associates of Netanyahu. It’s perhaps unsurprising then to note that Erik Prince donated $100,000 to the Make America Number 1 super PAC as well.
Erik Prince also worked with Steve Bannon during Trump’s campaign, including appearances together on Breitbart Radio. Prince was involved with the “October surprise”, which played a part in FBI director James Comey’s decision to release a statement about Hillary Clinton’s emails 11 days before the presidential election.
Hillary Clinton has publicly stated she believes this announcement ultimately cost her the election. Whether one believes her or not, there’s no doubt this was an unprecedented move by the usually non-partisan FBI. While the impact of Erik Prince’s actions related to the October surprise remains up for debate, his attempt to hurt Hillary Clinton and help Donald Trump is clear.
There’s Just Something About Hong Kong.
In early February of 2014, Erik Prince became the chairman of Hong Kong-based Frontier Services Group (FSG), whose largest shareholder is the Chinese government-owned company, CITIC Group.
In late February of 2014, Putin invaded Ukraine and illegally annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea. In March 2014, the Obama administration enacted the first US sanctions against Russia.
In April of 2014, Richard DeVos’s company Amway partnered with Alfa Group. Alfa Group is linked to Donald Trump financially. Alfa Bank (part of Alfa Group), also communicated with a Trump Tower server during the 2016 election.
In May 2014, VEB Asia Limited (a subsidiary of Vnesheconombank) opened in Hong Kong.
Also in May, 2014 Reuters reported on a lack of logistics operations in a growing Chinese market. The report stated,
To cope with the China surge, as much as $2.5 trillion may need to be invested in buying land and constructing warehouses alone over the next decade and a half, according to one builder. That’s drawing the attention of global private equity firms like Blackstone Group LP and Carlyle Group LP as they seek to benefit from an anticipated investment boom.
In September 2014, Blackstone had invested $100 million in China’s medical sector.
In October 2014, Chinese company Anbang Insurance Group purchased the Waldorf Astoria from Blackstone for $1.95 billion. Anbang has completed additional deals with Blackstone, and the Chairman of Anbang was in talks with Jared Kushner about investing in Kushner Companies’ flagship, heavily indebted, 666 Fifth Avenue property. However, this possibility has dried up since the chairman of Anbang was arrested by Chinese authorities in June of 2017.
In May of 2015, The Russian Direct Investment Fund and CITIC Merchant Bank, a Chinese state-owned investment fund, signed an agreement to create a joint investment bank known as the Russia-China Investment Fund (RCIF).CITIC Merchant Bank is part of CITIC Group, and CITIC Group is the largest shareholder of Erik Prince’s FSG.
There are, of course, more deals that have happened between these various individuals since the sudden upheavals in 2014. Taken individually, these deals do not suggest a sinister intent by Blackstone. Businessmen do business deals. However, it’s important because of the stakes involved here. Tens, perhaps hundreds of billions of dollars have been invested in or with Chinese officials by men extremely close to the President of the United States and his son-in-law, who also happens to be a senior advisor to the President.
It shouldn’t come as a huge shock that since 2014, Russia and China’s cooperation has also increased. “China is definitely a very strategic partner for Russia and we have the best relationship in the history of Russia (and) China right now,” said Kirill Dmitriev, CEO of the Russian Direct Investment Fund in November of 2017.
Because of what we now know, the question has to be asked: was President Trump’s decision to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in any way influenced by his or his son-in-law’s conflicts of interest? After all, leaving TPP isolated the US from potential deals in Asia and left the door open for China to fill any openings, thus increasing their power base.
Jared certainly wasn’t interested in standing in his way. Kushner’s various interactions with and targeting by Chinese government officials, businessmen and intelligence officials (not mutually exclusive) is extensively discussed in this New Yorker article. It’s not a big secret, of course, nor is it news to relay information about Jared’s interests in China. The context is important, however, because Russia and China’s joint interests aligning with Jared Kushner and Erik Prince’s interests, at best, raise serious concerns about a myriad of potential conflicts of interest. Clearly, the US intelligence community has their own concerns, as evidenced by their refusal to allow Kushner to maintain his top-secret security clearance.
In February 2017 — shortly after Donald Trump withdrew from the TPP — John Paulson, Dan Och, and Blackstone Group’s Stephen Schwarzman sat down to dinner with HNA Group Chairman Wang Jian to discuss potential deals with China. It’s easy to imagine they were in high spirits at the time, because while the US government could be damaged by ending TPP, individual investors like the Blackstone Group are free to do as they see fit.
There is an important point to made about the decision of these men to sit down with the chairman of HNA Group. In May of 2017, HNA Group became the majority shareholder of Deutsche Bank, which has been caught up in multiple money laundering scandals linked to Russian money. Deutsche Bank is also known as the only Western banking institution that was willing to give loans to Donald Trump’s businesses since the 1990s, when Trump’s lending options were limited due to multiple bankruptcies. How many of Trump’s secrets are hiding in Deutsche Bank’s records is yet to be uncovered, but when we put all the pieces we now know together, we end up back where this all started.
Trump foreign policy adviser Carter Page — the man alleged to have traveled to Russia on behalf of the Trump administration with the promise of sanctions relief to the Kremlin — was himself a target of Russian spies in the past. The man who targeted him was named Evgeny Buryakov. Who was Buryakov’s employer while he lived in the United States, working as a spy? Vnesheconombank.
When Vladimir Dmitriev (not Kirill Dmitriev, the CEO of RDIF), the chairman of the supervisory board of VEB since 2004 left the company in February 2016, guess which company he moved to? Deutsche Bank Russia, a subsidiary of Deutsche Bank.
This detail comes into play because the Washington Post reported one month before Election Day, Jared Kushner’s real estate company finalized a $285 million loan as part of a refinancing package for its property near Times Square in Manhattan.
Who provided the loan to Kushner’s business? Deutsche Bank. Who did Jared Kushner secretly meet with this same month? The head of Vnesheconombank, Sergey Gorkov, who took over from Deutsche Bank Russia’s Vladimir Dmitriev in February of 2016. The same VEB whose subsidiary is based in Hong Kong, where Erik Prince’s company is based.
Who did Erik Prince secretly meet with in the Seychelles at this time? The head of the Russian Direct Investment Fund, which was formerly a fully owned subsidiary of Vnesheconombank but remains closely linked to this day. Remember, the current Russian finance minister, Anton Siluanov, also currently sits on the boards of both VEB and the RDIF.
The Middle East connection.
Bob Mueller has been closely scrutinizing Jared Kushner’s business deals for months now, and Mueller is also investigating the circumstances of Erik Prince’s secret meeting in the Seychelles. George Nader, the man who helped set up the meeting on behalf of the UAE Crown Prince MbZ, was recently granted immunity by Mueller’s team. The extent of Nader’s knowledge is to be determined, but in addition to his work on behalf of the UAE, Nader has represented Saudi Arabia in the past. He was also hired by Erik Prince in an attempt to generate business with the Iraqi government sometime after the U.S. invaded Iraq.
Kushner and Prince can and have denied discussing business deals during their meetings, but when they intentionally tried to hide meetings they took with foreign officials, it’s fair of us to not take them at their word when they deny impropriety. After all, according to a recent Washington Post report, at least four countries have privately discussed ways they can manipulate Jared Kushner due to his inexperience, debt, and complex business dealings. Among those four countries are China, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates.
This comes on top of reports that Jared Kushner requested a loan from the Qatari government in April 2017. The Qataris, however, declined to invest in Kushner’s 666 Fifth Avenue property in New York City. After Kushner’s proposal was rejected, Blackstone Group and the sovereign wealth fund of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia agreed to a $20 billion deal for infrastructure projects inside the United States in May of 2017. This deal was announced at the same time Trump landed in Saudi Arabia to begin his first foreign trip abroad as president.
Days after Trump’s foreign trip ended, in June of 2017, the diplomatic crisis in the Middle East led to a blockade of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the UAE, among other countries. While tempers flared, Trump tweeted his support of a blockade against Qatar, and both he and Jared Kushner undermined Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s efforts to negotiate a compromise between both sides.
Who was to blame for setting off this series of events that ultimately led to a blockade? According to The Guardian, the subsequent FBI investigation determined Russian hackers were responsible for sending out fake messages from the Qatari government, sparking the Gulf’s biggest diplomatic crisis in decades. Trump and Kushner’s ally, Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, did nothing to ease tensions. Netanyahu went so far as to demand Qatar’s news agency, Al Jazeera, close its offices in Israel.
Furthermore, Cambridge Analytica’s parent company disclosed a $330,000 contract with the National Media Council of UAE and had a $75,000 budget that included ad buys promoting a boycott of Qatar on Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms. The agreement was reached shortly after Steve Bannon himself traveled to the UAE to meet with MbZ in September 2017.
The paperwork drawn up for this work is signed by Cambridge Analytica’s Julian Wheatland, who shares a board seat on the company Emerdata with Johnson Ko, a man who is also a business partner of Erik Prince, through Prince’s Chinese-owned company, Frontier Services Group. Johnson Ko is also on the board of Kuang-Chi Science with a man named Dorian Barak who has also worked as Erik Prince’s personal attorney.
Remember, sanctions on Russia still matter.
Donald Trump tried but ultimately failed to remove sanctions on Russia in the first weeks of his presidency, but by that point, Jared Kushner had already received a $285 million loan from Deutsche Bank to help him stay afloat. By July 2017, with no sanctions relief in sight, the Chinese government extended nearly $11bn in loans to two Russian state entities that are under western sanctions. Which two entities? They were VEB, whose head secretly met with Jared Kushner in December 2016, and the Russian Direct Investment Fund, whose head secretly met with Erik Prince in January 2017.
Why? What promises or assurances was the Chinese government given in return? By whom? How involved were Donald Trump, Jared Kushner and Erik Prince in these decisions? This complicated web can be difficult to understand, but it’s important we keep trying. The more we dig in, the more we realize this global corruption scandal is all related in one way or another. The public won’t grasp this vital concept unless we continue to look.
I’ll leave you with one last point. Despite Russian nationals being responsible for the hack which led to the blockade of Qatar, Russia and Qatar have increased military and trade cooperation in the ensuing months. Who else has Qatar also developed stronger ties with? The Chinese government.
Complicated though it may be, there’s one thing we know for sure — Donald Trump and Jared Kushner have shown little to no willingness to stand in the way of Russia and China’s goals. Certainly not if there’s a chance their businesses would suffer in the process.