A Mid-May Summary of Recent Kremlingate Developments
Since my last update in mid-April, the Kremlingate saga is moving along more quickly than I anticipated. As of yesterday we have a special prosecutor, and multiple news organizations (CNN, NBC, the Washington Post and the New York Times) have reported within the past week that at least two federal grand juries have not only been convened but have also issued subpoenas. A grand jury in the Eastern District of Virginia is reviewing evidence regarding corrupt business deals involving Mike Flynn, and a grand jury in the Southern District of New York is looking at potential money laundering committed by Paul Manafort. I had thought it would be June before the necessary political pressure had developed for appointment of a special prosecutor, but President Trump’s machinations hastened the process. And I had thought it would be June or July before grand juries were convened and the end of the summer before indictments would be issued, but now we can expect indictments and arrests much sooner.
As we all know, the three biggest developments in this mega-scandal all happened within the past week (Comey’s firing; Trump’s disclosure of sensitive intelligence to Russian spies; and the revelation that Trump tried to get Comey to shut down the FBI investigation of Flynn). High blood pressure and injuries from whiplash have reached epidemic proportions across the country. But hold onto your hats because this storm is getting more powerful, and it is going to batter us for years.
First, Comey was hot on Trump’s trail before he got fired. The Wall Street Journal reported that several weeks ago Comey made a request for daily updates on the investigation, rather than the weekly status reports he had been getting, after becoming increasingly concerned by the emergence of evidence of collusion between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign. In reading the tea leaves from what various members of Congress and the Intelligence Community have carefully disclosed, my assessment is that the Intelligence Community has the communications and the timeline, but at the time of Comey’s firing they were still piecing together the money trail. That’s why Comey requested additional resources the day before he was fired. And now Special Counsel Robert Mueller will pick up where Comey left off.
Second, there is much more to this scandal than the question of collusion between Trump and Russia. Many are finally waking up to the fact that the Trump family/organization and their associates comprise one of the biggest and most brazen criminal enterprises that this country has ever seen. Trump himself has repeatedly and publicly rejected the legitimacy of laws against money laundering, bribing foreign officials and conducting business with sanctioned regimes, including Russia and its satellite states. There is a lot for law enforcement to unpack.
And third, the national security implications are profound. Besides the urgent issue of Russia’s continued willingness to attack our elections and sow discord, we have to be concerned about the longer term erosion of our security resulting from the disturbing shift away from our traditional allies in favor of the authoritarianism and corruption of Putin.
With that said, let’s review some of what’s happened over the past month, and let’s start off with the most critical element.
Our National Security Imperative
Neither the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, nor the Russian Ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, had any business being in the Oval Office last week. They’re both spies, and Russia blatantly interfered in our election last year. To the extent that the U.S. needs to deal with either “diplomat,” the State Department will suffice. But Trump hosted them anyway, because, he said, Putin asked him to. As Hillary Clinton warned, Trump is indeed Putin’s puppet.
Trump’s Oval Office meeting with the two Sergeys came the day after Trump fired Comey, and it was the only event on Trump’s official schedule for that day. Stranger yet, the only “press” allowed into the Oval Office to photograph the meeting and ask questions was the Russian propaganda outfit Sputnik along with the official photographer of the Russian government. All U.S. media was barred. Former intelligence community officials voiced concern not only that Trump invited Sputnik into the Oval Office but also that he allowed in Russian surveillance equipment.
We do not know the specifics of what Trump told the Russians, since that information was so sensitive that it could not even be shared with our closest allies or with anyone in Congress besides a few top members of the intelligence committees. But what we do know is that Trump revealed highly sensitive intelligence that had been provided by Israel regarding an ISIS plot to bomb airplanes using new technology that involves inserting micro-bombs inside laptop computers. It is the biggest threat to air travel since 9/11. The intelligence agent(s) who provided the information are embedded spies that, according to assessments by intelligence experts, may now be in grave danger because of the information that Trump told Russia. And the continuing viability of that operation and our access to the critical information provided by it is now in question. Even our closest allies have become reluctant to share intelligence with the U.S. because of Trump’s connections with Russia.
An Associated Press report published Wednesday, following up on a related report from May 5, revealed that during the transition, Obama administration officials were forced to bar Trump transition members from handling certain classified materials after discovering that members of Trump’s team were removing classified materials from secure rooms, photocopying them and then even transporting them between buildings without permission. Among those documents was a top secret CIA intelligence report on Russia’s ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, the spy recruiter who enjoyed easy access to several members of Trump’s campaign, including Jared Kushner, Jeff Sessions and Mike Flynn. It’s a safe assumption that Kislyak enjoyed reading what the CIA had to say about him.
And finally, Pro-Publica and Gizmodo investigative reporters recently parked their vehicles close to Mar-a-Lago and Trump’s New Jersey golf resort where he sometimes stays and found that they could easily hack into the Internet at either location. Both properties remain cybersecurity minefields, and yet Trump has hosted the leaders of Japan and China at Mar-a-Lago and discussed national security issues with each, including a missile launch by North Korea. He discussed that missile launch with the Japanese prime minister over dessert in a corner of the Club Members’ dining room, where members were busy snapping photos and recording video. Neither Mar-a-Lago employees, members or guests are required to undergo security clearances. At this point, it is safe to assume that Mar-a-Lago is a nest of spies.
There are Recordings
Before he fired Comey and then admitted on television that he did so because he was not happy with the FBI’s counterintelligence investigations of him, his friends and his campaign, the only attempts by Trump to obstruct the FBI and Congressional investigations that we knew about were two threatening tweets, one clearly intended to intimidate Sally Yates the day before she was scheduled to testify before Congress, and the other a veiled threat towards James Comey right after his public testimony.
But then we found out that Comey meticulously and contemporaneously documented his conversations with Trump, including one in the Oval Office on February 14, the day after Mike Flynn was fired, in which Trump implored Comey to end the FBI’s investigation of Flynn. Comey’s memos were distributed within a small circle at the FBI and Department of Justice, and they soon will be made available to at least two congressional committees. The February 14 Oval Office meeting came after a national security meeting that had included Vice President Pence and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, both of whom Trump asked to leave so that he could speak with Comey alone.
Days after he fired Comey, Trump, in another threatening tweet towards Comey, announced to the world that he had secretly recorded his conversations with Comey. Uh oh. Congress will want to listen to those recordings. And so will the new special prosecutor, Robert Mueller. Trump claims that Comey’s memo regarding their February 14 discussion misrepresented their conversation. If that’s the case, then the White House should be rushing to publicize their recordings. But they’ve suddenly gone quiet about the tapes. Thus, when Congress officially requests the tapes, the White House will no doubt push back. They will claim that Trump was “just kidding” when he asserted that he had recorded his conversations with Comey. But the problem with that defense is that it constitutes an admission that Trump was trying to threaten Comey into silence, and such threats are evidence of an attempt to obstruct.
There is ample evidence to show that Trump has long been in the habit of secretly recording important business conversations, and perhaps certain personal liaisons, so it seems reasonable to conclude that such tapes do exist. Someone at the White House besides Trump knows. In President Nixon’s White House, that person was Alexander Butterfield, and when Butterfield told Congress about Nixon’s taping system, all hell broke loose. Nixon insisted that the recordings he made in the Oval Office were his personal property protected by “executive privilege,” but the Supreme Court unanimously rejected that argument and forced Nixon to hand over his Oval Office tapes to Congress. Seventeen days after the Supreme Court announced its ruling, Nixon resigned. The recordings revealed that he was part of a conspiracy to obstruct the Watergate investigation.
Comey has let it be known that he thinks that any recordings Trump made would back up his version of events. And if Trump thinks he can just burn any tapes he made, he had better think again. Destruction of evidence is a crime.
The Empire State Strikes Back
It’s not just the FBI and Congress. The Wall Street Journal reported last Friday that the offices of both New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. have been investigating suspicious New York City real estate transactions undertaken by Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort. Those investigations come on top of multiple FBI and Department of Justice investigations of Manafort regarding his alleged use of real estate transactions and foreign shell corporations to launder illicit Russian payments, as well as his failure to comply with the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
Schneiderman’s office already nailed Trump for $25 million to settle fraud charges regarding the now defunct Trump University, and it has also opened, as reported by the New York Daily News in March, an investigation of Trump’s apparent violations of the emoluments clause of the Constitution. Schneiderman is also investigating alleged tax evasion and self-dealing by Trump’s sham foundation. It has been rumored, though not announced or confirmed, that Schneiderman’s hiring of two well-regarded public corruption investigators in March was to go after the Trump organization for its well-known ties to Russian mobsters.
Thus, even if the FBI’s Kremlingate investigation drags on or meets with continued resistance from the Republican leadership, or even if Trump has the chutzpah to grant pardons to his co-conspirators regarding federal crimes, Schneiderman and Vance are apparently poised to pursue RICO charges under New York state law that have the potential to bring down the entire corrupt Trump organization and land Ivanka, Eric and Don, Jr. in Sing Sing alongside their father. Presidential pardons don’t apply to state convictions. Perhaps they could strike a deal whereby Trump resigns the presidency, dismantles the Trump organization and pays a fine of a couple billion dollars.
The Dutch Connection
A 2-part investigative documentary entitled “The Dubious Friends of Donald Trump” from Dutch broadcaster ZEMBLA alleges that the Trump organization, via its partner Bayrock, has used phony “mailbox companies” located in the Netherlands to set up bank accounts used to funnel illicit funds from Russian mobsters into Trump real estate projects. The first part of the report details not only Trump’s relationship with henchman Felix Sater and, by extension, Russian mobsters, but also Trump’s deeper and longer-term dependency on disturbingly shady deals with numerous Russian oligarchs linked to Vladimir Putin.
The second segment of the documentary focuses specifically on the mysterious business ties between Trump as well as Jared Kushner and corrupt diamond magnate Lev Leviev, an Uzbeki-Israeli billionaire who is an intimate of Vladimir Putin. The Netherlands is interested in Trump’s and Kushner’s ties to Leviev in connection with the Dutch diamond chain Siebel, which was acquired out of bankruptcy in 2013 by a Russian company owned by Leviev that is accused of diamond smuggling, human rights abuses and business ties to North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.
None of this information is new, but it has not received the attention that it warrants. This documentary is well worth viewing.
Below is the link to the English language version:
Following the Money
One of the nominees for best picture this year was the “bigly” entertaining Hell or High Water with Jeff Bridges as a crusty old lawman and Chris Pine and Ben Foster as brothers in impoverished West Texas who rob several branches of a bank that’s threatening to foreclose on their financially distressed family ranch. Pine’s and Foster’s characters launder the cash from their teller window hold-ups at an Indian casino in Oklahoma, using the cash to buy chips from a casino cashier one day and then exchanging those chips the next day for a check from the casino. They then deposit the check into an account at another bank, which gives them a cashier’s check that they use to pay off their mortgage held by the bank they robbed. It’s a clever plan.
It turns out the Russians were using Trump’s Taj Mahal in Atlantic City in a similar fashion, but with a lot more money. The now-defunct Taj Mahal was twice slapped with fines by the U.S. Department of Treasury for failure to comply with federal anti-money laundering law. In fact, the $10 million fine that Treasury’s FinCEN unit assessed against the Taj Mahal in 2015 was the largest fine it ever levied against anyone.
Now, according to a CNN report from last Wednesday, the Senate Intelligence Committee has asked FinCEN to provide its records on Russian money laundering, including and especially involving Trump. FinCEN has agreed to do so. And it should be noted that these days FinCEN has a lot more records than it did in 2015 when it fined the Taj Mahal. It has been widely reported that FinCEN in March collected a trove of documents from Cyprus, the most notorious Russian money-laundering location. Supposedly FinCEN has been investigating ties between Trump associates, such as Paul Manafort, and illicit Russian funds since late spring 2016.
Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, announced that he too is interested in scrutinizing Trump’s business dealings with Russian interests, even going so far as to suggest that Trump’s tax returns might be required for such an investigation. Graham’s interest in undertaking such a probe came after former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, in a public hearing last Monday, demurred in response to a question from Graham about Trump’s business dealings. Clapper said he could not comment on his knowledge of Trump’s business dealings because there is an active intelligence investigation about them.
Well, of course there is. It is public knowledge that Trump sold a south Florida property to a shady Russian oligarch in 2008 for a $53 million premium that amounted to the highest price ever paid for a private home in the U.S., and Don Jr. is on the record the same year as stating that a disproportionate amount of the Trump organization’s funding came from Russia. And two weeks ago, golf journalist James Dodson told NPR that Eric Trump told him in 2014 that Trump’s golf resorts were funded with $100 million in Russian money.
There’s more. On Wednesday this week, the Wall Street Journal highlighted yet another Trump development project funded by the Kremlin apparently with the specific approval of Putin. The Trump International Hotel, which opened in 2012 but went bankrupt last year, was funded by Russia’s state-owned Vnesheconombank, which served as a cover for a spy ring that the FBI uncovered and shut down in New York City in 2013. Trump says that even though the project was initially a joint venture between the Trump organization and a Russian/Canadian developer, he ultimately did not take an equity stake in the Toronto project and that the proceeds he earned were related to a licensing deal. The project looks like one big money laundering operation, with Kremlin cash ultimately benefitting Trump, even if just through a lucrative licensing deal.
The money trail is key to proving collusion. But more than that, it will expose the full extent of Trump’s and his family’s criminal activity, and not just with respect to Russia. The money trail goes far beyond New York City and Mar-a-Lago. It also winds through Cyprus and Seychelles and Panama City and Baku, Azerbaijan. The sources include skimmed national coffers, sex trafficking, pedophilia rings, drugs and weapons.
Sally Yates and James Clapper
Before Trump fired Comey, the big news at the beginning of last week was the testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee by former acting Attorney General Sally Yates and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. Two critical pieces of information came out of their testimony.
First, Yates confirmed the extraordinary urgency of her mission to inform the White House in late January that Mike Flynn was compromised by Russian intelligence agents. The fact that the White House failed to remove Flynn immediately, knowing that he was beholden to a foreign adversary while serving as the United States’ top national security adviser to the president, is mind-blowing. How can that be? The White House apparently ignored Yates’ warning and then fired her hours after she discussed the matter for the third time with the president’s White House counsel. Trump did not fire Flynn until 18 days later, only after a firestorm ensued following a Washington Post report detailing Flynn’s duplicity that cited nine current and former officials of U.S. intelligence agencies.
The Senate Intelligence Committee wants answers, and last Wednesday it fired off a subpoena to Flynn. It was the first time the SIC has issued a subpoena since conducting an investigation of the 9/11 attacks. Flynn has not responded yet, but if he chooses to fight the subpoena, it would be up to Rod Rosenstein and Dana Boente to defend Congress’ prerogative on the matter.
The second critical piece of information that came out of the Judiciary Committee hearing last Monday was confirmation from Clapper of news reports in the Guardian and elsewhere that British intelligence services and the intelligence agencies of several other European allies alerted the U.S. Intelligence Community on multiple occasions starting in the summer of 2015 and continuing into 2016 about contacts between Russians and the Trump campaign. Clapper confirmed the accuracy of the Guardian report, but he said he could say nothing more because the details were “quite sensitive.”
Lying Mike Pence
It is hardly a farfetched scenario to envision Trump being removed from office at some point over the next couple of years. If that happens, Mike Pence would become president. But Pence is no Gerald Ford. He’s more like Spiro Agnew, who, fortunately for the United States, was forced to resign the vice presidency in October 1973 after pleading no contest to bribery charges. His resignation cleared the way for the trustworthy Gerald Ford to become the country’s failsafe in case something happened to Nixon.
When interviewed by Bret Baier of Fox News on March 9, several days after it was revealed that Mike Flynn was a paid agent of the Turkish government, Vice President Pence claimed that he was completely surprised to have just learned about Flynn’s ties to Turkey. Pence, who was the head of Trump’s transition team, said that the revelation that Flynn was paid half a million dollars to promote policies favored by Recip Erdogan reaffirmed that Trump was right to fire Flynn in February.
But shortly after that interview it was revealed that the Trump transition, including Pence directly, actually received written notice both from Flynn’s attorneys and from Congress in November regarding Flynn’s conflict of interest with Turkey. And given that a quick Google search showed news reports in November about Flynn’s contract with Turkey, Pence and his team had to have known.
The latest news on that front comes from a report last night in the New York Times. Flynn himself informed the Trump transition team — specifically Don McGahn, now White House counsel — directly that he had been notified by the FBI that he was under investigation for secretly working as a paid lobbyist for Turkey while serving on Trump’s campaign. So Pence knew both that Flynn was working for Turkey and that he was under investigation by the FBI. When Trump fired Flynn, the White House explained that it had to let Flynn go because he had lied to Pence about his discussions with Kislyak, causing Pence to then mislead the public with assurances that Flynn’s phone calls with Kislyak had nothing to do with sanctions on Russia. Was it really just Flynn who was lying? Seems pretty clear that Pence lies too.
In fact, in the same interview in which he sought to reassure the public that Flynn’s phone calls with Kislyak were totally on the up and up, Pence scoffed at the suggestion that the Trump campaign had any contacts with Russians. But since then, it has been reported and documented time and again that Trump campaign associates had numerous contacts with Russians, and today Reuters reported that the U.S. Intelligence Community has a record of at least 18 previously undisclosed contacts between Trump campaign officials and Russian officials that occurred between April 2016 and Election Day. Among those 18 communications were six phone calls between Trump associates and Kislyak. That’s in addition to the already reported multiple contacts Kislyak had with Flynn, Jeff Sessions, Carter Page, J.D. Gordon and Jared Kushner. Was Pence ignorant about all of those communications? More likely, he was covering up.
Pence also lied to the public about Trump’s firing of Comey. It was obvious already that Trump fired Comey to stop the FBI’s Kremlingate probes, so it was not exactly credible when Pence informed the public that it was Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s idea to fire Comey for reasons related to Clinton emails. Then, to spite Pence and anyone else who tried to defend him, Trump admitted on television that he intended to fire Comey all along. And today Rosenstein told the entire U.S. Senate that he was aware that Trump was going to fire Comey even before he wrote the memo that supposedly provided the rationale for Comey’s dismissal. If Rosenstein knew ahead of time, it’s more than likely that Pence did too. Pence appears to be complicit in obstructing justice. Fortunately, our new special counsel, Robert Mueller, will be investigating Comey’s firing. And for that, he may need to depose Pence under oath. Perhaps we will get another Gerald Ford after all.
Today Time reported that U.S. intelligence intercepts from May 2016 include a conversation among Russian spies indicating that Putin’s plans to interfere in the 2016 election commenced five years ago. Putin assumed that then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would run for president in 2016, and he wanted payback against her for her criticism of fraud in Russia’s 2011 elections and U.S. support for Russian democracy activists. Putin did not just want to hack email accounts and spread anti-Clinton propaganda. He also considered interfering with the actual vote.
Multiple news organizations reported on April 20 that Putin had a Russian think tank staffed by retired spies design a roadmap to implement his objective of defeating Clinton. Two documents produced by the think tank made their way into the hands of U.S. intelligence. The first document, from June 2016, proposed an aggressive disinformation campaign to support Trump using social media and fake news sites, including the slick Kremlin-financed outlets Russia Today and Sputnik.
But by October, according to the second document, the think tank concluded that Trump was unlikely to defeat Clinton. Their recommendation was to shift towards efforts to undermine Clinton’s presidency by pushing voter fraud concerns and questioning the legitimacy of the election. The most interesting consideration about this piece of news is that the Trump campaign, including Donald Trump himself, made the exact same shift in October, suddenly complaining day after day that the vote was going to be rigged by crooked Hillary and the dishonest media. It was if they did so at the direct dictate of the Kremlin.
Russia, If You’re Listening
There is yet another offshoot to the FBI’s primary Kremlingate investigation. You may recall that last July Trump made a strange statement at a campaign rally that raised eyebrows, including among members of the U.S. Intelligence Community. Trump said: “I will tell you this, Russia: if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” referring to non-work emails that Hillary Clinton had deleted from her personal server. Trump went on to say that if Russia found those emails it would be richly rewarded. A few hours later, he tweeted: “If Russia or any other country or person has Hillary Clinton’s 33,000 illegally deleted emails, perhaps they should share them with the FBI!” In the wake of the hack of the Democratic National Committee by Russians, Trump appeared to be telling Russia, a foreign adversary of the U.S., to interfere in the U.S. election.
MIT doctoral student Ryan Shapiro and journalist Jason Leopold decided to research what the FBI knew about Trump’s public statements to Russia regarding Clinton’s emails, and so they filed a freedom of information (FOIA) request last August for any related documents that the FBI had. After some back and forth, the FBI recently confirmed that it is working on their FOIA request and that it “expects that it possesses at least some records.” In other words, we now have confirmation that the FBI’s investigation extends to Trump’s public pleas to Russia to break U.S. law. It will certainly be interesting to see just what documents the FBI ends up providing to Shapiro and Leopold.
The only public testimony currently scheduled is that of former CIA Director John Brennan before the House Intelligence Committee on Tuesday. Brennan was the one who sounded the initial alarm bells last August in extraordinary one on one meetings with the Republican and Democratic leaders of the Senate and House, after he himself received a phone call from Robert Hannigan, head of Britain’s signal intelligence agency (the GCHQ), informing him that the GCHQ had intercepted communications between Trump campaign officials and Russian spies.
Yesterday morning the Senate Intelligence Committee invited James Comey to testify in both open and closed hearings. Comey has reportedly expressed a willingness to testify in public only. At this point, nothing has been nailed down. But expect that at least some portions of Comey’s memos detailing his conversations with Trump will become public.
Trump will soon nominate an FBI director, someone who will need to coordinate closely with Special Counsel Robert Mueller on the Kremlingate investigations. Depending upon who Trump taps, the confirmation hearings might be lively.
One final thought. Expect Trump to start exploring the use of his pardon powers as need be, perhaps first with Mike Flynn. The Daily Beast reported today that Trump keeps in contact with Flynn and has expressed an interest in bringing him back to work in the Trump administration. That would be hard to do if either Flynn or Trump ends up in jail. But if Trump can keep Flynn out of jail, then perhaps he thinks that Flynn might do the same for him?
Otherwise, the wheels of justice continue to turn while a passionate and committed army of investigative journalists are on the case. A respected special counsel is in place. Grand juries have been convened. Evidence is being gathered. Trump’s business ties are being scrutinized. We’re just getting going here. Hold on tight.