Friday, May 12, 2017

Because That’s Where the Money Is

Someone once asked bank-robber Willie Sutton why he robbed banks. He gave his legendary response: “Because that’s where the money is.” For police forces and criminal investigators across the entire modern era, chasing the money trail has been one of the most basic tools in finding and extinguishing corruption, terrorism, organized crime and big economic powers skirting the edge of what is legal. Even the sanctions we have placed against rogue regimes like Russia and North Korea focus heavily on limiting access to and the ability to store and access cash and credit.
In the world of Islamist terrorism, an informal, secretly coded and not traditionally documented money transfer system based on relationships, faith and trust (see my March 25th blog Hawala) has plagued our intelligence community trying to stop those who fund terrorists. But by slowly cracking those codes and tracing both ends of the transaction, our intelligence community is impacting that money flow… not enough yet… but getting there.
When too much money and abusive power underpin autocrats ruling entire nations, the willingness to “eliminate” opponents, secretly hide swelling net worth and/or use rather clear access to “special treatment” in exchange for money and subservience become pretty routine. Take a look at Vladimir Putin – whom some say is the richest man on earth – Kim Jong-un, Recep Erdoğan, Bashir Assad and corrupt leaders in Asia, Africa… OK, just about everywhere, ask yourself if the people subject to these leaders are indeed well-served.
We are watching an escalating litany of questionable economic realities with the new Trump administration that are suggesting some very unpleasant possibilities. In addition to an administration proposing massive changes to our tax laws without revealing his own tax returns, Donald Trump may have appointed his sons to run his family empire, but he has not relinquished direct ownership of the underlying assets. Except for the emoluments clause of the constitution, the president of the United States is not subject to the same levels of disclosure and separation from control of financial interests that are imposed on other federal employees. Donald Trump loves all of that.
However, his political appointees have been caught making commercial endorsements that the law is intended to prevent, and the on-going businesses of his relatives who do not have political positions have some pretty unsavory links to Trump and those in his family who are indeed political appointees. Although son-in-law and official White House advisor Jared Kushner has separated himself from the family business, the taint lingers as his family has taken rather immediate and unsubtle advantage of their “special” relationship to the Trump administration.
“Donald Trump’s administration is facing new questions about conflicts of interest after Jared Kushner’s family staged events in China to woo wealthy investors into luxury developments, with the prospect of receiving US green cards in return. 
“On Saturday [5/6], Kushner’s sister, Nicole Kushner Meyer, took to the stage at an event at Beijing’s Ritz-Carlton hotel to urge Chinese investors to back One Journal Square, two skyscrapers currently being built in New Jersey… Members of the audience of 100 were reportedly told that if they stumped up at least half a million dollars for the project they could become US residents under a controversial cash-for-residency program that is known in China as the ‘golden visa.’ ... CNN reported that Meyer touted Jared Kushner’s position in the White House. ‘In 2008, my brother Jared Kushner joined the family company as CEO, and recently moved to Washington to join the administration,’ she said.
According to the New York Times, which was subsequently ejected from the seminar along with the Washington Post, Meyer told investors: ‘[This project] means a lot to me and my entire family.’… A slide shown during the pitch identified Trump as a ‘key decision maker’ in the controversial EB-5 immigrant investor program, for which there has been an explosion of Chinese applications in recent years… ‘Invest $500,000 and immigrate to the United States,’ the event’s brochure claimed, according to the Washington Post, which first reported the story.” The Guardian (U.K.), May 7th.
But all that happened well before the May 9th controversial firing of James Comey, Jr. as Director of the F.B.I. Reports that Donald Trump was increasingly outraged at Comey and his testimony before a Senate Committee were widely touted by the press and denied by the Trump administration (he simply “wasn’t doing a good job,” according to the President). Reports that Comey was let go immediately after asking for additional funding to support his inquiry into a possible “collusion” between the Trump campaign and Russian connection were quickly dismissed by government officials. But not by those who had inside information.
There was enough “substantiation” from within and outside of the F.B.I. to suggest that, despite the conservative mantra of a witch hunt based on liberal conspiracy theorists, there was mounting evidence of deep financial connections between Trump business operations and major financial and political sources in Russia. That little “follow the money” practice I noted above often takes lots of people doing lots of delving to produce the necessary level of hard evidence to prove criminal violation if one exists. Comey needed additional resources to do that. The timing of Comey’s discharge may have coincided with another reality that was increasingly unpleasant for the Trump regime: The money trail might be producing some very interesting possibilities and connections.
Pulitzer Prize-winner, Walter Pincus, writing for the May 11th The Cipher Brief, explains, citing testimony before the May 8th Senate Judiciary hearing (pre-Comey firing): “Subcommittee Chairman Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) asked former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, ‘During your investigation of all things Russia, did you ever find a situation where a Trump business interest in Russia gave you concern?’… Clapper responded that it did not impact the intelligence community assessment that Russia had attempted to influence the U.S. presidential election.
“But when Graham followed up by asking whether it had given Clapper concern ‘at all, any time,’ the answer was ‘I can’t comment on that because that impacts an investigation,’ an apparent reference to the FBI’s investigation…
“A CNN report appears to confirm that the FBI Trump/Russia investigation is looking at financial connections, although not yet Trump entities. According to CNN, grand jury subpoenas have been sent for business records of associates of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.
“The issue for the Trumps is not their having projects in Russia, but rather Russian money flowing into Trump projects in the U.S. and other countries… At Monday’s [5/8] Judiciary subcommittee hearing, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), noted that Donald Trump Jr., stated at a real estate meeting in September 2008 that he'd made half a dozen trips in the preceding 18 months to Russia. Whitehouse quoted Donald Jr. saying, ‘We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia,’ during his 2008 speech.
“There is a long history of Russian money reaching Trump at key moments over the years… For example, in the midst of Trump’s financial troubles in 2008, a Russian billionaire, Dmitri Rybolovlev, bought a Palm Beach mansion from Trump for $95 million. Interestingly, Trump had purchased it four years earlier for just $41 million – thereby turning a profit of $44 million…
“Last Friday [5/5], James Dodson, a writer on golfing, told Boston radio station WBUR that in 2014 he was invited to visit the Trump National Golf Club-Charlotte, located in Mooresville, North Carolina. There, he said he traveled in a golf cart with Trump’s son, Eric. Asked who was funding development of golf courses such as this, Dodson quoted Eric as having said, ‘Well, we don’t rely on American banks. We have all the funding we need out of Russia…We’ve got some guys that really, really love golf, and they’re really invested in our programs. We just go there all the time.’…
“‘Three days after the radio interview, Eric tweeted, ‘This story is completely fabricated and just another example why there is such a deep distrust of the media in our country.’… Despite Eric’s tweet, stories such as these would likely require that he and Donald Jr. be subjects for any investigators looking into Russian investments in Trump businesses.
“The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence is going down that financial path. Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), vice chairman of the committee, told CNN his panel has requested the Treasury Department’s FinCEN group provide any material about Russian financial ties to Trump or Trump-related officials as part of their current investigation… Investigators inevitably follow the money.”
So how did Trump’s lawyers and representatives respond? Read this, and let a lawyer tell you what it suggests rather strongly: “A review of President Donald Trump's tax returns from the past 10 years showed no income from Russian sources outside of a few exceptions, and indicated he did not owe money to Russian lenders, [Donald Trump’s] lawyers said in a letter released by the White House on Friday [5/12].
“The letter, dated March 8, said the tax returns did not reflect any Trump income from Russian sources, aside from money earned during the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow and the 2008 sale of a Florida estate to a Russian billionaire [$95 million per above, not exactly chump change].
“Trump's businesses also may have earned ‘immaterial’ amounts of money from Russians over the years through ordinary sales transactions, including condominium rentals or sales, hotel rooms, rounds of golf, or sales of Trump-licensed products, Sheri Dillon and William Nelson, attorneys at Morgan Lewis and Bockius, said in the letter.”, May 12th. Read the denial carefully? What it did not deny is that Trump’s businesses may have relied heavily on loans and investment capital from Russian sources, something that would not show up on his personal tax return. Yeah… that.
We expect denials and “alternative” explanations, including blame for false news placed on others, from the Trump family and administration. For sophisticated listeners to news stories, those practices are simply “business as usual in Trumpland” but seldom given any real credibility. That the F.B.I. and our overall intelligence community is rather obviously looking at that financial linkage does not lack that credibility, however.
I’m Peter Dekom, and perhaps autocrat-in-training Donald Trump can effectively use his GOP leadership to shut down this investigation, but sooner or later…

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