Trump and a Criminal Underworld Hiding in Plain Sight
I recently called the Oval Office phone chat with Putin a cliffhanger in this reality show we call a presidency.
While each passing day builds to an ever-larger climax, we are no closer to resolution. And unlike TV, having the benefit of editing and production, we have been left to figure out what the devil is going on by ourselves.
I think, finally, I have — and it is frightening.
I. Family Crime goes Global
“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
In December, investigative journalist James S. Henry gave us the most comprehensive array of Trump’s Russian connections to date. In it, we met people like Felix Sater, the criminal-turned-FBI informant working in Trump Tower.
Donald repeatedly denied or downplayed their relationship but did not object to his business cards.
If the President has any distaste for organized crime, he has a funny way of showing it. In 2013, describing his associate’s felony conviction, Trump said Sater “got into a barroom fight, which a lot of people do.”
That may be.
But when they do, few will stab other people in the face with the stem of a margarita glass. Nor pick a fight with a Wall Street commodities broker, as Felix did.
Trump’s mafia past is no secret. Whether it was paying “Fat Tony” Salerno far too much for concrete, or helping a Teamster’s girlfriend get a $3 million mortgage without doing any paperwork, Donald has repeatedly slipped in and out of different crime syndicates, reaping reward without substantial damage to his reputation.
This is also a man not given to introspection, by his own admission. Donald Trump does not learn or change. Has not changed —
On New Years Eve — three weeks before becoming President of the United States, amidst questions of criminal impropriety and outside influence — he figured it was okay to be seen on a stage, right beside this guy:
That would be Joey “No Socks” Cinque. Convicted felon. Drug dealer. And — oh, right — friend of John Gotti, head of the Gambino crime family.
Joey-No-Socks handed Trump a bronze eagle — some award of the American Association of Hospitality Services. Until the campaign, the ‘goodfella’ AAHS listed Trump as a board member.
“I think I might have been . . . ambassador extraordinaire, you know. I never went to a meeting or anything,” Trump said. Nothing to see here.
Except you are still hanging out with Mafiosi! You dolt.
One of the strange ironies in his brand of populism is shilling the America First, anti-global, isolationist message while simultaneously boasting of jet set clients and deals in far-flung countries.
Just as lust for notoriety, influence and (perceived) success led him to seek the most powerful office on the planet, it is likely Trump’s need to expand precipitated collaboration with bigger, multinational criminals.
Henry reminds us Trump is linked not only with Russia, but the entire Soviet sphere of influence.
Active at least 13 years, a group called Bayrock LLC was overseeing $2 billion in Trump-approved deals in 2007, right in Trump Tower. It was run by (along with glass-shiv Felix) a group of infamous Kazakh billionaires known as simply: The Trio. The one who founded it spent 17 years in the Soviet Ministry of Commerce and Trade, and all three were closely watched by the State Department for (alleged) money laundering, bribery, and racketeering.
The FSU (Former Soviet Union) also found its way to Iceland, where an investment company helped fund Bayrock “white elephants” and hasten the collapse of the entire Icelandic economy. Trump SoHo, for example, fizzled out in lawsuits and settlements for fraud. Or Trump Hotel & Tower in Fort Lauderdale, which went belly-up and was resold in 2012. In fact, many Bayrock projects — Kiev, Istanbul, Warsaw, Moscow — never seemed to get beyond the investment stage.
Such Eastern-backed enterprises stretched all the way to Canada. Via expatriates of Kyrgyzstan. Moldova.
In Canada, a Trump enterprise was made possible by a Lithuanian, Boris Birshtein. Boris was closely associated with Solntsevskaya Bratva: the biggest crime organization in the world (at last count) and the largest branch of the Russian mob. Boris employed Alex Shnaider, who built the recently foreclosed Trump Tower Toronto.
Over time, two things become clear concerning associates of Donald Trump.
1) They are often of ill repute.
2) No matter what huge losses and bankruptcies Trump sustains, they continue to throw millions of dollars at him. Billions, perhaps.
Why would any business person, legitimate or otherwise, be so willing to keep making bad investments?
II. International Money Laundering
Many revelations came from the Panama Papers in 2015.
One of them: criminals are far beyond a bit of tax avoidance in the Caymans and a Swiss bank account.
The IMF estimates “profit shifting” of multinational companies costs developing nations 213 billion US dollars. Each and every year. How is it shifted? Shell companies. The biggest “shell game” ever played.
The head of Financial Intelligence in the EU said they “play an important role” in money laundering, often used to “transfer bribe money.”
So where does the POTUS fit in this?
Where else? Real estate. The preferred investment for shell companies is property in North America, and Europe.
London. New York. Paris.
And . . . Miami.
— Where 76% of all condo owners pay cash.
— Home of skyrocketing housing prices, due to billionaires tucking away assets in luxury estates.
— Illicit cash dumping-ground, per a former congressional investigator: “There is huge amount of dirty money flowing into Miami that’s disguised as investment.”
— Site of the only admitted link to Russian finance. Trump:
I bought a house a number of years ago in Palm Beach … for $40 million, and I sold it to a Russian for $100 million.
That was 2008. Almost sounds . . . legit, right? Plausible?
Except the Russian never lived there. The mansion is now completely torn down. Most doubt he ever set foot in it.
Except the property was on the market for two years before it sold at an inflated price. In cash. [Even more inflated than concrete bought from the Gambinos in the ‘80s.]
Except this Russian’s private Airbus jet keeps showing up wherever Trump shows up. New York. Campaign stops in Las Vegas and North Carolina. (Charlotte must be the new billionaire hot spot.)
And West Palm Beach, the same weekend Michael Flynn was having a final meeting with the boss before Flynn resigned in disgrace over communication with Russia.
The plane with said Russian’s unique ‘M-KATE’ ID went from Switzerland to West Palm Beach, then — rather suspiciously — Moscow, the next weekend. [No accusation per se but it is odd to think on the words of our Luddite-in-Chief, 1/2/17: anything important should be written and “delivered by courier, the old-fashioned way.”]
This particular Russian — Dmitry Rybolovlev — is owner and president of the Monaco soccer club; he lives tax-free in Monte Carlo.
Rybolovlev’s home is a casino haven with “relaxed policies in regard to money laundering,” the most expensive real estate you can find, and more millionaires and billionaires per capita than anywhere in the world.
He is no angel either — Rybolovlev has served time for a contract killing, and was caught manipulating the price of his own star players using offshore companies.
Most importantly, Rybolovlev had been the biggest shareholder of Bank of Cyprus. Until 2014, when a new stockholder and his group purchased 18% and became its vice-chairman:
Wilbur Ross, our new Secretary of Commerce.
Some banking factoids (many from the incomparable Henry again):
- Nearly half of all Bank of Cyprus deposits came from Russians
- Cyrpus’ special provisions allow money to come from Russia and be routed right back as if foreign capital — without taxes, creditors or any restriction on money laundering
- Vekselberg, board member and Kremlin loyalist, paid Switzerland $38 million for security fraud; was investigated for collusion when he bought the former Hungarian embassy for $21 million and sold it to the Russian government for $116 million
- Strzhalkovsky, ex-KGB and “long-time Putin associate,” was Vice Chair when Wilbur Ross bought in to Bank of Cyprus
- Ross recruited Chairman Josef Ackerman, who was in charge of Deutsche bank when it laundered $10 billion in Russian money
- Deutsche Bank is by far the largest single Trump lender
James S. Henry’s summary: “To this day, why Deutsche Bank has continued lending to Trump and his organization remains a mystery.”
Rachel Maddow goes further, offering a theory: in 2008, Trump was suing the bank to get out of paying off his loan, citing woes of the ongoing financial crisis. He owed Deutsche $40 million, and could not sell his mold-ridden mansion in Palm Beach to raise capital. Lo and behold, a billionaire Russian bails him out, pays 250% more than Trump’s initial investment — a Russian invested in the same bank Deutsche’s long-serving CEO now chairs.
One more thing: in 2008, Deutsche bank reported its first annual loss in five decades.
All coincidence, right? Just more in a long list of coincidences concerning Russian money and Trump.
A list growing by the day.
III. The Man Who Will Sing Like a Canary
Many of us are wondering what, if anything, will be the undoing of the Trump Presidency.
With so many names, scandals, and narratives in the mix, any single channel can seem almost inconspicuous. One might have an easier time picking winning lotto numbers.
The key may be confluence. Cyprus and many other locales are significant but, more often than not, Ukraine is where the trails lead.
Sanctions. UN resolutions. Political puppetry and rigged elections. Military conflict, downed planes. Oligarchs and natural wealth. Diversity. Modernization and identity crisis.
Ukraine is the trouble spot tied to nearly every modern East-West tension and entanglement.
It’s also why, for my money, the name that stands out — the one most likely to bring Trump’s gravy train to a grinding halt — belongs to a Ukrainian:
Firtash is a heavyweight of white-collar crime.
He has a group of international companies in chemicals, real estate, mining and energy. In 2011, Firtash bought his own Ukrainian bank. [In fictional terms, his reach may equal two or three James Bond villains put together.] But he is best known for natural gas — his company is a 50–50 partner with Gazprom, Russia’s state-owned energy giant.
As confidant of President Viktor Yanukovych, things were going swimmingly for Firtash until the Ukrainian revolution. Yanukovych, wanted for high treason and crimes against Ukraine, fled to Russia where Vladimir Putin quickly made him a Russian citizen by “secret decree” (confirming he too was a Russian stooge).
Meanwhile, Dmitry Firtash was laying low in Austria. Then armed police burst in to his Vienna office.
That was three years ago.
Firtash was summarily bailed out by a Russian billionaire with ties to Putin. Since that time, he has continued to conduct business, employ bodyguards and carry on, but he dared not go back to the Ukraine, or almost anywhere else. What would he possibly have to fear?
Extradition. And much, much worse. . . .
The US was behind his arrest and has been unsuccessfully trying to get him on American soil since 2014. Just over two weeks ago, that changed.
The Vienna Court of Appeals ordered he be sent to Chicago to stand trial for bribery. Although it is a federal indictment alleging $18 million in bribes to secure $500 million in Indian titanium, there is much more at stake. In fact, as he was leaving court, he was cuffed again — this time for an arrest warrant involving money laundering in Spain. For the time being, Firtash is still in Austria.
Anyway, it is doubtful the State Department’s concern was bribery in India. The original arrest happened after Yanukovych refused to sign an eagerly anticipated pact with the European Union; this meant 1) Ukraine was bending to the will of Moscow, and 2) Vladimir Putin would continue to have everything his way. Soon after, Russia moved ahead with its annexation of Crimea.
All the US could do was have Austria arrest Firtash — a tiny consolation prize.
However, from an American perspective, there are other incentives. Interest from various agencies.
Diplomatic cables suggest Firtash had dealings with someone as notorious as it gets — Semion Mogilevich, the Russia mob boss. AKA the “boss of bosses” — until recently, one of the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted.
As with *ahem* another friend of the mob who ran casinos in Atlantic City (yet unaware of the massive Russian gambling ring run from his building), Firtash denies anything more than acquaintance. “I knew Mogilevich, but so did half of Ukraine. I never had any dealings with him.”
The Department of Justice also has a much bigger problem right now — Dmitry Firtash is connected to the President’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort.
The juicy triangle:
- Paul Manafort worked with Yanukovych, as did Firtash.
- A handwritten “black ledger” found in Yanukovych’s abandoned estate lists the name Paul Manafort next to illegal cash payments. $12.7 million.
- Firtash and Manafort were named together as defendants in the lawsuit filed by their political opponent Tymoshenko, alleging their Drake Hotel investment deal in New York was a way to “hide illegal kickbacks” to Yanukovych and “place a significant portion of the proceeds from the gas contracts outside the reach of Ukrainian courts.”
However, Firtash himself has been careful: he never texts, emails or uses computers. The connection to mob boss Mogilevich, for example, is only quantifiable because a conversation was secretly recorded and leaked.
One sure way to get things taped, digitized, and on record: testimony. If Firtash ever makes it to court or is deposed by a US attorney, well . . . there is a lot of intel to be gained, and a ton of dirty laundry.
The brain of Firtash is a treasure trove of damaging information.
Information a lot of people would like to see go away. People in Washington.
And people in Moscow.
IV. What Happens to Canaries that Sing
Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.
— Anton Chekhov
There are wildly different potential outcomes facing Dmitry Firtash.
A) He stays stuck in Austria or Spain, kept from the United States for so long by paperwork and meddling that the American media forgets about him.
B) He gets to Chicago, spills his guts for a better deal, and sets off a political firestorm that ends in the impeachment of our 45th President.
C) He never makes it to America. Nor lives to see 2018.
Lest you think C) is embellishment or unduly dramatic, I submit the words of a US-Ukraine expert. Mykhailo Honchar, President of the Center for Global Studies:
If the extradition is not avoided, there is no doubt that the order for his liquidation already exists.
Yes, that is what he is suggesting — the Kremlin would rather see him dead than in a US court, and has already taken measures to ensure it happens.
It is a notion buttressed by the rising number of untimely or mysterious deaths that involve Russia.
- Vitaly Churkin, Russian UN Envoy. Heart attack, 2/20/17
- Oleg Erovinkin, suspected intelligence spy. Found dead in car, 12/26/16
- Andrey Malanin, head Russian consul to Greece. Dead in his apartment, cause under investigation, 1/9/17
- Petr Polshikov, Foreign Affairs adviser. Shot in his Moscow apartment, 12/19/16 (same day as public assassination of Russian Ambassador to Turkey)
- Alex Kadkin, head diplomat in India. Russia: “brief illness,” India: “heart attack,” 1/27/17
Certainly, I admit — sometimes a “heart attack” is a genuine heart attack.
The last two on the list, however, are downright spooky.
- Sergei Krivov, security and anti-sabotage for Russian Consulate, NYC. Blunt force trauma to head / fall from roof / heart attack, 11/8/16
There is the changing cause of death, still under investigation. There is the location: a Russian building on American soil. There is the fact authorities would not even provide the victim’s name; it was not discovered until February.
Now. Check the date again. November 8th, 2016.
This Russian — in charge of secrecy in a diplomatic New York building — died mysteriously on the same day Trump surprised the world in the election.
And last, not least, most recent:
- Alex Oronov, Ukrainian businessman. Undetermined, 3/2/2017.
Not much is known — this naturalized-American died in Ukraine, his death only reported on social media.
We almost certainly know why he is dead— he was credited with setting up the meeting between Trump’s lawyer, and Felix Sater (remember him?), and Ukraine lawmaker Artemenko, concerning a “Peace Plan” that outlined a way for Trump to lift sanctions on Russia. (Artemenko now faces charges of treason.)
The “Peace Plan” proposal was given to Trump’s lawyer Cohen, reportedly to be delivered to General Flynn. NYT and WaPo covered it, then the whole thing dissipated to nothing.
So. I watch for Firtash. I read — between the lines, especially.
And I hope for the best.
What can one even say about all this to lend perspective?
- People are dying, and the media can barely keep up.
- Treasonous acts are being committed and are not even ‘front page’ stories.
- The Constitution itself is under siege, the press too busy defending its right to exist to fight on both fronts.
- The military-industrial complex continues to feed itself, ignoring borders, wreaking havoc on nature, and becoming dangerously powerful like Gremlins after midnight.
And all of it is in plain view. It is happening before our eyes, but we become more jaded by each new outrage, and the best weapon yet mustered is a clever lampoon on late night television.
Mostly to console myself, or to pine for more genteel days, I return to Leo Tolstoy. Not his words, but the words on his Wikipedia page. I couldn’t help but laugh at the last sentence.
There was a famous lost film of Tolstoy made in 1901, before he died. Albert J. Beveridge, Republican U.S. senator and historian, was speaking to the famous writer. As they conversed, travel lecturer Holmes filmed the Tolstoy chat with a 60-mm camera.
Afterwards, Beveridge’s advisers succeeded in having the film destroyed, fearing that documentary evidence of a meeting with the Russian author might hurt Beveridge’s chances of running for the U.S. presidency.
Simpler times, I guess. Politicking involved slinging more mud than real conspiracy. Paranoia was just paranoia.
Now, more than ever, what to do is obvious—