If you want to know whether Moscow might have leverage over President Trump—including potentially blackmail-worthy information that the Russians have patiently gathered over decades of dealing with the billionaire New York real estate magnate—a good person to ask is Diana Pilipenko of the Center for American Progress. Pilipenko spent years working for one of the Big Four accounting firms studying fraud and money laundering, especially in relation to Russia, Eastern Europe, and Central Asia, and now she’s turned her gaze to Trump’s Russia connections. In February, she compiled a lengthy report on the topic, and spoke about it in an interview with The Nation.
For months now, it’s been obvious what Trump fears most about the Russiagate investigation. Last July, he told The New York Times that any effort by Robert Mueller, the special counsel, to look into his finances or his family’s finances (read: Jared Kushner) would cross a “red line.”
This week, echoing Trump, a senior Republican on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence insisted on staying well within the president’s red lines. Playing dumb in response to demands from HPSCI Democrats who want to get records from Deutsche Bank, the German behemoth that paid hundreds of millions of dollars in fines for laundering dirty Russian money, Representative Mike Conway declined. “I don’t see the link at this stage,” he told CNN, when asked about looking into Trump-Russian business and financial dealings. “Deutsche Bank is a German bank—I don’t see the nexus.… I bet every big bank has a Russian customer somewhere.”
The House committee, which is paralyzed now thanks to the antics of its chairman, Representative Devin Nunes, isn’t likely to get very far digging into the money trails left by Trump and his family, including son-in-law Kushner. But that hasn’t stopped Mueller, along with other prosecutors, as The Nation reported in December, from trying to pry information from Deutsche Bank and elsewhere. Thanks to his indictment of Paul Manafort, Trump’s 2016 campaign manager—along with deputy campaign manager Rick Gates, who’s now cooperating with Mueller—on charges of bank fraud and money laundering, we can be reasonably certain that the special counsel isn’t going to worry about any red lines declared by the president. Indeed, Manafort’s pattern of corrupt ties to pro-Russian oligarchs in Ukraine is a possible source of additional Russian leverage over Team Trump (and the connection between Russian oligarchs and Republican politicians—including John McCain—is an old story, one The Nation reported on in depth nearly a decade ago).
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In fact, Mueller has long ago crossed Trump’s red line, as special counsels are wont to do. As CNN reported this week, Mueller has been “asking witnesses about Donald Trump’s business activities in Russia prior to the 2016 presidential campaign,” and he’s sought information about the backgrounds of Trump’s Russian associates.
It’s not unreasonable to suspect that Russian oligarchs or well-connected organized-crime tycoons might have damaging information about Trump’s business practices that they could be holding over his head. As The Nation reported in January, in his HPSCI testimony last year Glenn Simpson—the founder of Fusion GPS, the firm that produced the Trump dossier compiled by Christopher Steele—noted that just one Trump property, in Panama, could implicate Trump in some way. “In Panama [Trump] got the credit of—they got a—Bear Stearns to issue a bond by telling Bear Stearns that they’d sold a bunch of units to a bunch of Russian gangsters,” said Simpson. That sort of blackmail-worthy material might be available to Russians across a wide range of Trump’s overseas projects.
Pilipenko’s February report is called “Cracking the Shell: Trump and the Corrupting Potential of Furtive Russian Money.” In it, she argues that a decades-long pattern of business dealings between Trump and various entities in Russia and across the republics of the former Soviet Union may have allowed Moscow to develop financial kompromat, or compromising information, about Trump.
The essence of Pilipenko’s argument is that after a series of bankruptcy filings and other financial difficulties in the 1990s and 2000s, Trump had a desperate need for “alternative financing,” since US banks were treating him as a bad risk. This, happily for Trump, coincided with a tidal wave of Russian cash flowing westward—some of it legal capital flight, and some of it illegal, money-laundered riches. And because Trump didn’t bother with the sort of due diligence that other developers routinely carry out, she says, he got himself entangled with various shady and less-than-honorable partners from Russia, Kazakhstan, and elsewhere.
Bob Dreyfuss: In your report, you say that Trump is a “corruptible target” with “dubious business practices,” making him a “prime candidate for Russia to cultivate.” Can you explain what you mean by that?
Diana Pilipenko: First, to understand my viewpoint: I joined CAP last summer, and before that I was with the financial-services company Deloitte, where for many years I did corporate investigations, focused on issues of corruption, money laundering, tax evasion, for seven years. I looked for various red flags for companies that were going to invest in Eastern Europe, Russia, and Ukraine. So that background has informed my approach and analysis.
So when you’re looking for collusion, and whether there was any quid pro quo, or whether Russia has leverage, we look for financial distress, because that makes people malleable, and makes it easier for outside agents to wield influence.
Would Trump be a target? With Trump, there is a documented track record for years and years, going back to the ’90s, and in the 2000s, there were major bankruptcies, so this is someone who was constantly looking for alternative means of finance, and he’s being dismissed by traditional banks, so that plays into vulnerability and corruptibility.… And we ask, is this part of a pattern? Over and over again, we find these incredibly troubling business partnerships. In my previous work, we asked, are there connections to government, do the business partners have a criminal history or any run-ins with the law? And some of these same conditions are present here.
BD: You argue that there’s a relationship between decades’ worth of Russian capital flight, hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth, and Trump, at the same time that Trump found himself in the position of needing what you call “alternative financing.” And this resulted in what you call a “lasting, mutually beneficial relationship.”
DP: A frame that I use for my report is Russia’s relationship with Eastern and Central Europe over the years, where there’s been much work done analyzing and explaining how Russia uses financial leverage to wield influence abroad, infiltrating the system through transactions and contracts. There’s a seminal study, “The Kremlin Playbook,” by Heather Conley of CSIS, that describes this.
So taking that understanding of how Russia operates, looking for financial leverage, and looking at Trump and Russia in parallel, I identify what I call converging crises, where, starting in the 1990s, there was a great deal of capital flight from Russia and a certain kind of dependency that was created over time. Trump realized the great benefit of cultivating the Russians. The very nature of what he pioneered in his condo hotels lends itself to foreign consumers, because these are temporary residences, for which buyers can’t qualify for traditional mortgages, and so he caters to people who are looking to do all-cash transactions.
BD: And real estate is therefore especially important to people who want to engage in money laundering, who want to hide their wealth using shell companies and so forth. Mueller and other prosecutors are looking into Trump and Kushner with Deutsche Bank, which paid huge fines for laundering Russian money.
DP: Real estate, to use a term from my former work, is very “risk prone” as an industry because of money-laundering gaps and vulnerabilities that are peculiar to real estate investments, for people who want to park their money anonymously.
When you look at capital flight in Russia, it allows people complete anonymity…. Real estate is not regulated as closely as banks and the financial industry are regulated. You can buy real estate anonymously, through shell corporations. That, along with the aversion to due diligence, about not caring about the sources of the funds that are flowing into his properties that Trump has exemplified, makes for a very troubling formula, and that’s key questions for investigators….
There’s this concept of “willful blindness,” and when you’re entering a very risk-prone jurisdiction, such as Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Georgia, where you know there are issues of corruption, and you may have some indications about your partners, and you completely ignore all these red flags and proceed in a business-as-usual way, without asking any questions, I think certain regulators or attorneys could raise the question of willful blindness: Did you look the other way?
BD: There’s this well-known term kompromat, which has come up in connection with the Steele dossier and the so-called “pee tape.” But you use it in a broader context, meaning any and all information that the Russians might possess on Trump that could give them leverage, including knowledge of money laundering. Could that give Moscow leverage?
DP: Absolutely. I don’t know that American audiences understand how important kompromat is for the Kremlin. Recently, they’ve exploited financial crimes as a source of kompromat, and in the report I talk about how the enforcement of certain laws is a way to subjugate and control the oligarchy. But it can also be used abroad.
Russians know very well that we have to comply with very stringent regulations, so that knowing that someone isn’t operating aboveboard in business, having that knowledge creates leverage. For someone like Trump, who has operated in these risk-prone jurisdictions and who’s shown a certain pattern of how he operates, I think leverage is very likely. For instance, when the Manafort indictments came out last October and then recently, my immediate thought was, well, he was working together with pro-Kremlin Ukrainians and with Yanukovych, they had knowledge that he took black-ledger payments, and that created leverage over him. And that could make him susceptible.