Marc Kasowitz—Donald Trump’s long-time lawyer who’s representing the president in the ongoing investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russian agents to interfere with the 2016 election—is looking more and more like he’s not up to the job. A Wall Street “tough guy” with little or no experience in politics or national security, Kasowitz may turn out to be more of an albatross than a shield for Trump.
Not only has he reportedly lost favor with the White House and engaged in a profane, semi-public tantrum against a stranger, but, according to an investigation by The Nation, Kasowitz is also entangled in what could be a conflict of interest stemming from his work on behalf of Russia’s largest bank, Sberbank. State-owned, Sberbank is led by executives closely tied to President Vladimir Putin, and the bank was involved in an aborted 2013 deal to construct a Trump-branded hotel in Moscow. Two of the individuals involved in the Sberbank case, according to a complaint filed last November on behalf of a Russian plaintiff, are Yuri Y. Chaika, the Russian state prosecutor, and his son, Artem Chaika, both of whom are named as participants in a conspiracy to raid and bankrupt a Russian company and jail its owner.
Last week, of course, Yuri Chaika surfaced in the New York Times story about a previously secret meeting held on June 9, 2016, involving Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort, and a group of well-connected Russians at Trump Tower. Chaika, the longtime Russian prosecutor general, who was recently profiled in the Times as a “master of kompromat,” or compromising, blackmail-worthy information, is believed to be the source of dirt on Hillary Clinton that was promised to the Trump campaign. An e-mail chain released by Trump Jr. quoted a go-between saying that Russia’s “Crown prosecutor” (i.e., Chaika) was the source of “some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father.”
If you’re Donald Trump, and you’re under suspicion of having colluded with the Russian government in its effort to meddle in the presidential election, you’d think that the last thing you’d do would be to name a lawyer who is himself deeply entangled in the underbelly of Russia’s crony-riddled, oligarch-dominated system of corporate corruption as your defense team’s chief. But that’s exactly what happened.
In March, just weeks before Trump tapped him to captain the outside legal effort in Russiagate, Sberbank brought Kasowitz onto its legal team in PPF Management LLC v. OJSC Sberbank et al. Why would Sberbank hire Kasowitz? “Think about Russia,” said an attorney familiar with the case. “In Russia, if you want to influence Putin, you hire people close to Putin. And the Russians think our system works just like theirs. I’m just speculating, but there’s a very good chance that the Russians went to Kasowitz because they wanted someone close to President Trump.”
That, indeed, may be why Sberbank wanted Kasowitz. But it hardly explains why Kasowitz would take Sberbank as a client, especially given the other, high-powered Russian players involved. Those include Herman Gref, Sberbank’s CEO, who’s named as a defendant in the case, as well as Yuri and Artem Chaika.
The Sberbank case involves an alleged predatory financial and legal assault in Russia by a big granite and crushed-stone firm, OOO-PNK, against a smaller competitor, Pavlovskgranit (P-Granit). According to the complaint in the case, P-Granit is the victim of a complex but thuggish “textbook case of Russian corporate raiding” that used “multiple offshore companies and straw men to disguise the true participants and beneficiaries of the conspiracy.”
The owner of OOO-PNK is none other than Artem Chaika, transliterated as Chayka in the legal papers. “Chayka furthered the conspiracy by using his family influence to manipulate both criminal justice and bankruptcy proceedings against [Sergey] Poymanov.” Poymanov, the owner of P-Granit, was not only bankrupted but jailed, and he is still in prison, according to an attorney familiar with the case. “Chayka had used his family connection, as the son of the attorney general of the Russian Federation, to commence and continue criminal investigation against Mr. Poymanov to pressure him to relinquish his rights and claims,” reads the complaint.
Such shenanigans and cronyism are par for the course in Russia, where state power and corporate power are intermingled, often without regard for legal niceties. There’s a term in Russian for this sort of joint corporate-government raiding: reiderstvo.
Besides the Chaikas, there’s still another connection to the ever-expanding cast of characters who attended the infamous meeting at Trump Tower last June. Recall that the ostensible purpose of that meeting—besides the apparent offer to share compromising information on Clinton that came from Chaika—was to discuss the set of onerous sanctions imposed on top Russian officials as the result of the 2012 Magnitsky Act. That law, which enraged Putin, followed another case of reiderstvo, involving the 2007 state-sponsored raid against William Browder’s Hermitage Capital Management and the subsequent arrest and death, in 2009, of Sergei Magnitsky, the lawyer investigating the case. The instigator of the June 2016 meeting was Natalia Veselnitskaya, a lawyer and Kremlin-connected activist whose main preoccupation for years has been an effort to overturn the Magnitsky Act sanctions.
In the Sberbank case, according to the complaint, the “receivers”—the consortium in Russia that benefited from and absorbed the assets of P-Granit—were members of an association known as SRO Delo. “It is this same receivers association—SRO ‘Delo’—that manipulated the Russian bankruptcy system in the infamous case of Sergei Magnitsky and the ongoing attacks against William Browder and Hermitage Capital,” says the complaint. In other words, the same loose association of Russian asset “receivers” who allegedly helped to loot P-Granit also helped to loot Hermitage Capital.
Sberbank is a critical piece of the puzzle that surrounds Trump’s ties to Russia. When Trump visited Moscow in 2013 for the now much-talked about Miss Universe Pageant, Trump attended a dinner co-hosted by two other people later involved in the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting, Aras Agalarov and his son, Emin Agalarov, along with Herman Gref of Sberbank. The Agalarovs were the conduits for the information provided by Chaika that was brought to the table for Trump Jr. et al. And Sberbank was one of the co-sponsors of the Miss Universe event. At that time, Aras Agalarov, who’s reportedly been called the “Donald Trump of Russia,” also met with Trump to discuss the building of a Trump Tower in the Russian capital.
“The elder Mr. Agalarov had been talking with Mr. Trump about building a Trump Tower in Moscow as part of a $3 billion real estate project involving hotels, a shopping center and office space,” reported The New York Times. “Sberbank was ready to make it happen. About a week after the meeting, the bank announced a ‘strategic cooperation agreement’ with the Crocus Group to finance about 70 percent of the ambitious project, including, potentially, a building bearing the Trump name.”
In the end, however, the Moscow project never got off the ground. Though the official reason for the failure of the Trump Moscow venture is an economic downturn, the fact that Sberbank was sanctioned by the United States following the Russian invasion of Crimea and the Russian-sponsored insurgency in eastern Ukraine in 2014 is another possible reason. It may also be, as some critics allege, one of the reasons why Trump has a personal, financial interest in easing the sanctions on Russia that were imposed by President Obama.
Jared Kushner has another connection to this tangled story. Last December, Kushner held a still unexplained meeting with a Russian banker, Sergey N. Gorkov, CEO of Vnesheconombank (VEB), also state-owned. Gorkov is also the former vice president of Sberbank. According to The Washington Post, VEB is “known for advancing the strategic interests of Russian President Vladimir Putin and for its role in a past U.S. espionage case.”
All of this is grist for the ongoing investigation of Trump’s Russia ties now centered on the Department of Justice’s special counsel, Robert Mueller. In late spring, the White House was apparently intent on putting together a “war room” of legal and public-relations muscle to defend the president in Russiagate. But no war room emerged, and instead Trump mixed and matched a team, led by Kasowitz and his firm, Kasowitz Benson Torres, to spearhead the effort. Now it’s increasingly looking like the Trump legal team is no match for the one Mueller is putting together. Indeed, Kasowitz may cede his top spot to the newest member of Trump’s team, Ty Cobb, who joins a disparate bunch that includes Michael J. Bowe, John Dowd, the White House counsel Don McGahn, Trump’s private attorney Michael Cohen, and Jay Sekulow, the Christian-right activist and attorney.
“Cobb is a criminal lawyer, and Kasowitz is not a criminal lawyer,” says Jennifer Rodgers, a former federal prosecutor and executive director of the Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity at Columbia Law School. “Kasowitz is now being replaced as the person for dealing with the criminal side this Russian scandal. Many people were surprised when it was announced that Kasowitz would take the lead in this, because he doesn’t really have the right kind of experience. He’s a civil lawyer. He was Trump University’s fraud suit guy.”
But even with the appointment of Cobb, Trump’s team may find themselves severely outgunned. Since his appointment, Mueller has begun to assemble an all-star team that will quickly become an irresistible, and inexorable, force. According to the special counsel’s office, at least 15 experienced lawyers, including highly regarded prosecutors and Justice Department veterans, have already joined the probe.
Like Kenneth Starr, who in the 1990s began investigating a minor real-estate deal involving the Clintons but expanded his inquiry in several directions, eventually ending up with Monica Lewinsky, Mueller has the potential to look into everything from the Trump campaign’s possible collusion or cooperation with Russia to the Trump-Kushner real-estate wheeling and dealing to charges of obstruction of justice involving any of it.
“I think Mueller’s mandate is pretty broad,” says Karen Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham University’s School of Law. “If you look at the team he originally put together, it was packed with people who’d worked on fraud, business corruption, organized crime. Now, if you look at who he’s added to the team, there are people with expertise in national security, in cyber-espionage and cybersecurity, and a Russia expert.”
On Mueller’s team is Elizabeth Prelogar, a former Fulbright Scholar in Russia who is fluent in Russian, who came to Mueller from the Office of the Solicitor General. Also on the team is Michael Dreeben, the Justice Department’s top criminal-law expert, and Andrew Goldstein, who worked under former US Attorney Preet Bharara in the Southern District of New York. Earlier this year, Trump fired Bharara–after first promising him that he could stay on–and it’s not unlikely that Goldstein, like Bharara, is more than familiar with the fast-and-loose world of New York real estate that the Trump-Kushner empire is enmeshed in.
Trump, of course, calls the whole thing a “witch hunt,” and earlier this summer there were rumors the president was considering firing Mueller–something that would cause a firestorm of criticism and greatly accelerate the possibility of impeachment. Meanwhile, Trump’s supporters blame it all on the Democrats. “On Fox News,” reported Josh Green in The New York Times, “host Lou Dobbs offered a representative example on Thursday night, when he described the Donald Trump Jr. email story, with wild-eyed fervor, like this: ‘This is about a full-on assault by the left, the Democratic Party, to absolutely carry out a coup d’état against President Trump aided by the left-wing media.’”
But neither the “left-wing media” nor the Democrats control Robert Mueller.