If Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Russiagate, pulls the right threads, what might unravel is the underside of the tangled financial and real-estate empire owned by Donald Trump, his two sons, his daughter Ivanka, and the person who could be the weakest, most vulnerable link in that chain: Jared Kushner, his son-in-law. All five could face criminal charges—and for President Trump, impeachment proceedings. The first thread to pull on, hard, is the skulduggery surrounding the June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower, where Donald Trump Jr., Kushner, and Paul Manafort met with a group of Russians with ties to Russia’s intelligence service, the FSB, and a direct line to Vladimir Putin.
It was at that meeting, of course, that the trio of Trump associates met with a Russian delegation offering to provide the Trump presidential campaign with “official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary,” which the go-between described as “very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”
Since then, the Trump family has been scrambling to obscure, deflect, and cover up what actually happened at that meeting, a pattern that could strengthen the case that Trump is engaged in obstruction of justice, a charge that gained momentum when the president fired FBI director James Comey. Subsequently, Trump unfurled a string of attacks against Attorney General Jeff Sessions for recusing himself in the Russiagate investigation because of his still-unexplained meetings with Russia’s ambassador, and against Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who’s overseeing the Mueller inquiry.
Alarmingly, Trump warned Mueller to stay away from his unseemly web of financial and real-estate transactions. In a rambling interview with The New York Times on July 19, Trump was asked if an effort by Mueller to “[look] at your finances and your family finances” would cross the president’s “red line.” Trump answered, “I would say yes,” and he went on to say that the Mueller investigation “is about Russia,” not the Trump family’s money. In that same interview, Trump declined to say whether or not he’d fire Mueller if the president’s finances came under scrutiny.
But “Russia” and Trump’s “family finances” are inextricably linked—something that Mueller, who has hired a high-powered team of prosecutors and investigators, some with expertise in New York real estate and money laundering, well knows. The Trump and Kushner families, a marriage (via Ivanka) between two of New York’s leading real-estate dynasties, are multiply connected to Russian real-estate deals. “We don’t rely on American banks,” said Eric Trump back in 2014. “We have all the funding we need out of Russia.”
The June 2016 meeting in Trump Tower could well be a smoking gun precisely because it involves both Russiagate—i.e., potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence—and Trump’s and Kushner’s ties to a tangled money-laundering scandal involving Russian oligarchs close to Putin.
Perhaps that’s why President Trump overruled his own White House staff and advisers in devising a cover story in regard to Donald Jr.’s role in setting up that meeting. According to a blockbuster report in The Washington Post, the president himself “dictated” the statement later issued by his son that, it turned out, was a lie: namely, that the Trump Tower tête-à-tête was about the adoption of Russian orphans rather than a gambit to seek dirt on Hillary Clinton that came from Russian intelligence and the Russian state prosecutor, a close Putin ally.
“The thing that really strikes me about this is the stupidity of involving the president,” Peter Zeidenberg, a former deputy special prosecutor, told the Post. “They are still treating this like a family-run business and they have a PR problem.… What they don’t seem to understand is this is a criminal investigation involving all of them.”
And at the heart of that criminal investigation is the Trump and Kushner enterprise.
At the center of the story is the Russian lawyer and activist Natalia Veselnitskaya, who led the team that met with Don Jr., Kushner, and Manafort. Veselnitskaya is Russia’s chief advocate in the effort to undo the Magnitsky Act, a painful sanctions regime imposed on dozens of leading Russian officials that was enacted by Congress in 2012 and signed into law by President Obama. The Magnitsky Act is named after Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who was arrested, tortured, and allegedly killed in custody after he’d uncovered evidence that the Russian government and a shady group of private investors had looted Hermitage Capital Management, whose CEO is William Browder. As part of their investigation, back in the mid-2000s, Magnitsky and Browder learned that the fraudsters had stolen $230 million and had attempted to launder it through US and Western banks and real-estate properties.
At the time of the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting, Preet Bharara, then US Attorney of the Southern District of New York, was deep into prosecuting a criminal case involving some of that laundered money. The target of Bharara’s inquiry was a company called Prevezon Holdings Ltd. “In 2007, a Russian criminal organization engaged in an elaborate tax refund fraud scheme resulting in a fraudulently obtained tax refund of approximately $230 million,” charged the US Attorney’s Office. “Members of the criminal organization…engaged in a broad pattern of money laundering in order to conceal the proceeds.”
And, Bharara added, “Prevezon Holdings laundered these fraud proceeds into its real estate holdings.”
Now, consider this set of troubling facts: Veselnitskaya was the lawyer for Prevezon Holdings and its owner, Denis Katsyv, a Russian oligarch with connections to that country’s highest officials. Just hours before Veselnitskaya met with Kushner et al. last June, she was in court representing Katsyv in the Prevezon case. And one of Prevezon’s key partners is another oligarch, Lev Leviev, whose firm Africa Israel Investments (AFI) sold part of a Times Square office building to Jared Kushner for $295 million in 2015.
Here’s grist for Mueller’s mill: did Leviev help launder Prevezon’s stolen cash through his extensive real-estate holdings in New York, including that Times Square building? Was Kushner aware of the ties between Veselnitskaya, Prevezon, and his transaction partners, Leviev and AFI? And did any of this come up before, during, or after Kushner’s sit-down with Veselnitskaya last June?
There’s another critical wrinkle to this story.
This past March, Trump fired Bharara. Two months later, in May, the Justice Department settled the Prevezon case just days before it was set to go to trial—a trial in which, very likely, important new information about the looting of Hermitage, Prevezon’s money laundering, and other details may have become public. On July 12, seventeen Democratic members of Congress wrote a scathing letter to Attorney General Sessions, asking whether the settlement of that case was a coincidence—or not.
“Last summer, Donald Trump, Jr. met with a Kremlin-connected attorney in an attempt to obtain information ‘that would incriminate Hillary,’” wrote the members of Congress, led by John Conyers Jr., the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee. “Earlier this year, on May 12, 2017, the Department of Justice made an abrupt decision to settle a money laundering case being handled by that same attorney [Veselnitskaya].… We write with some concern that the two events may be connected—and that the Department may have settled the case at a loss for the United States in order to obscure the underlying facts.”
In their letter, Conyers et al. ask Sessions to explain this potentially illegal sequence of events, asking, among other things, “Was there any contact between President Trump, White House personnel, the Trump family, or the Trump campaign with the Department of Justice regarding the Prevezon case?” That’s something that Mueller, too, will be asking—and, as I reported in The Nation two weeks ago, one of the attorneys on Mueller’s team is Andrew Goldstein, who worked under Bharara and who would be intimately familiar with the Prevezon case.
Last week, in powerful (but little reported) testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, William Browder explicitly linked the meeting in Trump Tower to the FSB, Russia’s intelligence service. “I can tell you with 100 percent certainty that the Russian intelligence services would have been aware of that meeting in advance, as they were plotting it out,” said Browder. “They would have spent weeks studying how best to achieve the results of that meeting.” Veselnitskaya, he said, is not only the “point person for the Russian government” in seeking to repeal or gut the Magnitsky Act, but she also “worked for the FSB…in the Moscow region.” And one of the other participants in the Trump Tower meeting, Rinat Akhmetshin, “is a former Soviet intelligence officer [and] a proxy for the interests of the Russian government here in Washington,” said Browder.
Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut and a former state attorney general, asked Browder if there was any question that Veselnitskaya and Akhmetshin were acting on behalf of Putin himself. “There is no doubt,” said Browder.
And then came this exchange, in which Blumenthal raised the question of a conspiracy between the Russians and the Trump team: “So when my colleague, Senator Lindsey Graham, asked you about the reporting back to the [Russian] intelligence agencies, these two individuals, Veselnitskaya and Akhmetshin, were acting on behalf of Vladimir Putin in initiating a potential agreement, legally probably a conspiracy, involving the Russian government and Donald Trump, Jr., and the other participants in that meeting, correct?” said Blumenthal. “That was the intention of the Russians,” said Browder.
Both Don Jr. and Kushner have issued incomplete and ever-shifting accounts of their roles in that meeting, and they, along with Manafort, underwent a first round of interviews with congressional committees last week—with more to come, Representative Jackie Speier, a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, told The Nation. Plus, Kushner has been repeatedly forced to update and elaborate on various disclosure forms, including his financial-disclosure form and his so-called SF-86 form, which is needed to obtain security clearance. Kushner’s 11-page statement, provided last week to the House and Senate intelligence committees, ended up raising more questions than it answered.
Meanwhile, there’s a new focus on Trump’s financial ties to the Russians. James Henry, writing for The American Interest, published a lengthy and eye-opening account of six separate but interlocking links that he called a “guided tour of Trump’s Russian/FSU connections,” with an emphasis on money laundering. And Craig Unger, in The New Republic, compiled a guided tour of another sort, of “Trump’s Russian Laundromat,” outlining the president’s potential connections to the Russian underworld.
For Mueller, and for the intelligence committees, these may be the tips of many, many icebergs.