Why Can’t Democrats Let Go of Their “Collusion Delusion?”
On Sunday, March 24, 2019, U.S. Attorney General William Barr gave Congress a four-page summary of Robert Mueller’s key findings. The summary disappointed many who believed that the President or his campaign conspired with Russia to win the 2016 election. According to Barr, Mueller did not prove that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia and “did not draw a conclusion – one way or the other” on whether Trump obstructed justice. Such conclusions clearly seem to vindicate the President. The obstruction question was left undecided because, Barr claimed, if the President did not commit the crime of conspiring with Russia, by definition he cannot be guilty of trying to obstruct an investigation of that crime. Nonetheless, many on the left find Barr’s summary difficult to believe. To Trump’s supporters, Democrats appear wildly delusional in a hysterical desire to avenge their 2016 electoral defeat. So do the facts that we know actually contradict the most straightforward interpretation of Barr’s letter? Below are some established facts related to Trump and/or Russia:
- In Russia, government, business, and organized crime are all deeply interconnected. Violence or the threat of it are used in Russia to influence others in business and politics. Another tactic used widely in Russia is “kompromat” – using something compromising as leverage over another (sometimes extending as far as blackmail) including sexual indiscretions, business relationships, debt/financial obligations, chemical dependency, friendships, or knowledge of something embarrassing or illegal.
- Trump defied decades of standard practice by refusing to release his tax returns, thus preventing the public from seeing what kind of financial obligations and relationships he might have.
- Trump had worked for years with real estate development company Bayrock – a company believed to have ties to Russian organized crime – to develop the Trump Soho Hotel.
- Bayrock was owned by Russian-American mobster Felix Sater (Sater was convicted in 1998 of a $40 million federal racketeering charge) and former Soviet official Tefvik Arif (Arif was well-connected in the former Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan, and Trump stated in a deposition that he was impressed by Arif’s ability to bring in wealthy Russian investors).
- The other financier for Trump Soho was the Sapir family from the former Soviet republic of Georgia.
- Sater carried Trump Organization business cards, and had an office two floors below Trump’s in the Manhattan Trump Tower, but Trump claimed that he wouldn’t recognize Sater if he saw him.
- Sater also worked with Michael Cohen to secure the Trump Tower Moscow project during the 2016 campaign, even though Trump repeatedly denied on the campaign trail that he had anything going on in Russia.
- Sater is currently accused of seeking to use that project to launder money stolen from a large bank in the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan.
- The Trump Ocean Club International Hotel and Tower in Panama was used by Russian organized crime figures to launder money.
- In 2005, Trump Campaign Chair Paul Manafort had proposed an influence campaign on behalf of Russia to “influence politics, business dealings and news coverage inside the United States, Europe and former Soviet Republics to benefit President Vladimir Putin’s government.”
- Manafort had worked to help pro-Putin politician Viktor Yanukovych get elected President of Ukraine – work for which Manafort was allegedly paid millions of dollars “off the books.” Yanukovych was later exiled and fled to Russia.
- More recently, Manafort had worked for Oleg Vladimirovich Deripaska, a Russian oligarch with alleged ties to organized crime as well as being a close friend of Vladimir Putin. Manafort had allegedly ripped off Deripaska to the tune of millions of dollars – a debt that no doubt could have been used as kompromat over Manafort.
- Once he began working for the Trump Campaign, Manafort emailed Konstantin Kilimnik, a Russian/Ukrainian friend of Deripaska believed to be a former GRU (Russian military intelligence agency) officer. Manafort asked of the headlines about his being Trump’s Campaign Manager “How do we use to get whole? Has OVD [Oleg Vladimirovich Deripaska] operation seen?”
- Manafort later told Kilimnik that he could arrange for “private briefings” between Deripaska and Trump.
- Manafort also provided Kilimnik with the Trump Campaign’s internal polling data.
- Special Counsel Mueller indicted 12 GRU agents for their hacking of the DNC, and indicted a company called the Internet Research Agency for waging a social media campaign to interfere with the 2016 election – an interference campaign for which polling data could provide valuable demographic information.
- At the 2016 Republican National Convention, the Trump Campaign had only one requested modification to the Republican Party platform: weakening the amount of aid that the U.S. provides to Ukraine to defend itself against Russian military aggression.
- Trump’s attorney Michael Cohen has had a history of associating with Russian organized crime figures from the time that he was a child, and reportedly once claimed that he was part of the Russian mafia.
- Trump Foreign Policy Advisor Carter Page had come to the attention of the FBI in 2013 when he began meeting with a Russian operative.
- While a Foreign Policy Advisor for Trump, Carter Page gave a pro-Russia speech in Moscow on July 7, 2016.
- In 2014, Eric Trump told sports journalist James Dodson of the money that financed the Trump golf courses “We don’t rely on American banks. We have all the funding we need out of Russia.”
- In December of 2018, Trump’s architect Alan Lapidus said of Donald Trump, “he could not get anybody in the United States to lend him anything. It was all coming out of Russia. His involvement with Russia was deeper than he’s acknowledged.”
- Lapidus also said “Trump could not get money here. He found Russia, and the Russians gave him a lot of money. He has got to be doing a quid pro quo. It’s just logical. It’s just too much money.”
- Russians invested nearly $100 million in seven Trump-branded luxury towers in Florida.
- In 2008, Donald Trump Jr. stated, “In terms of high-end product influx into the U.S., Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets.”
- Numerous people associated with the Trump Campaign inexplicably did not tell the truth (sometimes under oath) regarding communications or connections with Russia, including:
- Former Trump Attorney General Jeff Sessions (spoke more than once with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak but denied it to the U.S. Senate)
- Former Trump National Security Advisor Michael Flynn (spoke with Kislyak about lifting sanctions before Trump was inaugurated, undermining Obama Administration policy, and then denied it to the FBI)
- Former Foreign Policy Advisor George Papadopoulos (lied about having been told about Russian “dirt” on Hillary Clinton and seeking to form a connection between the Trump Campaign and Russian government)
- Former Foreign Policy Advisor Carter Page (met with Russian officials in July 2016, but denied it publicly until questioned under oath by the House Intelligence Committee)
- Donald Trump Jr. (repeatedly changed his story about meeting with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya at Trump Tower to get “dirt” on Hillary Clinton – a meeting also attended by Manafort and Kushner)
- Jared Kushner (had to repeatedly revise his federal security clearance application as various Russia ties, initially not mentioned, were uncovered – including a meeting shortly after the 2016 election with a Russian state-owned bank to get a multi-million dollar loan).
- Donald Trump (among many lies, on the campaign trail, claimed that he had “nothing to do with Russia” at the same time as he was pursuing a Trump Tower Moscow. He intended to give Putin the penthouse suite in the tower. Later, in response to allegations that Trump participated in a lewd act in a room at the Moscow Ritz Carlton in 2013 when he was there for the Miss Universe Pageant, Trump claimed that he had not spent the night in Russia on that trip. His flight records refuted that.)
- Michael Cohen (prosecuted and going to prison for lying to Congress – allegedly at the President’s request – about the Trump Tower Moscow deal).
- Why all the lies about Russia?
- On June 3, 2016, Rob Goldstone, promoter for Russian pop singer Emin Agalarov, emailed Donald Trump Jr. to set up the Trump Tower meeting. In his email, Goldstone stated “This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”
- Rather than reporting this to law enforcement, Trump Jr. responded to the email with “If it’s what you say it is, I love it,” and went on to set up the meeting.
- Alexander Downer, a diplomat from Australia (an American ally), reported to his government that Trump Campaign aide George Papadopoulos had told him in May of 2016 that the Russians had dirt on Hillary Clinton. When the Russian hacking began during the 2016 election, the Australian government informed the U.S. intelligence community of the conversation.
- Jared Kushner made attempts to set up a “back channel” of communications between the White House and the Kremlin through a Russian diplomatic facility that would bypass America’s national security agencies.
- Trump had engaged in what appeared to be years of money laundering activities for wealthy Russians, like when he bought a Palm Beach mansion for $41 million and sold it to Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev two years later with few improvements for $95 million. Putin keeps track of what Russia’s oligarchs do, and if he were aware of money laundering by Trump, he could use that knowledge to blackmail him.
- Rybolovlev’s plane and yacht showed up a number of times near Trump Campaign events.
- Interestingly, Rybolovlev’s plane and yacht also arrived in Dubrovnik, Croatia in mid August of 2016, and Ivanka and Jared suddenly appeared in Dubrovnik, Croatia in mid August of 2016.
- On July 27, 2016, Donald Trump publicly called on Russia to find Hillary Clinton’s 30,000 missing emails.
- Immediately after that announcement by Trump, according to Mueller’s investigation, Russian hackers began an “after hours’ effort on July 27, 2016 to hack into Hillary Clinton’s private email account.
- Russia’s interference with the 2016 election served generally to benefit Donald Trump.
- During the 2016 campaign, U.S. intelligence detected a server at Alfa Bank, one of the largest banks in Russia, “pinging” a specific server at the Trump Organization thousands of times. The unusual activity remains unexplained to this day.
- A pair of Russian operatives – banker Alexander Torshin and “student” Maria Butina – infiltrated the NRA, which spent $30 million to elect Trump. While the NRA has long supported Republican candidates, this was an unusually large amount for them, and some of that money appears to have been funneled into the NRA via Russia.
- After Trump took office, acting Attorney General Sally Yates notified Trump that Michael Flynn was compromised by Russia, but Trump waited for over two weeks to fire Flynn.
- Just before Trump nominated Wilbur Ross to be U.S. Secretary of Commerce, Ross had spent years as Co-Chair of the Bank of Cyprus. Cyprus, an island nation off the coast of Turkey, is known as a place where Russian oligarchs launder their illicit money.
- Ross has significant financial ties to Russia.
- Josef Ackermann, Deutsche Bank’s CEO from 2002-2012, was brought on as Chairman of Bank of Cyprus by Wilbur Ross in 2014.
- Deutsche Bank, one of the only banks willing to loan money to Trump after his multiple bankruptcies, has a documented history of money laundering on a large scale for Russian oligarchs.
- Wilbur Ross was also the person who initially connected Donald Trump and Dmitry Rybolovlev for the Palm Beach mansion purchase.
- The day after firing James Comey, Russian Diplomat Sergey Kislyak and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov were Donald Trump’s guests in the Oval Office. No American reporters were allowed, but Russian journalists were.
- During that meeting, Trump disclosed highly classified information to the two Russian officials, endangering the lives of U.S. intelligence assets and causing U.S. allies to question their own sharing of intelligence with the United States.
- On July 8, 2017, the New York Times first broke the story of the existence of the Trump Tower meeting between Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner, which had taken place on June 9, 2016.
- On July 8, 2017, on the way back from the G20 Summit (at which Trump met with Putin for over 2 hours when they were only supposed to meet for 30-40 minutes), Trump felt the need to dictate his son’s cover story about the Trump Tower meeting.
- The President’s misleading cover story for his son was that Veselnitskaya simply wanted to discuss “Russian adoption” – also the topic that the President claimed Putin wanted to talk with him about in a lengthy private discussion. The Magnitsky Act, which calls for the freezing of the U.S.-based assets of Putin and other wealthy Russian oligarchs as a consequence for their human rights violations, was put in place on December 14, 2012. Putin was outraged by this Act, and one of his retaliatory measures was to ban American adoption of Russian children.
- During his time in office, Trump has had a pattern of taking actions favorable to Putin’s agenda and seemingly contrary to that of the United States, including:
- Repeatedly making efforts to eliminate or weaken sanctions against wealthy and powerful Russians close to Putin
- Questioning the legitimacy of and proposing to leave NATO, one of the biggest obstacles to Putin’s military expansion of Russian territory
- Backing out of the Iran nuclear deal that America’s allies support, alienating us from our allies
- Sowing division within the European Union
- Backing out of the Paris Climate Accord that nearly every other country in the world has signed onto, further alienating us from our allies and making us less globally relevant
- Legitimizing Russia’s illegal seizure of Crimea and suggesting that Crimea should be considered part of Russia
- Denying Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election despite the conclusions of the U.S. intelligence community
- Doing little since the 2016 election to protect future American elections from foreign interference, and actually weakening established efforts to defend our elections
- Regularly telling easily disproven lies, which damages America’s international credibility and threatens our national security
- Treating American allies (eg Britain, Germany and Australia) with disrespect, further alienating us from our allies
- Treating American enemies (eg Russia) graciously, causing suspicion among our allies
- Fueling and enhancing division within the United States
- Weakening America’s institutions by appointing cabinet secretaries with backgrounds clearly antithetical to the missions of the institutions that they lead
- With the exception of translators, Trump’s direct meetings with Putin have been without other aides present, and at times have been undisclosed until uncovered by the press. No detailed notes have been retained from any of these meetings. In fact, in the case of his meeting with Putin in Helsinki, Trump actually confiscated the translator’s notes afterward and told her that she could not tell anyone what had been discussed. Even Trump’s top staff do not know what he and have Putin talked about. All of this secrecy is even more baffling when one considers that Trump must know that everyone is paying attention to how he interacts with Putin.
- Trump has repeatedly accepted Putin’s word over information from his own intelligence agencies.
- After the 2017 G20 Summit in Hamburg, Germany, Trump floated the idea of partnering with Putin to help the United States develop its cybersecurity efforts (the equivalent of inviting a burglar back into your home to help find evidence against them and make your home more secure).
- After his formal discussion with Putin at the 2018 Helsinki Summit, Trump floated an “interesting idea” and “incredible offer” that Putin had suggested: American investigators could come to Russia to work with Russian investigators to determine if the 12 indicted GRU officers had committed any crimes, in exchange for letting the Kremlin interrogate certain U.S. officials, including Michael McFaul, a former U.S. Ambassador to Russia who has been critical of Putin’s human rights record.
These established facts are in addition to what was laid out in the Steele Dossier (compiled by a former British intelligence agent with a track record of reliably passing on accurate, factual information to U.S. law enforcement), which Trump’s supporters claim is the only reason that the Mueller investigation began. The above facts are also completely consistent with the only “collusion”-related quote provided in Attorney General William Barr’s summary of Mueller’s report:
“[T]he investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”
This quote does not necessarily mean that there was no conspiracy or coordination. It may well be a statement by Mueller that such a relationship simply could not be legally proven beyond a shadow of a doubt, despite all of the circumstantial evidence above.
And since Mueller’s report also “does not exonerate” the President on obstruction of justice, it is possible that coordination or conspiracy could not be proven because Trump was successful in obstructing justice, that witnesses were swayed by the President’s repeated public suggestions of pardons, that witnesses were afraid of retribution in prison by Trump’s supporters or by members of the Russian mafia, that evidence on the Russian side was successfully destroyed or silenced, or that witnesses were reluctant to willingly admit to outright treasonous acts which, regardless of plea deals, would result in lengthy prison time and lifelong branding of themselves and their families. And not definitively proving coordination with Russia does not mean that Donald Trump was not – and is not currently – compromised by the Kremlin in a way that causes him to act against America’s interests.
In other words, the public needs to see as much of the Mueller report as possible without jeopardizing national security or revealing sources and methods. It would also be very helpful to hear an account from Mueller himself on what is in his report and whether he believes that Barr’s representation of it is accurate. Republicans and Democrats should both be supportive of this, because it can help give the public a more commonly shared understanding of the investigation’s results – something which is not currently happening in the wake of Barr’s ambiguously worded four-page letter.
Lastly, the public needs to be reminded that, despite Barr’s assessment of inconclusive findings in the Mueller report, there are still numerous ongoing investigations into Trump yet to be completed, some of which were farmed out to other law enforcement agencies during the course of Mueller’s investigation.
Americans have witnessed a lot of smoke over the past three years, and many still find it difficult to believe that there is no fire.
– rob rünt