When the Right Wing Lunatic Fringe isn’t so Crazy
Many of us have become numb to the nonsensical right wing “Deep State” conspiracy theories being used by Trump and his most rabid supporters to discredit and prematurely end the Mueller investigation: Robert Mueller is a criminal; it was actually Hillary Clinton who colluded with Russia; James Comey was a “Clinton fixer.” So when legitimately questionable information surfaces, many on the left shrug and write it off as more of the same. There are two issues, however, which, if we are being intellectually honest, we need to acknowledge, discuss and come to terms with.
One of those is the role of Bruce and Nellie Ohr in the Trump-Russia case.
In late 2015, the conservative publication Washington Free Beacon, whose owner was believed to be a supporter of Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio, hired research firm Fusion GPS to look into the background of then Presidential candidate Donald Trump. After Trump won the primary in mid 2016, the Beacon understandably stopped paying Fusion to research Trump. However, Perkins Coie, a law firm representing the Clinton Campaign, soon began paying Fusion GPS to continue the research.
By that point, according to Fusion founder Glenn Simpson’s testimonies to the House and Senate, Fusion had compiled enough information to see that the most curious aspects of Trump’s background were related to his potential organized crime connections and his activities in Russia.
To help perform further research into these matters, in mid 2016, Fusion contracted former-British-spy-turned-consultant Christopher Steele, with whom Simpson had worked on previous research projects, who was a top expert on Russia with a reputation for producing accurate information, and who had a number of longtime trusted sources within Russia for gathering his information. Over the next several months, Steele talked with his sources and produced 17 memos for Fusion GPS about Trump-Russia that came to be known as “the Steele dossier.”
According to Simpson, Steele quickly became so alarmed by what he was uncovering – an active plot by Russia to put a Kremlin-compromised President in the Oval Office – that he told Simpson that he considered it his professional duty to contact U.S. law enforcement immediately. Simpson told Steele that he did not know anyone that he could contact. Steele said that he had connected in the past with law enforcement in the U.S. on other cases and would take care of the notification. Steele followed through on this in early July of 2016.
The part of the narrative that becomes questionable is that one person to whom Steele reached out – either in July or later on – appears to have been a longtime acquaintance, Department of Justice official Bruce Ohr. Allegedly without Steele’s awareness, Bruce Ohr’s wife Nellie coincidentally happened to be one of a tiny group of people (countable on one’s fingers) who was also being employed by Fusion GPS to investigate Donald Trump. And Bruce Ohr was allegedly unaware that his wife was doing this work. And Glenn Simpson was apparently unaware of who Nellie Ohr’s husband was. The coincidences and lack of awareness of others’ activities within this small group of people seems remarkable.
Another issue that is grossly under-reported in the mainstream media is the connection between Fusion GPS and the Trump Tower meeting.
Around 2013, Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya retained U.S. law firm Baker Hostetler to assist her with a money laundering case that the U.S. government had brought against her client, Prevezon Holdings, a company based on the island of Cyprus. (Cyprus is notorious as a place where wealthy Russians launder illegally-obtained money). In Spring of 2014, Baker hired Fusion GPS to do research for the Prevezon case. Fusion’s Prevezon research led to questions about financial dealings of a hedge fund manager named William Browder.
William Browder has a long adversarial history with Vladimir Putin. In the mid 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union, an atmosphere of lawlessness pervaded Russia. Wealthy oligarchs took advantage of the situation to dramatically increase their wealth by grabbing up former state-owned assets, and ethically unrestrained entrepreneurs found ways to get rich quickly as well. Browder allegedly made his own fortune by creating a hedge fund, Hermitage Capital, that assured investors that the Russian companies it invested in were uniquely law abiding and therefore less likely to be prone to unpredictable plunges in value.
To offer this assurance, Browder would investigate the companies. If he found wrongdoing, he reported it to the Russian government. This was looked upon favorably by a rising Vladimir Putin, who saw Browder’s investigations as a way to ensure that Russian businesses and oligarchs were not cheating the Russian government out of the tax money that it deserved.
As Putin’s power grew, Putin’s view of Browder’s activities changed sharply. According to Browder, Putin had begun directly taking a percentage of all illicit money “earned” by the Russian mafia and oligarchs, and Browder’s exposure of corruption was getting in the way.
In 2005, Browder was arrested and deported from Russia as a “threat to national security.” Eighteen months later, the Russian Interior Ministry raided the Moscow office of Browder’s company, Hermitage Capital Management, and seized “all the corporate documents connected to the investment holding companies of the funds that [Browder] advised.”
Browder hired attorney Sergei Magnitsky to investigate. Magnitsky determined that the documents were being used to re-register Browder’s holding companies to a convicted murderer named Viktor Markelov, and $230 million in taxes allegedly paid to the Russian government by Browder’s companies had been diverted elsewhere.
When Magnitsky notified the Russian authorities of this crime, he was jailed, where he remained for over a year under increasingly terrible conditions. He was regularly pressured, unsuccessfully, by the Russian government to sign a statement that he had stolen the $230 million from Browder. On November 16, 2009, Magnitsky was chained in an isolated prison cell and beaten to death by eight guards.
To avenge the man who had died on his behalf, Browder pushed the U.S. legislature to enact what eventually became known as the Magnitsky Act, which passed the House and Senate and was signed into law by then President Obama in November of 2012. The Act froze the U.S.-based assets of all Russian oligarchs (and Putin) who were believed to have been responsible for Magnitsky’s death. Russian oligarchs tend to invest their illicit wealth in law-governed countries like the U.S. where the wealth is safer than it would be in Russia.
As part of his retaliation against the U.S. for passing the Magnitsky Act, Putin banned the adoption of Russian orphans by Americans. That is what is being referred to when a Trump claims to have been merely talking with a Russian about “adoption.” Putin wants the Magnitsky Act repealed or weakened so that he can regain access to a large chunk of his wealth.
Natalia Veselnitskaya’s client, Prevezon Holdings was accused by the U.S. Department of Justice of laundering millions of dollars in New York real estate, using money from a $230 million Russian tax fraud scheme. If that number sounds familiar, it is because it is the amount that Browder alleges that he had paid in taxes to the Russian government but which had instead been misappropriated by the Kremlin. Browder was the one who had tipped off the U.S. Department of Justice that Prevezon had laundered the money.
The situation appears to be that Browder’s $230 million in taxes was received by the Russian government, who then denied that he had paid them. The Kremlin proceeded to launder the money to legitimize it/make it usable, and one of the parties through whom the money was laundered was Prevezon Holdings. Another interpretation is that Browder had never actually paid the taxes, but had instead used one of his many overseas tax shelters to hide the money.
In the New York case, Prevezon settled out of court for $5.9 million without admitting guilt, leading one to believe that the first interpretation above is closer to the truth.
During Fusion’s research for the Prevezon case, information about Browder’s financial dealings raised questions in the mind of Fusion founder Glenn Simpson, and Browder was notably difficult to obtain testimony from: he ran when attempts were made to serve him with a subpoena to testify. This bizarre response would seem to indicate guilt on the part of the man who had tipped off the DOJ about Prevezon, until one realizes that Browder had very good reason to believe that Putin had put a price on his head: under such circumstances, running in response to two strange men approaching him in a parking lot seems entirely appropriate and reasonable. Assassination attempts had been made on prominent Magnitsky Act advocates as well as on Browder’s own mother.
Russian lawyer Veselnitskaya apparently believed that some of Fusion’s information about Browder and his associates could be useful as a stepping stone to improving her own standing in Russia. The information on Browder could be used in the U.S. to raise questions about the legitimacy of the Magnitsky Act’s founder, and possibly result in the repeal of the Act, which would bring Veselnitskaya into high esteem with the Kremlin.
Seeing this opportunity, Veselnitskaya reported the information to Russia’s Prosecutor General, Yuri Chaika, in October of 2015. On February 18, 2016, Veselnitskaya registered what appears to be a fake NGO, the Human Rights Accountability Global Initiative Foundation (HRAGI), for the purpose of lobbying the U.S. Congress “on behalf of Russian orphans.”
On June 9, 2016, the now infamous “Trump Tower meeting” took place. Veselnitskaya and an interpreter, along with a couple of other Russians, met with Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner at Trump Tower to provide dirt on Hillary Clinton and to discuss “Russian adoptions.” The “dirt” on Hillary Clinton that Veselnitskaya appears to have offered was that the New York billionaire Ziff brothers – who were major Democratic donors – had invested with Browder. If the Ziff brothers had donated to the Clinton Campaign, Veselnitskaya reasoned, their donations would be tainted and possibly illegal because Browder had cheated the Russian government out of $230 million in taxes.
The part of this whole narrative that again seems highly coincidental is the relationship between Veselnitskaya and Fusion GPS. Veselnitskaya appears to have had only a handful of direct interactions with Fusion’s Glenn Simpson: most of the communication seems to have been indirectly through Baker Hostetler. But on the morning of June 9, 2016 – right before the Trump Tower meeting – Veselnitskaya and Simpson were in court together for a hearing related to the Prevezon case.
Simpson testified that Veselnitskaya’s English is very limited, as is his Russian, so they did little more than exchange pleasantries.
Simpson also testified that on June 10, 2016 – the day after the Trump Tower meeting – he had attended a Washington DC dinner held by Baker Hostetler attorney Mark Cymrot for people working on the Prevezon case. Again, Veselnitskaya was in attendance, but according to Simpson, she was sitting at the other end of the table from him and his wife.
In his testimonies before the House Intelligence Committee and the Senate Judicial Committee, Glenn Simpson comes across as straightforward, extremely forthcoming, and highly credible. Yet the fact that he – the man who was paid by the Clinton Campaign’s law firm to investigate Donald Trump – also happened to know Natalia Veselnitskaya , and was even physically in the same room with her hours before the Trump Tower meeting (where she presented information gathered by Fusion GPS for the Prevezon case) and was again in the same room with her the evening afterward seems staggeringly coincidental.
We on the left can be blindly partisan and simply accept all that we are being told about Trump-Russia. After all, a wealth of evidence points to the possibility that Trump knowingly or unknowingly helped Russian oligarchs and mafia figures launder money via his real estate empire for decades – a felony – and that Vladimir Putin is holding knowledge of this activity over Trump’s head. A U.S. President being blackmailed in such a manner by a hostile foreign power is a profound danger to the security of our nation.
However, when we come across inconsistencies and bizarre coincidences like the Bruce and Nellie Ohr issue or the Veselnitskaya/Fusion GPS issue, we also owe it to ourselves, if we have any genuine loyalty to the truth, to stop and take a serious look. What could explain these connections? Are we really just seeing shocking coincidences, or something more?
The most reasonable explanations that I can find are as follows:
Bruce and Nellie Ohr:
- Nellie Ohr was hired by Fusion to comb through Russian newspapers and other public record Russian documents for information about Trump because she was fluent in Russian.
- Nellie Ohr did not know of Christopher Steele’s involvement with Fusion, nor did Steele know of hers, because it was Simpson’s practice not to let his employees know who Fusion’s contractors were (and vice versa) unless absolutely necessary. This was done to avoid tainting information gathered from different sources. If two sources found differing information on a particular point, that could be helpful to narrow in on that point as a place where more questions needed to be asked to get an accurate picture.
- Nellie Ohr did not tell her husband Bruce what she was working on for Fusion because she was under a confidentiality agreement, and as a professional, she took that agreement seriously.
- The information that Steele was uncovering was not shared with any Fusion employees other than Simpson. Nellie Ohr was unaware of the content (or possibly even the existence) of Steele’s memos. Therefore there was no reason for Nellie Ohr to feel the need to tell her husband about her work: the information that she was uncovering was far less dramatic.
- Nellie Ohr never told Glenn Simpson that her husband was a Department of Justice official because it was not relevant to her job at Fusion, and because DOJ and other high level law enforcement officials generally do not like their identities to be widely known, for security reasons.
- Still inexplicable:
- The coincidence that Nellie Ohr’s husband happened to be Steele’s contact in the U.S. Department of Justice.
- The coincidence that Bruce Ohr didn’t put two and two together to then ask his wife more about the research work that she was doing at Fusion.
- Veselnitskaya probably had no idea that she would discover something about Putin’s public enemy #1, Wililiam Browder, when she was first hired by Prevezon Holdings: Prevezon was simply another legal case to her.
- She engaged Baker Hostetler to help with the case because of her poor English, likely unfamiliarity with the intricacies of U.S. law, and the need for her client to have quality representation in a U.S. court.
- Baker Hostetler hired Fusion to do investigative research for the Prevezon case, because money laundering cases are complicated and require a level of quality research that needed to be outsourced.
- When Browder’s name turned up in Fusion’s research, Veselnitskaya recognized the name (Browder is famously vilified in Russia – there are even movies about him) and saw an opportunity for herself. From then on, for her the Prevezon case became partially a case for her client, but also a means to collect information that she could use to curry favor with the Kremlin.
- Simpson was unaware of how Veselnitskaya was using his research.
- Simpson was handling the case for Baker Hostetler in the same way that he would for any other client: doing research, analyzing it and passing it to his client, Baker Hostetler.
- Veselnitskaya’s visa to enter the U.S. had been previously revoked, but she was able to get into the U.S. because she was the primary attorney for a case that was being tried in a U.S. court. That is why the Trump Tower meeting had to be scheduled for the same day that she was in court for the Prevezon case.
- Simpson was in the same courtroom as her that day because, as a researcher for the Prevezon case, he had the greatest wealth of detailed knowledge to reinforce Prevezon’s position.
- Veselnitskaya and Simpson were at the same Washington DC party the next evening because they had both been important parts of the Prevezon case.
- While Fusion GPS has a central role in both the Trump Tower meeting and the Steele dossier, and there was even a brief overlap in the timeframes of the Prevezon project and the Trump project, there was no bleed-over between the two projects within Fusion GPS itself: Simpson kept all of Fusion’s projects separate to avoid information from one project contaminating another.
- Still inexplicable:
- The coincidence that the Trump Tower meeting involved people and information connected to the same tiny research firm that had later been hired by the Clinton Campaign’s law firm to investigate Donald Trump.
While it is sane and reasonable to dismiss the wild conspiracy theories coming out of the extreme right in their efforts to defend an indefensible President, it is also important to look at factual inconsistencies in the narrative that many Americans believe to be true. While the issue of Bruce and Nellie Ohr and the connection of Fusion GPS to Natalia Veselnitskaya can be explained, they require acceptance of an uncomfortable amount of coincidence.
– rob rünt