As President Donald Trump discovers the prerogative of unilaterally making war, the media gaze has turned away from the ongoing FBI, House and Senate investigation of his Russia ties to the simpler dramas of cruise missiles, big bombs and tough but loose talk on North Korea.
Yet even the "mother of all bombs" cannot obliterate the accumulating body of evidence about his relationship with Russian organized crime figures and the not unrelated question about whether he and his entourage colluded with Russian officials in the 2016 presidential election. The story, notes Talking Points Memo's Josh Marshall, is “Hiding in plain sight."
The evidence of pre-election collusion between Trump and the Russians, while growing, is far from definitive. The evidence on Trump’s organized crime ties is stronger. Says Marshall:
"If we'd never heard about Russian intelligence hacking of the 2016 election or Carter Page or Paul Manafort or Sergei Kislyak this [Trump’s organized crime connections] would seem like an extraordinarily big deal. And indeed it is an extraordinarily big deal."
Chronologically speaking, Trump’s ties to organized crime figures came first. Mutually beneficial transactions dating back to the 1990s led to closer relations in the 2000s and culminated in the contacts during the 2016 campaign. It all began with Russians who wanted to get their money out of the country.
As Donald Trump Jr., executive vice president of development and acquisitions for the Trump Organization, told the Bridging U.S. and Emerging Markets Real Estate conference in September 2008 (on the basis, he said, of his own “half dozen trips to Russia in 18 months”):
"[I]n terms of high-end product influx into the United States, Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets; say in Dubai, and certainly with our project in SoHo and anywhere in New York. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia."
For example, David Bogatin: In the 1990s, the FBI considered Bogatin one of the key members of a major Russian organized crime family run by a legendary boss named Semion Mogilevich. According to the late investigative reporter Wayne Barrett, Bogatin owned five separate condos in Trump Tower that Trump had reportedly personally sold to him.
Vyacheslav Ivankov, another Mogilevich lieutenant in the United States during the 1990s, also resided for a time at Trump Tower and reportedly had in his personal phone book the private telephone and fax numbers for the Trump Organization’s office in that building.
A lot of this Russian organized crime money flowed through Cyprus and one of its largest banks, the Bank of Cyprus. The bank's chairman, Wilbur Ross, is now U.S. secretary of commerce. When senators considering Ross’ nomination asked about Cyprus, Ross said Trump had forbidden him from answering questions on the subject.
Not coincidentally, Illinois congressman Mike Quigley, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, recently traveled to Cyprus to investigate, according to the Daily Beast.
“The fact that Turkey, the U.S. and Russia and other countries are really interested in Cyprus, because of its strategic location… the fact that Russians launder their money there to avoid sanctions, and the fact that key U.S. and Russia players were there—all make it really important for the Russia investigation,” Quigley explained in an interview.
Cyprus is also a focus of U.S. authorities investigating Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort, whose curious real estate transactions in New York are drawing attention, according to radio station WNYC:
"Nine current and former law enforcement and real estate experts told WNYC that Manafort’s deals merit scrutiny. Some said the purchases follow a pattern used by money launderers: buying properties with all cash through shell companies, then using the properties to obtain 'clean' money through bank loans."
According to the Associated Press, the records of Manafort's Cypriot transactions were requested by the U.S. Treasury Department Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, which works internationally with agencies to track money laundering and the movement of illicit funds around the globe.
Meetings and plans
Trump White House officials, skittish about such reports, balked when Russian banker Aleksander Torshin was scheduled to meet President Trump in February. Torshin is the deputy governor of the Bank of Russia and a close ally of President Vladimir Putin. He has cultivated Washington conservatives such as Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) and former National Rifle Association president David Keene.
Torshin has also been targeted by a long-running Spanish police investigation into a Russian organized crime syndicate known as the Taganskaya. The White House canceled Torshin’s meeting with Trump rather than “exacerbate the political controversy over contacts between Trump associates and the Kremlin,” reported Yahoo News' Mike Isikoff.
Also in February, Trump received a proposed peace plan for Ukraine and Russia, offered by his personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, and two Russians with organized crime convictions: Felix H. Sater, a business associate who once helped Trump scout deals in Russia; and Andrey Artemenko, a Ukrainian lawmaker trying to rise in a political opposition movement shaped in part by Manafort. The plan also would have lifted U.S. sanctions on Russia, a prime goal of the Putin government.
Sater pleaded guilty to a role in a stock manipulation scheme decades ago that involved the Mafia. Artemenko spent two and a half years in jail in Kiev in the early 2000s on embezzlement charges, later dropped, which he said had been politically motivated.
The sheer proliferation of such contact indicates, at a minimum, that Russian organized crime figures felt comfortable in the Trump milieu.
Jonathan Winer, former deputy assistant secretary of state for law enforcement in the Clinton administration, says he was investigating Semion Mogilevich 20 years ago when the "brainy don" (as he was known) pioneered the laundering of criminal proceeds through quasi-legitimate companies in the United States, especially in high-end real estate.
Winer finds it "disturbing" that Mogilevich's associates have done business with Trump. He told a Washington conference earlier this month:
"Imagine you’re a foreign government and you want to launder money for domestic espionage operations in the United States. [High-end real estate] would be a great way to do it. It was the method used by Colombian drug traffickers all over Latin America and Miami in the 1980s and 1990s. It's a form that Russian organized crime has used... All of a sudden we’re starting to see the same kind of patterns involving some criminal people and some Russian officials showing up in current investigations with Trump properties."
The story right now, he says, is "confusing as hell." The key, he explains, is the pattern.
"These ties link up, coalesce, organize and resolve," Winer says. These are "relationships that make some sense. So we need to get below what we can see on the surface and see what actually happened.... I don't know who's going to be indicted, but boy, do I know this: the American people needs to get the facts, and then justice can be done."