Investigative reporter Craig Unger: "Trump has had contacts with the Russian mafia for 35 years"

Author of "House of Trump, House of Putin" on the president's long history with Russian oligarchs and murky money

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published October 11, 2018 8:00AM (EDT)

Vladimir Putin; Donald Trump (AP/Evan Vucci/Salon)
Vladimir Putin; Donald Trump (AP/Evan Vucci/Salon)

While the American public was distracted by the spectacle of Brett Kavanaugh's nomination and eventual confirmation to the Supreme Court, special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into the Trump-Russia scandal continued. In recent weeks Mueller has issued more indictments against Russian cyber-spies. The Trump campaign's connections with a foreign company skilled at using social media for information warfare has become the focus of renewed interest. Perhaps the most important development is the news that a Republican operative -- who later committed suicide -- had transferred large sums of money to Russian hackers with the goal of obtaining information from Hillary Clinton's email server.

In a stunning coup of investigative journalism, the New York Times recently presented evidence that Donald Trump has been one of the largest tax cheats in recent American history. Before becoming president, Trump apparently evaded hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes. The Times also discovered that, far from being a "self-made man," Donald Trump was the beneficiary of hundreds of millions of dollars in tax fraud, gifts, inheritances, and other tax-free money from his father.

While the American people and the world are eagerly awaiting a great revelation in the Trump-Russia inquiry -- secretly recorded conversations of Donald Trump and his associates pledging personal loyalty to Russian President Vladimir Putin, or a sex tape featuring Trump and Russian prostitutes -- it may be something more mundane and obvious that finally leads to Trump's downfall.

In his new book "House of Trump, House of Putin: The Untold Story of Donald Trump and the Russian Mafia," veteran investigative journalist Craig Unger presents a detailed and exhaustively researched account of how Donald Trump has for decades laundered billions of dollars for Russian organized crime figures and other oligarchs. This fits a larger pattern in which Trump and his inner circle have shown a great comfort with financial crimes and other forms of unethical or illegal behavior to personally enrich themselves at the expense of the American people.

Ultimately, Trump's involvement with Russia's criminal underworld may have created an opening for Putin and his agents to manipulate and control the man who would later become president of the United States.

My conversation with Craig Unger has been edited for clarity and length.

Given all that is publicly known about Donald Trump and his suspicious connections to Russia -- never mind his anti-democratic behavior -- on a certain level it is surreal and almost unbelievable that he became president and has not yet been removed from office.

It is astounding. When John Brennan lost his security clearance the contrast was so stark -- there is no way in the world Donald Trump would have received a security clearance and he is president of the United States. Donald Trump has had contacts with the Russian mafia for 35 years. His properties have laundered money for them. The Russian mafia are connected to Russian intelligence. They’re living and have been working in Trump's building. Trump has even partnered with them. There are so many ways in which he’s compromised. As you say, I think it’s all on the public record. The Republicans are also implicated. As I explain in my new book, the Russians didn't just go after Donald Trump: They went after the entire Republican Party. There is Russian money going into the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, the NRA, and then to Republican officials and candidates directly.

Why has the American news media been largely unable to effectively explain to the public the threat Trump embodies to the country and the world?

There are a great many different factors. The news media is so fractured and factionalized. Therefore there is no shared national narrative. For example, let’s say MSNBC gets it right at times. But that still leaves hundreds of millions of Americans who are not getting the message. The Trump-Russia story is also complicated but the news cycle is too fast. Plus, it is fragmented by social media. So it’s very hard for people to draw back and see the big picture. The news almost never offers the deep background into how this whole Trump-Russia scandal began.

Putin uses the Russian mafia as a weapon. This is part of the geopolitical conflict. This is many ways goes back to the ending of the Cold War. It wasn’t really over. Most Americans do not understand that fact. Yes, the Soviet Union crumbled but Russia didn’t give up. The KGB sat there and waited. They started various companies. You have at least four billionaires with those connections who ended up partnering with Donald Trump 25 years later.

I think one of the powerful unseen forces here is that at the end of the Soviet Union, you suddenly have trillions of dollars that have to be laundered. It opened the floodgates for the Russian mafia and for the oligarchs. A good way to launder that money is through real estate. Trump made it clear he was ready, willing and able to do that without asking any questions. Trump was $4 billion in debt after his casinos failed in Atlantic City. He came back thanks to the Russians.

Donald Trump's relationship with Russia is not new. When they looked at Donald Trump back in the 1980s what did they see?

First of all, the Russians had a history of looking at influential businessmen. It appears that Russian intelligence also saw him as a presidential candidate. That surprised me. I was here in New York as a reporter in the 1980s, and I didn’t think of Trump as a presidential candidate. When Trump first visited Russia in 1987, he immediately came back and took out full page ads in the New York Times, the Boston Globe and Washington Post. These ads were very anti-NATO, anti-Western alliance, and that was exactly what the Russians want. It is so striking that Trump would do that over 30 years ago. It is almost as if Trump had been channeling those ideas and serving the KGB's aims way back in 1988.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Putin takes control. How does he develop a relationship with Donald Trump?

It did not occur in a personal way at first. Everything happens through proxies. They are enormously important. Going back to 1984 -- this was when Putin was still in the KGB -- Trump had started laundering money for the Russian mafia. In ‘92, the Russian mafia had people like Vyacheslav Kirillovich Ivankov, who was one of the key figures under the mob boss Mogilevich. The FBI was looking all over for him but he was actually in Trump Tower. A lot of the Russian mobsters were going to Trump Tower as well, presumably to launder money as well. So you saw this budding relationship. Trump was completely overextended in Atlantic City. He ended up $4 billion in debt. He had no future at all until the Russians came to his aid.

I think a lot of people get the chronology wrong and think Trump came back because of "The Apprentice." But "The Apprentice" didn’t start until 2004. By 2002, a company called Bayrock Group LLC  had moved into the 24th floor of Trump Tower. They began partnering with him. They made Trump an offer that he could not refuse. It was a completely different paradigm from his old business relationships. Suddenly Trump started dealing with cash and he couldn’t get bank loans except some from Deutsche Bank. He was so bankrupt that almost no Western bank could loan him a dime.

These were ways of laundering money that Trump had. The financing of building projects that involved $400 million or $500 million to build a skyscraper. Once the building was built, they could sell the condos through the shell companies, limited liability corporations and so forth. This was done anonymously in all cash transactions with the Russian oligarchs and other people affiliated with the Russian mafia. They owned Trump before he ever met Putin. Trump became close with the oligarchs who were in turn close to Putin. Of course, there are all the allegations regarding sexual activities and Donald Trump and Russia. They too go back to the early 1980s.

What do the Russians want from Donald Trump? He would not have been given all of those huge sums of money without some expectations, either implied or explicit.

This is why I think you have to look at the geopolitics and the history of the entire operation. If you go back to the Cold War, Americans simply thought we won. The Berlin Wall came down, the Soviet Union folded. Well, it’s not that simple. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, one Eastern bloc nation after another began tilting towards the West and joining NATO. When Putin came to power, he wanted to fight back, to regain some of that ground. Putin wanted to do battle with the Western alliance. With Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin found one of the few Americans who wants to destroy the Western alliance. He has been quite consistent on this point of view. But somehow he and the rest of the Republicans have taken it to heart and that is the direction they’re moving in as well. It’s been great for Putin and I think that’s exactly what he wanted.

Is Donald Trump advancing Vladimir Putin and Russia's interests because he is afraid? With all of the talk regarding the Steele dossier, the salacious and damning contents of which have been partly verified, is Donald Trump being blackmailed in some way?

I cannot answer that question fully because I really can’t get inside Trump's head. All I can do is trace what Donald Trump has done and what he has said. I talked to Gen. Oleg Kalugin, who directed counterintelligence for the KGB. Kalugin had actually been Putin’s boss at one point in time. Kalugin told me he believed that Trump was sexually compromised from that first trip to Russia in 1987.

You are a very accomplished reporter. During Vietnam a brave insider leaked the Pentagon Papers so that the American people and world would know the extent to which they had been lied to about the war. Where is the brave person willing to share similar information in the public interest about Donald Trump and the Russia scandal? Someone who is privy to some of this damning intelligence information about Donald Trump and Russia?  

Well, if it’s about releasing classified materials, I think someone will ultimately face legal jeopardy for doing that kind of thing. At the same time, you’ve had people like John Brennan speaking out, Michael Hayden, James Clapper and so on, who have been quite forceful and articulate. The degree to which the United States intelligence community has spoken out very strongly against Trump is very unusual and unprecedented.

What do we know about Paul Manafort and the other people in Trump's orbit who are closely connected with the Russian mafia, Vladimir Putin and the oligarchs? 

Manafort is especially important. Trump, of course, tried to minimize his relationship with Manafort. Trump said, “Oh he only worked for me for a very short time in a very limited way.” That is ridiculous. They first met and started working together in 1980. Manafort helped him deal with some of the issues he was having with his real estate projects, later moving into gambling in Atlantic City. Manafort actually had a home in Trump Tower. But Manafort and Roger Stone were known as the obvious choice for tyrants all over the world.

When Manafort started working for Putin in Ukraine, he was in essence working for Putin. He helped elect Viktor Yanukovych, very much a Putin puppet, as the president of Ukraine. In many ways, I see that as a dry run for what Manafort did 10 years later in 2016 in helping elect Donald Trump as president of the United States. Donald Trump is Putin's puppet. If you look at how Manafort was paid, he was paid nothing by Trump. He was getting money from the Russians.

I have described Donald Trump's White House as the "Kremlin on the Potomac." Do you think that is accurate?

It’s so much darker than anything I could imagine. When I grew up, one of the great movies was "The Manchurian Candidate." It was about a conspiracy to install a brainwashed communist as president of the United States. What has happened with Trump rivals "The Manchurian Candidate." It is actually hard to imagine, but this is where the United States and the world are right now. I’ve always been reluctant to use words like "treason" or "fascism" to discuss Donald Trump. But I think we’ve entered a very dark period in American history. We can't turn this around and save the country from Donald Trump and his allies unless the Democrats win Congress in the midterms.

When Mueller's report is released what do you think will and should happen? I am concerned that of course Trump's supporters will say it exonerates him, no matter how damning the evidence is. Trump's opposition will see Mueller's report as confirming their worst fears. There will be no closure, only more discord and perhaps even potential violence and large-scale civil unrest.

I won't speculate on the contents of Mueller's final report. But I will say that we need to have a shared national spectacle. Everyone needs to see the same thing. That’s not happening right now. A couple of weeks ago, there was one of these spectacular news days surrounding the Russia investigation, and in all, it was a horrible day for President Trump. I wanted to see how Fox News was covering it. They had an item on whether a giraffe is actually a mutant horse. Huge parts of the country are in the dark. Fox News has been incredibly successful in dumbing down a large part of the American electorate. That is something we’re going to have to change.

How would you explain to the average American why Donald Trump's relationship with Vladimir Putin and other Russian interests is so important?

This goes to the heart of whether or not we’re a democracy. I believe that Vladimir Putin selected and chose the president of the United States to do his bidding. That is an existential crisis for the United States. Americans better wake up, because our democracy is at risk.

Is Donald Trump a "useful idiot" or is he something else?

I believe that Donald Trump is a Russian asset. The difference between an "asset" and a Russian "agent" is whether or not he’s knowledgeable. When it comes to laundering money, for example, I give a very specific example in my book where Trump is given $6 million in cash and doesn’t ask any questions. At that moment, I can’t tell you what’s going on in Trump's mind. But I can tell you that that kind of transaction happens at least 1,300 times with Trump properties. That is, the sale of Trump-branded properties to anonymous shell companies and all-cash transactions. I think a good prosecutor could use this kind of information and say, “Look, there’s a concept in the law known as willful ignorance or willful blindness.”

It’s one thing to argue that he accidentally stumbled into these lucrative relationships four or five times or even 10 or 20 times. But if he did this 1,300 times then one might say that’s a pattern; he knew what he was doing. It’s hard to believe that Trump didn’t really know how much he was getting from the Russians.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

MORE FROM Chauncey DeVega