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An investigation into Putin’s useful idiot

A review of Crime in Progress. The Secret History of the Trump-Russia Investigation. By Glenn Simpson and Peter Fritsch. Publisher: Allen Lane, London, 2019.

April 6, 2020 - Taras Kuzio - Books and ReviewsIssue 3 2020Magazine

To say that Glenn Simpson and Peter Fritsch do not like Donald Trump and do not believe that he has the moral right to be president of the United States would be an understatement. In their latest book, Crime in Progress: The Secret History of the Trump-Russia Investigation, they write that the more they dug into Trump’s past “the more he appeared to fit the textbook definition of a charlatan”. Simpson and Fritsch found Trump’s business record to be littered with bankruptcies. Either he was a liar when he claimed to be an astute businessman or a cheat who bankrupted his companies to escape paying back creditors and taxes. In other words, Trump is not as rich as he claims to be, and he is a lousy businessman. Simpson and Fritsch write that Trump is “sensationally reckless and an incompetent real estate developer or a serial fraudster”.

The Trump organisation has been in court more times than any other US business and has protested against paying taxes on countless occasions. The Trump organisation would insist its properties barely made a profit and were nearly worthless in order to reduce their tax bills. Trump’s myopic world is one where he is desperate to make us believe that he is an amazing businessman (remember the fake front cover of Time magazine with his picture) while at the same time pleading insolvency to the US IRS (Internal Revenue Service).  This would explain why he is the first US president to not disclose his tax returns.

Intelligence

During numerous bankruptcies and lawsuits over credit lines and taxes, huge volumes of money flowed through the Trump organisation from undisclosed sources, most of which has its origins in Russia and Eurasia. FL Group based in Ireland with unknown origins of its financial resources poured hundreds of millions of dollars into Trump properties. Russian cash began to inject huge sums from the mid-2000s at a time when no western banks were willing to provide loans to Trump. It was at that time when Deutsche Bank played an important role as the main conduit for Russian money flowing into the Trump organisation.

At the same time, Trump’s “foreign policy positions are conveniently aligned with his long-standing business agenda,” as the authors point out. It is these Trump-Vladimir Putin connections that kept Simpson and Fritsch up at night tying the knots between Trump and Putin and trying to understand the Kremlin’s kompromat over the US president. Not everybody was as interested to the degree that they were. Simpson and Fritsch write about how their intelligence was given to senior US politicians and the FBI showing how a “hostile power might have influence over the US president-elect”. But for most of the 2016 election campaign nothing was done. Simpson and Fritsch show that not only was the FBI dragging their feet about this intelligence, but also that President Barack Obama did not put his weight behind the investigations into Russian meddling and never forcibly responded to Russia’s interference. A report by US intelligence agencies showing Russia’s interference in the election campaign was only released in the last days of Obama’s presidency.

In this report all US intelligence agencies agreed that Russia, on the orders of Putin, had intervened in the 2016 elections in support of Trump. The list of dubious US characters linked to Russia is long and includes: Paul Manafort, who had worked in the previous decade in Ukraine for the pro-Russian Party of Regions; Rick Gates, Manafort’s close ally; Russian oligarch, Oleg Deripaska; as well as  Sergei Millian, Carter Page, Michael Cowen, George Papadopoulos and the former head of US military intelligence, Lt General Michael Flynn, who sat next to Putin during the tenth anniversary dinner of the Kremlin’s media mouthpiece RT (formerly Russia Today).

Manafort’s ties to Trump did not begin in the 2016 elections but date back to the 1980s when Rick Davis and Manafort formed one of Washington’s big lobbying companies. If the Republican Party candidate John McCain had won the 2008 presidential election, Davis would have become his chief of staff. And yet, while Davis’s partner Manafort worked for pro-Russian forces in Eurasia, McCain, as head of the IRI (International Republican Institute), was a champion of their arch pro-western opponents and the colour revolutions in the region. As the authors point out, Manafort’s joining the Trump campaign “magnified the sense that Russia might be making inroads into the Trump campaign”. During the election campaign, Trump’s programme was secretly altered to remove any plan of giving military support to Ukraine in order to help its fight against Russian military aggression.

Wilful blindness

Trump dismissed the intelligence report into Russian meddling as “fake news,” a “witch hunt,” and a conspiracy by the Fusion company hired by the Democratic Party, former MI6 officer Christopher Steele, “Never Trumpers,” and the US deep state. Fox News and right-wing radio and web sites rehashed the deep state conspiracy while attacking mainstream media as the enemy.

Ultimately this was a product of Trump’s narcissism. He could never accept that he won the US elections only with the help of a foreign power and not because of his alleged genius.  Bizarrely, Trump believed Putin’s assurances that he had not intervened over his own intelligence agencies. To distract from this scandal the Republican Party and Trump began re-hashing Russian disinformation of Ukrainian interference in the 2016 elections. Simpson and Fritsch write that denying the fact Russia intervened to aid Trump’s election victory “requires a staggering degree of wilful blindness”. Russia had cultivated support for Trump over five years, playing on his personal hatred for Obama.

The authors believe that Putin’s kompromat on Trump rested on his financial reliance on Russian money and credit. Steele had also allegedly dug up video kompromat that the Russians have of Trump with prostitutes and the infamous “golden shower” on the bed used by President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama in the suite of a Moscow hotel that Trump stayed at during a 2013 beauty contest. Although this defies belief, one source for Steele’s intelligence was a hotel staffer who had been on duty at the time.

In the 1980s and 1990s Trump did business with Italian American organised crime and never undertook due diligence on the source of the cash. In the 1990s Russian organised crime and oligarchs also appeared and sought Trump properties. Simpson and Fritsch write that a US politician with such strong ties to organised crime had not been seen since John F. Kennedy. Hundreds of millions of dollars were laundered through Trump SoHo from Kazakhstan via shady Kazakh-Turkish oligarch, Tevfik Arif, and Brighton Beach mafia don, Felix Sater.

The Trump Tower in Panama is an example of how Russian money, and probably drug cartel money, came together in a “rogue’s gallery of international criminals”. Russian and Ukrainian organised crime from Toronto invested in the property’s pre-sales buying many of the condos to mobilise excitement among ordinary American buyers who would eventually be stuck with bad investments. Simpson and Fritsch write that the Panama Trump Tower was a “steamy entrepot famous for money launderers and scoundrels”. Panama’s leading prosecutor called the project a “vehicle for money laundering”.

Lies and hypocrisy

Trump’s links to organised crime have already been widely analysed in other books and articles, and this work continues to dig into this well-trodden area. What is surprising, however, is how this facet of Trump and his corruption has never bothered US voters. Whenever dirty money and mafia names are mentioned to Trump, he has a habit of losing his memory despite many photographs of him standing alongside them. When asked about mafioso Sater, who ran Bayrock Group through which hundreds of millions of Russian dollars were laundered in Trump properties, he was “vague and evasive”. Trump is also a serial liar; the Washington Post collected nearly 17,000 lies and exaggerations he made since the 2016 election campaign.

Lies and hypocrisy go together as seen in one of Trump’s main populist nationalist bug bears, namely, immigration which has been at the forefront of his populist rhetoric. Yet Trump has used illegal immigrants in his construction businesses for all of his business life. As Simpson and Fritsch remark: “Trump hated immigrants…unless they worked for him”.  Trump does not have a monopoly on lying and hypocrisy, however, as these traits are commonly found among populists.

Trump’s approach to business was that of a mogul above the law and this trait is also evident during his presidency – especially after becoming acquitted by the Senate in his impeachment trial. Trump was oblivious to fraud; in fact, systematic fraud was his business model. His approach was to launch a property to great fanfare (as in Panama), showcase the personal involvement of his family, extol interest in early sales (usually by Russian oligarchs and organised crime figures), the property would ultimately fail as the sales claims were hype, the investors and partners would sue Trump, and Trump would claim he had never been the developer and only the licensor. After a legal case the property would be sold, and the Trump name would be removed.

Simpson and Fritsch’s main focus is to tie Trump’s criminality and corruption to Russia and Putin which they do remarkably well. They discuss Trump’s interest in the Soviet Union and Russia since his first visit to Moscow in 1987, and his weird admiration for Putin which no one is able to understand: “In project after project, from Florida to Panama to Toronto, Russians with dubious résumés and questionable pasts turned out in great numbers to buy Trump-branded units”.

Simpson and Fritsch describe Putin’s “army” of oligarchs, his spies and gangsters as having the goal of destabilising western democracies and ensnaring gullible and narcissistic leaders such as Trump with kompromat. This was made easier by the Trump organisation’s complete disinterest in due diligence and its belief it was above the law.

The book ends on a rather pessimistic note as the Mueller investigation side stepped whether Trump is under Russian influence. Mueller was not allowed to follow the money and there were no investigations of taxes, debts, loans, Deutsche Bank and money laundering. Trump was not held to account by either the Mueller investigation or the Senate impeachment trial.

Simpson and Fritsch have written a remarkable account of Trump’s approach to business, his corruption, his ties to Russian money, Putin’s kompromat over him, and how the Republican Party has been complicit in covering up illegalities and reports by US intelligence agencies. Trump may not be a Russian spy in the traditional sense of an espionage agent, but he is certainly Putin’s useful idiot.

Taras Kuzio is a professor in the Department of Political Science at the National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy, and a non-resident fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute, School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

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