This is a headline that I would not have felt comfortable writing four days ago. The idea of Trump being a witting anything seems like a stretch, given his general lack of intelligence and understanding of how to be a functioning human being. The answer to this and every question about what motivates Trump is Trump’s ego.
But then the New York Times went and published this on Friday:
In the days after President Trump fired James B. Comey as F.B.I. director, law enforcement officials became so concerned by the president’s behavior that they began investigating whether he had been working on behalf of Russia against American interests, according to former law enforcement officials and others familiar with the investigation.
And then The Washington Post went and published this on Saturday:
President Trump has gone to extraordinary lengths to conceal details of his conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, including on at least one occasion taking possession of the notes of his own interpreter and instructing the linguist not to discuss what had transpired with other administration officials, current and former U.S. officials said.
Remember when Trump just gave away some of the most top secret intelligence in the world to Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak (that name may sound familiar because concealing conversations with him about sanctions is why Michael Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI) and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in the Oval Office while only Russian media was present because Trump banned U.S. media from the meeting? Remember when Trump told them “I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job. I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”?
At the time, we looked at that as an insane outlier of typical Trump mushbrainism, combined with his disdain for being vetted by the media—especially on the topic of the Russia investigation. With the benefit of hindsight, the repeated denials echoing from that surreal moment follow a pattern that paints the picture of a man who simply doesn’t want anyone in this country outside of his closest advisers/family to know what really went on in 2016.
I don’t blame him, I’d be worried too. His campaign manager’s lawyers just accidentally revealed that in 2016, their client handed highly sensitive campaign polling data to a man trained by Russian military intelligence. The Atlantic obtained his campaign manager’s emails sent to said man trained by Russian military intelligence, asking “how do we use to get whole” with Oleg Deripaska—an oligarch who sued Trump’s campaign manager for $19 million in 2014—and who a leaked 2006 State Department cable said was “among the 2-3 oligarchs [Vladimir] Putin turns to on a regular basis” and “a more-or-less permanent fixture on Putin’s trips abroad.”
In October 2016, I first took a hard look at this whole mess, and discovered the bounty of information available while examining the myriad connections between the Kremlin and Trump’s rhetoric, Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, and Roger Stone. Someone can spend a month putting together a pretty damning picture of Trump’s known business relationships with Kremlin-related interests, and I know this because I did it in March 2017. Here is one building that quickly emerged to the forefront of this mountain of publicly available evidence.
Toronto’s Trump Tower and Hotel
Alex Shnaider is a Russian-Canadian billionaire who partnered with Donald Trump to co-finance Toronto’s Trump Tower and Hotel, which was the tallest building in Canada before going out of business this past year. Shnaider is connected to [Kremlin-connected bank] FL Group in a litany of ways—one simple example being a €45.8 million loan to him from Kaupthing Bank to buy a yacht. Kaupthing Bank is one of the poster children of how the financial crisis wrecked the Icelandic economy—as more than 70 percent of the liabilities of the three biggest banks in Iceland (Kaupthing, Landsbanki and Glitnir) were denominated in foreign currency, with the banking system comprising eight times Icelandic GDP. In what I’m sure is a completely unrelated fact—in 2013, the CEO, chairman of the board and two other executives at Kaupthing Bank were sentenced to five years in jail for fraud.
An Icelandic Bank swimming in Kremlin cash is just the tip of the iceberg of Shnaider’s Russian connections, as his ex-father-in-law is Boris J. Birshtein. According to the FBI, Birshtein was a close business associate of Sergei Mikhaylov, who allegedly runs the largest branch of the Russian mob—Solntsevskaya Bratva. According to Fortune, this is the highest grossing organized crime group in the world. In a 1996 intelligence report compiled by the FBI, Birshtein put together a meeting in his Tel Aviv office to discuss “sharing interests in Ukraine” that included Mikhaylov, along with several other leaders of the Russian mafia. In the early 1990s, investigators tracked transfers for millions of dollars between bank accounts of Ukrainian government officials, Mikhaylov and Birshtein.
In 1993, Boris Yeltsin—the first president of Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union—accused Birshtein of illegally exporting seven million tons of Russian oil and then laundering the gains from it. According to the New York Times, Dmytro Iakoubovski—a former associate of Birshtein’s—was cooperating with this investigation, and a gunman fired three shots into his home, then left a note telling him to stop collaborating with the detectives. Birshtein laundered this money as part of a larger project at Seabeco, a company that former KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov said “was created in order to apply the KGB money.” According to the Belgian newspaper Le Soir, two of the three members of the Trio—Chodiev and Mashkevich—were also involved in this KGB front known as Seabeco.
So how does this connect to Alex Shnaider—Trump’s Toronto financier? Well, aside from Birshtein being family for a portion of Shnadier’s life, according to the Toronto Globe and Mail, Shnaider started working for Birshtein at Seabeco’s headquarters in Zurich in 1991. The Toronto Globe and Mail reported that Shnaider left Seabeco in January 1994 to start his own company with an unknown Belgian partner. Kudos to James Henry of The American Interest for finding this Le Soir article showing that Mikhaylov and Birshtein co-founded MAB International in Antwerp, Belgium at that exact same time. If this were a tweet, this is where the thinking face emoji would go.
So to recap, Trump’s Toronto financier came up through the ranks a company which was quite literally created by the KGB in order to swim in untraceable cash; was able to obtain a massive loan to buy a freaking yacht from a Kremlin-connected bank holding a significant stake in an investment fund which helped finance Trump’s New York SoHo debacle—one which Trump settled a civil lawsuit filed against him where one of the central provisions was that those helping with the criminal investigation had to stop talking to the feds. Nothing to see here.
In The Art of the Deal—published in 1987—Trump [extremely sarcastic air quotes] wrote that “One thing led to another, and now I’m talking about building a large luxury hotel across the street from the Kremlin in partnership with the Soviet government.”
In 2018, Michael Cohen, Trump’s longtime personal fixer/lawyer said under oath that Trump Tower Moscow talks continued into the 2016 campaign.
Donald Trump Jr. proved intent to collude beyond a shadow of a doubt the moment he released his “I love it, especially for later in the summer” e-mails in response to a supposed offer from “the Russian government” to get dirt on Hillary, and now we are just waiting to see how much these two sides capitalized on their stated intentions in 2016.
The specific question of whether Trump is a Russian agent? That can best be answered by Trump. We have a relative avalanche of highly suggestive evidence, and Trump's motive is one of the few missing (public) pieces. Motive is one of the key differences between being an asset (simply someone who is useful in pursuit of a cause, ie: a useful idiot) and an agent, and it's always one of the most difficult things to establish in any legal case.
Luckily, we live in the dumbest time in human history, so the smoothbrained loon occupying the Oval Office answered that question for us (and present/future litigators) on Fox State TV this weekend, screeching a word barf into America's array of screens that did not deny the question in this title.
Ace national security reporter Marcy Wheeler—who said that she provided information to the FBI that she later realized directly implicated Trump after publicly available information came to light—wrote that Robert Mueller has indicated that he may have receipts on the meetings and actions which comprised the Trump-Russian conspiracy during the 2016 election:
And that’s the kompromat. Trump knows that if Mueller can present those receipts, he’s sunk, unless he so discredits the Mueller investigation before that time as to convince voters not to give Democrats a majority in Congress, and convince Congress not to oust him as the sell-out to the country those receipts show him to be. He also knows that, on the off-chance Mueller hasn’t figured this all out yet, Putin can at any time make those receipts plain. Therein lies Trump’s uncertainty: It’s not that he has any doubt what Putin has on him. It’s that he’s not sure which path before him — placating Putin, even if it provides more evidence he’s paying off his campaign debt, or trying to end the Mueller inquiry before repaying that campaign debt, at the risk of Putin losing patience with him — holds more risk.
Given his non-denial on Saturday night, it is more likely than not that the President of the United States is a witting agent of Vladimir Putin—not just because Trump has spent decades aligning his business interests with those adjacent to the Kremlin—but because of the 2016 election. That’s the Kompromat that Putin has on Trump. Something happened in and around 2016, and it’s not unreasonable to ask whether the president is a Russian agent anymore, given his business history, this weekend’s developments and subsequent non-denial, and the private testimony of James A. Baker—the FBI’s general counsel—to the House in October about the implications of the FBI Director’s dismissal:
“Not only would it be an issue of obstructing an investigation, but the obstruction itself would hurt our ability to figure out what the Russians had done, and that is what would be the threat to national security.”
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.