The Trump-Russian mob connection story is fueled by conjecture and dubious sources, not facts
By Kent R. Kroeger (August 21, 2018)
Will the soon-to-be-released documentary, Active Measures, and the new book by Craig Unger, The House of Putin: The Untold Story of Donald Trump and the Russian Mafia, reveal something new about Donald Trump’s Russian connections that will bring his presidency down?
Let me pump the brakes on this one. The film (from what I’ve seen of it) and the Unger book are fascinating and compelling, but they share two deep flaws: a heavy reliance on speculation.
Last week, comedian Bill Maher touted the conclusiveness of the evidence presented in Active Measures that alleges the Russian mob ‘made their move’ on Trump in 2002. Maher may have just had his ‘slam dunk’ moment.
“He’s a Russian asset,” trumpeted Maher (pardon the pun).
Perhaps, but what is the evidence?
The film walks through Trump’s business history where, by 2002, Trump had experienced numerous bankruptcies and was finding it difficult to raise capital using American banks. According to filmmaker Jack Bryan, the Russian mob, which is known to use the New York City real estate market to launder their ill-gotten money, came to Trump’s rescue and started funneling money and credit to the Trump Organization.
I have only seen extended excerpts from Active Measures but from what I have seen, the film contains more conjecture than slam dunk proof of Trump’s misdeeds. Accordingly, I fear Trump’s critics are putting far too much weight on the power of this film to ‘take down the President.’ Evidence that sounds iron-clad in a documentary, often breaks down under the legal processes’ bright lights.
As for Unger’s book, even the USA Today reviewer, Ray Locker, questioned the credibility of its main claims. At one point in the book, Unger writes, “But my source cautioned that he had not seen any kompromat first-hand, only that he had heard about it, and his allegations have not been corroborated.”
It’s the Steele dossier all over again.
Writes Locker in his book review: “The standard of proof when writing about the president of the United States, even someone as polarizing as Trump, needs to be higher than that. As evidenced by his July news conference with Putin in Helsinki, Trump often acts as if he’s under Putin’s spell, but the proof so far has lagged behind the speculation.”
Neither Bryan or Unger sufficiently entertain the real possibility that their Russian sources are deliberately lying to inject even more chaos into the American political system. That is one of Russian intelligence’s bread-and-butter tradecraft methods.
Furthermore, the unholy union of New York real estate developers (including the Trump Organization and Jared Kushner’s family), the Russian mob, and the New York City real estate market was known well before Active Measures. This is just a sample of the many investigative journalism stories on the topic:
How New York Real Estate Became a Dumping Ground for the World’s Dirty Money, by Michael Hudson, Ionuț Stănescu and Sam Adler-Bell (The Nation, July 3, 2014)
How Russians Launder Stolen Money Through Real Estate, by Amanda Abrams (Newsweek, December 21, 2015)
Why the Silence about Donald Trump’s Mob Ties?, by Jon Ponder (Pensito Review, September 8, 2015)
The Ponder story, which details Trump’s alleged American mafia ties (not the Russian mob), describes money laundering processes parallel to the Russian mob’s methods outlined in Active Measures.
“Why are Trump’s Republican opponents silent about his mob connections?” lamented Ponder in 2015. “It’s possible, perhaps, these Republican candidates are afraid that the notoriously litigious Trump might sue them. This seems unlikely. These facts are on the record, and there’s no evidence he sued Wayne Barrett or David Cay Johnston after they exposed his mob connections in the early 1990s.”
But that is the problem with the Trump-Russian mob connection story: it is well-trodden ground with not single money laundering indictment of Trump during that time.
[That might make a great 2020 campaign bumper sticker for Trump: I was never indicted!]
Prior to the 2016 election, the federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York certainly must have been aware of the Trump Organization’s alleged mob connections, which some claim go as far back as the 1980s. Of course, pretty much every real estate developer in New York City will, at some point, come into contact with the mob.
The Mueller probe, known to be looking into the Trump Organization's business practices including alleged money laundering activities, may have financial information on Trump that has never been reported before now. That is always a possibility.
But money laundering is hard to prove in court and became even harder after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that “merely hiding money headed out of the United States is not proof of money laundering.”
According to defense attorney Christopher Morales, money laundering requires three steps: (1) Obtaining illegal cash, (2) a financial transaction meant to disguise the source of the funds, and (3) and the money is used as legal funds.
“To be criminally culpable under 18 U.S.C. §1956(a)(1), a defendant must conduct or attempt to conduct a financial transaction, knowing that the property involved in the financial transaction represents the proceeds of any unlawful activity, with one of the specific intents, and the property must in fact be derived from a specified unlawful activity,” says Morales.
As the Trump Organization would be an intermediary, not the original source of the illegal cash, Trump’s willful ignorance might pay off if he is ever indicted for money laundering.
Eric Trump’s now famous 2014 quote during a golf outing, “We don’t rely on American banks — we have all the funding we need out of Russia,” would actually buttress Donald Trump’s likely defense that he was unaware of the money’s illegal origins, should he be indicted for money laundering.
Again, Mueller may have emails, phone conversations or other incriminating financial documents proving Trump knowingly laundered funds involved in a financial transaction originating from an unlawful activity.
And Active Measures doesn’t just focus on money laundering. It alleges the Trump Organization became deeply indebted to the Russian mob after 2002 which is supposed to explain Trump’s conversion into a Russian asset and his current obsequiousness towards all things Russian.
Like the Steele dossier, Active Measures and The House of Putin often rely on indirect evidence and use conjecture as a placeholder where credible evidence is needed. “Just connect the dots,” is another way of saying, “I don’t have actual evidence.”
We’ll have to wait and see what actual evidence Mueller has found. In the meantime, remain skeptical of Democrat-funded documentaries and quickly written books purporting to have proof of Trump’s fealty to the Russians.