Trump-Russia Was Never “Just” Russia

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NBC News / YouTube Saudi Arabia Faces Fallout For Jamal 1539561480.jpg...
NBC News / YouTube

Linking the Khashoggi Disappearance to Trump-Russia

Jamal Khashoggi walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018. He has not been seen or heard from since. He is on video footage entering the building, but not leaving.

Conflicting rumors are swirling regarding whether Mr. Khashoggi is most likely to have been killed inside the consulate, perhaps even dismembered, as Turkish authorities claim, or smuggled back to Saudi to face the anger of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Nearly all intelligence experts agree, however, that we are unlikely to see Khashoggi alive and well again.

It seems improbable that this disappearance actually links up multiple elements in the storyline of the scandal that has become known as Trump-Russia, but that is exactly what we can trace by piecing out individual elements and connections.

We begin with a singular premise. “Trump-Russia”, as it is known, is not really JUST Trump and Russia. It’s actually a network of corruption and corrupt actors, both individuals and nation-states, that spans the globe. Yes, Russia’s GRU, at the direction of Vladimir Putin, did hack the DNC, access voter rolls and voting machines, and conduct innumerable social media disinformation operations to influence the 2016 US presidential election. They spent years cultivating media (Breitbart, Fox, RT) and institutional (NRA and others) connections to promote their talking points and influence political opinions within the American electorate. They also hacked the RNC, which helps us to make sense of the paralyzed silence of the Republican party as a whole as they sit back and watch their party be co-opted by a lifelong conman and emerging autocrat.

But Putin was not the only power player to recognize the potential benefit of a corrupt US administration and act to help achieve it. Russia is a mafia state, through and through. Putin sits atop a graduated pyramid of gangsters, an oligarchic class created by him through looting state resources, capital, and institutions and handing the wealth of his nation to those he chooses to reward with extreme wealth and power for their personal loyalty to him above all else. Pledges of fealty to Vladimir Putin have created dozens of wealthy and powerful men, all of whom owe their positions to him directly. Many of these men were figures in organized crime prior to being ‘legitimized’ by Putin. Criminal enterprise has been thoroughly integrated into Russia’s state structure. Semion Mogilevich, the global head of the Russian mafia, the Solntsevskaya Bratva, attended a ceremony in Putin’s honor in 2013 and is rumored to even potentially be the power behind Putin’s throne, backing him since Putin’s early days in Leningrad as a lowly KGB operative.

So we have established two separate-but-united forces at work in Trump-Russia: the Russian state and the Russian mafia. The Venn diagram of these entities and their interests shows significant overlap, and they have learned to thrive in cautious symbiosis. Recognition of common goals and mutual benefit creates alliances, uneasy as they may be. So who else stands to benefit from a corrupt US administration?

Two major groups of investors have made up a disproportionate cross section of Donald Trump’s buyers: Saudi power players and Russian gangsters.

Trump’s first known contact with a Russian mobster was in 1984 when he sold five condos in Trump Tower to David Bogdan (bear in mind that cash, bulk, high-end real estate purchases such as this are essentially a flashing neon sign reading “money laundering this way”). In the decade to follow, Russian gangsters would roll over and roll up the operations of the Genovese crime family, patrons of Fred Trump, and take over criminal enterprise in the city. The old guard Italian mafia was displaced and the Russians set up shop in Brighton Beach. The chief lieutenant in charge of this gangland takeover, Vyacheslav Ivankov, was notoriously difficult for US law enforcement to track, but one pattern remained true. Ivankov always returned to a certain set of destinations: the Trump Taj Mahal, the Paradise Club in Brooklyn, and his home in Trump Tower.

As Trump’s business practices radically shifted from being the “king of debt” who always played with the bank’s money to an all-cash buying spree totaling more than $400M between 2004 and 2014, Saudi money started pouring into his properties as well. In 2015, Trump said to reporters: “Saudi Arabia, I get along with all of them. They buy apartments from me. They spend $40M, $50M…I like them very much.” Again, bulk purchases of high-end real estate are a classic indicator of money laundering.

As part of its mission to the UN in 2001, the Saudi government bought the 45th floor of Trump World Plaza in New York. And in 2015, Trump registered holding companies intended to facilitate the construction of a proposed Trump hotel property in Jeddah, a gateway city to Islamic holy sites in Mecca and Medina.

Since his inauguration, Saudi nationals have continued to pump money into Trump’s properties. The Trump International Hotel in Manhattan is operating in the black again after two years of decline, with its 13% increase in revenue directly attributable to a last-minute visit by Mohammed bin Salman, who housed the majority of his extensive retinue at Trump’s facility despite it not having suites that met the Crown Prince’s personal standards.

We now have three corrupt actors who recognize the benefits of a Trump administration and know that he is open to making corrupt “deals”: the Russian state (Putin), the Russian mafia (Mogilevich), and the Saudi state (Mohammed bin Salman).

Enter Erik Prince.

A mercenary known for the sins of his former company Blackwater in Iraq, where he was accused of killing 17 Iraqi civilians, including children, Prince has been quite busy since the gulf war. He was paid $529M to build a private militia for UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan. He recruited nearly 1000 Latin American soldiers for this force, reasoning that non-Muslim soldiers would be less likely to rebel at the thought of killing other Muslims, should that be ordered.

In 2015, Saudi Arabia launched a military intervention in Yemen, arguably a proxy war with Iran, that is still going on today. Sheikh bin Zayed al-Nahyan agreed to fight alongside Saudi forces ostensibly to also counter Iranian influence in the region. Erik Prince’s mercenaries were on the front lines. The force grew to more than 2000 specialized troops and continues to expand today. Other ventures have taken Prince into China, eastern Africa, and Azerbaijan.

Middle Eastern regional conflict is a complex maze to navigate. No individual conflict is as simple as one factor, and almost all can be categorized at least in part as machination designed to undermine Iran, or vice versa, Iran working to undermine rival states. Israel is yet another state that seeks and will accept any help it can find with countermanding Iran. In particular, Israel would like Iranian forces removed from Syria and is willing to strike a regional “grand bargain” in which sanctions relief induces Russia to sever all ties with Iran and assist in removing Iranian troops.

Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan is known as a strategist, one of the chess players in Middle Eastern politics. He has long advocated for a strategic alliance with Russian against Iran and has built bridges with Israel to facilitate their shared aims. Netanyahu began strongly courting Putin in pursuit of an alliance that would unite the regional powers with Russia against Iran in 2015.

Prince himself is a player in this, as a major donor to the Republican party who stands to gain substantial business opportunities. He brought with him his friend, employer and confidant bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the strategist who had already won Israel over to the common cause. We now have six corrupt actors.

On August 3, 2016, Erik Prince arranged a meeting that took place at Trump Tower. He brought with him George Nader, a close and trusted advisor of bin Zayed al-Nahyan, who was also authorized to speak for the UAE’s strategic ally, Saudi Arabia. Also present was George Zamel, an Israeli specialist in social media manipulation, who brought a multimillion-dollar proposal his firm of former Israeli intelligence officers had already drawn up for assisting the Trump campaign. What was agreed to in this meeting is not yet known in specific, but following this meeting George Nader became a close associate of the Trump campaign, spending significant time with Jared Kushner and Michael Flynn, Trump’s now disgraced former national security advisor, and speaking to both about the need to establish secure channels of communication with Russia. Mr. Nader also paid Mr. Zamel a large sum of money just after Trump was elected, estimated to be around $2M.

On January 11, 2017, nine days before Trump’s inauguration, our players reconvened in Seychelles. Present for this junket, which lasted two days, were Prince, the UAE crown prince bin Zayed al-Nahyan himself, George Nader, emissary for both Saudi and UAE, and Kirill Dmitriev, a Russian banking power player with close personal ties to Putin. Price has testified before Congress that this meeting was innocuous and primarily focused on vague future business between himself and the UAE. He claims that as he was leaving his meeting with bin Zayed al-Nahyan, someone in the prince’s retinue suggested he should meet a Russian who was also in town, who turned out to be Dmitriev, and that the two had a casual drink before parting ways and leaving the next morning.

We don’t know what actually took place at either of these meetings in great detail. But we do know quite a bit about the motivations of the players on the board. Saudi, UAE, Israel, and Prince himself advocated for a grand bargain with Russia. Offer sanctions relief in exchange for regional unity against Iran. And both sets of Russian actors involved certainly agree that sanctions relief is the highest priority foreign policy goal of their nation. Both gangsters and oligarchs, whether or not they are one and the same, need to be able to move large amounts of illegitimate money freely around the globe. Fewer sanctions, fewer regulations mean more ease of movement, less oversight, less chance of being caught in either their illegal activities or the laundering of the proceeds.

Vladimir Putin is rumored to be one of the richest men in the world. But he has a problem. His desire to crush all dissent to his rule drives him to eliminate the lives of opposition figures and journalists. And when he had Sergei Magnitsky murdered in 2009, after Magnitsky uncovered a massive theft of Russian state resources, he crossed a bridge too far. Bill Browder, Magnitsky’s friend, and patron, had the means and the desire to fight back on a world stage. Mr. Browder made it his life’s mission to avenge the murder of his friend and lawyer. He became a one-man crusade and he succeeded in first the US and now in an ever-increasing number of other nations.

Magnitsky sanctions are twofold. They prevent both the entry into a county AND the use of its financial systems by those under sanctions. Thereby, Magnitsky sanctions prevent Putin himself, as well as many of his oligarchs and a number of crossover gangsters from accessing their money. If it is already here, or in another participating nation, they can’t get to it. And if they want to come to these nations, they can’t gain entry. The little guy who Vladimir Putin intended to crush into permanent silence has beaten him and continues to gain ground. The unity of other nations in joining forces with these sanctions, their temerity in thwarting Putin’s absolute power are an obsession for him.

Vladimir Putin has a few primary goals in terms of his ultimate desires for foreign policy and the global order. He wants these Magnitsky sanctions and other economic sanctions on Russia gone. He wants free access to world markets for the oil and gas interests he has co-opted for his own profit and use. He wants to be able to openly access his own wealth. And he wants equal standing for his country with the great nations of the world, however he wishes to gain this not by altering his nation’s behavior with regard to things other nations find objectionable – murder of opposition voices and journalists, violent repression of dissent – he wants to achieve this parity through tearing down existing alliances and rearranging the global power structure to favor autocratic and authoritarian nations, relegating what he sees as the “weak” concept of true democratic rule to the lower standing once occupied by oppressive regimes. The destruction of NATO is a primary goal in this regard, as the mutual defense obligations within the treaty stand as a direct barrier to further territorial expansion by Russia.

Trump’s admiration for the repressive, autocratic control of Putin and other dictators has been on open display for quite some time, as has his willingness to assist Putin with tearing down strong democratic alliances and fundamentally shifting the world order. His few areas of consistency include attacks on NATO, the IMF, the UN, and the G7. One of his first acts was to withdraw the US from the Paris Climate Accords, followed by violating the Iran nuclear deal, or JCPOA. He has withdrawn the US from the UN Human Rights Council in the wake of his horrific border detention policy. He attended the G7 and openly advocated for including Russia in this group, despite Russia having been excluded from the group, formerly the G8, in 2014 due to its annexation of Crimea. And he has repeatedly attacked NATO, questioning the pledged defense spending of its member states.

Donald Trump emerged from his private summit with Putin on July 15, 2018, doubling down on existing support for Putin’s agenda items, and introducing a number of new talking points as well. The most shocking of these was a proposal to exchange US law enforcement access to 12 indicted GRU officers implicated in hacking the 2016 election for Russian access to persons of interest to Putin, specifically Bill Browder and Michael McFaul, former US ambassador to Russia. Putin really does want to personally get his hands on Bill Browder, and has issued multiple red notices to Interpol in attempts to have Browder picked up on his international travels. Browder quite rightly fears for his life if he is ever forced to return to Russia.

But this idea masks a more sinister subtext as well. Putin has created an elaborate narrative of an alleged conspiracy by Browder against the Russian state, into which he has woven threads tying in Hilary Clinton and Ambassador McFaul. By equating the Mueller investigation and indictments to this conspiracy theory regarding Browder and McFaul, Trump legitimizes these two narratives as having equivalent legitimacy. He allows a conspiracy theory promoted by a murderous dictator equal footing with a US law enforcement investigation spanning the globe. Undermining the concept of truth itself, painting the truth as “unknowable”, and insisting that opinions are equal to facts are all facets of oppressive authoritarian rule and Trump is learning these techniques from a true master of the game.

Days after the Helsinki meeting, Trump gave an interview to Tucker Carlson in which he arranged for Carlson to mention the tiny country of Montenegro. This may have seemed to many to be an arbitrary reference to a small nation, but it was actually a direct service to Putin, who holds a grudge against Montenegro. Putin and his circle of Russian oligarchs covet the country’s warm water port and have been pouring Russian money and influence into the country for years. Oleg Deripaska, whose name should be familiar by association with the Trump campaign, bought Montenegro’s state aluminum smelter and bauxite mines and led an influx of wealthy Russians buying up luxury real estate in the country. Russian military intelligence officers assisted in a failed coup in the country in 2016, and Russia vehemently opposed Montenegro’s subsequent accession to NATO in 2017. Donald Trump was acting on orders when he raised the fearmongering hypothetical of US soldiers being sent to “die for Montenegro”, and he also signaled Putin’s likely desire to annex territory in the country.

Mutual benefit, mutual investment. A grand bargain involving a global cast of characters.

Trump’s actions in service to Russia, his longstanding patrons and funding sources, are personal and direct. The actions of his administration in service to Saudi Arabia have been less overt and largely handled by proxy, in the person of Jared Kushner. Kushner has been functioning as de facto ambassador to Saudi since Trump’s inauguration. He holds no official position or authority to be acting in this capacity, as an official appointment would require the approval of Congress. But nevertheless, he has benefitted enormously from the relationship.

In June of 2017, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, jointly and under the guidance of two players here, bin Salman and bin Zayed al-Nahyan, instituted a blockade of neighboring Qatar over alleged economic support for terrorist groups. The United States, whose largest Middle Eastern Air Force base, Al Udeid, is located in Qatar, took an official position of mediation and support for our host nation. Donald Trump personally, however, openly broke with his own state department and began tweeting and speaking aggressively against Qatar, and this was no accident, nor was it the result of poorly comprehended complexities, as so many of Trump’s foreign policy blunders have been.

A month before the blockade began, Jared Kushner began aggressively seeking investment from the Qatari government to bail out his perennially struggling property at 666 Fifth Avenue. When this was not forthcoming, his father in law, the President of the United States, openly broke with his own state department and potentially endangered the lives of American service personnel by attacking their host country. Kushner has now gotten the Qatari investment he sought, through a Qatari-backed Canadian finance company.

Kushner’s position has certainly been of personal benefit, but is alleged to have facilitated much more sinister success on behalf of bin Salman. Prior to February 2018, Kushner held a security clearance that allowed him access to the President’s Daily Brief, a summary of the latest and most critical classified intelligence available. White House sources have confirmed that he was a dedicated and voracious consumer of all information related to Middle Eastern intelligence. While Kushner was reading up on classified regional developments, Mohammed bin Salman was making some moves of his own.

In June 2017, bin Salman ousted his cousin, who was then next in line for the Saudi throne, from the royal pecking order. In the following months, the Daily Brief focused heavily on regional politics surrounding the readjustment of power and alliances within the Saudi royal family. In late October of 2017, Jared Kushner made an unannounced visit to Saudi, where he stayed several nights and is reported to have stayed up until 4 am talking with bin Salman.

Following this meeting, bin Salman told confidantes that Kushner was “in his pocket” and had disclosed the names of bin Salman’s “enemies” within the royal family. On November 4, 2017, one week after Kushner’s surprise visit, bin Salman launched what he called an “anti-corruption crackdown”. He arrested dozens of members of the royal family who were allegedly engaged in corrupt activity and imprisoned them in the Ritz Carlton in Riyadh. The Saudi figures named in the President’s Daily Brief were among those rounded up. At least one was verifiably tortured, his body marked with burns from electric prods, and many more have alleged the same, and there are rumors of at least one death at the hotel. Those arrested were forced into signing over huge portions of their personal wealth and estates totaling billions, all seized by the Saudi government.

On November 6, 2017, two days after the roundups began, Donald Trump took to Twitter to defend bin Salman, saying that those arrested had been “milking their country for years”.

Fast forward to today, and yet another enemy of Mohammed bin Salman, one who was investigating him as well as Jared Kushner, is now missing. Jamal Khashoggi was a prominent journalist and opposition figure, who, in 2017 had undertaken a self-imposed exile from Saudi Arabia in fear for his life. He had resettled in the United States and was set to marry a Turkish woman. He needed to finalize paperwork relating to his previous marriage, and thus made two visits to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul this fall. On the first of these visits, he told friends he was treated warmly and asked to return with a final paper certifying his previous divorce. He has not been seen since he entered the building for the second time.

Turkish officials have released video footage showing several diplomatic vehicles pulling p to the consulate roughly an hour before Mr. Khashoggi’s entrance. They have identified a 15-person Saudi team, including a Saudi intelligence colonel, that who flew into Turkey that morning and left again that night. They also allege to have the torture and killing of Jamal Khashoggi on an audio recording.

US intelligence officials are confirmed to have intercepted more than one discussion among Saudi officials wanting to lure Khashoggi to a place where he could be intercepted and detained. It is unclear whether a credible threat was made or intercepted, or whether the US warned Mr. Khashoggi. But one can certainly assume that information regarding a plot of this nature would be included the President’s Daily Brief.

Saudi Arabia denies any knowledge of the whereabouts of Mr. Khashoggi, as well as any complicity in his disappearance. However, they have not produced any evidence to document his leaving the consulate, and he is on video entering. As of today, Donald Trump has not issued a demand for this evidence or for an investigation, although a united group of nations has demanded that Saudi provide answers. But perhaps the most telling action, or lack thereof, by Trump in this situation has been his unwillingness to impose sanctions or to freeze arms sales to Saudi. Trump has stated that he feels the dollar value of our arms sales to Saudi and says the US would be “punishing itself” by freezing these sales pending answers to Khashoggi’s whereabouts, claiming that Saudi will turn to Russia or China if the US does not supply these items. (Notably, the $270B in arms sales Trump touted after his first visit to Saudi have not come to fruition and current sales actually consist almost exclusively of previous contracts made under the Obama administration.)

Several Senators have sent a letter to Trump, calling for the imposition of Magnitsky sanctions in response to this disappearance. Donald Trump has painted these as “bad for business”. By law, Trump now has 120 days to decide whether to impose sanctions on any and all persons found to be involved in the disappearance.

The first known and most infamous Trump Tower meeting occurred June 9, 2016, between Donald Trump Jr, Jared Kushner, and several Russian operatives including lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya. The administration’s official statement when this meeting was brought to light was that it was “about adoptions”. When the US passed the Magnitsky Act in 2012, Russia responded by halting adoptions by American families. Putin’s biggest goal is the elimination of Magnitsky sanctions. It seems certain that adoptions were indeed likely raised in this meeting, in the context of the deliverable quid pro quo desired by Russia – the cessation of Magnitsky sanctions.

Will the disappearance of a dissident Saudi journalist provide the vehicle by which Trump will deliver Putin’s prize?

If Magnitsky sanctions are imposed, Trump will incur the wrath of two of his benefactors, two of our united cast of corrupt characters. If he refuses and discredits the sanctions as “bad for business”, he will create a narrative shift in direct service to facilitating corruption, up to and including the murder of opposition figures. If Magnitsky sanctions are not imposed, the United States will stand firmly and officially, in front of our democratic allies and the world, for the right of autocrats to murder with impunity anyone who opposes their rule or attempts to uncover their corruption.

Mutual benefit, mutual investment. It’s about adoptions. And, of course, it’s also about the fundamental principles of our country and whether they have been exchanged for demagoguery, power lust, and greed in service to a global coalition of corruption.

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1 Comment on "Trump-Russia Was Never “Just” Russia"

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Chris Sarnacki
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Chris Sarnacki

You’ve outlined this immensely complicated plot in a way that even my feeble brain can understand, bravo! The intrigue underlines a busy, busy Trump World that’s both fascinating and horrifically frightening.