Trump and the Russian Money Trail

14 July 2017, 1338 EDT

This is a guest post from Seva Gunitsky, an associate professor at the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto. His book Aftershocks: Great Powers and Domestic Reforms in the Twentieth Century was recently published by Princeton University Press.

To understand the roots of the collusion, set aside Putin and follow the money.

In the endless pursuit of the Russia-Trump collusion story, we sometimes forget a key element: this whole mess began with money, not with election interference. The connections between Trump and Russia were forged years ago, well before he developed any serious political inspirations, and were focused on the shady schemes of Russian oligarchs and their dealings with Trump. Understanding the roots of the collusion means setting aside the usual narrative – Putin wants to destroy American democracy – and following the money first.

In 2015, for example, Trump Taj Mahal settled a federal case that accused it of being involved in Russian money laundering. Trump has been doing business with Russian oligarchs like the Alagarovs for years; it’s possible their money may have even kept him out of bankruptcy. “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets,” Donald Jr., said in 2008. “We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”

Trump’s Russian business partners despise the 2012 Magnitsky Act, which limits their ability to do business abroad, and would like nothing better than to see it repealed. Trump’s unexpected election gave Russian oligarchs a chance to claw back their losses: end the sanctions, cancel the Magnitsky Act, and settle the Prevezon case.

The Prevezon case may not be familiar territory yet, but it’s likely to be an important part of the Mueller investigation. Essentially, it is a holding company linked to the Russian elite, accused of laundering hundreds of millions of dollars through New York City real estate. It is also part of the giant tax-fraud scheme that Magnitsky uncovered in 2008, leading to his death.

The New York district attorney’s office had been preparing a massive case against Prevezon. But a week before the trial was to start in May, the case reached a strange and abrupt conclusion – the DA agreed to settle, essentially on Prevezon’s terms. Their own lawyers were shocked. “It was a surprise,” said a spokesman. “We were getting ready for opening statements and fully expected to try the case.” No trial, no disclosure, and a $6 million fine, out of the $250 million that was originally sought. “Essentially, the offer was too good to refuse,” he added.

Prevezon’s lawyer, by the way, is Natalia Veselnitskaya – the same Russian woman who initiated the now-infamous meeting with Don Jr. last June. On her Russian-language Facebook page, she celebrated this a victory “on Russian terms”, adding that it was “only the beginning.” (I highlighted a few nuggets from her social media history here.) Her motives appeared to be mostly economic – something along the lines of “we’ll give you dirt on Clinton if you promise to do something about Prevezon.” Two months ago she suddenly got her wish, which raises the prospect that this was indeed a quid pro quo. In other words, Don Jr. may be fibbing a bit when he says she brought nothing but vague talk to their meeting. [As I wrote this story, we’ve now learned that Veselnitskaya indeed brought something else to the meeting – a plastic folder showing flows of illicit funds to the DNC].

The strange settlement of the Prevezon case resulted in the recent inquiry to Sessions by Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee. “We write with some concern that two events may be connected—and that the Department may have settled the case at a loss for the United States in order to obscure the underlying facts,” they wrote two days ago.

But the abrupt way in which the district attorney’s office capitulated to Prevezon raised eyebrows even back in May, before the details of Don Jr.’s meeting came out. As Business Insider reported (and this is a great story, you should read the whole thing), one of the US government witnesses set to testify in the case suggested that “political pressure” was applied to the DA’s office. Contacted later for a follow-up, she said only: “I cannot talk about it.” The question becomes, therefore, whether Jeff Sessions and the Department of Justice put pressure on the NY district attorney – Preet Bharara, before his firing in March – to quickly settle the case, as a way of returning the favor to Veselnitskaya. Bharara congratulated his ex-colleagues on completing the case, but he couldn’t have been too happy about it.

If this all seems unbearably convoluted, keep in mind that it’s a much simpler explanation than the complicated theories of Putin’s 20-dimensional chess game of global domination. It’s money, not politics, that has been driving the collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. Of course, the collusion has clear – and enormous – political implications, but that was probably not the catalyst.  For Trump, it has always been about the money. “Now that he ran and was elected, he does not forget his friends,” Agalarov said recently.

What all this means is that Putin may not even be the protagonist of the story. The “disrupting American democracy” narrative we often hear may have been the cherry on top, not the main goal. It may even be a side effect of a process that Putin did not initiate and was unaware of, and which is now backfiring for Russia. There is sometimes a tendency to see Putin as a mastermind with his tentacles in every corner of his country (and beyond), but the Russian government is more decentralized (and disorganized) than we think. That is not to say that the hacking and troll campaigns aren’t real or important – only that Trump’s ties to Russia are rooted in something else.

Even Putin has important supporters to keep in mind, people who have begun to itch after seventeen years of his rule and are deeply unhappy about the sanctions. Wherever the story goes, Trump’s financial linkages to Russian billionaires will be at the center.

(This is an expanded version of a Twitter thread I posted earlier – to see the truly compressed version, see here.)