Kushner firm’s $285 million Deutsche Bank loan came just before Election Day

The Washington Post reports: One month before Election Day, Jared Kushner’s real estate company finalized a $285 million loan as part of a refinancing package for its property near Times Square in Manhattan.

The loan came at a critical moment. Kushner was playing a key role in the presidential campaign of his father-in-law, Donald Trump. The lender, Deutsche Bank, was negotiating to settle a federal mortgage fraud case and charges from New York state regulators that it aided a possible Russian money-laundering scheme. The cases were settled in December and January.

Now, Kushner’s association with Deutsche Bank is among a number of financial matters that could come under focus as his business activities are reviewed by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, who is examining Kushner as part of a broader investigation into possible Russian influence in the election.

The October deal illustrates the extent to which Kushner was balancing roles as a top adviser to Trump and a real estate company executive. After the election, Kushner juggled duties for the Trump transition team and his corporation as he prepared to move to the White House. The Washington Post has reported that investigators are probing Kushner’s separate December meetings with the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak, and with Russian banker Sergey Gorkov, the head of Vnesheconombank, a state development bank. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Vladimir Putin is suddenly on the defensive against corruption

Stephen Sestanovich writes: For years now, Putin has claimed — with brazen but disarming candor — to be fighting hard against corruption and the abuse of state power. In his 2015 speech to parliament, he complained that the bullying of legitimate businesses by bribe-seeking officials was a blight on the Russian economy. In his April 2016 call-in, he took questions about shakedowns by government inspectors, about real estate scams enabled by the courts, about the enslavement of workers in a fish cannery (ignored by the police), about the illegal seizure of a Moscow research institute by officials who wanted its land, and more. Putin has said that without fundamental reforms, the country’s economic growth will “hover around zero.” Last summer he told parliamentary candidates of his own party, United Russia, that they had to work harder to win the people’s trust.

Most of this was, of course, meaningless rhetoric. Any serious follow-through would threaten the system Putin has created.

But that’s why we should pay attention when he changes course. On the program last week, Putin announced that corruption is simply “not among the top” issues bothering Russians. When an earnest high school student complained about light punishment meted out to corrupt officials, the president’s initial, prickly response was to suggest that someone else had written the question. His lame concluding plea: “Let us rely on the work of the judicial system.”

Dismissing corruption and the abuse of power didn’t keep Putin from playing his usual role as national problem solver. Was a young teacher paid too little? The president said he’d look into it. Was a single mother in Siberia homeless after forest fires? Putin said he’d talk to the governor of her region. And the woman who lost her home to floods in southern Russia? Again, he promised to talk to her governor.

Yet through all this Putin kept repeating that there was something “strange” about the problems being raised. After all, money had been budgeted to help victims of natural disasters. Maybe, he volunteered, one of the governors was just new on the job? He steered consistently clear of the need for systemic reform or stronger anti-corruption initiatives. Sure, officials at all levels sometimes made wrong decisions, Putin admitted, adding, “I will reprimand them for this” (a typical response). And when asked what he did when people cheated him, the president modeled acceptance: “I try not to make a fuss.”

It’s obvious why Putin has gotten nervous about the corruption issue. His most visible political opponent, Alexei Navalny, has made it the centerpiece of hugely popular online videos and of recent rallies against the “crooks and thieves” of the current regime. It was always a bit shocking that Putin thought he could claim to be a champion of clean government, but somehow he got away with it. Now, apparently, he worries that even talking about corruption will validate Navalny’s critique. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Trump appointee is a Saudi government lobbyist

The Center for Public Integrity reports: One of President Donald Trump’s newest appointees is a registered agent of Saudi Arabia earning hundreds of thousands of dollars to lobby on the kingdom’s behalf, according to U.S. Department of Justice records reviewed by the Center for Public Integrity.

Since January, the Saudi Arabian foreign ministry has paid longtime Republican lobbyist Richard Hohlt about $430,000 in exchange for “advice on legislative and public affairs strategies.”

Trump’s decision to appoint a registered foreign agent to the President’s Commission on White House Fellowships clashes with the president’s vow to clean up Washington and limit the influence of special interests.

Trump singled out lobbyists for foreign governments for special criticism, saying they shouldn’t be permitted to contribute to political campaigns. Hohlt is himself a Trump donor, though his contributions came before he registered to represent Saudi Arabia. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Wall Street Journal fires chief foreign affairs correspondent, Jay Solomon, over ethics conflict

The Associated Press reports: The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday fired its highly regarded chief foreign affairs correspondent after evidence emerged of his involvement in prospective commercial deals — including one involving arms sales to foreign governments — with an international businessman who was one of his key sources.

The reporter, Jay Solomon, was offered a 10 percent stake in a fledgling company, Denx LLC, by Farhad Azima, an Iranian-born aviation magnate who has ferried weapons for the CIA. It was not clear whether Solomon ever received money or formally accepted a stake in the company.

“We are dismayed by the actions and poor judgment of Jay Solomon,” Wall Street Journal spokesman Steve Severinghaus wrote in a statement to The Associated Press. “While our own investigation continues, we have concluded that Mr. Solomon violated his ethical obligations as a reporter, as well as our standards.”

Azima was the subject of an AP investigative article published Tuesday. During the course of its investigation, the AP obtained emails and text messages between Azima and Solomon, as well as an operating agreement for Denx dated March 2015, which listed an apparent stake for Solomon.

As part of its reporting, the AP had asked the Journal about the documents appearing to link Solomon and Azima. The relationship was uncovered in interviews and in internal documents that Azima’s lawyer said were stolen by hackers. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Trump, Russia and a shadowy business partnership

Timothy L. O’Brien writes: Trump has repeatedly labeled Comey’s and Mueller’s investigations “witch hunts,” and his lawyers have said that the last decade of his tax returns (which the president has declined to release) would show that he had no income or loans from Russian sources. In May, Trump told NBC that he has no property or investments in Russia. “I am not involved in Russia,” he said.

But that doesn’t address national security and other problems that might arise for the president if Russia is involved in Trump, either through potentially compromising U.S. business relationships or through funds that flowed into his wallet years ago. In that context, a troubling history of Trump’s dealings with Russians exists outside of Russia: in a dormant real-estate development firm, the Bayrock Group, which once operated just two floors beneath the president’s own office in Trump Tower.

Bayrock partnered with the future president and his two eldest children, Donald Jr. and Ivanka, on a series of real-estate deals between 2002 and about 2011, the most prominent being the troubled Trump Soho hotel and condominium in Manhattan.

During the years that Bayrock and Trump did deals together, the company was also a bridge between murky European funding and a number of projects in the U.S. to which the president once leant his name in exchange for handsome fees. Icelandic banks that dealt with Bayrock, for example, were easy marks for money launderers and foreign influence, according to interviews with government investigators, legislators, and others in Reykjavik, Brussels, Paris and London. Trump testified under oath in a 2007 deposition that Bayrock brought Russian investors to his Trump Tower office to discuss deals in Moscow, and said he was pondering investing there.

“It’s ridiculous that I wouldn’t be investing in Russia,” Trump said in that deposition. “Russia is one of the hottest places in the world for investment.” [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Michael Flynn, Russia and a grand scheme to build nuclear power plants in Saudi Arabia and the Arab world

Jeff Stein reports: By the time Michael Flynn was fired as President Donald Trump’s national security adviser in February, he had made a lot of bad decisions. One was taking money from the Russians (and failing to disclose it); another was taking money under the table from the Turks. But an overlooked line in his financial disclosure form, which he was forced to amend to detail those foreign payments, reveals he was also involved in one of the most audacious—and some say harebrained—schemes in recent memory: a plan to build scores of U.S. nuclear power plants in the Middle East. As a safety measure.

In 2015 and 2016, according to his filing, Flynn was an adviser to X-Co Dynamics Inc./Iron Bridge Group, which at first glance looks like just another Pentagon consultancy that ex-military officers use to fatten their wallets. Its chairman and CEO was retired Admiral Michael Hewitt; another retired admiral, Frank “Skip” Bowman, who oversaw the Navy’s nuclear programs, was an adviser. Other top guns associated with it were former National Security Agency boss Keith Alexander and retired Marine Corps General James “Hoss” Cartwright, a former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff whose stellar career was marred when he was prosecuted last year for lying to the FBI during a leak investigation.

In June 2015, knowledgeable sources tell Newsweek, Flynn flew to Egypt and Israel on behalf of X-Co/Iron Bridge. His mission: to gauge attitudes in Cairo and Jerusalem toward a plan for a joint U.S.-Russian (and Saudi-financed) program to get control over the Arab world’s rush to acquire nuclear power. At the core of their concern was a fear that states in the volatile Middle East would have inadequate security for the plants and safeguards for their radioactive waste—the stuff of nuclear bombs.

But no less a concern for Flynn and his partners was the moribund U.S. nuclear industry, which was losing out to Russian and even South Korean contractors in the region. Or, as Stuart Solomon, a top executive along with Hewitt at his new venture, IP3 (International Peace, Power and Prosperity), put it in a recent speech to industry executives, “We find ourselves…standing on the sidelines and watching the competition pass us by.” [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Using texts as lures, Mexican government spyware targets journalists and their families

The New York Times reports: Mexico’s most prominent human rights lawyers, journalists and anti-corruption activists have been targeted by advanced spyware sold to the Mexican government on the condition that it be used only to investigate criminals and terrorists.

The targets include lawyers looking into the mass disappearance of 43 students, a highly respected academic who helped write anti-corruption legislation, two of Mexico’s most influential journalists and an American representing victims of sexual abuse by the police. The spying even swept up family members, including a teenage boy.

Since 2011, at least three Mexican federal agencies have purchased about $80 million worth of spyware created by an Israeli cyberarms manufacturer. The software, known as Pegasus, infiltrates smartphones to monitor every detail of a person’s cellular life — calls, texts, email, contacts and calendars. It can even use the microphone and camera on phones for surveillance, turning a target’s smartphone into a personal bug.

The company that makes the software, the NSO Group, says it sells the tool exclusively to governments, with an explicit agreement that it be used only to battle terrorists or the drug cartels and criminal groups that have long kidnapped and killed Mexicans.

But according to dozens of messages examined by The New York Times and independent forensic analysts, the software has been used against some of the government’s most outspoken critics and their families, in what many view as an unprecedented effort to thwart the fight against the corruption infecting every limb of Mexican society. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Trump’s business ties in Persian Gulf raise questions about his allegiances

The New York Times reports: President Trump has done business with royals from Saudi Arabia for at least 20 years, since he sold the Plaza Hotel to a partnership formed by a Saudi prince. Mr. Trump has earned millions of dollars from the United Arab Emirates for putting his name on a golf course, with a second soon to open.

He has never entered the booming market in neighboring Qatar, however, despite years of trying.

Now a feud has broken out among these three crucial American allies, and Mr. Trump has thrown his weight firmly behind the two countries where he has business ties, raising new concerns about the appearance of a conflict between his public role and his financial incentives.

Mr. Trump has said he is backing Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates because Qatar is “a funder of terror at a very high level.” But his stance toward Qatar, which is host to the largest American air base in the region, has differed sharply from the positions of the Pentagon and State Department. The secretaries of defense and state have stayed neutral, urging unity against the common enemy of the Islamic State.

Mr. Trump is the first president in 40 years to retain his personal business interests after entering the White House. Other senior officials in the executive branch are required to divest their assets. Critics say his singular decision to hold on to his global business empire inevitably casts a doubt on his motives, especially when his public actions dovetail with his business interests. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

From Russia with blood

BuzzFeed reports: The London square was still and cold when the body fell, dropping silently through the moonlight and landing with a thud. Impaled through the chest on the spikes of a wrought iron fence, it dangled under the streetlamps as blood spilled onto the pavement. Overhead, a fourth-floor window stood open, the lights inside burning.

The dead man was Scot Young. The one-time multimillionaire and fixer to the world’s super-rich had been telling friends, family, and the police for years that he was being targeted by a team of Russian hitmen – ever since his fortune vanished overnight in a mysterious Moscow property deal. He was the ninth in a circle of friends and business associates to die in suspicious circumstances. But when the police entered his penthouse that night, they didn’t even dust for fingerprints. They declared his death a suicide on the spot and closed the case.

A two-year investigation by BuzzFeed News has now uncovered explosive evidence pointing to Russia that the police overlooked. A massive trove of documents, phone records, and secret recordings shows Young was part of a circle of nine men, including the exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky, who all died suspiciously on British soil after making powerful enemies in Russia. The files reveal that Young lived in the shadow of the Russian security services and mafia groups after fronting for Berezovsky – a sworn enemy of the state – in a series of deals that enraged the Kremlin, including the doomed Russian property deal known as Project Moscow. British police declared the deaths of all nine men in Berezovsky’s circle non-suspicious, but BuzzFeed News can now reveal that MI6, Britain’s secret intelligence service, asked its US counterparts for information about each one of them “in the context of assassinations”. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Trump’s business deals, now cloaked in secrecy, provide open door to corruption

USA Today reports: Since President Trump won the Republican nomination, the majority of his companies’ real estate sales are to secretive shell companies that obscure the buyers’ identities, a USA TODAY investigation has found.

Over the last 12 months, about 70% of buyers of Trump properties were limited liability companies – corporate entities that allow people to purchase property without revealing all of the owners’ names. That compares with about 4% of buyers in the two years before.

USA TODAY journalists have spent six months cataloging every condo, penthouse or other property that Trump and his companies own – and tracking the buyers behind every transaction. The investigation found Trump’s companies owned more than 430 individual properties worth well over $250 million.

Since Election Day, Trump’s businesses have sold 28 of those U.S. properties for $33 million. The sales include luxury condos and penthouses in Las Vegas and New York and oceanfront lots near Los Angeles. The value of his companies’ inventory of available real estate remains above a quarter-billion dollars.

Profits from sales of those properties flow through a trust run by Trump’s sons. The president is the sole beneficiary of the trust and can withdraw cash any time.

The increasing share of opaque buyers comes at a time when federal investigators, members of Congress and ethics watchdogs are asking questions about Trump’s sales and customers in the U.S. and around the world. Some Congressional Democrats have been asking for more detail about buyers of Trump’s domestic real estate since USA TODAY’s initial report.

Their concern is that the secretive sales create an extraordinary and unprecedented potential for people, corporations or foreign interests to try to influence a President. Anyone who wanted to court favor with the President could snap up multiple properties or purposefully overpay, without revealing their identity publicly.

The real estate cache, which Trump has never fully revealed and is not required by law to disclose, offers unique opportunity for anyone to steer money to a sitting President. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

D.C. and Maryland to sue Trump, alleging breach of constitutional oath

The Washington Post reports: Attorneys general for the District of Columbia and the state of Maryland say they will sue President Trump on Monday, alleging that he has violated anti-corruption clauses in the Constitution by accepting millions in payments and benefits from foreign governments since moving into the White House.

The lawsuit, the first of its kind brought by government entities, centers on the fact that Trump chose to retain ownership of his company when he became president. Trump said in January that he was shifting his business assets into a trust managed by his sons to eliminate potential conflicts of interests.

But D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D) and Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) say Trump has broken many promises to keep separate his public duties and private business interests. For one, his son Eric Trump has said the president would continue to receive regular updates about his company’s financial health.

The lawsuit, a signed copy of which Racine and Frosh provided to The Washington Post on Sunday night, alleges “unprecedented constitutional violations” by Trump. The suit says Trump’s continued ownership of a global business empire has rendered the president “deeply enmeshed with a legion of foreign and domestic government actors” and has undermined the integrity of the U.S. political system. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Trump’s lawyer in Russia probe has clients with Kremlin ties

The Washington Post reports: The hard-charging New York lawyer President Trump chose to represent him in the Russia investigation has prominent clients with ties to the Kremlin, a striking pick for a president trying to escape the persistent cloud that has trailed his administration.

Marc E. Kasowitz’s clients include Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch who is close to President Vladimir Putin and has done business with Trump’s former campaign manager. Kasowitz also represents Sberbank, Russia’s largest state-owned bank, U.S. court records show.

Kasowitz has represented one of Deripaska’s companies for years in a civil lawsuit in New York and was scheduled to argue on the company’s behalf May 25, two days after news broke that Trump had hired him, court records show. A different lawyer in Kasowitz’s firm showed up in court instead, avoiding a scenario that would have highlighted Kasowitz’s extensive work for high-profile Russian clients. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Justice Department argues Trump can accept payments from foreign governments

Bloomberg reports: George Washington did it, so Donald Trump can too.

That’s the Justice Department’s take on why the 45th president isn’t violating the U.S. Constitution by accepting payments for goods and services from foreign governments without congressional approval.

The foreign emoluments clause of the Constitution doesn’t apply to fair-market commercial transactions, such as hotel bills, golf club fees, licensing payments and office rent, the Justice department argued Friday in a filing. The government is asking a judge to throw out a lawsuit brought by a watchdog group that claims Trump’s business dealings violate the Constitution. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

How Donald Trump shifted children’s cancer charity money into his business

Forbes reports: Like autumn leaves, sponsored Cadillacs, Ferraris and Maseratis descend on the Trump National Golf Club in Westchester County, New York, in September for the Eric Trump Foundation golf invitational. Year after year, the formula is consistent: 18 holes of perfectly trimmed fairways with a dose of Trumpian tackiness, including Hooters waitresses and cigar spreads, followed by a clubhouse dinner, dates encouraged. The crowd leans toward real estate insiders, family friends and C-list celebrities, such as former baseball slugger Darryl Strawberry and reality housewife (and bankruptcy-fraud felon) Teresa Giudice.

The real star of the day is Eric Trump, the president’s second son and now the co-head of the Trump Organization, who has hosted this event for ten years on behalf of the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis. He’s done a ton of good: To date, he’s directed more than $11 million there, the vast majority of it via this annual golf event. He has also helped raise another $5 million through events with other organizations.

The best part about all this, according to Eric Trump, is the charity’s efficiency: Because he can get his family’s golf course for free and have most of the other costs donated, virtually all the money contributed will go toward helping kids with cancer. “We get to use our assets 100% free of charge,” Trump tells Forbes.

That’s not the case. In reviewing filings from the Eric Trump Foundation and other charities, it’s clear that the course wasn’t free–that the Trump Organization received payments for its use, part of more than $1.2 million that has no documented recipients past the Trump Organization. Golf charity experts say the listed expenses defy any reasonable cost justification for a one-day golf tournament.

Additionally, the Donald J. Trump Foundation, which has come under previous scrutiny for self-dealing and advancing the interests of its namesake rather than those of charity, apparently used the Eric Trump Foundation to funnel $100,000 in donations into revenue for the Trump Organization.

And while donors to the Eric Trump Foundation were told their money was going to help sick kids, more than $500,000 was re-donated to other charities, many of which were connected to Trump family members or interests, including at least four groups that subsequently paid to hold golf tournaments at Trump courses.

All of this seems to defy federal tax rules and state laws that ban self-dealing and misleading donors. It also raises larger questions about the Trump family dynamics and whether Eric and his brother, Don Jr., can be truly independent of their father.

Especially since the person who specifically commanded that the for-profit Trump Organization start billing hundreds of thousands of dollars to the nonprofit Eric Trump Foundation, according to two people directly involved, was none other than the current president of the United States, Donald Trump. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

How the GOP leaders were persuaded to cast climate change as fake science

The New York Times reports: The Republican Party’s fast journey from debating how to combat human-caused climate change to arguing that it does not exist is a story of big political money, Democratic hubris in the Obama years and a partisan chasm that grew over nine years like a crack in the Antarctic shelf, favoring extreme positions and uncompromising rhetoric over cooperation and conciliation.

“Most Republicans still do not regard climate change as a hoax,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican strategist who worked for Senator Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign. “But the entire climate change debate has now been caught up in the broader polarization of American politics.”

“In some ways,” he added, “it’s become yet another of the long list of litmus test issues that determine whether or not you’re a good Republican.”

Since Mr. McCain ran for president on climate credentials that were stronger than his opponent Barack Obama’s, the scientific evidence linking greenhouse gases from fossil fuels to the dangerous warming of the planet has grown stronger. Scientists have for the first time drawn concrete links between the planet’s warming atmosphere and changes that affect Americans’ daily lives and pocketbooks, from tidal flooding in Miami to prolonged water shortages in the Southwest to decreasing snow cover at ski resorts.

That scientific consensus was enough to pull virtually all of the major nations along. Conservative-leaning governments in Britain, France, Germany and Japan all signed on to successive climate change agreements.

Yet when Mr. Trump pulled the United States from the Paris accord, the Senate majority leader, the speaker of the House and every member of the elected Republican leadership were united in their praise.

Those divisions did not happen by themselves. Republican lawmakers were moved along by a campaign carefully crafted by fossil fuel industry players, most notably Charles D. and David H. Koch, the Kansas-based billionaires who run a chain of refineries (which can process 600,000 barrels of crude oil per day) as well as a subsidiary that owns or operates 4,000 miles of pipelines that move crude oil. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Special counsel Mueller to probe ex-Trump aide Flynn’s Turkey ties

Reuters reports: Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating possible ties between the Trump election campaign and Russia, is expanding his probe to include a grand jury investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn, three sources told Reuters.

The move means Mueller’s politically charged inquiry will now look into Flynn’s paid work as a lobbyist for a Turkish businessman in 2016, in addition to contacts between Russian officials and Flynn and other Trump associates during and after the Nov. 8 presidential election.

Federal prosecutors in Virginia are investigating a deal between Flynn and Turkish businessman Ekim Alptekin as part of a grand jury criminal probe, according to a subpoena seen by Reuters.

Alptekin’s company, Netherlands-based Inovo BV, paid Flynn’s consultancy $530,000 between September and November to produce a documentary and research on Fethullah Gulen, an exiled Turkish cleric living in the United States. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan blames Gulen for a failed coup last July. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Kushner keeps most of his real estate but offers few clues about potential White House conflicts

The Washington Post reports: As chief executive of his family’s real estate empire, Jared Kushner planned two apartment projects across the street from each other in Jersey City.

Both would be luxury skyscrapers, complete with retail space and sweeping views of the Manhattan skyline. A new crosswalk would connect them, intended to link the two Kushner Cos. developments practically and visually.

But when Kushner prepared an ethics plan ahead of joining the White House as a top adviser to his father-in-law, President Trump, he drew a curious distinction between the two projects. He sold his stake in one while keeping his share of up to $5 million in the other.

Kushner, 36, who is emerging as a singularly powerful figure in the Trump White House, is keeping nearly 90 percent of his vast real estate holdings even after resigning from the family business and pledging a clear divide between his private interests and public duties.

The value of his retained real estate interests is between $132 million and $407 million and could leave him in a position to financially benefit from his family’s business. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail