Bill Browder’s testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee

Bill Browder, the driving force behind the 2012 Magnitsky Act, writes: I had always thought Putin was a nationalist. It seemed inconceivable that he would approve of his officials stealing $230 million from the Russian state. Sergei [Magnitsky] and I were sure that this was a rogue operation and if we just brought it to the attention of the Russian authorities, the “good guys” would get the “bad guys” and that would be the end of the story.

We filed criminal complaints with every law enforcement agency in Russia, and Sergei gave sworn testimony to the Russian State Investigative Committee (Russia’s FBI) about the involvement of officials in this crime.

However, instead of arresting the people who committed the crime, Sergei was arrested. Who took him? The same officials he had testified against. On November 24, 2008, they came to his home, handcuffed him in front of his family, and threw him into pre-trial detention.

Sergei’s captors immediately started putting pressure on him to withdraw his testimony. They put him in cells with 14 inmates and eight beds, leaving the lights on 24 hours a day to impose sleep deprivation. They put him in cells with no heat and no windowpanes, and he nearly froze to death. They put him in cells with no toilet, just a hole in the floor and sewage bubbling up. They moved him from cell to cell in the middle of the night without any warning. During his 358 days in detention he was forcibly moved multiple times.

They did all of this because they wanted him to withdraw his testimony against the corrupt Interior Ministry officials, and to sign a false statement that he was the one who stole the $230 million—and that he had done so on my instruction.

Sergei refused. In spite of the grave pain they inflicted upon him, he would not perjure himself or bear false witness.

After six months of this mistreatment, Sergei’s health seriously deteriorated. He developed severe abdominal pains, he lost 40 pounds, and he was diagnosed with pancreatitis and gallstones and prescribed an operation for August 2009. However, the operation never occurred. A week before he was due to have surgery, he was moved to a maximum security prison called Butyrka, which is considered to be one of the harshest prisons in Russia. Most significantly for Sergei, there were no medical facilities there to treat his medical conditions.

At Butyrka, his health completely broke down. He was in agonizing pain. He and his lawyers wrote 20 desperate requests for medical attention, filing them with every branch of the Russian criminal justice system. All of those requests were either ignored or explicitly denied in writing.

After more than three months of untreated pancreatitis and gallstones, Sergei Magnitsky went into critical condition. The Butyrka authorities did not want to have responsibility for him, so they put him in an ambulance and sent him to another prison that had medical facilities. But when he arrived there, instead of putting him in the emergency room, they put him in an isolation cell, chained him to a bed, and eight riot guards came in and beat him with rubber batons.

That night he was found dead on the cell floor.

Sergei Magnitsky died on November 16, 2009, at the age of 37, leaving a wife and two children. [Continue reading…]

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Secret donations are helping to boost Trump’s agenda, fights with investigators

USA Today reports: Groups spending millions in anonymous donations are leading the outside efforts to either defend President Trump or sell his agenda with voters and Congress, despite the president’s repeated calls to “drain the swamp” in Washington of special-interest money.

The political empire affiliated with billionaire Charles Koch has spent $2 million to date to advance Trump’s tax-cut blueprint and will hold events this week in Washington to kick off the next phase of its multimillion-dollar campaign to drive congressional support for a comprehensive tax plan to slice corporate tax rates and enact broader tax cuts.

Americans for Prosperity, the Koch network’s grass-roots arm, already has 50 events scheduled in August and September to help promote the tax plan.

The pro-Trump Great America Alliance is spending $450,000 on a TV and digital ad that casts special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into possible collusion between Russia and Trump’s campaign as a “rigged game.”

The group already has pumped more than $3 million in advertising to advance Trump’s policies and has committed to spending $5 million more, said Eric Beach, a Republican strategist who helps run the group.

The Judicial Crisis Network, which spent $7 million to push Trump’s top judicial nominee, Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, is “prepared to spend whatever we need to spend to help President Trump fulfill his promise of restoring balance to our federal courts,” policy director Carrie Severino said in a statement.

Trump has more than 100 judicial vacancies to fill.

Another pro-Trump group, America First Policies, has spent $5 million push his agenda and to help a Trump-supported congressional candidate in Georgia.

All operate as nonprofits, can accept unlimited funds from virtually any source but are not required to disclose their donors publicly. [Continue reading…]

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Here’s the real reason Anthony Scaramucci hates Reince Priebus

HuffPost reports: In the public feud between Anthony Scaramucci and Reince Priebus, what hasn’t been fully explained is why Scaramucci so dislikes the president’s now-former chief of staff — a man he alternates between calling “Reince Penis” and “Rancid Penis,” according to an adviser to the White House.

The acrimony first surfaced during the presidential transition. The two men had been cordial before then. They met six years ago, when Scaramucci was a fundraiser for presidential candidate Mitt Romney and Priebus was chair of the Republican National Committee. They interacted peaceably during Donald Trump’s campaign as Scaramucci made the rounds on television and at donor events.

After Trump’s victory, Priebus was named chief of staff, and Scaramucci, according to someone close to the transition, was assured that he was also in line for a big position within the administration. (Sources for this story requested anonymity to discuss the details of sensitive conversations.)

While preparing for his move into government, Scaramucci struck a deal — which is still under regulatory scrutiny — to sell his stake in his hedge fund, SkyBridge Capital, to Chinese conglomerate HNA Group and another company. He assumed that he’d be put in charge of the public liaison office, a job that Valerie Jarrett held in the Obama administration. He had it all mapped out, according to the White House adviser. He identified 2,500 influential business leaders across the United States and had come up with a clever name for them: Trump Team 2,500. He believed these people would help pressure Congress into supporting the president’s agenda.

But Scaramucci’s plans were foiled in early January. That’s when Priebus, according to a confidant of both Scaramucci and the president, told Trump, “He played you.”

“How’s that?” Trump asked Priebus, according to the same source, who has spoken to several people within the White House about the conversation.

Priebus then told Trump that he felt Scaramucci had been offered too much for SkyBridge by HNA Group. The deal, he implied, smelled bad — as if the Chinese might expect favors from within the administration for that inflated price. The source also said that Priebus mentioned there was email traffic between Scaramucci and the Chinese proving this. [Continue reading…]

The Washington Post reports: Allies to Priebus said he told them he had resigned on Thursday, concluding that the internal chaos would only escalate. One Priebus friend said the chief of staff had described the situation as “unsustainable,” saying he felt demeaned by the president’s treatment of him and was frustrated that he could not assert control over basic White House functions, such as policy development, communications and even White House announcements — which sometimes were made impulsively by the president, such as this week’s announcement to ban transgender people from serving in the military.

But some White House officials said the decision for Priebus to depart was made by Trump — a decision that had been a couple weeks in the making — and that the president forced him on Friday. These officials noted that Priebus presided over the morning senior staff meeting and accompanied Trump to a law enforcement event in New York.

Regardless, his final departure was a humiliating coda for what had been a largely demeaning tenure during which Priebus endured regular belittling and emasculation from rival advisers — and even, at times, the president himself.

When Air Force One touched down Friday afternoon at Andrew’s Air Force Base, Priebus, senior policy adviser Stephen Miller and social media director Dan Scavino all loaded into a Suburban. But moments later, Miller and Scavino hopped out of the vehicle, and as word trickled out about the chief of staff’s ouster, reporters inched close to snap photos of Priebus, who sat alone on the rain-soaked tarmac. Priebus’ vehicle then pulled out of the presidential motorcade, which proceeded along to the White House without him.

“I think any observer — including one that did not speak English and knew nothing about politics and came from another planet and solar system — could, after observing the situation in the White House, realize the White House is failing,” said one informal White House adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share a candid assessment. “And when the White House is failing, you can’t replace the president.” [Continue reading…]

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U.S. investigators seek to turn Manafort in Russia probe

Reuters reports: U.S. investigators examining money laundering accusations against President Donald Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort hope to push him to cooperate with their probe into possible collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russia, two sources with direct knowledge of the investigation said.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team is examining Manafort’s financial and real estate records in New York as well as his involvement in Ukrainian politics, the officials said.

Between 2006 and 2013, Manafort bought three New York properties, including one in Trump Tower in Manhattan. He paid for them in full and later took out mortgages against them. A former senior U.S. law enforcement official said that tactic is often used as a means to hide the origin of funds gained illegally. Reuters has no independent evidence that Manafort did this.

The sources also did not say whether Mueller has uncovered any evidence to charge Manafort with money laundering, but they said doing so is seen by investigators as critical in getting his full cooperation in their investigation. [Continue reading…]

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Mueller investigating possible money laundering by Paul Manafort

The Wall Street Journal reports: Special Counsel Robert Mueller is investigating possible money laundering by Paul Manafort, Donald Trump’s former campaign manager, as part of his criminal investigation into what U.S. intelligence agencies say was a Kremlin-backed campaign to meddle in the 2016 presidential election, according to a person familiar with the matter.

The inquiry into the issue by Mr. Mueller, a former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and his team began several weeks ago, this person said. A spokesman for Mr. Manafort, Jason Maloni, declined to comment, as did a spokesman for Mr. Mueller. [Continue reading…]

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Mueller expands probe to Trump business transactions

Bloomberg reports: The U.S. special counsel investigating possible ties between the Donald Trump campaign and Russia in last year’s election is examining a broad range of transactions involving Trump’s businesses as well as those of his associates, according to a person familiar with the probe.

FBI investigators and others are looking at Russian purchases of apartments in Trump buildings, Trump’s involvement in a controversial SoHo development in New York with Russian associates, the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow and Trump’s sale of a Florida mansion to a Russian oligarch in 2008, the person said.

The investigation also has absorbed a money-laundering probe begun by federal prosecutors in New York into Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort.

John Dowd, one of Trump’s lawyers, said on Thursday that he was unaware of the inquiry into Trump’s businesses by the two-months-old investigation and considered it beyond the scope of what Special Counsel Robert Mueller should be examining.

“Those transactions are in my view well beyond the mandate of the Special counsel; are unrelated to the election of 2016 or any alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia and most importantly, are well beyond any Statute of Limitation imposed by the United States Code,” he wrote in an email. [Continue reading…]

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Exxon sues U.S. over fine levied for Russia deal under Tillerson

Reuters reports: Exxon Mobil Corp sued the U.S. government on Thursday, blasting as “unlawful” and “capricious” a $2 million fine levied against it for a three-year-old oil joint venture with Russia’s Rosneft.

The U.S. Treasury Department on Thursday morning slapped the world’s largest publicly traded oil producer with the fine for “reckless disregard” of U.S. sanctions in dealings with Russia in 2014 when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was Exxon’s chief executive.

The lawsuit and the Treasury’s unusually detailed statement on Exxon’s conduct represented an extraordinary confrontation between a major American company and the U.S. government, made all the more striking because Exxon’s former CEO is now in President Donald Trump’s Cabinet.

Exxon took the government to court despite the fact that the fine, the maximum allowed, would have a minor impact on the company, which made $7.84 billion in profit last year.

The fine came after a U.S. review of deals Exxon signed with Rosneft, Russia’s largest oil producer, weeks after Washington imposed sanctions on Moscow for annexing Ukraine’s Crimea region. [Continue reading…]

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Manafort was in debt to pro-Russia interests, Cyprus records show

The New York Times reports: Financial records filed last year in the secretive tax haven of Cyprus, where Paul J. Manafort kept bank accounts during his years working in Ukraine and investing with a Russian oligarch, indicate that he had been in debt to pro-Russia interests by as much as $17 million before he joined Donald J. Trump’s presidential campaign in March 2016.

The money appears to have been owed by shell companies connected to Mr. Manafort’s business activities in Ukraine when he worked as a consultant to the pro-Russia Party of Regions. The Cyprus documents obtained by The New York Times include audited financial statements for the companies, which were part of a complex web of more than a dozen entities that transferred millions of dollars among them in the form of loans, payments and fees.

The records, which include details for numerous loans, were certified as accurate by an accounting firm as of December 2015, several months before Mr. Manafort joined the Trump campaign, and were filed with Cyprus government authorities in 2016. The notion of indebtedness on the part of Mr. Manafort also aligns with assertions made in a court complaint filed in Virginia in 2015 by the Russian oligarch, Oleg V. Deripaska, who claimed Mr. Manafort and his partners owed him $19 million related to a failed investment in a Ukrainian cable television business.

After The Times shared some of the documents with representatives of Mr. Manafort, a spokesman, Jason Maloni, did not address whether the debts might have existed at one time. But he maintained that the Cyprus records were “stale and do not purport to reflect any current financial arrangements.”

“Manafort is not indebted to Mr. Deripaska or the Party of Regions, nor was he at the time he began working for the Trump campaign,” Mr. Maloni said. “The broader point, which Mr. Manafort has maintained from the beginning, is that he did not collude with the Russian government to influence the 2016 election.” (Mr. Manafort resigned as campaign manager last August amid questions about his past work in Ukraine.)

Still, the Cyprus documents offer the most detailed view yet into the murky financial world inhabited by Mr. Manafort in the years before he joined the Trump campaign. [Continue reading…]

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Deutsche Bank, key to Trump’s finances, faces new scrutiny

The New York Times reports: During the presidential campaign, Donald J. Trump pointed to his relationship with Deutsche Bank to counter reports that big banks were skeptical of doing business with him.

After a string of bankruptcies in his casino and hotel businesses in the 1990s, Mr. Trump became somewhat of an outsider on Wall Street, leaving the giant German bank among the few major financial institutions willing to lend him money.

Now that two-decades-long relationship is coming under scrutiny.

Banking regulators are reviewing hundreds of millions of dollars in loans made to Mr. Trump’s businesses through Deutsche Bank’s private wealth management unit, which caters to an ultrarich clientele, according to three people briefed on the review who were not authorized to speak publicly. The regulators want to know if the loans might expose the bank to heightened risks.

Separately, Deutsche Bank has been in contact with federal investigators about the Trump accounts, according to two people briefed on the matter. And the bank is expecting to eventually have to provide information to Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel overseeing the federal investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia.

It was not clear what information the bank might ultimately provide. Generally, the bank is seen as central to understanding Mr. Trump’s finances since it is the only major financial institution that continues to conduct sizable business with him. Deutsche Bank has also lent money to Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, and to his family real estate business.

Although Deutsche Bank recently landed in legal trouble for laundering money for Russian entities — paying more than $600 million in penalties to New York and British regulators — there is no indication of a Russian connection to Mr. Trump’s loans or accounts at Deutsche Bank, people briefed on the matter said. The bank, which declined to comment, scrutinizes its accounts for problematic ties as part of so-called “know your customer” banking rules and other requirements.

And with one of its most famous clients headed to the White House, the bank designed a plan for overseeing the accounts of Mr. Trump and Mr. Kushner and presented it to regulators at the New York State Department of Financial Services early this year. The plan essentially called for monitoring the accounts for red flags such as exceptionally favorable loan terms or unusual partners. [Continue reading…]

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Bill Browder on past dealings with Russian lawyer in Trump Jr. meeting

 

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Trump Tower rental space leased to White House military office for $2.39 million, far above market value

The Wall Street Journal reports: The U.S. government is paying more than $130,000 a month to lease space in Trump Tower for the military office that supports the White House, even though Donald Trump hasn’t spent a night at the New York skyscraper since becoming president.

The government signed a $2.39 million lease to rent a 3,475 sq. ft. space in the building for the military from Apr. 11, 2017 to Sept. 30, 2018, nearly 18 months in total, according to lease documents that The Wall Street Journal obtained through a freedom of information request.

The government agreed to pay $180,000 for the last 20 days of April 2017 and $130,000 a month thereafter, according to the contract released by the General Services Administration, the agency that negotiates office space agreements for the government.

The GSA redacted large portions of the lease, including the name of the person who owns the Trump Tower space the government is renting. A Pentagon official wrote in a letter seen by the Journal that the space is owned privately by someone unaffiliated with the Trump Organization and that the department sees no way in which Mr. Trump can benefit from the rent money.

The military’s lease in Trump Tower puts the space far above market rate for similarly sized apartments in the luxury high rise market and makes it one of the most expensive residential rentals in Manhattan. [Continue reading…]

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Outgoing ethics chief: U.S. is ‘close to a laughingstock’

The New York Times reports: Actions by President Trump and his administration have created a historic ethics crisis, the departing head of the Office of Government Ethics said. He called for major changes in federal law to expand the power and reach of the oversight office and combat the threat.

Walter M. Shaub Jr., who is resigning as the federal government’s top ethics watchdog on Tuesday, said the Trump administration had flouted or directly challenged long-accepted norms in a way that threatened to undermine the United States’ ethical standards, which have been admired around the world.

“It’s hard for the United States to pursue international anticorruption and ethics initiatives when we’re not even keeping our own side of the street clean. It affects our credibility,” Mr. Shaub said in a two-hour interview this past weekend — a weekend Mr. Trump let the world know he was spending at a family-owned golf club that was being paid to host the U.S. Women’s Open tournament. “I think we are pretty close to a laughingstock at this point.” [Continue reading…]

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Huge Manafort payment reflects murky Ukraine politics

The New York Times reports: Paul J. Manafort, President Trump’s former campaign chairman, recently filed financial reports with the Justice Department showing that he earned nearly $17 million for two years of work for a Ukrainian political party with links to the Kremlin.

Curiously, that was more than the party itself reported spending in the same period for its entire operation — the national political organization’s expenses, salaries, printing outlays and other incidentals.

The discrepancies show a lot about how Mr. Manafort’s clients — former President Viktor F. Yanukovych of Ukraine and his Party of Regions — operated.

And in a broader sense, they underscore the dangers that lurk for foreigners who, tempted by potentially rich payoffs, cast their lot with politicians in countries that at best have different laws about money in politics, and at worst are, like Ukraine in those years, irredeemably corrupt.

Mr. Yanukovych was driven from office in the Maidan Revolution of 2014, after having stolen, according to the current Ukrainian government, at least $1 billion. In the years before his fall, Mr. Manafort took lavish payments to burnish the image of Mr. Yanukovych and the Party of Regions in Washington, even as the party acknowledged only very modest spending.

In 2012, for example, the party reported annual expenses of about $11.1 million, based on the exchange rate at the time, excluding overhead. For the same year, Mr. Manafort reported income of $12.1 million from the party, the Justice Department filing shows. [Continue reading…]

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Trump’s Russian laundromat

Craig Unger writes: In 1984, a Russian émigré named David Bogatin went shopping for apartments in New York City. The 38-year-old had arrived in America seven years before, with just $3 in his pocket. But for a former pilot in the Soviet Army—his specialty had been shooting down Americans over North Vietnam—he had clearly done quite well for himself. Bogatin wasn’t hunting for a place in Brighton Beach, the Brooklyn enclave known as “Little Odessa” for its large population of immigrants from the Soviet Union. Instead, he was fixated on the glitziest apartment building on Fifth Avenue, a gaudy, 58-story edifice with gold-plated fixtures and a pink-marble atrium: Trump Tower.

A monument to celebrity and conspicuous consumption, the tower was home to the likes of Johnny Carson, Steven Spielberg, and Sophia Loren. Its brash, 38-year-old developer was something of a tabloid celebrity himself. Donald Trump was just coming into his own as a serious player in Manhattan real estate, and Trump Tower was the crown jewel of his growing empire. From the day it opened, the building was a hit—all but a few dozen of its 263 units had sold in the first few months. But Bogatin wasn’t deterred by the limited availability or the sky-high prices. The Russian plunked down $6 million to buy not one or two, but five luxury condos. The big check apparently caught the attention of the owner. According to Wayne Barrett, who investigated the deal for the Village Voice, Trump personally attended the closing, along with Bogatin.

If the transaction seemed suspicious—multiple apartments for a single buyer who appeared to have no legitimate way to put his hands on that much money—there may have been a reason. At the time, Russian mobsters were beginning to invest in high-end real estate, which offered an ideal vehicle to launder money from their criminal enterprises. “During the ’80s and ’90s, we in the U.S. government repeatedly saw a pattern by which criminals would use condos and high-rises to launder money,” says Jonathan Winer, a deputy assistant secretary of state for international law enforcement in the Clinton administration. “It didn’t matter that you paid too much, because the real estate values would rise, and it was a way of turning dirty money into clean money. It was done very systematically, and it explained why there are so many high-rises where the units were sold but no one is living in them.” When Trump Tower was built, as David Cay Johnston reports in The Making of Donald Trump, it was only the second high-rise in New York that accepted anonymous buyers.

In 1987, just three years after he attended the closing with Trump, Bogatin pleaded guilty to taking part in a massive gasoline-bootlegging scheme with Russian mobsters. After he fled the country, the government seized his five condos at Trump Tower, saying that he had purchased them to “launder money, to shelter and hide assets.” A Senate investigation into organized crime later revealed that Bogatin was a leading figure in the Russian mob in New York. His family ties, in fact, led straight to the top: His brother ran a $150 million stock scam with none other than Semion Mogilevich, whom the FBI considers the “boss of bosses” of the Russian mafia. At the time, Mogilevich—feared even by his fellow gangsters as “the most powerful mobster in the world”—was expanding his multibillion-dollar international criminal syndicate into America.

Since Trump’s election as president, his ties to Russia have become the focus of intense scrutiny, most of which has centered on whether his inner circle colluded with Russia to subvert the U.S. election. A growing chorus in Congress is also asking pointed questions about how the president built his business empire. Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, has called for a deeper inquiry into “Russian investment in Trump’s businesses and properties.”

The very nature of Trump’s businesses—all of which are privately held, with few reporting requirements—makes it difficult to root out the truth about his financial deals. And the world of Russian oligarchs and organized crime, by design, is shadowy and labyrinthine. For the past three decades, state and federal investigators, as well as some of America’s best investigative journalists, have sifted through mountains of real estate records, tax filings, civil lawsuits, criminal cases, and FBI and Interpol reports, unearthing ties between Trump and Russian mobsters like Mogilevich. To date, no one has documented that Trump was even aware of any suspicious entanglements in his far-flung businesses, let alone that he was directly compromised by the Russian mafia or the corrupt oligarchs who are closely allied with the Kremlin. So far, when it comes to Trump’s ties to Russia, there is no smoking gun.

But even without an investigation by Congress or a special prosecutor, there is much we already know about the president’s debt to Russia. A review of the public record reveals a clear and disturbing pattern: Trump owes much of his business success, and by extension his presidency, to a flow of highly suspicious money from Russia. Over the past three decades, at least 13 people with known or alleged links to Russian mobsters or oligarchs have owned, lived in, and even run criminal activities out of Trump Tower and other Trump properties. Many used his apartments and casinos to launder untold millions in dirty money. Some ran a worldwide high-stakes gambling ring out of Trump Tower—in a unit directly below one owned by Trump. Others provided Trump with lucrative branding deals that required no investment on his part. Taken together, the flow of money from Russia provided Trump with a crucial infusion of financing that helped rescue his empire from ruin, burnish his image, and launch his career in television and politics. “They saved his bacon,” says Kenneth McCallion, a former assistant U.S. attorney in the Reagan administration who investigated ties between organized crime and Trump’s developments in the 1980s. [Continue reading…]

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New details emerge on Moscow real estate deal that led to the Trump-Kremlin alliance

Michael Isikoff reports: While in Moscow for the Miss Universe pageant in November 2013, Donald Trump entered into a formal business deal with Aras Agalarov, a Russian oligarch close to Vladimir Putin, to construct a Trump Tower in the Russian capital. He later assigned his son, Donald Trump Jr., to oversee the project, according to Rob Goldstone, the British publicist who arranged the controversial 2016 meeting between the younger Trump and a Kremlin-linked lawyer.

Trump has dismissed the idea he had any business deals in Russia, saying at one point last October, “I have nothing to do with Russia.”

But Goldstone’s account, provided in an extensive interview in March in New York, offers new details of the proposed Trump project that appears to have been further along than most previous reports have suggested, and even included a trip by Ivanka Trump to Moscow to identify potential sites.

According to the publicist, the project — structured as a licensing deal in which Agalarov would build the tower with Trump’s name on it — was only abandoned after the Russian economy floundered. The economic downturn resulted in part from sanctions imposed by the U.S. and the European Union following Russia’s intervention in Ukraine. [Continue reading…]

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Jared Kushner tried and failed to get a half-billion-dollar bailout from Qatar

The Intercept reports: Not long before a major crisis ripped through the Middle East, pitting the United States and a bloc of Gulf countries against Qatar, Jared Kushner’s real estate company had unsuccessfully sought a critical half-billion-dollar investment from one of the richest and most influential men in the tiny nation, according to three well-placed sources with knowledge of the near transaction.

Kushner is a senior adviser to President Trump, and also his son-in-law, and also the scion of a New York real estate empire that faces an extreme risk from an investment made by Kushner in the building at 666 Fifth Avenue, where the family is now severely underwater.

Qatar is facing an ongoing blockade led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and joined by Egypt and Bahrain, which President Trump has taken credit for sparking. Kushner, meanwhile, has reportedly played a key behind-the-scenes role in hardening the U.S. posture toward the embattled nation.

That hard line comes in the wake of the previously unreported half-billion-dollar deal that was never consummated. Throughout 2015 and 2016, Jared Kushner and his father, Charles, negotiated directly with a major investor in Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, known as HBJ for short, in an effort to refinance the property on Fifth Avenue, the sources said.

Trump himself has unsuccessfully sought financing in recent years from the Qataris, but it is difficult to overstate just how important the investment at 666 Fifth Avenue is for Kushner, his company, and his family’s legacy in real estate. Without some outside intervention or unforeseen turnaround in the market, the investment could become an embarrassing half-billion-dollar loss. It’s unclear precisely how much peril such a loss would put Jared’s or his family’s finances in, given the opacity of their private holdings. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. government ethics chief resigns, with parting shot at Trump

The Guardian reports: The top ethics watchdog in the federal government announced his resignation on Thursday, taking a parting shot at Donald Trump as he did so.

Walter Shaub, head of the independent Office of Government Ethics (OGE), said in his resignation letter to Trump that he would step down in mid-July, six months before the end of his term, in order to take a job at the Campaign Legal Center, a not-for-profit good-government group.

Leading the OGE had been “the great privilege and honor of my career”, he wrote.

In a separate statement from the center, Shaub said: “In working with the current administration, it has become clear to me that we need improvements to the existing ethics program. I look forward to working toward that aim at Campaign Legal Center, as well as working on ethics reforms at all levels of government.”

Shaub is a longtime federal bureaucrat who was appointed to the OGE by Barack Obama in 2013 and confirmed by a voice vote in the US Senate.

Since Trump’s victory in the 2016 election, Shaub has strongly criticized the president over his failure to divest from his business holdings, saying he was “extremely troubled” that Trump simply turned over his investments to his two oldest sons.

Shaub also clashed with the White House over whether lobbyists working in the Trump administration should have to disclose ethics waivers, and over aide Kellyanne Conway’s controversial suggestion that Americans should buy products sold by Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter.

In his resignation letter, he also took one more opportunity to goad Trump on his approach to government ethics policies, putting in italics “public service is a public trust” – the first of 14 principles of public service promulgated by George HW Bush in a 1989 executive order.

OGE staff, he wrote, were “committed to protecting the principle that public service is a public trust, requiring employees to place loyalty to the constitution, the laws, and ethical principles above private gains”. [Continue reading…]

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What makes America exceptional?

David Frum writes: America’s uniqueness, even pre-Trump, was expressed as much through negative indicators than positive. It is more violent than other comparable societies, both one-on-one and in the gun massacres to which the country has become so habituated. It has worse health outcomes than comparably wealthy countries, and some of them most important of them are deteriorating further even as they improve almost everywhere else. America’s average levels of academic achievement lag those of other advanced countries. Fewer Americans vote—and in no other democracy does organized money count for so much in political life. A century ago, H.L. Mencken observed the American “national genius for corruption,” and (again pre-Trump) Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index ranks the U.S. in 18th place, behind Hong Kong, Belgium, Australia, Canada, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Germany—never mind first-place finishers Denmark and New Zealand.

As I said: pre-Trump. Now the United States has elected a president who seems much more aligned with—and comfortable in the company of—the rulers of Turkey, Hungary, Uzbekistan, and the Philippines than his counterparts in other highly developed countries.

That result forces a reshaping of the question of American exceptionalism.

“Why was the United States vulnerable to such a person when other democracies have done so much better?” Part of the answer is a technical one: The Electoral College, designed to protect the country from demagogues, instead elected one. But then we have to ask: How did Trump even get so far that the Electoral College entered into the matter one way or another?

Thinking about that question forces an encounter with American exceptionalism in its most somber form. If, as I believe, Donald Trump arose because of the disregard of the American political and economic elite for the troubles of so many of their fellow-citizens, it has to be asked again: How could the leaders of a democratic country imagine they could get away with such disregard? [Continue reading…]

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Trump campaign chief’s firm got $17 million from pro-Russia party

The New York Times reports: Paul Manafort, who was forced out as President Trump’s campaign chairman last summer after five months of infighting and criticism about his business dealings with pro-Russian interests, disclosed Tuesday that his consulting firm had received more than $17 million over two years from a Ukrainian political party with links to the Kremlin.

The filing serves as a retroactive admission that Mr. Manafort performed work in the United States on behalf of a foreign power — Ukraine’s Party of Regions — without disclosing it at the time, as required by law. The Party of Regions is the political base of former President Viktor F. Yanukovych, who fled to Russia during a popular uprising in 2014.

The disclosure hints at the vast fortunes available to top American political consultants plying their trade in other countries.

It was not immediately clear if Mr. Manafort would be required to pay any fines for the late filing. He has maintained that a majority of his work for Mr. Yanukovych was political consulting in Ukraine, where his firm, Davis Manafort International, operated an office at the time. [Continue reading…]

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