James Comey and the Russian Connection

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May 17, 2017

Reflections about the news from France, the repulse, on May 8, of the Front National will have to wait. The connections between President Trump and the Russians and the firing of FBI Director James Comey is of greater significance. I am aware that both issues have been widely covered by American TV, print, and late night comedy, but I have decided to wade into it in search of dots that have not been connected.

The issue here is not James Comey or his handling of the Clinton emails. The issue is that Trump’s firing of Comey was, very clearly, an effort to stop an FBI investigation into Russian involvement in the 2016 election. Members of the Trump election team had multiple contacts with Russians at the ambassadorial level; the initial link, however, with Russia goes straight back to Donald Trump himself. The possible crime being investigated is that the Russian efforts were coordinated with the Trump election team, actions that would amount to subversion.

The gravity of this cannot be overstated. Recall that Watergate, the breaking into the political opposition’s office, planting bugs, and stealing paper files, brought down a president. This is worse by orders of magnitude. That a foreign power, an historically hostile one, should have done it, and on such a massive scale, is beyond ignoring. That Americans, from General Flynn to Attorney General Sessions, may have been involved raises the issue to a national security concern. There was a time, not so long ago, when contacts with Russian intelligence agents would have been called treason. Even in Missouri,

There was a time, not so long ago, when contacts with Russian intelligence agents would have been called treason. Even in Missouri, heartland of Trump country, there is concern. The Kansas City Star, for instance, in an editorial on May 11, wrote as follows. “Probes into Russian hacking of our democracy are too serious to be compromised by partisanship.”

Since Trump’s original statements about why he fired Comey had to do with the Clinton email investigation, the Director’s actions need to be discussed briefly. Comey seems to be a man whose strict sense of the upright and whose integrity is not questioned, apparently, by any who have worked with him, probably not by Hillary Clinton either. Rumors of leaks from Rudi Giuliani’s pals in the bureau led him to fear that the Bureau would be accused of partisan involvement in the election.

Bill Clinton’s meeting with Attorney General Lynch in the Phoenix airport had shaken his trust in the independence of the Justice Department. These issues resulted in his public announcements that appeared to be partisan, but which were almost certainly not intended to be. They were mistakes. His loyalty to the bureau and its tradition of independence overrode better judgment and the possibility of a more nuanced response. The Clinton emails were not the reason Comey made his unfortunate announcement ten days before the election. He was attempting to inoculate the Bureau.

This I think is now widely understood. And everyone now understands that Trump’s issue with Comey was the investigation into Russian manipulation of the election. Le Monde accurately reported Trump’s “reason” but added the that the whole thing a pourtant toutes les apparences d’un habillage a posteriori, (habillage here means “dressed up:” a post facto cover story). A decision to fire Comey having been made, Trump tells his Attorney General to come up with a plausible justification and write a memo. On May 11, however, the day after the firing, Trump goes on NBC and admits that Comey’s focus on what Trump called “the Russian thing” was the real reason; It “is, you know, a made-up story.”

It is not a made-up story. Russia is the rot in the Trump White House. Most can smell it, even if they can’t quite locate it. Donald Trump is Russia’s man in America. It is not ideological, for Trump has no ideology. It is located in Trump’s character, in what he defines as his interests. Why and how deeply Trump “resonates” with the Russians is the question that the FBI’s pursuit of the issue threatened to uncover.

Today’s Russia is a hostile adversary, not the ideological adversary of the Cold War, but a potential enemy nonetheless. It is under sanctions from the US over the annexation of the Crimea and is actively undercutting Ukraine’s independence and orientation toward the west. It menaces the Baltic countries. It wants, in short, its old Soviet/Imperial glory (and boundaries) restored. Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin is Trump’s much admired “strong leader,” the sort of man he aspires to be. This is not a slur: Trump has said as much. Putin is a former

Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin is Trump’s much admired “strong leader,” the sort of man he aspires to be. This is not a slur: Trump has said as much. Putin is a former spy master (KGB) with global power ambitions and no principles. His government is a criminal enterprise: he and his pals, men made enormously wealthy by their association with him are the Russian state, a government by the corrupt. Plutocracy. Kleptocracy. Putin periodically stages an election that confirms the arrangement. Knowing what happens to Putin’s opponents, we should probably add the term thugocracy. These are the folks with which Trump has had and wants still to have close relationships.

The day after firing Director Comey, before Trump had a chance to assess the effects of his action, he received the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, and Sergey Lisylak, Russian Ambassador to the US, in the Oval Office. The meeting, which included high-ranking American officials like the National Security Advisor, was not announced and no members of the American press were allowed in to witnesses Trump making nice with Russia after the tiff caused by his missile strikes on Syria. The official Russian photographer was present, and only after the pictures appeared in the Russian press, TASS, did the White House acknowledge that the meeting had even occurred.

Even then the White House omitted the fact that the Russian Ambassador, Mr. Kisylak, who has been implicated in nearly every contact between Trump associates and the Russians, had been present. Mr. Kisylak has been a busy man in the last year or so, an arranger and who know what else, and was seen as being radioactive. After the meeting, the Foreign Minister stated that there was no evidence of any Russian interference in the American election. The American intelligence services––FBI, CIA, and NSA––have said there is ample evidence. Is the beaming Donald Trump celebrating Comey’s firing, saying to his Russian friends, “there, I’ve dealt with it.”

Or is he saying, “you see how smart I am?” On May 15, the Washington Post’s banner headline says that Trump had revealed highly sensitive information to the Russians at this meeting. The level of intelligence called “code word,” the highest. Trump apparently said “I get great intel. I am briefed every day with great intel,” and proceeded to reveal enough information that the Russians would be able to uncover its source. The potential damage is significant. But Trump is not a spy for the Russians. He is simply clueless. National Security Advisor McMaster read a 40 second statement saying it had not happened. What else could he say? David Brooks’ column of May 16 says that Trump has the emotional needs and impulse control of a seven-year-old.

Trump had wanted to impress his Russian visitors. “Look what I know!” What, one wonders, beyond his insecurities and desire to be admired by serious people (and the Russians are very serious people) is Trump’s connection to Putin’s world? Trump’s embrace of Russia must have one root: money. Money and Power.

Trump has repeatedly denied that he ever had any business dealings with Russia or Russians. This is untrue. Bloomberg News, among the most reliable sources for financial news, has documented that numerous Russian oligarchs, Putin cronies, have made major purchases of multimillion dollar apartments in Trump projects, a total amount estimated by Bloomberg to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The Russian investors, some of whom were under US investigation for a variety of financial crimes, came in at crucial time, during the real estate collapse; their contributions may have saved Trump’s empire. And Trump provided them with a way to launder and hide their money that was fleeing the ruble as it collapsed. Invest in Trump, no questions asked. One wonders if Trump is just grateful to the Russians, or is he obligated, does he still need them? Or worse, do they have him where they want him? There are some suggestive clues.

We know that Trump has built his billion-dollar empire on borrowed money, that his projects are heavily mortgaged. We know also that American banks will not lend to him: he defaults; he sues; in short, he is not worth the trouble. Deutsche Bank (Frankfurt) has had no such compunctions. The bank, one of the world’s largest, has a long history of loose morals. It financed Hitler’s regime, and recently, was involved in laundering of Russian dirty money, commodity price manipulation, and other financial misbehavior that has resulted in nine billion dollars in fines to US and UK regulators. The New Yorker has a long and detailed expose of the bank. Mother Jones, the investigative journalism magazine (winner of the 2016 Magazine of the Year award) has an in depth analysis of the Trump empire’s loans. It is estimated that Trump’s debts to Deutsche Bank total $364 million.

Are there loans from Russian Banks or from Russian individuals? No one knows. How might one find out? By examining Trump’s tax returns? On May 12, Trump released a letter dated March 8 from his attorneys that acknowledged some, but relatively small (double digit millions) income from Russians and Russian activities. That’s it, says Trump; no significant Russian connection. Does this end the matter? The attorneys’ letter refers only to Trump’s personal tax returns; it refers only, but does not enclose.

Without seeing the complete returns and the returns of all the limited partnerships that Trump owns or controls, the March 8 letter is meaningless. It is what is called a “limited hangout,” which, according to the former deputy director of the CIA, is “spy jargon for a favorite and frequently used gimmick of clandestine professionals. When their veil of secrecy is shredded and they can no longer rely on a phony cover story to misinform the public, they resort to admitting—sometimes even volunteering—some of the truth while still managing to withhold the key and damaging facts in the case. The public, however, is usually so intrigued by the new information that it never thinks to pursue the matter further.”

One can, however, with no hesitation, make this assertion: if the President of the United States owes large sums of money to Russian banks or to the plutocrats linked to Vladimir Putin, there is a very substantial security issue for this country.

A seemingly unrelated issue throws some light on all this. Trump, whose personal instincts are not the least democratic, who clearly fancies himself to have the prerogatives of a king, is thinking of dynasty. His successor would almost certainly be his beloved daughter and her consort, the princeling Jared Kushner. Kushner is, like father-in-law, a New York real estate developer on a grand scale. He and his family own a very large building, 666 Fifth Avenue, just four blocks from Trump Tower. Kushner is, in this tale of romance, family alliances, and power (an analogy, by historical reference, to time-tested ways that power has been consolidated) like a duke of a neighboring kingdom, who now serves the king as his vassal, and by marrying the princess he is family.

But there is a problem with the Kushner principality. 666 Fifth Avenue, the Kushner trophy building, was purchased at the height of the real estate bubble (2007) in the most expensive transaction in NY real estate history. And Kushner overpaid. The building was over-mortgaged and has always been a problem. An associate and friend of President Trump, Steve Roth, now a advisor to the president, invested $80 million to bail out an earlier cash flow crisis and now wants to be bought out. Today the building is only 70% occupied, needs major renovations, and is bleeding cash. Jared Kushner, who now heads the firm, needs a buyer, an investor or a lender. A $1.2 billion loan is due in less than two years. Kushner almost had the help he needs with a major Chinese insurance company, one closely connected to the ruling clique in Beijing, but this deal fell through. (All this is documented by stories in NY Times and Bloomberg, links below.)

Jared Kushner, the would-be real estate superstar, is the most trusted advisor to the president, and in that role has access to the innermost secrets of the American state. In a tight spot, he has turned toward Russia. In December he met with Ambassador Kislyak, who arranged for him to meet with the head of Vnescheconombank, a state-owned bank whose president, Mr. Gorkov, is a graduate of the Russian spy school (Putin’s alma mater) and was appointed to the post by Putin. The bank is under sanctions imposed by the Obama administration over the Ukraine incursions and the bank’s role in laundering money.

What did Kushner talk about with the Ambassador and Gorkov? Lifting the sanctions against Russia or the bank? If so, in exchange for what? A lifesaving loan to Kushner, bailing out 666 Fifth Avenue? Purchase of Steve Roth’s interest? Kushner said, back in March, that he would testify before the Senate Intelligence committee, but this testimony has not happened yet. Is he too powerful and too well connected to be challenged? This promised hearing has not been scheduled.

National security is the issue. Kushner needs a Top Secret security clearance, a requirement for anyone who is privy to critical matters. We saw him sitting next to the Treasury Secretary in the Mar a Lago situation room during the cruise missile strikes on the Syrian air base. (Curiously, he is the only one not watching the TV monitor. He appears to be looking at his rival for influence over the president, Steven Bannon. This conflict seems to have been resolved; Kushner wins.)

At the time of missile strike, Kushner had what the FBI called a “provisional security clearance.” When Kushner filled out the form applying for the clearance, in which all contacts with representatives of foreign governments must be listed, he left out the meetings with Kislyak and Gorkov. He says that he forgot: in the midst of the Michael Flynn flap about Russian contacts and just as it was emerging that Jeff Sessions had lied under oath that he had ever met with the Ambassador, he forgot. Please! It is inconceivable that anyone who had concealed such sensitive meetings, facts relevant to the determining the applicant’s loyalty, honesty, or trustworthiness, would ever be issued a security clearance. “I forgot” would not cut it.

The Trump White House is riddled with levels of corruption and nepotism that, strangely, the major press still insists on calling “potential conflicts of interest.” Does Jared Kushner have conflicts of interest? Perhaps the FBI, which is in charge of determining who shall and who shall not have a high level clearance, is still examining the issue. The Kushner matter presents a problem for the Bureau, requiring, perhaps, a decision at the director’s pay grade. Perhaps James Comey was a problem in this matter as well as in the wider investigation of the Russian connection.

James Comey, the straight arrow, is a bit like the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, as described in T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral.

His pride always feeding on his virtues,
pride drawing sustenance from impartiality,
… wishing subjection to God alone.

“Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?” asked the king (in 1170 AD) and it was done.

A glimpse into the minds and opinions of the American right, the Republican Party, gives a chilling view of the situation. In a recent New York Times article, it appears that many Americans would be content to have a king or a dictator.

This article, written by two legal analysts at the Brookings Institution, outlines in detail the progression of events and the legal significance of the firing.

An editorial in the Kansas City Star editorial is also revealing. I include as a window into other parts of the country. Missouri went solidly for Trump. Kansas City, however, went for Clinton.

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