Follow the rubles and other rules for investigating politicians

If there’s a movie made about the Trump-Russia ties investigation, expect to hear someone whisper, “Follow the rubles.” Substituting “rubles” for “money” updates Watergate’s Deep Throat’s advice to journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, as portrayed in the film “All the President’s Men.”

Another investigative rule is to determine who would benefit from improper financial dealings and whether there was a quid pro quo.

Pursuing financial questions requires, at a minimum, looking at tax returns, but President Donald Trump doesn’t want Special Counsel Robert Mueller — or anyone else — examining them.

Mueller is also probing Trump’s business dealings, something Trump’s lawyer Jay Sekulow called “far outside the scope of a legitimate investigation.” It isn’t.

Sales of real estate, which sound like normal commerce, could involve “dirty” money. Specifically, they could entail international money laundering for the Russian mob, government or oligarchs aimed to thwart U.S. government sanctions.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany on July 7. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Trump may be worried because of what is happening with Felix Sater. Trump’s monetary ties to Sater date back to when Trump gave Sater permission to explore building Trump properties in Russia and elsewhere. Sater’s Bayrock Group also worked with Ivanka and Donald Trump Jr.

Sater’s backstory is so wild that you have to wonder who would play him in the eventual movie. When Sater and Trump planned their business together, “The Russian-born businessman had already done a stint in prison for stabbing a man in the face with the stem of a margarita glass, and he was now awaiting sentencing for his role in a Mafia-orchestrated stock fraud scheme — all the while serving as a government informant on the mob and mysterious matters of national security,” the Washington Post reported.

Sater is cooperating with an international money laundering probe involving a former Kazakh minister who is accused of stealing government and bank funds and investing it in American real estate, including Trump apartments.

The special counsel is following money down this path. As a former top official in the Department of Homeland Security put it, Mueller’s “team is a counter-intelligence team and is a money fraud, banking, laundering-type team.” For instance, one attorney working for Mueller investigated mob boss Semion Mogilevic, who has ties to Putin, Sater and Trump real estate.

The money trail goes beyond possible money laundering. Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner have had massive debts. A huge balloon payment is coming due for Kushner’s 666 Fifth Avenue property in New York City. Due to bankruptcies and over-leveraging, U.S. banks haven’t wanted to lend them money.

Investigators want to know why Kushner met with a Russian banker who graduated from the spy school “often tasked with sensitive financial operations by Putin.” This meeting was left off Kushner’s security clearance form, along with information later added about debts, investments and foreign contacts.  

Yet another money matter involves funds spent at Trump hotels by foreign governments seeking something from the president. Gov. Paul LePage and his security team stayed at the pricy Trump Hotel in Washington when trying to change the status of Maine’s new national monument and when it was rumored LePage was seeking a job in the administration. Somewhat scandalous in normal times, this cronyism seems almost quaint.

Investigators want to know if Trump colluded with Russia and was influenced, bribed, even blackmailed by them. Money laundering, loans and overpayments for properties could be how Russia developed relationships with Trump and his family. Also, Kushner was involved in the campaign’s voter data operations; Mueller’s team is working to “follow the data” to see if information about voters in key precincts was shared with Russians, who then targeted negative and fake news messages to these voters via social media. Monetary and campaign help to Trump would put Trump under obligation to Russia when a top Russian priority is to lift U.S. sanctions.

Appearing worried, Trump suggested Republicans have not done enough “to protect” him and asserted his pardon powers. He’s upset with Attorney General Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from the Russia investigation.

Trump wants Republican legislators to forget Congress is a separate but equal branch of government and hopes partisanship will outweigh the rule of law. Trump might try to fire Mueller but whoever carries out the investigation will keep following the money because it’s how collusion may have happened.

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Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.