Here’s why Trump’s Commerce Secretary could be the next official targeted in the Mueller probe
Justice Department Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s indictment against international lobbyist and Trump campaign chief, Paul Manafort, and pleading by Trump campaign foreign policy aide, George Papadopoulos, cast long shadows over other top Trump administration officials—starting with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross—whose previous financial deals involved the European money-laundering hub of Cyprus.
The banking sector of that small island nation in the Mediterranean appear to a crossroads where top Trump campaign associates, such as Manafort and Papadopoulos, and senior administration officials like Commerce Secretary Ross, crossed paths and had layered financial and political dealings with Kremlin-tied Russian oligarchs.
The Manafort indictment, apart from its detailing of how he spent millions of untaxed overseas earnings for luxury properties in the U.S. that the government wants to seize, listed more than a half-dozen pages of overseas wire transfers adding up to $12 million, where almost all of them originated in Cyprus.
Papadopoulos, whose pleading noted that his overseas contacts had told him about the Russians possessing “dirt” in then-candidate Hillary Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails,” and noted that he tried to set up meetings between Russian officials and Trump’s campaign, also had Cyprus connections. Papadopoulos, who lived in London, had been advising the country’s government about joining NATO, a source who interviewed the ex-U.S. ambassador to Cyprus, told Alternet.
Trump’s Commerce Secretary, Wilbur Ross, was vice-chair and leading investor in the Bank of Cyprus, the island’s largest bank, which was “one of the key offshore havens for illicit Russian finance,” according to an extensive investigative report by financial journalist, James Henry of DCReport.org. “Ross has been Vice Chairman of this bank and a major investor in it since 2014. His fellow bank co-chair evidently was appointed by none other than Vladimir Putin.”
“Ross’ involvement in the Bank of Cyprus raises many questions about his judgment, but also about the Trump Administration’s seemingly endless direct and indirect connections with friends and associates of Vladimir Putin, who all 17 U.S. intelligence agencies say conspired to interfere in the November 2016 U.S. election on behalf of Donald Trump,” Henry continued. “Whether or not these connections involve any criminality, these are the kind of relationships that most American business people would not tolerate for 30 seconds.”
“After all, as discussed below, since the 1990s Cyprus has served as one the top three offshore destinations for Russian and former Soviet Union flight capital, most of it motivated by tax dodging, kleptocracy, and money laundering,” Henry said, giving multiple citations. “As of 2013, just before the banking crisis, Russian deposits accounted for at least a third of all bank deposits in Cyprus. As one leading newspaper put it, ‘Russian money is in fact at the heart of the island’s economy.’ Nor is Ross’ Bank of Cyprus in particular—now probably at least half owned by Russians any stranger to money laundering, tax dodging, or odious finance. With a market share of 30 percent, Bank of Cyprus has long been the market leader in Cypriot financial chicanery.”
Russian oligarchs and expatriots have invested millions in Trump properties, as journalist Craig Unger documented for The New Republic this past summer. His report was entitled, “Trump’s Russian Laundromat: How to use Trump Tower and other luxury highrises to clean dirty money, run an international crime syndicate, and propel a failed real estate developer into the White House.”
While there is much that is yet to unfold in the wake of Mueller’s indictments, there are some baseline conclusions that can be drawn.
First is that the special counsel is looking at both financial entanglements and political relationships, and how these differing areas of law overlap in Trump’s orbit. The role of Cyprus as nexus of illicit money laundering—for Manafort and Russians—has been confirmed by the indictment and documented by independent investigative reporters. The next questions will be determining the deeper roles played by Trump associates in this mix: from the campaign, from those holding White House post and fromm past business deals.
Trump’s personal lawyer may be saying the president has nothing to worry about. But Mueller’s probe seems aimed not just at the Trump campaign’s possible ties to Russia, but to the money-laundering world of the investors that seems destined to touch Trump properties and the recent past of top aides like Secretary Ross.