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Tracking the ‘dirty rubles’ from Russia to Trump

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- Commentary

“There ain’t no clean way to make a hundred million dollars,” an honest cop tells detective Philip Marlowe in Raymond Chandler’s masterpiece, “The Long Goodbye.”

If there was ever a need for Philip Marlowe to abandon his residency in old paperback pages and materialize in the American atmosphere, it is right now. Since he’s unable to become real and investigate the severe corruption and criminality of Donald Trump and his connection with Russian oligarchs, Americans of conscience will have to invest their hope in the triumph of another investigator, Robert Mueller.

This story first appeared in Salon.

Without Chandler present to document and depict the drama of Trump’s venality, and Mueller’s sleuth work, Americans would do themselves a gigantic favor by reading the new nonfiction book from acclaimed novelist Greg Olear, “Dirty Rubles: An Introduction to Trump/Russia.”

Olear brings his sharp literary scalpel to what promises to emerge as one of America’s most enormous and consequential scandals, operating under the belief that it takes a novelist’s ability to understand and tell stories to truly capture the essence of the “stranger than fiction” Trump-Russia conspiracy. The result is a riveting, infuriating and, against all the odds, uplifting book. It’s essential reading for all Americans, especially those in the apathetic majority who view Russian meddling in U.S. elections as insignificant.

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I recently interviewed Olear about “Dirty Rubles.”

The crimes of Trump are much worse than even many of his opponents believe. How deep does his criminality run, and what should Americans realize, especially those who feel “bored” or confused by the Russian collusion story?

I think it’s hard for people to square the avuncular guy on TV who cracked jokes and fired people with the real Donald J. Trump. The truth is, the guy’s been mobbed up for decades, with ties to both La Cosa Nostra and Russian organized crime. Trump is a money launderer for the latter, and has been for quite some time. “Money laundering” sounds cute, like something Danny Ocean and his merry men do, but it’s a euphemism for something unspeakable. The Russian mob has become so vast and successful because it eagerly participates in the worst of the worst: human trafficking, child pornography, sex slavery, opioids, illegal arms deals, blood diamonds — all the grisly, awful stuff that Trump accuses MS-13 of doing. By taking those dirty rubles and making them legitimate, Trump is a party to all of that.

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The media also likes to forget that Trump is a serial rapist and sexual predator. We can use the “allegedly” qualifier if you like, but he has bragged about this on many occasions. There are more than 20 accusers now, and I believe them.

The kompromat, by the way, does not involve tinkling Moscow prostitutes, but far more heinous activities. This is a person who sexually assaulted a reporter from People magazine at his house — while his wife was home. You don’t think he’s capable of greater depravity halfway around the world, when he thinks no one is watching?

As president, he’s profited mightily from the office, in violation of the emoluments clause [of the U.S. Constitution]. Is he setting national policy to benefit himself and his family? Is there any doubt that he is? Look at how he and Jared Kushner handled Qatar, home to important U.S. military bases. Isn’t that by itself tantamount to treason?

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Treason is a vague term. Unlike rape or murder or even petty larceny, it’s not visceral. But it’s the worst crime there is, because Trump actively betrayed 330 million Americans. He conspired with the Russians to contaminate the election, he lied about it, he continues to lie about it, and we have yet to find out exactly what he has promised his Russian master. I’d like to think that Americans across the political spectrum would agree that the POTUS should not be a compromised asset of the Russian Federation.

Helsinki reaffirmed what I’ve known for two years, and what Hillary told us in the debate: Trump is Putin’s puppet. Has a powerful world leader ever presented as submissively, as weakly, as Trump did in Finland? He makes Neville Chamberlain look like Rambo.

Let the record show that it took five paragraphs to outline Trump’s criminality, and I’ve barely scratched the surface.

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How does the scandal implicate not only Donald Trump, but other members of his administration and Republican heavyweights outside the White House?

Ha! What’s your word limit?

Real estate is a good way to launder money, as Trump well knows. Another is campaign finance. So much dark money, so many ways to donate anonymously. It seems clear now, given the latest round of indictments, that Russian money was funneled into the Republican National Committe via the NRA and other avenues. Anyone who took that money is complicit. This is why the Paul Ryans and Dana Rohrabachers and Devin Nuneses of the world have gone to great lengths to throw water on the Mueller investigation, in my estimation. And why so many GOP members of Congress are retiring. They are not trying to save Trump; they are trying to save themselves.

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Why do you think the media, even as it seems obsessed with the Russia connection, have failed to capture the actual depth and breadth of the Trump-GOP-Russia story?

Let me say up front that I don’t think it’s neglect or apathy. Nor is there a shortage of really great journalists, many of whom continue to break great stories about Trump/Russia. It’s more of an institutional problem.

There are a few factors at work. First: The organizational system news companies use to report the news was and is ill-suited for the many-headed hydra that is Trump/Russia. Reporters tend to be siloed. They work beats. The problem is, Trump/Russia is so big that it does not confine itself to any one beat. There might be a relevant story written by a national security reporter, and one written by a White House correspondent, and another might appear in the international business section, and still another on Page Six of the New York Post. How are we supposed to know that they are connected to each other, and to Trump/Russia? What we needed, and what we still need, is a generalist—someone to look at the big picture and explain what the heck is going on.

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Were there journalists doing this in 2016? Of course. Natasha Bertrand (of the Atlantic) and David Corn (of Mother Jones) come to mind, and of course Louise Mensch at the now-defunct Heat Street. But they work for smaller, less august publications, and when you have Trump and his people pushing back hard — and the rest of the mainstream media more invested in pillorying Hillary for her emails and the FBI investigation that turned out to be a hoax (Chris Cillizza is a big offender here) — those intrepid journalists can get marginalized.

Second, access journalism. They all want to make sure that Trump or Trump’s people return, because ratings. Maggie Haberman of the New York Times is the best example of this. The fear she has of losing access is palpable in her writing — she chooses her words very carefully, because she wants to be critical, but not so critical that Trump banishes her.

Third, Trump stirs up shit at such an insane pace that the media feels compelled to cover every idiotic tweet or gesture or pronouncement. And they have to, because he’s the president. But this pulls resources away from the big picture. Which, by the way, is why Trump tweets such provocative garbage to begin with. It’s all about deflection.

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You make a fascinating point in the beginning of the book, positing that it takes the skill and storytelling savvy of a novelist to delineate the essence of the Trump scandal. How did your experience and ability as a novelist help you understand and tell this story?

Novelists are trained to keep several different story threads in their head, and they know how to weave them together to form a compelling narrative. Trump/Russia is a complicated story, with a bunch of different threads. It’s just like a novel — except that it more or less proves the old saw about truth being stranger than fiction.

Also early in the book, you admit that your “journalistic bona fides” are questionable. What would you say to someone who is skeptical of your ability to tell this story, given that you are not a journalist or political scientist?

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My book doesn’t cover any new ground. It takes the stuff we already know and gives it narrative structure, to make it easier to absorb for readers lucky enough not to know the difference between Sergei Lavrov and Sergei Gorkov. That’s all I’m trying to do. I’m not David Corn, a seasoned Washington bureau chief with sources out the wazoo. I’m not James Comey, who has intimate first-hand knowledge of the events. And I’m certainly not Michael Wolff, who basically crashed the Trump party and wrote about it in a lurid but lame way. I’m a long-form writer who has carefully followed Trump/Russia, who has written and tweeted about it for almost two years — who has done the research, as a historical novelist might say — and I’m telling the story the best way I know how to tell it. I’m perfectly, if not uniquely, qualified to do that.

You are confident that Mueller’s investigation will result in the removal of Trump from office. What gives you that confidence?

As I wrote in the book, Donald Trump comprises the gravest existential threat to the republic since the Civil War. That is not hyperbole. But here’s the thing: if the American experiment is going to end, it won’t be because of that fucking guy. In that, I have the fullest confidence.


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