While the American public was distracted by the spectacle of Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination and eventual confirmation to the Supreme Court, special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Trump-Russia scandal continued. In recent weeks Mueller has issued more indictments against Russian cyber-spies. The Trump campaign’s connections with a foreign company skilled at using social media for information warfare has become the focus of renewed interest. Perhaps the most important development is the news that a Republican operative — who later committed suicide — had transferred large sums of money to Russian hackers with the goal of obtaining information from Hillary Clinton’s email server.
In a stunning coup of investigative journalism, the New York Times recently presented evidence that Donald Trump has been one of the largest tax cheats in recent American history. Before becoming president, Trump apparently evaded hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes. The Times also discovered that, far from being a “self-made man,” Donald Trump was the beneficiary of hundreds of millions of dollars in tax fraud, gifts, inheritances, and other tax-free money from his father.
While the American people and the world are eagerly awaiting a great revelation in the Trump-Russia inquiry — secretly recorded conversations of Donald Trump and his associates pledging personal loyalty to Russian President Vladimir Putin, or a sex tape featuring Trump and Russian prostitutes — it may be something more mundane and obvious that finally leads to Trump’s downfall.
In his new book “House of Trump, House of Putin: The Untold Story of Donald Trump and the Russian Mafia,” veteran investigative journalist Craig Unger presents a detailed and exhaustively researched account of how Donald Trump has for decades laundered billions of dollars for Russian organized crime figures and other oligarchs. This fits a larger pattern in which Trump and his inner circle have shown a great comfort with financial crimes and other forms of unethical or illegal behavior to personally enrich themselves at the expense of the American people.
Ultimately, Trump’s involvement with Russia’s criminal underworld may have created an opening for Putin and his agents to manipulate and control the man who would later become president of the United States.
My conversation with Craig Unger has been edited for clarity and length.
Given all that is publicly known about Donald Trump and his suspicious connections to Russia — never mind his anti-democratic behavior — on a certain level it is surreal and almost unbelievable that he became president and has not yet been removed from office.
It is astounding. When John Brennan lost his security clearance the contrast was so stark — there is no way in the world Donald Trump would have received a security clearance and he is president of the United States. Donald Trump has had contacts with the Russian mafia for 35 years. His properties have laundered money for them. The Russian mafia are connected to Russian intelligence. They’re living and have been working in Trump’s building. Trump has even partnered with them. There are so many ways in which he’s compromised. As you say, I think it’s all on the public record. The Republicans are also implicated. As I explain in my new book, the Russians didn’t just go after Donald Trump: They went after the entire Republican Party. There is Russian money going into the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, the NRA, and then to Republican officials and candidates directly.
Why has the American news media been largely unable to effectively explain to the public the threat Trump embodies to the country and the world?
There are a great many different factors. The news media is so fractured and factionalized. Therefore there is no shared national narrative. For example, let’s say MSNBC gets it right at times. But that still leaves hundreds of millions of Americans who are not getting the message. The Trump-Russia story is also complicated but the news cycle is too fast. Plus, it is fragmented by social media. So it’s very hard for people to draw back and see the big picture. The news almost never offers the deep background into how this whole Trump-Russia scandal began.
Putin uses the Russian mafia as a weapon. This is part of the geopolitical conflict. This is many ways goes back to the ending of the Cold War. It wasn’t really over. Most Americans do not understand that fact. Yes, the Soviet Union crumbled but Russia didn’t give up. The KGB sat there and waited. They started various companies. You have at least four billionaires with those connections who ended up partnering with Donald Trump 25 years later.
I think one of the powerful unseen forces here is that at the end of the Soviet Union, you suddenly have trillions of dollars that have to be laundered. It opened the floodgates for the Russian mafia and for the oligarchs. A good way to launder that money is through real estate. Trump made it clear he was ready, willing and able to do that without asking any questions. Trump was $4 billion in debt after his casinos failed in Atlantic City. He came back thanks to the Russians.