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Trump’s ties to Russian mobsters are ‘absolutely unprecedented’: Former acting FBI chief Andrew McCabe

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Before he became infamous for working on the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails and the Trump Russia investigation, former acting FBI chief Andrew McCabe investigated the Russian mob in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. McCabe has been asking some of the questions we at “Trump, Inc.” have asked ourselves about Trump’s business. So today, we compare notes.

In this conversation with Andrea Bernstein and Heather Vogell, of “Trump, Inc.,” McCabe talks about why it makes sense that some of the people he investigated in the 1990s have resurfaced in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, what questions he still has after the Mueller report and why he and former FBI director Jim Comey have said Trump’s management style reminds them of the mob.

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Trump has long denied any wrongdoing, and he has said he was simply acting as an ordinary businessman in his Russia dealings.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

WNYC’s Andrea Bernstein: I want to start by asking you about your FBI training. You write about being at Quantico and you say, “I embraced every bit of this culture, even the most arbitrary aspects of the discipline.” You say that you loved “wearing the same style of polo shirt every day for weeks on end, loved the fact that everybody around me wore the same polo shirt too.” Why was it important to you, to dress the part?

Andrew McCabe: You know, I think each of those little details, though not significant individually, were a way of communicating to us that we had joined an organization that was much bigger and more significant than our individual preferences or our lives.

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Bernstein: I have to say, you definitely look like a G-man.

McCabe: I’m going to say thank you.

Bernstein: Early on in your career, you were assigned to investigate the Russian mob at a specific point in history in New York, and Brighton Beach was a big place where a lot of this activity was based. I’m wondering if you could paint a picture for listeners of what Brighton Beach was like then, and what the Russian mob was like then and how it all came to you?

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McCabe: So the FBI field office in New York City had experience with developing new programs in what we called nontraditional organized crime. The folks who ran the organized crime program recognized the situation that we had with a very large Russian-speaking population in New York — one with a deep historical connection to organized crime activity in Russia — and so they made the decision to start a Russian organized crime squad.

So when I got there in ’96, it was really still in its infant stages. Pretty much everybody on the squad were very young, new agents. “First office agents,” as we call them in the Bureau. And so we found Brighton Beach to be just a fascinating, chaotic, confusing place filled with opportunity to identify and investigate criminal activity.

Brighton in those days was a thriving, bustling, Russian-speaking community. You’d drive down Brighton Beach Avenue and all of the signs for all the stores were written in both English and Russian. It was not uncommon to walk down Brighton Beach Avenue and just not hear anyone speaking anything other than Russian. Places like Tatiana’s, Rasputin, the Odessa. All these very fancy restaurants that also operated as night clubs. And there was a thriving kind of social scene around those nightclubs, which often led to criminal activity and became the kind of focus of the organized crime community in New York at that time.

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ProPublica’s Heather Vogell: You wrote about how the Russian mob started turning more toward financial crimes and business to pursue its goals. Could you talk a little bit about that transformation?

McCabe: Sure. This was one of the fascinating things about working on that squad. You could be working an extortion or kidnapping case one day, and then a really esoteric financial fraud the next. The thing that set the Russians apart from their Italian counterparts in the organized crime community was their creativity. They very quickly became the originators of the new scams.

So they did things like the tax cheating scams on gasoline and diesel fuel that were very common in the New York-New Jersey area in those days. They really professionalized the auto insurance scams around false accidents and medical mills and clinics where people would go and get processed to increase the billings against auto insurance companies. We did a lot of that work. And then, of course, we spent a lot of time on what became known as the Bank of New York money laundering scandal. So a few enterprising employees of the Bank of New York essentially took their private banking and internal computer software, which they had access to because one of them had a position in, I believe, the private banking section of Bank of New York, and began operating their own financial institution with individuals for the purpose of transferring money from Russia first to New York and then to many other places around the world.

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Bernstein: We have spent the last year thinking about whether there is a line from some of the small-time crooks in Brighton Beach to Russian interference in the 2016 election. The list of people who seem to matter now were in some way connected to this scene. There’s Felix Sater, who is connected to the Trump Tower Moscow deal; there was Michael Cohen. They later show up trying to build a Trump Tower Moscow. And then there’s Yevgeny Dvoskin, who was convicted in the gasoline scam that you were just talking about in Brighton Beach and is now a banker in Russia.

McCabe: That’s right.

Bernstein: So they were all connected to Brighton Beach years ago, and then they show up in negotiations and 2015 and 2016. What do you make of that?

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McCabe: Well, it is at first blush curious, and then when you think about it a little bit longer, it makes perfect sense. Brighton Beach — we thought of it as kind of the Normandy landing in America for Russian organized crime folks.

So there were many people who had experience with organized crime in Russia who came to the United States and settled in Brighton Beach just because they thought it was the new frontier. And this is a place you can make a lot of money.

And then there were some who we believe were actually sent by organized crime criminal organizations in Russia for the purpose of organizing and developing business and things like that. So if you are someone, or you are an organization, that is not opposed to dealing with people with that sort of background, with those sorts of connections, with that sort of history, then you’re gonna find yourself negotiating with and being represented by people who had experience in those early ’90s heydays of Russian organized crime and Brighton Beach.

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That doesn’t really surprise me that much that you see connections like that back to the Trump Organization.

Bernstein: OK, so let’s talk about that a little more, because to us we’re like, wow! That is crazy that these characters keep re-emerging in the story, and a generation later. So when you say it doesn’t seem strange to you when you think about it, can you unpack that a little more? I mean, why is it that they’re coming to work with the Trump Organization and the man who is now the president of the United States?

McCabe: Well, as I said, it makes sense to me as an investigator. I don’t mean to say that it’s a good thing. But these are the same folks in many cases — guys like Felix Sater and others people — who we investigated back in the early and mid-’90s. If you are an organization that doesn’t have a problem with dealing with someone who has a known organized crime past and has actually been convicted of federal crimes for that same sort of activity, then you know you’re going to find yourself making deals with and being represented by Felix Sater.

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Bernstein: So how does that make you feel? Here’s the president of the United States, who is in a business deal or talking about a business deal with somebody that you investigated when you started, and when the United States started, investigating the Russian mob.

McCabe: It is to my recollection and experience absolutely unprecedented and deeply concerning. From a strictly counterintelligence perspective, these are the exact sort of connections and historical overlaps that you look for when you’re trying to determine whether or not a person or an organization could be subject to foreign influence.

If you think about it just in the context of a standard background check for access to classified information, one of the things that can slow down an unbelievably complicated background check for any individual is if they have a relative in a foreign country. That requires all kinds of other degrees of investigation because you have to understand who is that person and what position are they in and that sort of thing.

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Now think of that in terms of someone who is taking extraordinary steps to develop a potentially billion-dollar real estate investment not in any foreign country, but in Russia. I mean, that is incredibly concerning to any counterintelligence professional who is trying to make an assessment as to when, how and where will that foreign government attempt to influence this person.

Vogell: So we have all these characters re-emerging from Brighton Beach. Can you talk about the significance of that in light of what we now understand in terms of the interplay between organized crime and the state security services and the top levels of the Russian government?

McCabe: Yeah. So there’s a lot there. But I would start, I think, by saying it is very hard to desegregate organized crime from the government in Russia. I mean, we learned from the Mueller report that Vladimir Putin met quarterly with the oligarchs. The oligarchs are the modern-day masters of organized crime in Russia. They are the folks who, by one way or another, rose to the top of that pile and now control massive assets as a result. Huge fortunes.

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Vogell: So how, in your understanding, did this tie back to the Russian government?

McCabe: The place where those two things come together — the organized crime figures and the government — is through the intelligence services. So there’s always been this kind of synchronicity between the arm of the government that understands organized crime, knows who the players are, understands the businesses and the things that different individuals are engaged in, and has the kind of boots on the ground, if you will, to make those sorts of connections. Those are the intelligence services in Russia.

Bernstein: There is a mountain of evidence suggesting a Trump-Russia thing. But so far no one — not not us, not you, not Robert Mueller — has been able to say what that thing is.

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And as you have puzzled over this relationship, does it seem possible that there in fact isn’t a thing?

McCabe: I think that mountain of evidence that you referred to makes it strongly likely that there is a thing. Does that mean we’ll ever figure out what it is? No. But it certainly means we should keep looking.

If you look at even just the Trumps’ history with Deutsche Bank: It’s almost impossible to look at those series of relationships and transactions and defaults and failures followed by more and more loans. There has to be a thing at the core of that relationship between the Trump Organization and Deutsche Bank. Do we know what it is just yet? No. Will we ever? I’m not sure, but we certainly should keep looking.

Bernstein: So after the Mueller report was released, we locked ourselves in the big conference room and read it for hours.

McCabe: I did the same thing.

Bernstein: And then when we read it, we were like, well, we still have so many questions about Trump and his business dealings in Russia and how that might have linked to foreign influence in the election. If I’m hearing you correctly, I’m hearing you say that you still have a lot of questions, too.

McCabe: Well, I think anybody who follows these issues can’t help but have a lot of questions. And I don’t think that Director Mueller and his team went about their work assuming that they would answer every question about Donald Trump and about the Trump business enterprises and about his historical business entanglements with Russians or anyone else. They tried to be as narrowly tailored in their remit as they could possibly be. But sure, I still have many questions about the president and his associates’ connections with Russia. I think you can’t help but walk away from the report with a lot of things that you’d like to see more information about.

Bernstein: So you just switched to the second person you said “you can’t help.” But we’re not you. We didn’t actually start this investigation; we didn’t work on this investigation; we weren’t investigating the Russian mob two decades ago. So I’m wondering what we are to conclude from that.

McCabe: What we are to conclude from the fact that I still have questions?

Bernstein: Correct.

McCabe: Well, I think you see it the same way that I do.

I mean, I think that the issues that you address in the podcast are the best indication of that. I think even such basic things as, why is this president fighting tooth and nail to continue to withhold and conceal his own personal financial records in a way that no other president — Republican or Democrat — has ever endeavored to conceal? Those are the sorts of questions that, if you are an investigator, and you know this as well as I do, give rise to the curiosity that leads you to investigate.

Like why is it that there are so many representatives, so many people, even if it’s just a handful, people who have official connections to sanctioned entities or banks in Russia who are interacting with the president, with his associates, with his family members? Have we ever seen that before by any president or really any high-level government official? I haven’t, in the years that I’ve been doing this. So those are questions that I think were outside the scope of what Director Mueller was doing to some extent, but certainly questions I’d love to see answered.

Bernstein: Trump says in his Russia dealings he was acting like an ordinary businessman. So let’s talk about the Trump administration for a moment. You know we are big students of the history of President Trump. And before he was President Trump, he was a businessman here in our city. And one of the tactics that he honed very well was to try to kill off investigations about him or that might potentially involve him before they started.

And just observing from the outside seeing these sustained attacks by the president on you, on Peter Strzok, both of you, forced out, forced off the Russia beat, makes me feel like there’s this incredible brain drain going on. Are you alarmed by that?

McCabe: Well, I think that there’s no question that this president, that’s his approach to perceived adversity. He attacks people personally. He will stop at nothing to undermine reputations and employment and everything else. That’s certainly what I’ve experienced. And Peter and others I think have been on the sharp end of that as well.

Am I concerned that there’s no one left in the FBI to investigate these sorts of things? No. The investigative experience in that organization is deep and significant and done, hopefully, by people whose names you and the president don’t know, so they can continue doing that work carefully and quietly in the way that it needs to be done.

Bernstein: In your book you write a lot about your private thoughts in the years that you were working in the Trump administration, and as you were having these strange and sometimes alarming conversations with the president. One of the strangest interactions at that time that you wrote about was a meeting with President Trump and the White House counsel Don McGahn when you were being pressured to say it was a good idea for the president to come and address the FBI. You were writing that your permission would somehow give him cover to do something he was planning to do. In the end, he didn’t make the trip but you wrote, “The president and his men were trying to work me the way a criminal brigade would operate.” What did you mean by that?

McCabe: You know, it’s a method of operation that I’d seen many times before in my own investigative history working in Russian organized crime. The leader of the crew, the leader of an organized criminal enterprise doesn’t come out and tell someone what to do. They throw it out as an option that they want that other person to select. And so that way after the fact they can say: “Oh, I was just doing what they asked me to do. I wasn’t forcing them to pay me $100 a week to protect their furniture store. I simply gave him the option to do that, and he selected it for himself.”

So it’s a kind of a subtle, passive-aggressive kind of bullying that comes with an unspoken threat. That’s very effective. I mean, organized criminal enterprises have been doing that for as long as organized crime enterprises have existed. And so that’s what it felt like in the Oval Office that day as I was being kind of progressively backed into the corner to state the words that they wanted to hear me state.

Bernstein: Just to follow up with that, Jim Comey in his book references La Cosa Nostra. He also says the way that the president operated reminded him of the way the mob operated. But what are you guys saying here?

McCabe: It’s impossible to interact with the president and the administration without drawing that comparison. If you’re somebody who comes from an investigative background, somebody like Jim Comey or myself or anybody else who’s had experience with organized crime, the parallels are undeniable. The parallels in the way business is conducted, the way conversations proceed, the way you are asked for personal loyalty rather than loyalty to the oath that you’ve taken, the way that everything is analyzed on this kind of black-and-white paradox: you’re either with us or you’re against us, or either on our team and a part of this effort or you are somebody that we need to destroy. It’s just such an obvious comparison. I’m not trying to undermine Jim Comey or myself, but it is an undeniable parallel between the way this president conducts himself and those around him support him and conduct themselves and the things that we have seen from organized crime groups.

Bernstein: So is there an inference to be made from that or is that just an observation.

McCabe: That’s just an observation. It certainly leads to another round of questions as to why somebody would conduct themselves that way. But until you see that entity actually conducting crimes, you’re not really in a position to call it an organized crime enterprise, right? And I think that effort is ongoing.

Vogell: So we wanted to talk a little bit more about Robert Mueller, who you worked very closely with when he was FBI director.

McCabe: Yes.

Vogell: You had some wonderful and revealing personal details about his work habits and his general demeanor in the book. Especially, the one I liked, was about how on charts that showed different networks of criminal connections, he hated it when there were too many bold colors on those. Tell us a little bit more about that and what that taught you about his personality and how that was important at the time.

McCabe: You know, through your interactions with the director you would pick up those little gems like, oh my gosh, you can’t use a diagonal line on your chart. They have to be straight lines and perpendicular lines. You can’t use bold colors, as you’ve mentioned. He hated some case names, the code names that were used for major cases. And so you’re constantly kind of navigating your work with an eye on like, oh you can’t do this because the director wouldn’t like it, or you should do that because he’ll like it better.

So it was hard to do at the time and it could be a cause of great stress, but it was also a very effective way of completely transforming the way that we approached our work at least in the terrorism area.

Vogell: It was a level of discipline, is what you’re saying?

McCabe: That’s right. A level of discipline and accountability.

Vogell: There was at one point more recently when you were sort of pining for the old Bob Mueller “say nothing” FBI, right in the middle of all of these political firestorms that were going on.

McCabe: Yeah.

Vogell: Did you feel that you had gotten a long way from where you were just a few years earlier with him? And not entirely necessarily because of the directors themselves, but the whole climate and environment had changed, and did you feel the whole organization struggling to adjust to that?

McCabe: You know, I did. It was a little bit of a nostalgic look back. There were many days I was in the Hoover Building wishing I was back in Brighton Beach. Those were simpler and in many ways more satisfying times. But we changed significantly as an organization, particularly in terms of the way that we approached our responsibilities to informing the public and informing Congress of what we were doing after Director Mueller left. And that’s because those things had changed around us. In the age of 24-hour news cycles and social media and constant reporting and everything that we were doing, there was certainly a need for the Bureau to evolve in its approach to public relations and things of that nature.

And Jim Comey was the perfect guy to do it, because he had such significant abilities as a communicator and brought a great understanding of the impact of social media and media in general to the Bureau. But it did get us to a place where, you know, once you invite that guest over you’re kind of stuck entertaining that guest for as long as they stay, which in this case was forever.

Bernstein: Forever is a long night.

McCabe: It is. It is.

Bernstein: So you have been through an awful lot in the last four years. How are you feeling now about the future of our country and national security?

McCabe: You know, like many people, I am still surprised day in and day out by the things, the developments that I see in the news each day. This latest constitutional crisis that we seem to be stumbling our way towards causes me great concern. Understanding that maybe we’re at a point in history now where the executive branch not only doesn’t cooperate with the legislative branch, but completely denies and ignores their constitutional responsibilities to conduct oversight. That’s not someplace I ever thought we’d end up. Seeing things like that is tough. And I think it reinforces for us the incredible challenges that we face with this current administration.

However, I try to step back and take the long view. I try to remind myself that we as a nation have been through really infinitely tougher challenges before. We have made mistakes in the past, and we’ve gotten past those mistakes by owning up to them and acknowledging them transparently and honestly and having leadership with the courage and the moral backbone to do that and to guide us to a better place. And I think that that will happen for us this time as well. I’ve no reason to believe it won’t. And so I am still confident and optimistic about the future. I don’t know how long this kind of period of chaos will last, but it won’t last forever. And I think at the end of the day we will navigate this in the same way we have every other challenge that’s faced this country.

Bernstein: Thank you very much, Andrew McCabe.

McCabe: Sure. Thank you for having me. It’s been really fun.

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