Since the 2016 election we have seen three different interpretations of Donald Trump’s relationship with Russia. There has been the total denial from pro-Trump partisans, which has been heavily contradicted by the investigations in progress. There is the twisting of the facts by pro-Clinton partisans to see try to frame everything as a conspiracy between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin to deny Hillary Clinton the presidency she deserved. The facts have also frequently contradicted this view. Then there is the evidence-based view which non-partisans such as myself have promoted that the real issue concerns financial crimes such as Money laundering by family and associates of Donald Trump, along with a cover-up of their activities.
As I discussed yesterday, information in the portions of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House which were released yesterday are consistent with this view. Vox, which generally follows the Democratic Party line, has also provided evidence that the real crime here is money laundering. Vox has a post based upon information from a Russia expert which downplays the role of Vladimir Putin and politics and stresses the role of money laundering entitled, “Set aside Putin and follow the money”: a Russia expert’s theory of the Trump scandal. From the introduction:
“To understand the roots of the collusion, set aside Putin and follow the money.”
That’s what Seva Gunitsky, a politics professor at the University of Toronto and the author of Aftershocks, told me in a September interview. I reached out to Gunitsky after he posted a short but incisive thread on Twitter about the financial roots of the Trump-Russia collusion case.
Gunitsky, who was raised in Russia, has followed the evolving relationship between Donald Trump and Russia for more than a decade. He says the prevailing narrative about Putin interfering in the American election in order to undermine democracy is wildly overstated.
Putin is happy to sow confusion and distrust in America’s system, of course, but to assume that’s the basis of this operation is to overlook a much simpler motive: money.
The financial connections between Trump and various Russian banks and oligarchs (business elites with ties to the Kremlin) stretch back decades, which is likely a big reason why Trump won’t release his tax returns. Trump’s election, Gunitsky contends, presented Russian oligarchs with an opportunity to recoup losses and leverage Trump’s debts for political gain.
The interview began after this introduction. Here are some excerpts:
This collusion story gets more convoluted by the day. But you seem to think it’s pretty straightforward.
I think it’s justifiable for you to say that it seems impossibly convoluted, but I would say it’s still much simpler than this idea that there’s a global conspiracy designed to bring down democracy. I’m not saying the political dimension is unimportant — surely it is. But if we’re talking about the roots of the collusion, we have to look at where Trump’s links with Russia begin. And it begins with money. [These roots] don’t start with the election; they start with money, and namely Russian oligarch money.
So walk me through the trail. Where does the money lead?
Again, this doesn’t start with the election; it starts with Russian oligarch money pouring into Trump’s real estate and casino businesses. Many of them Trump has been working with for years, well before he developed any serious political ambitions. And we’re not talking about small change here; we’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars. Possibly even enough to keep Trump out of another bankruptcy.
And we know this how, exactly?
We know because they’ve told us. We can talk about specific cases in a minute, but Donald Trump Jr. has already admitted the importance of Russian money to their business ventures. He said publicly in 2008 that “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.” It doesn’t get much clearer than that.
And this is why you think Western media has overplayed the centrality of Putin in all of this? We have this notion of Putin as a kind of master strategist playing 10-dimensional chess with Trump. I think it’s obvious that once Putin saw an opportunity he took it, but these financial ties go back a long way, long before the 2016 election.
I think that’s right. Putin is often put up as this sort of central antagonist, but the Russian government is not this shadowy monolith. It’s sometimes portrayed this way in the West, but in reality the Russian government is messy and disorganized and ad hoc.
It’s possible that Putin was not even fully aware of efforts to court Trump up until last year, or a couple years ago. Putin, we often forget, has supporters to keep happy as well, people who desperately want to open up those channels of Russian finance…
As hard as it is to make sense of all this, it does help to explain Trump’s unusual consistency on all things Russia. This is a guy without a fixed ideological core, but his bizarre pro-Russia posture is arguably the only issue on which he’s been consistent.
I’d only slightly disagree here and say the thing about which he’s been most consistent is the desire to make money. And if we take that, then his consistency on Russia becomes much more sensible.
I think you’re absolutely right that he has no strong ideological commitments. We’ve seen that painfully over and over during the last few months. But if his financial interests are tied up with Russian oligarchs, who in turn are tied up with the Kremlin and thus have parallel interests, then Trump’s “consistency” becomes much more explainable.
And if we emphasize this financial angle a bit more, it also makes a lot of sense that he would not want to release his tax returns. Because that would expose just how deeply embedded he is with Russian money.
While not discussed here, this also presents an explanation for Donald Trump’s attempts to obstruct the investigation. It is also possible that this financial leverage gave Putin reason to want to see Trump elected, but there has yet to be demonstrated any evidence of collusion between Putin and Trump with regards to altering the election results, or that Russia’s action during the election, including alleged actions on social media, were of any major significance.
While this fact might not be pleasing to Clinton-partisans eager for an excuse for Clinton’s loss (or in some cases pundits who seek an explanation for why they were wrong in their predictions), Democrats should be satisfied if a case of money laundering and obstruction of justice can be built against Donald Trump–which appears very likely to be the case. Steve Bannon’s statement that “This is all about money laundering” in Wollf’s book is just the latest evidence of this–and likely one of many reasons that Donald Trump is trying to halt publication of the book.