Archive | Trump Investigation

Crossroads for Kushner

At the beginning of the Trump administration, Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, was given a portfolio Superman would have struggled to fill. Kushner wasn’t even Clark Kent. The 36-year-old second generation real estate tycoon had an undistinguished business career and zero government experience. A mediocre student, Kushner attended Harvard because his father gifted the school $2.5 million. Nonetheless, Trump put Kushner in charge of brokering peace between Israel and the Palestinians, improving government technology, directing criminal justice reform, tackling the opioid epidemic, reforming the Veterans Administration and serving as the U.S. liaison to Mexico, China and the Muslim community.

Either Donald Trump thought his son-in-law was a genius or was ridiculing his ambition. If the metric was tangible progress on these world-altering tasks, Trump clearly set up the young man to fail.

Or perhaps, Donald Trump had another purpose for Kushner, apart from his official responsibilities.

In the game of musical chairs that has become his father-in-law’s administration, did Trump tap Kushner to be the last man standing when the music stops? Trump’s motivations concerning Kushner will take on greater importance in the months to come, when hard choices may become inevitable.

In the early days of the administration, Kushner was everywhere. He was in attendance at most important White House meetings. His youthful face easy to spot in official photos. Press accounts of the internecine struggles gripping the White House inevitably included a description of whose side Kushner and wife Ivanka favored.

Then came the firing of FBI Director James Comey, which inexorably led to the appointment of the special prosecutor. Kushner allegedly counseled the president to sack Comey. Today, Kushner mostly stays out of view. He is no longer the man by the president’s side, at least in public. However, disentangling oneself from press releases does not guarantee an escape from news accounts.

Recent reports have claimed the IRS, the DOJ and Special Counsel Robert Mueller are all looking at either Kushner or business dealings in which he or his family participated. His lawyers deny he is the target of any investigation.

Unfortunately for Kushner, he is tailor-made for prosecutors, presenting a trifecta of criminal tells. Kushner possesses both the means and the motive for breaking the law. He is also curiously cagey. When it comes to his financial activities, Kushner acts as if he has a lot to hide.

On the question of means, there are few in closer proximity to power. As to motive, aside from the eager ambition of an entitled naïf and the desire for his father-in-law to win the presidency, Kushner’s privately held family company is drowning in more than a billion dollars of debt.

And oh, the stories Kushner could tell.

He has first-hand information about the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russians but that’s only the beginning of what he knows. His connections to Bibi Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman have created further opportunities for private financial gain and fodder to share about Trump.

Kushner was intimately involved at every step of the campaign. He was present at the infamous June 2016 meeting where Donald Trump Jr. and Paul Manafort met with several Kremlin-connected Russians to receive dirt on the Clinton campaign. After the election, he continued to see Russians officials, even though they represented a foreign adversary widely acknowledged to have committed a cyberattack against the nation, albeit one on Trump’s behalf.

In December, Kushner met with Russia’s ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, at Trump Tower where he discussed establishing an unprecedented secure line between the Trump transition and Russia that would be out of earshot of U.S. intelligence officials. Seasoned intelligence professionals were aghast. On whose behalf did Kushner act? For what purpose? And once the Trumps were in the White House, did they go ahead and install a server or create a backchannel communication to Putin anyway?

Then Kislyak arranged a meeting for Kushner with Sergey Gorkov, the CEO of Russia’s state-owned bank Vnesheconombank (VEB). The bank had served as a slush fund for Vladimir Putin and was under sanction by the U.S. government. Descriptions of the meeting conflict. Kushner says he was there as part of the Trump transition. VEB says it was about the Kushner family’s real estate business. One could conclude the Russians do not have Kushner’s back.

Kushner’s family business is in a bad state. His father, Charles Kushner, was released from federal custody in August 2006. He had served a 14-month stint on a two-year sentence for tax evasion, witness tampering and illegal campaign donations. Charlie returned with a vengeance. The family purchased 666 Fifth Avenue for $1.8 billion soon after his release. The building has become an albatross, never reaching satisfactory occupancy levels.

The unfortunately numbered Fifth Avenue property was only the beginning of the buying spree. The Kushners purchased two massive properties within spitting distance of the Brooklyn Bridge for almost $700 million. In the years before the election, the Kushners added well over 100 additional properties. To fuel the expansion, Kushner and his family gorged on debt. The origins of some of their financing remains hidden through the secrecy world, a haze of shell companies, tax havens and anonymous foreign investors.

By the time Trump improbably won the White House, the Kushners were in desperate need of new investors. They were massively overleveraged. On the 666 Fifth Avenue property alone they owed a $1.2 billion mortgage scheduled to come due in February 2019.

Kushner co-mingled his search for real estate financing with his official government duties. Reporters and prosecutors noticed. The practice of embracing private self-interest while ostensibly working for the public was normalized at the top but Kushner was clumsier than his father-in-law.

During the transition, Kushner pursued Chinese insurance giant Anbang – itself an opaquely-financed real estate investor but one with ties to the Chinese government – to buy 666 Fifth Avenue. Kushner did so while simultaneously spearheading the Trump administration’s outreach to China. Anbang backed away from the 666 Fifth Avenue deal over the conflicts. A year later the Chinese government seized control of the company citing financial improprieties.

The Kushners also hatched a scheme to sell foreigners green cards in exchange for investing at least half a million dollars in their real estate deals. Prosecutors and the SEC are said to be scrutinizing these efforts.

A month before Election Day, the Kushner company scored a $285 million loan as part of a refinancing for its property near Times Square in Manhattan. The loan came from Deutsche Bank. The German bank has provided a rich vein of money for Trump World. U.S. prosecutors are said to be looking at the bank’s relationship with the Kushners.

In Germany, they joke that any gathering of more than two Deutsche Bank executives is a criminal conspiracy. The bank was recently fined $630 million for laundering billions of dollars of sketchy Russian money. It reached a $7.2 billion settlement with the Justice Department for its role in feeding the toxic mortgage frenzy behind the 2008 financial crisis. Deutsche also agreed to pay $2.5 billion for its manipulation of interest rates. Given its frequent clashes with regulators, the relationship between Deutsche Bank and Trump & Co. raises multiple issues.

Kushner has exhibited a curious pattern of secrecy and misleading disclosures. The tone once again was set at the top with Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns. Kushner though does not have the same authority or mandate as his father-in-law in this regard. He is required by law as a government employee to disclose his finances, among other details.

The financing behind the Kushner real estate empire remains opaque. The family is fighting hard for it to stay secret. Media organizations sued in federal court to find out the details of who invested in a Kushner property in Maryland. When a federal district judge ruled that the Kushners had to reveal the information, the family’s lawyers filed to move the case to state court.

After pillorying Hillary Clinton during the campaign for having a private email server, it emerged that Kushner and Ivanka had conducted official Trump administration business through private email. Much has been made in the media of the hypocrisy but less so over what they may or may not be hiding.

Kushner and Ivanka have updated their financial disclosure forms dozens of times since first filing them. Even with their additions, the forms are still missing key information. Kushner is also required to reveal his contacts with foreign officials. He filed three updates just last year to the questionnaire that details contacts with foreign officials. These contacts also have become a point of interest for Mueller, according to media reports.

Kushner has only held an interim security clearance since Trump took office. It appears the DOJ has argued against his receiving full clearance. High-level access to the most sensitive secrets of the United States government and the ability to influence policy can be monetized in any number of ways. Despite not having full clearance, The Washington Post reported Kushner makes more requests for information to the intelligence community than any White House employee outside of the national security council.

Kushner is fiercely resisting any attempt to downgrade his access. According to press accounts, there is a heated debate within the White House over whether Kushner will be granted full security clearance. The DOJ’s reticence may be an indication of the seriousness of the investigations swirling around Kushner and whether his family business can withstand a determined deep dive by prosecutors.

His father-in-law could end the debate this minute. Trump has the power to grant a full security clearance to Kushner immediately. Instead, he has chosen to leave the decision to his chief of staff while praising his son-in-law as “truly outstanding” and “an extraordinary dealmaker.”

Why won’t Trump let Kushner off the hook? Does he see trouble ahead? Was this the praise of death?

Kushner allegedly stepped down from the family business when he joined the administration, opting for a transfer of assets to relatives, the same pseudo divestment as Trump. It is possible that Jared Kushner is everything his lawyers and public relations team claim him to be – innocent as the driven snow – a simple public servant who labors hard on behalf of the people at incredible personal sacrifice.

Given time and resources, Mueller will find out one way or another.

With the plea deal of Rick Gates, the special prosecutor is one step closer. Kushner and Gates worked closely together during the campaign and transition. Gates might be able to shed light on Kushner activities concerning Cambridge Analytica as well as contacts with Russia, among other matters.

The special prosecutor has shown a willingness to grant immunity or strike plea deals in exchange for testimony. To gain such a deal one presumably needs to be able to offer high value to the investigation. There is only one person above Jared Kushner that would provide the most benefit to prosecutors.

In a scenario where the special counsel finds serious criminal wrongdoing by Kushner, the president’s son-in-law would need to be completely truthful, offering “full cooperation,” as the condition of any plea agreement. Mueller has some incredibly talented prosecutors and investigators at his disposal. They know the right questions to ask. Lies and misrepresentations end the deal and bring additional penalties.

Some part of Donald Trump must believe that the American people gave him the keys to the Big Rock Candy Mountain, a conman’s paradise where one lives entirely above the law. His buddies Vladimir Putin and Mohammed bin Salman happily reside there. Why not The Donald?

Kushner could disabuse Trump of that notion, salvage the American ideal of equality before the law, and become a hero to a majority of the country in the process. Or he could take whatever hit prosecutors throw at him and remain within the bosom of the family into which he married – sweetened perhaps with the promise of some future favor.

There are many factors Kushner must calculate in such a decision. Trump has repeatedly shown himself to be an untrustworthy ally. Kushner is not blood; he is expendable. Forced to choose, Ivanka would go with her father.

Kushner is the perfect fall guy, foolishly ambitious and overextended, entangled enough to ensure loyalty and prosecutor catnip.

In the above scenario, everything will depend on the size of the legal jeopardy Kushner faces and whether there is a Superman in there after all.

 

 

Foreign Agent Men

Flynn Foreign Agent Registration If former national security advisor Michael Flynn is indeed cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller, the conversation with prosecutors likely includes information about clandestine lobbying for foreign powers by officials connected to Trump. This reflects a deeper corruption in Washington, D.C. beyond the self-interested actions of a single individual. Accepting foreign cash to influence U.S. policy has long besmirched both political parties. It is a recurring theme in Mueller’s Trump-Russia investigation.

Last March, after Flynn was forced from his position in the White House, he publicly revealed Turkish interests had secretly paid him. Flynn’s company took $530,000 in August 2016 from a Turkish businessman in part to lobby the US government to extradite the cleric, Fethullah Gulen. Despite the payment, Flynn failed at that time to register as a foreign agent as required by law.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blames Gülen, who lives in Pennsylvania, for the attempted coup against him in the summer of 2016. Gülen’s followers have indeed been influential in Turkey’s government bureaucracy and throughout Turkish society. They represent a force in Turkey outside of Erdogan’s control. However, the Turkish government did not produce sufficient evidence of wrongdoing to convince the Obama administration to extradite Gülen to a country where the justice system is increasingly rigged to favor the executive branch and torture is common.

On the day Trump was elected president, the Hill published a hyperbolic op-ed by Flynn, who was at the time a Trump campaign surrogate secretly shilling for Turkey. Flynn compared Gülen to terrorists like Osama bin Laden and urged his extradition.

“The forces of radical Islam derive their ideology from radical clerics like Gülen, who is running a scam,” wrote Flynn. “We should not provide him safe haven. In this crisis, it is imperative that we remember who our real friends are.”

The Wall Street Journal has reported that the FBI is investigating whether Flynn was prepared to do much more than pen an opinion piece. He and his son, Michael Flynn Jr., allegedly participated in discussions about kidnapping Gülen and ferrying him via private jet to the Turkish prison island of Imrali. The Flynns allegedly offered to provide this service in return for $15 million.

Flynn was not the only influential member of the Washington establishment advocating for Gülen’s extradition. Former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey beginning in the Bush administration, James F. Jeffrey, also became a prominent voice promoting the Erdogan line. Jeffrey offered advice to the Trump transition team on Turkey from his perch at the nonprofit Washington Institute. He urged the new administration to extradite Gülen to reset relations with Turkey.

A confidential diplomatic cable leaked by Wikileaks from 2009 shows Jeffrey wrestling with the Gülen issue as ambassador. In the document, he details the history and scope of Gülen’s influence in Turkey. Jeffrey was clearly wary of Gülen but did not recommend the cleric’s deportation.

By August 2016, Jeffrey’s position had evolved. He is quoted in a Turkish newspaper exactly a month after the coup that “most indications, not just the Turkish government’s statements, point to the Gülenist movement,” as behind the uprising.

Just how far Jeffrey was willing to go to present the case can be seen in another Wikileaks release, this one from the private emails of Mehmet Ali Yalcindag, a wealthy Turkish business partner of Donald Trump. The two collaborated on the Trump Towers Istanbul. Yalcindag married into one of Turkey’s most prominent families, which controls media, real estate and oil interests through the Dogan Group. The family conglomerate has been under attack by Erdogan for its media coverage of the regime and over allegations of tax evasion.

Yalcindag, who is desperate to curry favor with Erdogan, forwarded an email with an opinion piece written by Jeffrey that was published in the German newspaper Die Zeit. The article forcefully called for the extradition of Gülen.

“Interesting insights about Gulen,” said the forwarded email. “The German public is slowly starting to understand the situation!”

Yalcindag sent the email to Serhat Albayrak, the brother of Erdogan’s son-in-law, Berat Albayrak, who is the Turkish minister of energy and is mentioned as a potential successor to Erdogan.

Six months later when U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson traveled to Turkey, Jeffrey was quoted in a CBS News report accusing the Gülenists of being a threat to the US relationship with Turkey and the stability of the Middle East. Interestingly, Jeffrey had worked as an advisor to ExxonMobile when Tillerson was CEO of the oil company.

Reached by phone, Jeffrey said that he has not received money from the Turkish government or people acting on its behalf. He is not registered as a foreign agent nor does he have any plans to do so. Jeffrey denied having any contact with Michael Flynn. While he cannot provide proof of Gülen’s involvement in the coup attempt, Jeffrey holds fast to the desirability of extraditing the cleric.

Past efforts to influence U.S. policy by foreign governments and their proxies has shown that there are any number of ways to spread the money around to achieve the desired result. Case in point was the Azerbaijan America Alliance, for which former Indiana Republican Congressman Dan Burton, acted as the front man. The Alliance spent more than $12 million showering cash on politicians in Washington, lobbying for them to be friendly to Azerbaijan. It held gala dinners with attendees like Speaker of the House John Boehner and met privately with Senator John McCain and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi. With the avalanche of money came fulsome praise for the corrupt and autocratic regime from both Democrats and Republicans in Congress.

It is clear that the existing rules to bring some transparency to the policy-for-sale ethos in Washington has failed miserably.

The Foreign Agents Registration Act was first passed to flush out Nazi propaganda back in 1938. It requires agents representing the interests of foreign powers in a political or quasi-political capacity to disclose that relationship, including financial details. Potential penalties include fines and jail time. Unfortunately, the Justice Department sees it as voluntary and hasn’t bothered to enforce the law. Circa reported in March that the DOJ had only prosecuted four cases involving violation of the law in the past ten years.

Special counsel Mueller is signaling a break with tradition.

Unregistered lobbying was the lynchpin of Mueller’s indictment against Paul Manafort and Richard Gates. Mueller charged that Manafort and Gates had created a limited liability company to engage in lobbying, consulting and public relations for the Government of Ukraine. The alleged laundering of money by Manafort, some $18 million, was to hide the profits from his work as an unregistered foreign agent.

It’s worth quoting from the indictment at length on the matter:

It is illegal to act as an agent of a foreign principal engaged in certain United States influence activities without registering the affiliation. Specifically, a person who engages in lobbying or public relations work in the United States (hereafter collectively referred to as lobbying) for a foreign principal such as the Govennnent of Ukraine or the Party of Regions is required to provide a detailed written registration statement to the United States Department of Justice. The filing, made under oath, must disclose the name of the foreign principal, the financial payments to the lobbyist, and the measures undertaken for the foreign principal, among other information. A person required to make such a filing must further make in all lobbying material a “conspicuous statement” that the materials are distributed on behalf of the foreign principal, among other things. The filing thus permits public awareness and evaluation of the activities of a lobbyist who acts as an agent of a foreign power or foreign political party in the United States.