Is Money-Laundering the Real Trump Kompromat?
In November testimony, Fusion GPS’s Glenn Simpson outlined a potential scheme to the House Intelligence Committee, but it hasn’t pursued the line of investigation.
So far, the release of transcripts of Fusion GPS founder Glenn Simpson’s interviews with the House Intelligence and Senate Judiciary committees have provided rich detail to obsessives but few major headlines for the average reader. The interviews give some more clarity on how Fusion came to investigate Donald Trump; who was paying the company; and how it gathered information, but they offer much help in assessing the Trump dossier.
Perhaps the most interesting thread is Simpson’s suggestion that the Trump Organization could have been used by Russians to launder money—an arrangement that would have both allowed Kremlin-linked figures to scrub cash and would have created possible blackmail material over the now-president, since the Russian government would be aware that a crime had been committed.
“I've felt all along in the Russia investigation that the most important issues were those that had the potential of exerting a continuing influence over the administration and over U.S. policy,” Representative Adam Schiff of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told me Friday. “And if the Russians were laundering money through the Trump Organization, the Russians would know it, the president would know it, and that could be very powerful leverage.”
In the interviews, Simpson is cagey about some of his business practices, and professes ignorance about the sources used by Christopher Steele, the former British intelligence officer who assembled the reports in the dossier. (Since lying to the committee would be a crime, it’s reasonable to assume his testimony is not deliberately false.) What’s most interesting is all the threads Simpsons mentions about possible Trump connections he’d reviewed with various Russians, with mobsters, and with others. For the most part, they’re just allegations: If Simpson has proof, it’s not disclosed in the transcripts. More often, they seem like tantalizing possibilities worth exploring more, but which Simpson was unable to nail down.
In the House Intelligence Committee transcript, released Thursday, Schiff quizzes Simpson on the idea that the Trump Organization served as a forum for money-laundering.
The theory is that both sides would have something to gain. For Russian oligarchs and mobsters, there’s a need to launder money. “Generally speaking, the patterns of activity that we thought might be suggestive of money laundering were, you know, fast turnover deals and deals where there seemed to have been efforts to disguise the identity of the buyer,” Simpson told the committee in November. Trump, meanwhile, was in need of liquidity, because many banks were unwilling to do business with him after a corporate bankruptcy, and Russian buyers could provide quick infusions of cash. In other cases, the Trump Organization has appeared to have gone out of its way to avoid doing due diligence on business partners.
But while Simpson saw disturbing patterns, he was unable to nail anything down, because he couldn’t get the relevant records from banks and other financial institutions. Schiff posed an interesting question: Simpson didn’t have subpoena power, but the committee did. Who should it subpoena if it wanted to learn more? Simpson laid out a roadmap for Schiff:
So the first thing that I would do would be to subpoena the brokers and the people, the other people that were involved in the transactions, and the title companies and the other intermediaries that would have that kind of information. Then I would go to the banks next. But I actually think some of the intermediary entities in a lot of these transactions are going to be where a lot of the information is….
I'm trying to think of the creative way to do this. I mean, as you may know, you know, most of these transactions are cleared through New York. And the other sort of central place for information is SWIFT in Brussels. But I would go for the clearing banks in New York that cleared the transactions, you know. And there's—again, it's these sort of intermediary entities that have no real interest in protecting the information, and all you have to do is ask for it and they just sort of produced by rote. So we've done a lot of money laundering investigations where we go to the trust companies and the clearing entities. And so, you know, all dollar transactions are generally cleared through New York. So, you know, the main thing you have to do is identify the banks that were used.
Simpson also named a series of people and companies from which he’d seek information.
But Schiff told me Friday that the committee had been unable to follow this roadmap, because Republican members are not interested. He noted that the committee had gone to court to force Fusion GPS to turn over its own bank records. “They're only interested in financial transactions that involve Fusion GPS, apparently,” Schiff said.
Of all the questions surrounding Trump and Russia, the question of whether the Kremlin could have laundered money through the Trump Organization in order to blackmail Trump has not often held the spotlight, obscured behind more direct connections, like discussions between Russian officials and Trump campaign officials like Donald Trump Jr. or George Papadapoulos, or more lurid ones from the Trump dossier.
Schiff, however, has long been interested in the idea. “The allegation that concerns me most is ... the issue of money laundering, and not money laundering alone by Mr. Manafort but whether the Russians also laundered money through the Trump Organization,” he told me in October. “I mention that because when most people think of kompromat, they think of the salacious video. But if the Russians were laundering money... that would be a very powerful lever the Russians would have over the president of the United States.”
Schiff noted that Steve Bannon told Michael Wolff in Fire and Fury that he believed money-laundering investigations were a real threat to the Trump administration.
“Before we looked into the allegations that Trump campaign people were surreptitiously meeting with the Russians it was only an allegation, but it proved to be all too true,” Schiff said. “Before we looked into allegations that Mike Flynn was having secret communications with the Russians and that the Trump transition might be seeking to undermine the sanctions imposed on Russia over its interference to help the Trump campaign, that was only an allegation, but that proved to be true. There's simply no way to either verify or be able to dismiss these serious allegations without looking into them.”
Schiff said his first priority would be to obtain records from Deutsche Bank, which did business with Trump when most banks would not. Last year, New York state fined Deutsche Bank $425 million over a scheme that laundered $10 billion out of Russia, one of several hefty fines levied on the bank by regulators worldwide in recent years.
Though relations between the Republican and Democratic members of the intelligence committee remain contentious, they seem to have improved since Chairman Devin Nunes stepped aside from the investigation amidst a bizarre escapade, in which the White House appeared to be feeding Nunes claims of ethical lapses by the Obama administration in handling intelligence information.
But the partisan tensions bubbled over again Friday, with a skirmish over a report apparently produced by a splinter faction of Republican members of the House Intelligence Committee led by Nunes. The GOP majority voted Thursday night to share the report with colleagues, but not to release it to the general public. By Friday morning, however, Republican members of Congress were demanding the memo be made public—with their calls being amplified by Russian-linked Twitter accounts.
The exact contents of the report are unclear, but it appears to allege wrongdoing on the part of the Justice Department and FBI in handling surveillance. Representative Steve King of Iowa described it as “worse than Watergate.”
But given his recent history of making splashy but unsupported claims, it’s difficult to grant Nunes the benefit of the doubt. In the spring, he made a series of extremely serious allegations against the Obama administration, including improper surveillance of Trump aides. No proof of those allegations emerged, and the Justice Department has since said there was no surveillance. It soon became clear that Nunes was receiving information from White House staffers (who have since been pushed out of the White House), even as he was overseeing an ostensibly independent investigation into the president.
One source told Business Insider’s Natasha Bertrand that the present memo represented “a level of irresponsible stupidity that I cannot fathom” and “purposefully misconstrues facts and leaves out important details.”
Schiff accused Republicans who have circulated the memo of carrying water for the White House. “It’s a bit of a hodgepodge of false statements and misleading representations,” he said, and argued that the report sought to mislead the public, relying on the expectation that the classified information that underpins and contextualizes it would never be made public.
“Most of the majority members have not read the underlying materials and have acknowledged as much, so they are voting to release information that they have not read the underlying materials,” Schiff said.
Republican Mike Conaway, a Republican who replaced Nunes as the chief of the Intelligence Committee’s Russia probe, told Politico he did not expect the report to become public, but his office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on why.