EconoMatters, Rethinking America

What Does Putin Have on Trump?

For the sake of U.S. national security, it’s high time for Donald Trump to release all his tax returns in full. Otherwise, the calls that he is in Russia’s pocket will only grow louder.

Credit: Joseph Som and ID1974 Shutterstock.com

Takeaways


  • After the bizarre and disgraceful Trump-Putin press conference in Helsinki, Trump’s tax returns are a matter of national security.
  • If Trump refuses to release his tax returns, Republicans -- who have always described themselves as law- and-order types -- must finally step up to the plate and tell their President to do so in no uncertain terms.
  • Releasing his tax returns is the only credible way in which Trump can fend off any charges that he is in Russia’s pocket.
  • The Constitution has a specific procedure for the removal of a US president. The language is very clear: For bribery, for treason or other high crimes or misdemeanors. There are serious concerns in all three categories.

The final question at the Trump-Putin July 16 press conference in Finland came from a U.S. journalist who asked the Russian leader: “Does the Russian government have any compromising material on President Trump or his family?”

Donald Trump’s press conference performance has created consternation among influential politicians and senior officials on both sides of the Atlantic. It brings new urgency to that simple final press conference question, which Putin dodged.

Surprisingly, the Russian leader did not say ‘Nyet.’ Instead, Putin gave a rambling answer about how he did not even know Trump had visited Moscow as a businessman several years ago, just as he did “not know all the names of top American corporate leaders who attend the annual St. Petersburg economic forum.”

That bizarre response prompted Trump to inject that if the Russians had compromising information on him, “it would have been out long ago.”

The Trump money trail: What has he got to hide?

Donald Trump has been fiercely private about his business operations and has refused to publicly disclose his tax returns.

Over many years, the Trump organization looked for investors across the globe for its many property developments. It no doubt has numerous business partners who are wealthy Russians and whose activities are well known to the Russian intelligence services.

Questions abound. For example:

1. Was the cash they invested in international Trump real estate fully booked for U.S. tax purposes?

2. Was it provided to Trump family offshore holding companies or other entities?

3. Was some of the cash actually the proceeds of illicit activities?

Such questions may be purely speculative at this stage. But they are material. If there is anything illicit about his transactions with Russians, then we can be assured that Putin and his agents are fully informed. Meanwhile, we can only hope that U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller is not leaving a stone unturned to determine the truth.

The role of Deutsche Bank

Some of Trump’s enterprises defaulted on debts to assorted banks some years ago. The big effect of that was that, by 2012, the only major bank still providing cash to the Trump organization was Germany’s Deutsche Bank.

Just why it was so close to Trump and whether or not its Moscow branch (which was involved in large-scale money laundering) ever had dealings with Trump or his associates, remains a mystery.

Robert Mueller is seeking to get to the bottom of this by not only going after all kinds of bank records, but by also putting the screws on several individuals who have been close to Trump, who have had extensive dealings with Russian financiers, and who now face jail.

First, Michael Flynn, briefly the White House National Security Advisor and the leading foreign policy spokesman in the Trump election campaign, continues to be cross-examined by Mueller and his team. Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and was promised a light sentence if he cooperated with Mueller.

Flynn had taken cash from Russian enterprises in 2016. He went to court recently to request that he finally be sentenced, but Mueller objected and stated there was still more information that he wanted from Flynn. The judge agreed. The length of Flynn’s sentence will depend on what information of value he can still provide to Mueller.

Michael Cohen: Trump’s “fixer”

Second, a host of possible legal actions are likely to come down on the head of former Trump business lawyer Michael Cohen and as investigations intensify by both New York State prosecutors and the Mueller team.

Now Cohen, who was long seen as Trump’s “fixer,” is letting it be known that he would rather cooperate with prosecutors than remain loyal to Trump.

Cohen allegedly went to Prague in 2016 to meet with Russian bankers on behalf of the Trump organization. Cohen has publicly denied this. But the source of the allegation is Christopher Steele, a former British secret service agent who is highly respected within the FBI and who compiled a dossier for the campaign of Hillary Clinton on Trump’s diverse connections to Russians.

Third, there is the duo of Paul Manafort and his former business colleague Rick Gates – for some months in 2016, Manafort was the chairman of Trump’s campaign, while in early 2017, Gates held a White House position.

Gates has agreed to cooperate with Robert Mueller. Manafort is in jail pending his trial, now scheduled for July 25 (his lawyers are seeking to postpone the starting date) on many counts of money laundering and tax evasion. These charges, if proven, could see him spend years in prison, unless he reveals all the information he has on Trump and Russia in a plea bargain with Mueller.

Family ties

Moreover, Mueller has clearly not lost sight of the diverse contacts that White House advisor and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner has had with Russian bankers, including a meeting in December 2016 in New York with Sergey N. Gorkov, the chief of Vnesheconombank and a close friend of Putin who is on the official U.S. sanctions list.

Another prominent Russian who is believed to have ties to Trump and/or his family is – and is very much on Mueller’s radar – is Alexander Torshin, a deputy head of Russia’s central bank, who is a very visible and large supporter of the U.S. National Rifle Association, which was a major Trump campaign backer.

Stepping back from the details, it is clear that the latest Trump press conference will make even more Americans skeptical about whether Putin really has some sort of hold over the U.S. president. As the questions mount, so the political landscape in the United States is changing dramatically.

Anti-corruption crusader Richard Painter

There is no better illustration than the political transformation of Richard Painter, who was the chief ethics advisor to President George W. Bush from 2005 to 2007. Painter is now running as a Democratic Party member for a Senate seat in his home state of Minnesota.

He has forcefully and frequently stated in television interviews that there should be a full investigation into all of the offshore holding companies controlled by the Trump organization and the Trump family and all of their dealings with Russian oligarchs.

He is by no means a lone voice. Public reactions have encouraged him to now run for public office and he leads his campaign declaration by stressing:

The Constitution has a specific procedure for the removal of a U.S. president. The language is very clear: For bribery, for treason or other high crimes or misdemeanors. I think we’ve reached a point where we are well beyond [President Richard Nixon’s near impeachment] with respect to evidence of bribery, treason, collusion with Russians and also high crimes and misdemeanors. We have serious concerns in all three categories.

We live in extraordinary times when a U.S. reporter asks a Russian president if he has dirt on the president of the United States. And, when increasing numbers of influential Americans believe that the Robert Mueller investigation will show that indeed the true answer is “Da.”

Conclusion: Release all tax returns in full

The minimum step that Donald Trump should volunteer now, not least for the sake of U.S. national security, is to release all his tax returns in full.

That is the only credible way in which he can fend off any charges that he is in Russia’s pocket. If Trump refuses to do so, Republicans — who have always described themselves as law- and-order types — must finally step up to the plate and tell their President to do so in no uncertain terms.

Trump’s tax returns, at this stage, are no longer a private matter, nor are they a matter of his financial prowess (or lack thereof), as had long been assumed. After the bizarre and disgraceful Trump-Putin press conference in Helsinki, they are a matter of national security.

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About Frank Vogl

Frank Vogl is co-founder of Transparency International and author of Waging War on Corruption: Inside the Movement Fighting the Abuse of Power. [Washington D.C., United States]

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