News & Politics

The Major Development in the Russia Collusion Story Trump Desperately Wants You to Ignore

New reports link Michael Flynn to hacking and expose the president's business ties to the former USSR.

Photo Credit: Albert H. Teich / Shutterstock

Well, Thursday was a lot of fun, wasn’t it? We got to spend the day wallowing in presidential misogyny, a treat we haven’t been able to savor since we heard Donald Trump brag about getting away with random crotch grabbing because he is such a “star.” No one can be surprised. We knew he was a snake before we let him in.

As much as the president’s grotesque tweets served as a grim reminder of his true character, Trump did manage to do the one thing he has been dying to do for weeks: move the press off the Russia story. Sadly for him, it only lasted a few hours before yet another late-breaking Russia scoop hit. The Wall Street Journal’s Shane Harris published a story that links former national security adviser Michael Flynn to a longtime right-wing operative named Peter W. Smith, who told Harris he had engaged with Russian hackers to obtain the so-called “missing emails” from Hillary Clinton’s private server. Smith also claimed he was in touch with Michael Flynn and possibly his son, both of whom he knew through some earlier business dealings.

Harris also reports that “investigators have examined reports from intelligence agencies that describe Russian hackers discussing how to obtain emails from Mrs. Clinton’s server and then transmit them to Mr. Flynn via an intermediary.” That would be quite a coincidence if there were two different operations described exactly that way. As they say, stay tuned. There’s no way of knowing if this man was just blowing smoke about Flynn or whether it represents the first evidence that there was some collusion between the campaign and Russia, in this case through an outside intermediary steeped in right-wing opposition research for decades.

Smith died in May, but his history suggests it’s at least plausible that what he told Harris is true. Murray Waas wrote in Salon way back in 1998 about Smith’s role as the instigator of  “Troopergate,” which led to the Paula Jones lawsuit against Bill Clinton (with which Kellyanne Conway’s husband George was intimately involved) and the rest was history. Smith is exactly the kind of man who would have involved himself in a nefarious scheme like this.

That story will undoubtedly be picked over quite a bit in the coming days. Unfortunately, another big Russia story, arguably even more significant, landed yesterday and few people seem to have noticed. Kevin G. Hall and Ben Weider of the McClatchy Washington bureau reported that Trump’s business dealings in countries of the former Soviet empire were much more substantial than he’s let on and his ties to bankers, oligarchs and politicians in the area are much more consequential. They write:

McClatchy’s investigation reveals how Trump sought a foothold not just in Russia but across the former Soviet empire. Not known before, the Trump Organization in 2012 negotiated with then-Kazakh Prime Minister Karim Massimov for an obelisk-shaped tower to be built near the presidential palace, designed by architect John Fotiadis, who also did the Batumi project and lists offices in New York and the Ukrainian capital of Kiev. Trump Diamond lost out to a rival project in Astana for the tallest building in Central Asia, the 75-story Abu Dhabi Plaza.

That’s the tip of the iceberg. The Trump Organization was involved in dozens of deals throughout the region with money traced back to Russian sources, in some cases including the big oil company Rosneft. Once again, Trump’s close relationship with Bayrock CEO Felix Sater, a known mob associate with ties to the CIA, the FBI and the Russian government, was implicated along with another controversial company called the Silk Road Group. Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen, who has strong personal and business ties to Ukraine, was also involved with many of these negotiations. (Cohen was recently served with a subpoena by the House Intelligence Committee.)

What’s most interesting about all of these deals is their recent vintage. Indeed, the big tower project in Georgia mentioned in the McClatchy report wasn’t canceled until Jan. 6, 2017, two weeks before Trump took office. Trump said it was solely for business concerns (since he believes that it’s impossible for a president to have conflicts of interest) but the company he was involved with, Silk Road, said it was because of the massive publicity that was sure to follow, which hardly seems like convincing.

More likely the project was ditched because of the company’s relationship with Russia and Iran, two countries under U.S. sanctions. That would have been a bit of a problem for a sitting U.S. president, even one who believes that nothing is illegal if the president does it.

McClatchy reports that “none of this is revealed in Trump’s financial disclosure statements. And since he hasn’t released his tax returns, these sorts of relationships are not apparent.” We don’t know how many more situations like this exist that are still quietly percolating with Trump’s full knowledge while the country is kept in the dark.

There is a reason why Trump has been so desperate to end the Russia probe, and Occam’s razor says this is probably the reason. A G-Man with an unlimited mandate looking into all his dicey business dealings undoubtedly has him waking up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night.

Meanwhile, the president has prevailed against all advice and will sit down with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the upcoming G-20 meeting. Trump’s political advisers tried to impress on him just how bad it will look to be glad-handing with Vlad, while his policy advisers are surely petrified that he will make a major error. Trump’s vaunted negotiating skills have turned out to be hype, and nobody know if he’s going to give away the store.

 According to the Guardian, Trump has tasked his staff to come up with some “deliverables” for his pal Putin, with no plans to ask for anything in return. One thing we know he won’t be doing is broaching the subject of cyber attacks. According to this report by CNN, his team cannot get him to devote any time or attention to the problem:

“I’ve seen no evidence of it,” one senior administration official said when asked whether Trump was convening any meetings on Russian meddling in the election. The official said there is no paper trail — schedules, readouts or briefing documents — to indicate Trump has dedicated time to the issue.

He is simply not interested. But then, in Trump’s worldview, if the Russian helped him get elected why would he do anything to stop them from doing it again? What he does want is to stop the investigation from delving too deeply into his relationships and business dealings in the region. It turns out there are a lot more of them than he’s admitted up until now.

 

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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