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Opinion The Trump administration is up to its neck in Russians

Michael Flynn, center, flanked by Kellyanne Conway and Jared Kushner at the White House on Feb. 13. (Jim Lo Scalzo/European Pressphoto Agency)

The number of Russian connections to President Trump’s campaign and to his administration should stun and worry even the most credulous Republicans. We have never seen such a multiplicity of connections to a hostile foreign power and lack of transparency in a presidential campaign or administration — nor have we ever had a campaign in which Russians interfered in such a widespread and deliberate manner.

Newly leaked international documents reveal even more of the Trump team’s Russian ties, according to NBC News: “Through offshore investments, [Commerce Secretary Wilbur] Ross held a stake in Navigator Holdings, which had a close relationship with the Russian firm. Ross did not disclose that connection during his confirmation process on Capitol Hill.” NBC’s report also states:

Top White House adviser Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, is also implicated. The documents reveal that Kremlin-connected interests invested in social media giants Facebook and Twitter through one of Kushner’s business associates. Russian tech leader Yuri Milner, who funneled the money to Facebook and Twitter, has a stake in a company partly owned by Kushner.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) was livid. “Secretary Ross’ financial disclosures are like a Russian nesting doll, with blatant conflicts of interest carefully hidden within seemingly innocuous holding companies,” he said. “The Commerce Department’s Inspector General must open an inquiry immediately. Only after a thorough investigation can the American people be sure that Secretary Ross really has their best interests at heart — and that he hasn’t prioritized his own personal profits or those of Vladimir Putin or his Russian business partners.”

President Trump's troubles have only just begun with the charges facing former campaign advisers Paul Manafort, Rick Gates and George Papadopoulos. (Video: Adriana Usero, Kate Woodsome/The Washington Post)

Detailed reports suggests that while Ross’s ties to Navigator Holdings were known, its connection to Russians was not. According to the group of investigative journalists looking into the documents:

Among Navigator’s largest customers, contributing more than $68 million in revenue since 2014, is the Moscow-based gas and petrochemicals company Sibur. Two of its key owners are Kirill Shamalov, who is married to Putin’s youngest daughter, and Gennady Timchenko, the sanctioned oligarch whose activities in the energy sector, the Treasury Department said, were “directly linked to Putin.”
Another powerful owner is Sibur’s largest shareholder, Leonid Mikhelson, who controls an energy company that was also sanctioned by the Treasury Department for propping up Putin’s rule.

Ross seems to have cloaked his holdings in a web of offshore companies. “The leaked files showed a chain of companies and partnerships in the Cayman Islands through which Ross has retained his financial stake in Navigator,” the report says. “The fact that Ross’ Cayman Islands companies benefit from a firm controlled by Putin proxies raises serious potential conflicts of interest, experts say.” The report continues: “As commerce secretary, Ross has the power to influence U.S. trade, sanctions and other matters that could affect Sibur’s owners. Likewise, Sibur’s owners, and through them, Putin himself, could have the ability to increase or decrease Sibur’s business with Navigator even as Ross helps steer U.S. policy.” It would have been hard if not impossible to divine the Russia connection from Ross’s disclosure forms. (“The complexity of the offshore structures adds legal and reputational distance and obscures the full extent of Ross’s business relationships even as it allows him to profit from them, according to tax and ethics experts.”)

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Former State Department official and Russia expert Max Bergmann, now with the progressive Center for American Progress, tells me, “Ross must be investigated and should almost certainly resign. How does the Secretary of Commerce divest in some companies but not divest in a sanctioned Russian energy giant with direct ties to Putin’s family?” Bergmann argues, “He didn’t forget, his lawyers didn’t forget. This is an intentional omission. Given this was a sanctioned company, was Ross going to personally benefit if sanctions were lifted?”

As for Kushner, recall this isn’t the first time his ties with Russia have become an issue. Kushner met during the transition with head of a sanctioned Russian bank and discussed a back channel to Moscow using Russian communication lines. He has had to amend his disclosure forms several times to account for foreign connections. During the campaign, he sat in on a June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Russian officials who were offering dirt on Clinton. He later reportedly urged Trump to fire then-FBI Director James B. Comey, who was investigating campaign ties to Russia. “The additional revelations about Kushner’s ties to Russian financing appears to contradict his public statement in July,” Bergmann says. “If anyone else got caught doing what Kushner did, leaving out essential information on the security clearance form, they would have had their clearance revoked immediately, would be out of a job, and possible criminally investigated.”

Then there is former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who has been indicted on tax fraud and money laundering charges stemming from his work for Russia’s man in Ukraine, former president Viktor Yanukovych. Manafort also has a connection to a Russian mob figure. (“[H]e used a company called Lucicle Consultants Limited to wire millions of dollars into the United States. The Cyprus-based Lucicle Consultants Limited, in turn, reportedly received millions of dollars from a businessman and Ukrainian parliamentarian named Ivan Fursin, who is closely linked to one of Russia’s most notorious criminals: Semion Mogilevich.”) While Manafort was campaign chairman, the Republican platform was changed to remove a commitment to providing arms to Ukraine to repel Russian forces.

We’re not nearly done. Next is Carter Page, another campaign foreign policy aide, who reportedly went to Russia during the campaign and told now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions about it. He is also linked to a Russian spy recruiter.

Sessions has twice testified inaccurately about his contacts and knowledge of Russian contacts during the campaign. He also assisted in firing Comey, whom Trump said was let go at a time Russia was on his mind.

We move on to fired national security adviser Michael T. Flynn, who was paid for a speech in Russia and was a regular guest on RT, Russia’s TV propaganda station. Then-acting attorney general Sally Yates reported to the White House that Flynn was lying to the vice president about Flynn’s contacts with Russians during the transition. NBC reports that “federal investigators have gathered enough evidence to bring charges in their investigation of President Donald Trump’s former national security adviser and his son as part of the probe into Russia’s intervention in the 2016 election, according to multiple sources familiar with the investigation. … The investigators are speaking to multiple witnesses in coming days to gain more information surrounding Flynn’s lobbying work, including whether he laundered money or lied to federal agents about his overseas contacts, according to three sources familiar with the investigation.” (Flynn has also been under fire for work as a unregistered agent on behalf of Turkey.)

Then we arrive at the president. Trump has insisted he had no contact and no deals with Russia. However, he did host the Miss Universe pageant in Russia and during the campaign pursued a deal for a Trump Tower in Russia. He publicly invited Russia to find Hillary Clinton’s lost emails during the campaign. In the final days of the campaign, he referred to WikiLeaks documents dozens of times. He has disputed that Russia meddled in the campaign, which members of both parties and our intelligence community definitively say occurred.

The blizzard of Russia connections between members of Trump’s team, including his son Donald Trump Jr. (who attended the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting and received an ample speaking fee from French allies of the Russian government) and son-in-law, top members of his administration (the attorney general, former national security adviser Flynn) and his campaign (Manafort, George Papadopoulos, Page), coupled with the utter lack of candor about such ties, all take place in the context of an election in which Russia executed a sophisticated plan to interfere in our democracy. Trump tried to stop Comey from investigating Flynn and then fired Comey, who was investigating the Russia connection.

At best, Trump might claim he was surrounded by Russian dupes with bad memories. Rather than hire “the best people,” it seems he hired a band of misfits in bed with a foreign power. Even then, his obsession with shutting down Comey and discrediting Mueller makes no sense if this was all innocent conduct unrelated to him and the election.

“The constant deception and lying from this administration when it comes to Russia makes it abundantly clear that they have something to hide,” says Bergmann. “It also raises real questions about whose interests they are actually representing — theirs? The Russians’? It certainly seems the American people come last in that order.”

And with all this, we still don’t know the truth about Trump’s own direct financial ties, if any, to Russia because he will not disclose his tax returns or provide a full accounting of his businesses. Is there any doubt why Trump’s business deals should be investigated? If he’s actually free from Russian connections, he might be unique in this administration.