What should special counsel Robert S. Mueller III do if his probe into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election uncovers crimes dealing with or motivated by money? Is he supposed to look the other way?
Not if Mueller holds true to his assigned mandate.
Unfolding right now is a legal saga I envisioned in a column 16 months ago: “If, during the investigation of links between Russians and Trump campaign associates, the feds come across financial transactions aimed at evading taxes on illegal income by concealing the source and amount of profit, those associated with such activities should be prepared to hear the words: ‘Ladies and gentlemen of the jury . . .’ ”
This week, in the Albert V. Bryan U.S. Courthouse across the Potomac in Alexandria, former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort has been standing trial on multiple felony charges including tax fraud, bank fraud and conspiracy.
The Alexandria proceeding is not about possible coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Manafort is being prosecuted pursuant to Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein’s separate mandate to the special counsel to investigate “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation.”
Trump’s attorney and unintended court jester, Rudolph W. Giuliani, contends that the Mueller investigation should be limited to Russian interference. Trump goes further, arguing there should not be any investigation at all. He denounces the probe as a “witch hunt” and has called on Attorney General Jeff Sessions to end it.
Sessions has bowed out for good reason, and Rosenstein is not likely to pull the plug; nor should he.
Thus far, Mueller has produced multiple indictments and guilty pleas, and at this stage, we probably don’t know the half of what his team of experienced prosecutors and investigators has uncovered, possibly including other federal criminal violations.
Calls to shut down the investigation are simply the frantic response of Trump cultists who fear — if they have not already concluded — that there is more to come. Mueller is likely following the Russian money with the same vigor his team used in pursuit of Russian hackers and intelligence operatives.
This is a pattern we have seen before. Remember, the Watergate scandal more than four decades ago involved more than a break-in and coverup. That special prosecutor’s probe found tax violations, primarily involving the 1972 presidential campaign. Among its results were 18 corporate officials and 17 corporations pleading guilty to violations of campaign contribution laws.
Today, again, it’s about the money.
Fact is, a lot of Russian money has been pouring into this country for some time, especially after Russia defaulted on $40 billion in domestic debt in 1998, and some of the country’s biggest banks started to collapse. Deep-pocketed ex-Soviet citizens scrambled to get their money out and into New York real estate where reporting requirements were scant, and cash and laundered money moved with the ease of a stick floating down the Hudson.
None other than Donald Trump Jr. has admitted to the preponderance of Russian cash, claiming in 2008 that Russian investments were “pouring in” to Trump’s business ventures. Trump World Tower, which opened in 2001, was a “prominent depository” of Russian money, Bloomberg Businessweek reported last year.
Additional evidence of the money flow?
As I’ve noted before, a Financial Times investigation found title deeds and bank records showing that a family from Kazakhstan accused of laundering hundreds of millions of dollars bought apartments in a Manhattan building part-owned by Trump. More recently, an analysis by McClatchy’s D.C. bureau found that “buyers connected to Russia or former Soviet republics made 86 all-cash sales — totaling nearly $109 million — at 10 Trump-branded properties in South Florida and New York City. . . . Many of them made purchases using shell companies designed to obscure their identities.”
It’s important to stop and note that there’s nothing necessarily illegal about any of these real estate transactions. But Trump’s nonstop, manic attacks on Mueller’s investigation — and the media — look to me like the behavior of the guilty hearing footsteps and finding no place to hide.
Trump’s only alternative is to discredit and whip up a body of hate against those who would expose him for what he is: an amoral liar and self-centered, money-grubbing fraud, with a loyal following that would make any other cult leader jealous.
But Mueller, too, has no alternative but to follow the Russian connections and the money and see where they lead.
Folks, tighten your seat belts, there’s a bumpy road ahead.
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