Monday, October 22, 2018

Author Craig Unger: Trump and Putin found each other in the wreckage of the Soviet Union, and their agenda has U.S. democracy teetering on the brink

Craig Unger and "House of Trump, House of Putin"

Donald Trump's ties to the Russian mafia -- and his ability to launder money for them via various properties -- goes back at least 35 years, according to the investigative author of a new book.

Craig Unger's House of Trump, House of Putin probably stands with Bob Woodward's Fear as the two most important books so far on Trump's ascendancy to the White House. In an interview with Salon's Chauncey DeVega, Unger says it is astonishing that Trump rose to lead the United States, given his long-term ties to a foreign adversary and his deals with shady money men from Russia. Let's check out highlights from the interview:

Trump businesses as an instrument for money laundering

Chauncey DeVega (CD): Given all that is publicly known about Donald Trump and his suspicious connections to Russia -- never mind his anti-democratic behavior -- on a certain level it is surreal and almost unbelievable that he became president and has not yet been removed from office.

Craig Unger (CU): It is astounding. When John Brennan lost his security clearance the contrast was so stark -- there is no way in the world Donald Trump would have received a security clearance, and he is president of the United States. Donald Trump has had contacts with the Russian mafia for 35 years. His properties have laundered money for them. The Russian mafia are connected to Russian intelligence. They’re living and have been working in Trump's building. Trump has even partnered with them. There are so many ways in which he’s compromised. As you say, I think it’s all on the public record. The Republicans are also implicated. As I explain in my new book, the Russians didn't just go after Donald Trump: They went after the entire Republican Party. There is Russian money going into the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, the NRA, and then to Republican officials and candidates directly.

The media and murky money

CD: Why has the American news media been largely unable to effectively explain to the public the threat Trump embodies to the country and the world?

CU: The news media is so fractured and factionalized. Therefore there is no shared national narrative. For example, let’s say MSNBC gets it right at times. But that still leaves hundreds of millions of Americans who are not getting the message. The Trump-Russia story is also complicated but the news cycle is too fast. Plus, it is fragmented by social media. So it’s very hard for people to draw back and see the big picture. The news almost never offers the deep background into how this whole Trump-Russia scandal began.

Putin uses the Russian mafia as a weapon. This is part of the geopolitical conflict. This is many ways goes back to the ending of the Cold War. It wasn’t really over. Most Americans do not understand that fact. Yes, the Soviet Union crumbled but Russia didn’t give up. The KGB sat there and waited. They started various companies. You have at least four billionaires with those connections who ended up partnering with Donald Trump 25 years later.

I think one of the powerful unseen forces here is that at the end of the Soviet Union, you suddenly have trillions of dollars that have to be laundered. It opened the floodgates for the Russian mafia and for the oligarchs. A good way to launder that money is through real estate. Trump made it clear he was ready, willing and able to do that without asking any questions. Trump was $4 billion in debt after his casinos failed in Atlantic City. He came back thanks to the Russians.

The late 1980s, and the rise of Donald Trump's presidential ambitions

CD: Donald Trump's relationship with Russia is not new. When they looked at Donald Trump back in the 1980s what did they see?

CU: First of all, the Russians had a history of looking at influential businessmen. It appears that Russian intelligence also saw him as a presidential candidate. That surprised me. I was here in New York as a reporter in the 1980s, and I didn’t think of Trump as a presidential candidate. When Trump first visited Russia in 1987, he immediately came back and took out full page ads in The New York Times, Boston Globe and Washington Post. These ads were very anti-NATO, anti-Western alliance, and that was exactly what the Russians want. It is so striking that Trump would do that over 30 years ago. It is almost as if Trump had been channeling those ideas and serving the KGB's aims way back in 1988.

Trump, Putin, The Apprentice, and the collapse of the Soviet Union

CD: After the fall of the Soviet Union, Putin takes control. How does he develop a relationship with Donald Trump?

CU: It did not occur in a personal way at first. Everything happens through proxies. They are enormously important. Going back to 1984 -- this was when Putin was still in the KGB -- Trump had started laundering money for the Russian mafia. In ‘92, the Russian mafia had people like Vyacheslav Kirillovich Ivankov, who was one of the key figures under the mob boss Mogilevich. The FBI was looking all over for him but he was actually in Trump Tower. A lot of the Russian mobsters were going to Trump Tower as well, presumably to launder money as well. So you saw this budding relationship. Trump was completely overextended in Atlantic City. He ended up $4 billion in debt. He had no future at all until the Russians came to his aid.

I think a lot of people get the chronology wrong and think Trump came back because of The Apprentice. But The Apprentice didn’t start until 2004. By 2002, a company called Bayrock Group LLC had moved into the 24th floor of Trump Tower. They began partnering with him. They made Trump an offer that he could not refuse. It was a completely different paradigm from his old business relationships. Suddenly Trump started dealing with cash and he couldn’t get bank loans except some from Deutsche Bank. He was so bankrupt that almost no Western bank could loan him a dime.

Trump and the GOP give Putin a much-needed boost

CD: What do the Russians want from Donald Trump? He would not have been given all of those huge sums of money without some expectations, either implied or explicit.

CU: This is why I think you have to look at the geopolitics and the history of the entire operation. If you go back to the Cold War, Americans simply thought we won. The Berlin Wall came down, the Soviet Union folded. Well, it’s not that simple. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, one Eastern bloc nation after another began tilting towards the West and joining NATO. When Putin came to power, he wanted to fight back, to regain some of that ground. Putin wanted to do battle with the Western alliance. With Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin found one of the few Americans who wants to destroy the Western alliance. He has been quite consistent on this point of view. But somehow he and the rest of the Republicans have taken it to heart and that is the direction they’re moving in as well. It’s been great for Putin and I think that’s exactly what he wanted.

Can Democrats save us from a dangerous and compromised president?

CD: I have described Donald Trump's White House as the "Kremlin on the Potomac." Do you think that is accurate?

CU: It’s so much darker than anything I could imagine. When I grew up, one of the great movies was "The Manchurian Candidate." It was about a conspiracy to install a brainwashed communist as president of the United States. What has happened with Trump rivals "The Manchurian Candidate." It is actually hard to imagine, but this is where the United States and the world are right now. I’ve always been reluctant to use words like "treason" or "fascism" to discuss Donald Trump. But I think we’ve entered a very dark period in American history. We can't turn this around and save the country from Donald Trump and his allies unless the Democrats win Congress in the midterms.

What happens when the Mueller report is released and feces hits the fan?

CD: When Mueller's report is released, what do you think will and should happen? I am concerned that of course Trump's supporters will say it exonerates him, no matter how damning the evidence is. Trump's opposition will see Mueller's report as confirming their worst fears. There will be no closure, only more discord and perhaps even potential violence and large-scale civil unrest.

CU: I won't speculate on the contents of Mueller's final report. But I will say that we need to have a shared national spectacle. Everyone needs to see the same thing. That’s not happening right now. A couple of weeks ago, there was one of these spectacular news days surrounding the Russia investigation, and in all, it was a horrible day for President Trump. I wanted to see how Fox News was covering it. They had an item on whether a giraffe is actually a mutant horse. Huge parts of the country are in the dark. Fox News has been incredibly successful in dumbing down a large part of the American electorate. That is something we’re going to have to change.

A democracy at risk?

CD: How would you explain to the average American why Donald Trump's relationship with Vladimir Putin and other Russian interests is so important?

CU: This goes to the heart of whether or not we’re a democracy. I believe that Vladimir Putin selected and chose the president of the United States to do his bidding. That is an existential crisis for the United States. Americans better wake up, because our democracy is at risk

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