Russian asset – and unindicted co-conspirator – mafia “Don” Trump has systematically been hollowing out America’s federal law enforcement officials who investigate international organized crime since becoming president.
Already he has removed acting U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates, FBI Director James Comey, Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Mary McCord, FBI Assistant Director Mike Kortan, FBI Chief of the Counterespionage Section Peter Strzok, and Lisa Page, a lawyer in the Justice Department’s organized-crime section whose cases centered on international organized crime and money laundering.
Putin’s Russian mafia has infiltrated the U.S. government and has its puppet on the inside of American law enforcement to do its bidding.
Trump’s latest target is Department of Justice attorney Bruce Ohr, an expert in Russia and Russian organized crime.
Natasha Bertrand of The Atlantic reports, Trump’s Top Targets in the Russia Probe Are Experts in Organized Crime:
Bruce Ohr. Lisa Page. Andrew Weissmann. Andrew McCabe. President Donald Trump has relentlessly attacked these FBI and Justice Department officials as dishonest “Democrats” engaged in a partisan “witch hunt” led by the special counsel determined to tie his campaign to Russia. But Trump’s attacks have also served to highlight another thread among these officials and others who have investigated his campaign: their extensive experience in probing money laundering and organized crime, particularly as they pertain to Russia.
Trump’s latest obsession is with Bruce Ohr, a career Justice Department official who spent years investigating Russian organized crime and corruption—an expertise he shared with another Trump target named Christopher Steele, the former British intelligence operative who provided valuable intelligence on Russia to the State Department and the FBI’s Eurasian Organized Crime Task Force prior to authoring the Trump-Russia dossier in 2016. Ohr and Steele met in 2007, according to The New York Times, and stayed in touch as a result of their shared interests and mutual respect. Trump has tweeted about Ohr nearly a dozen times this month alone, complaining about his relationship with Steele and Ohr’s wife’s past work for Fusion GPS—the opposition-research firm that hired Steele in 2016 to research Trump’s Russia ties.
Trump’s fixation with seeing Ohr ousted from the Justice Department could be perceived as yet another attempt to undermine the credibility of the people who have investigated him. It could also be interpreted as an attack on someone with deep knowledge of the shady characters Trump and his cohort have been linked to, including Semion Mogilevich, the Russian mob boss, and Oleg Deripaska, a Russian aluminum magnate close to Putin who did business with Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort. (Incidentally, another Manafort associate, the Ukrainian billionaire Dmitry Firtash, admitted that he only managed to be in business because Mogilevich allowed him to be, according to a leaked 2008 State Department cable.) Ohr was involved in banning Deripaska from the U.S. in 2006, due to his alleged ties to organized crime and fear that he would try to launder money into American real estate. Nearly a decade later, Ohr and the FBI sought Deripaska’s help in taking down overseas criminal syndicates.
And then there’s Andy McCabe, the former deputy director of the FBI who spent more than a decade investigating Russian organized crime and served as a supervisory special agent of a task force that scrutinized Eurasian crime syndicates. McCabe is a 21-year FBI veteran who handled aspects of the Russia investigation until Mueller was appointed last May, an appointment McCabe says he pushed for. He was fired in March, just two days short of being eligible to receive his pension and other benefits from the bureau. The official reason was that he had lacked candor when describing his interactions with the press to the Office of the Inspector General. But Trump and his allies’ relentless attacks on McCabe on Twitter and cable news made it difficult for many to believe that Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s decision to fire him was completely devoid of political considerations.
One member of Mueller’s team, meanwhile, has provoked more ire from the president’s allies than others: Andrew Weissmann, a seasoned prosecutor who oversaw cases against high-ranking organized criminals on Wall Street in the early 1990s and, later, against 30 people implicated in the Enron fraud scandal. Trump has also villainized the former Mueller team member Lisa Page, a trial attorney in the Justice Department’s organized-crime section whose cases centered on international organized crime and money laundering. She has been targeted by the president and his allies for mocking Trump in text messages she exchanged with Peter Strzok, a Russian counterintelligence expert in the FBI, during a period in which both briefly worked on the Mueller investigation. Strzok was fired earlier this month for writing similarly caustic messages. Trump says the texts showed outrageous bias and has cited them as evidence that Mueller is out to get him.
Mueller’s probe is first and foremost a counterintelligence investigation, and Trump famously declared last year that any examination of his personal finances would cross a “red line.” But Russia’s criminal syndicates have become increasingly intertwined with its intelligence services, blurring the line between Mafia dons and spies. (As the Russia expert Mark Galeotti wrote in his book The Vory: Russia’s Super Mafia, Putin’s Kremlin has consolidated power by “not simply taming, but absorbing, the underworld.”)
The president has denied having any business ties to Russia, and his dream of building a Trump Tower Moscow never materialized. But his links to Russian oligarchs and mobsters from the former Soviet Union have been well documented: Millions of dollars from the former Soviet Union flowed into Trump’s developments and casinos throughout the 1990s, as the journalist Craig Unger has chronicled, as oligarchs looked for a place to hide their money in the West. The Trump Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey, was once known as a hot spot for Brooklyn mobsters associated with the Russian Mafia, and quickly became the “favorite East Coast destination” of the top Russian mob boss Vyacheslav Ivankov, according to the 2000 book Red Mafiya: How the Russian Mob Has Invaded America. It was also repeatedly cited by the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network for having inadequate money-laundering controls.
By the early 2000s, a third of the buyers of Trump Tower’s most expensive condos were Russia-linked shell companies or individuals from the former Soviet Union—including Eduard Nektalov, a mob-connected diamond dealer from Uzbekistan, and David Bogatin, a Russian-émigré mobster who specialized in bootlegging gasoline. Bogatin’s brother was involved in an elaborate stock fraud with the top Russian mob boss Mogilevich, who himself is allied with Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov—another Russian mob leader who ran an entire gambling and money-laundering network out of Unit 63A in Trump Tower, just three floors below Trump’s own residence.(Tokhtakhounov was a VIP attendee at Trump’s Miss Universe pageant in Moscow just seven months after the gambling ring was busted by the FBI.) Trump’s own sons have boasted of the Trump Organization’s dependence on Russian money. “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets,” Donald Trump Jr. said in 2008. “We don’t rely on American banks,” Eric Trump reportedly told a golfing buddy in 2014. “We have all the funding we need out of Russia.”
Trump’s longtime personal lawyer, Michael Cohen—who pleaded guilty last week to tax fraud and campaign-finance violations, in which he implicated the president—once bragged that he was part of the Russian mob, according to The Wall Street Journal. Cohen’s uncle, with whom he was close, owned a Brooklyn catering hall called El Caribe, in which Cohen had a stake—a hall that “for decades was the scene of mob weddings and Christmas parties,” the Timesreported, and housed the offices of “two of New York’s most notorious Russian mobsters.”
It is ironic, then, that Trump’s attacks have shone a bright light on the experts inside and outside the government who have been investigating him—individuals who share a deep expertise in organized crime, money laundering, fraud, and racketeering. Even Glenn Simpson, the co-founder of Fusion GPS, spent years as an investigative reporter at The Wall Street Journal digging into Russian organized crime. In a hearing before the House Intelligence Committee last year, Simpson explained that “real-estate deals” were a common Russian method of hiding and moving money. Asked whether Fusion had found “evidence” of corruption and illicit finance related to the purchase of Trump properties, Simpson replied that his firm had seen “patterns of buying and selling that we thought were suggestive of money laundering,” including “fast-turnover deals and deals where there seemed to have been efforts to disguise the identity of the buyer.”
It’s not just Trump Tower or Trump Taj Mahal. NBC News reported in November that Trump’s Panama hotel had organized-crime ties, and a Russian state-owned bank under U.S. sanctions, whose CEO met with Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, in December 2016, helped finance the construction of the president’s 65-story Trump International Hotel and Tower in Toronto.“
The Russian Mafia is essentially under the dominion of the Russian government and Russian intelligence services,” Simpson said in his congressional testimony. But Trump, continuing on the curious theme of defending Moscow while throwing U.S. intelligence officials under the bus, has, conveniently for Putin, persisted in making a spectacle of some of the Kremlin’s biggest adversaries in the U.S. government.
Over the weekend, the New York Times reported, Agents Tried to Flip Russian Oligarchs. The Fallout Spread to Trump.
In the estimation of American officials, Oleg V. Deripaska, a Russian oligarch with close ties to the Kremlin, has faced credible accusations of extortion, bribery and even murder.
They also thought he might make a good source.
Between 2014 and 2016, the F.B.I. and the Justice Department unsuccessfully tried to turn Mr. Deripaska into an informant. They signaled that they might provide help with his trouble in getting visas for the United States or even explore other steps to address his legal problems. In exchange, they were hoping for information on Russian organized crime and, later, on possible Russian aid to President Trump’s 2016 campaign, according to current and former officials and associates of Mr. Deripaska.
In one dramatic encounter, F.B.I. agents appeared unannounced and uninvited at a home Mr. Deripaska maintains in New York and pressed him on whether Paul Manafort, a former business partner of his who went on to become chairman of Mr. Trump’s campaign, had served as a link between the campaign and the Kremlin.
The attempt to flip Mr. Deripaska was part of a broader, clandestine American effort to gauge the possibility of gaining cooperation from roughly a half-dozen of Russia’s richest men, nearly all of whom, like Mr. Deripaska, depend on President Vladimir V. Putin to maintain their wealth, the officials said.
Two of the players in the effort were Bruce G. Ohr, the Justice Department official who has recently become a target of attacks by Mr. Trump, and Christopher Steele, the former British spy who compiled a dossier of purported links between the Trump campaign and Russia.
The systematic effort to win the cooperation of the oligarchs, which has not previously been revealed, does not appear to have scored any successes. And in Mr. Deripaska’s case, he told the American investigators that he disagreed with their theories about Russian organized crime and Kremlin collusion in the campaign, a person familiar with the exchanges said. The person added that Mr. Deripaska even notified the Kremlin about the American efforts to cultivate him.
But the fallout from the efforts is now rippling through American politics and has helped fuel Mr. Trump’s campaign to discredit the investigation into whether he coordinated with Russia in its interference in the election.
The revelation that Mr. Ohr engaged with Mr. Steele has provided the president’s allies with fresh fodder to attack the investigation led by Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel, casting it as part of a vast, long-running conspiracy by a “deep state” bent on undermining Mr. Trump. In their telling, Mr. Ohr and his wife — who worked as a contractor at the same research firm that produced the dossier — are villainous central players in a cabal out to destroy the president.
Republicans in Congress are either active co-conspirators or accessories after the fact in the conspiracy to obstruct justice in the Russia probe.
Mr. Trump himself has seized on the reports, threatening to pull Mr. Ohr’s security clearance and claiming that his family “received big money for helping to create the phony, dirty and discredited Dossier.”
While Mr. Steele did discuss the research that resulted in the dossier with Mr. Ohr during the final months of the campaign, current and former officials said that Mr. Deripaska was the subject of many of the contacts between the two men between 2014 and 2016.
A timeline that Mr. Ohr hand-wrote of all his contacts with Mr. Steele was among the leaked documents cited by the president and his allies as evidence of an anti-Trump plot.
The contacts between Mr. Steele and Mr. Ohr started before Mr. Trump became a presidential candidate and continued through much of the campaign.
Mr. Deripaska’s contacts with the F.B.I. took place in September 2015 and the same month a year later. The latter meeting came two months after the F.B.I. began investigating Russian interference in the election and a month after Mr. Manafort left the Trump campaign amid reports about his work for Russia-aligned political parties in Ukraine.
The outreach to Mr. Deripaska, who is so close to the Russian president that he has been called “Putin’s oligarch,” was not as much of a long shot as it might have appeared.
He had worked with the United States government in the past, including on a thwarted effort to rescue an F.B.I. agent captured in Iran, on which he reportedly spent as much as $25 million of his own money. And he had incentive to cooperate again in the run-up to the 2016 election, as he tried to win permission to travel more easily to the United States, where he has long sought more freedom to do business and greater acceptance as a global power broker.
Mr. Steele sought to aid the effort to engage Mr. Deripaska, and he noted in an email to Mr. Ohr in February 2016 that the Russian had received a visa to travel to the United States. In the email, Mr. Steele said his company had compiled and circulated “sensitive” research suggesting that Mr. Deripaska and other oligarchs were under pressure from the Kremlin to toe the Russian government line, leading Mr. Steele to conclude that Mr. Deripaska was not the “tool” of Mr. Putin alleged by the United States government.
The timeline sketched out by Mr. Ohr shows contacts stretching back to when Mr. Ohr first met Mr. Steele in 2007. It also shows what officials said was the first date on which the two discussed cultivating Mr. Deripaska: a meeting in Washington on Nov. 21, 2014, roughly seven months before Mr. Trump announced that he was running for president.
The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an initiative that remains classified. Most expressed deep discomfort, saying they feared that in revealing the attempts to cultivate Mr. Deripaska and other oligarchs they were undermining American national security and strengthening the grip that Mr. Putin holds over those who surround him.
But they also said they did not want Mr. Trump and his allies to use the program’s secrecy as a screen with which they could cherry-pick facts and present them, sheared of context, to undermine the special counsel’s investigation. That, too, they said they feared, would damage American security.
The program was led by the F.B.I. Mr. Ohr, who had long worked on combating Russian organized crime, was one of the Justice Department officials involved.
Mr. Steele served as an intermediary between the Americans and the Russian oligarchs they were seeking to cultivate. He had first met Mr. Ohr years earlier while still serving at MI6, Britain’s foreign spy agency, where he oversaw Russia operations. After retiring, he opened a business intelligence firm, and had tracked Russian organized crime and business interests for private clients, including one of Mr. Deripaska’s lawyers.
* * *
Mr. Steele helped set up a meeting between the Russian and American officials during the 2015 trip. Mr. Ohr attended the meeting, during which the Americans pressed Mr. Deripaska on the connections between Russian organized crime and Mr. Putin’s government, as well as other issues, according to a person familiar with the events. The person said that Mr. Deripaska told the Americans that their theories were off base and did not reflect how things worked in Russia.
Mr. Deripaska would not agree to a second meeting. But one took place the next year, in September 2016, when F.B.I. agents showed up unannounced at his door in New York. By then, they were already investigating possible ties between Russia and the Trump campaign, and they pressed Mr. Deripaska about whether his former business partner, Mr. Manafort, had served as a link to the Kremlin during his time as Mr. Trump’s campaign chairman.
It was not only the F.B.I. that was concerned about Russian interference in the final months of the campaign. American spy agencies were sounding an alarm after months of intelligence reports about contacts between Trump associates and Russians, and Moscow’s hacking of Democratic Party emails. (American intelligence agencies would later conclude that the interference was real and that Russia had acted to boost Mr. Trump’s candidacy.)
* * *
This past April, the Treasury Department imposed potentially crippling sanctions against Mr. Deripaska and his mammoth aluminum company, saying he had profited from the “malign activities” of Russia around the world. In announcing the sanctions, the Trump administration cited accusations that Mr. Deripaska had been accused of extortion, racketeering, bribery, links to organized crime and even ordering the murder of a businessman.
Mr. Deripaska has denied the allegations, and his allies contend that the sanctions are punishment for refusing to play ball with the Americans.
Yet just as it was becoming clear that Mr. Deripaska would provide little help to the Americans, Mr. Steele was talking to Mr. Ohr about an entirely new issue: the dossier.
In summer 2016, Mr. Steele first told Mr. Ohr about the research that would eventually come to make up the dossier. Over a breakfast in Washington, Mr. Steele said he believed that Russian intelligence had Mr. Trump “over a barrel,” according to a person familiar with the discussion. But the person said that it was more of a friendly heads-up, and that Mr. Steele had separately been in touch with an F.B.I. agent in a bid to get his work to investigators.
The research by that point was being funded by the Democratic National Committee and Mrs. Clinton’s campaign, and Mr. Steele believed that what he had found was damning enough that he needed to get it to American law enforcement.
F.B.I. agents would later meet with Mr. Steele to discuss his work. But former senior officials from the bureau and the Justice Department have said that the investigation into ties between Mr. Trump’s campaign and Russia was well underway by the time they got the dossier.
Nonetheless, Mr. Trump and his allies have seized on the fact that Mr. Ohr and Mr. Steele were in touch about elements of the dossier to attack the investigation into Russian election interference as a “rigged witch hunt.”
Mr. Trump and his allies have cast Mr. Steele’s research — and the serious consideration it was given by Mr. Ohr and the F.B.I. — as part of a plot by rogue officials and Mrs. Clinton’s allies to undermine Mr. Trump’s campaign and his presidency.
The role of Mr. Deripaska has gotten less attention, but it similarly offers fodder for the theory being advanced by the president’s defenders.
Among the documents produced to Congress by the Justice Department is an undated — and previously unreported — note handwritten by Mr. Ohr indicating that Mr. Deripaska and one of his London-based lawyers, Paul Hauser, were “almost ready to talk” to American government officials regarding the money that “Manafort stole.”
Even after the concerted effort to cultivate Mr. Deripaska appeared to have broken down, and as he was emerging as a subject of increasing interest in inquiries into ties between Mr. Trump’s circle and Russia, both sides continued sporadic outreach.
Last year, Mr. Ohr asked someone who communicated with Mr. Deripaska to urge the oligarch to “give up Manafort,” according to a person familiar with the exchange. And Mr. Deripaska sought to engage with Congress.
The oligarch took out newspaper advertisements in the United States last year volunteering to testify in any congressional hearings examining his work with Mr. Manafort. The ads were in response to an Associated Press report that Mr. Manafort had secretly worked for Mr. Deripaska on a plan to “greatly benefit the Putin government” in the mid-2000s.
Soon after the advertisements ran, representatives for the House and Senate Intelligence Committees called a Washington-based lawyer for Mr. Deripaska, Adam Waldman, inquiring about taking his client up on the offer to testify, Mr. Waldman said in an interview.
What happened after that has been in dispute. Mr. Waldman, who stopped working for Mr. Deripaska after the sanctions were levied, said he told the committee staff that his client would be willing to testify without any grant of immunity, but would not testify about any Russian collusion with the Trump campaign because “he doesn’t know anything about that theory and actually doesn’t believe it occurred.”
“I told them that he would be willing to talk about Manafort,” Mr. Waldman added.
Mr. Waldman said he did not hear back from the committee’s staff members, but he contends that they played a role in pushing the claim that the talks over Mr. Deripaska’s potential testimony had fallen apart because he demanded immunity.
“We specifically told them that we did not want immunity,” Mr. Waldman said. “Clearly, they did not want him to testify. What other conclusion could you possibly draw?”
Bruce Ohr, an expert on Russian organized crime, has been pushed out of his roles in the agency because he met with someone offering information on Russian organized crime and an effort to interfere in a United States election. And Donald Trump is still trying to demean and remove Bruce Ohr.