Tales of Plea Deals: Part 1 – Paul Manafort

On Monday, November 26, 2018, Special Counsel Robert Mueller submitted a court filing accusing former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort of breaching their September plea agreement. According to Mueller’s team, “After signing the plea agreement, Manafort committed federal crimes by lying to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Special Counsel’s Office on a variety of subject matters, which constitute breaches of the agreement.” Manafort was supposed to cooperate with the investigation as a plea deal condition. The special counsel didn’t provide specifics on what Manafort lied about or what evidence they have on it. But the fact the filing specifically mentioned lying among those crimes suggests that Mueller’s team will hit Manafort with more charges. Nonetheless, these lies concerned Manafort’s contacts with Trump administration officials, a suspected Russian spy Konstantin Kilimnik, a separate Justice Department investigation, and a wire transfer. While most of the document is redacted, the report states, “A review of documents recovered from a search of Manafort’s electronic documents demonstrates additional contacts with Administration officials” well into 2018. Mueller doesn’t hint who.

After his trial conviction, Paul Manafort’s flip seemed like a major turning point in the Trump-Russia investigation. For a time, it seemed that Robert Mueller had a cooperator with close ties to Donald Trump and Russia. However, that cooperation didn’t pan out. Though Wired states that he did testify to a grand jury weeks before the plea deal fell apart. So Mueller’s team is using his testimony as part of a criminal case against someone else.

But is this worse news for Robert Mueller or Paul Manafort? On one hand, it’s possible Mueller badly needed Manafort’s testimony or other information to make a larger case. But now that possibility has gone up in flames. Yet, maybe Mueller didn’t need Manafort much after all. Since he might’ve got much of the information he wanted elsewhere.
On the other hand, considering the consequences Paul Manafort will face for breaching his plea deal, you have to wonder why he’d lie to investigators. Is he still banking on a presidential pardon from Donald Trump as his best chance of a Get Out of Jail Free Card? After all, Trump has refused to rule that out and even praised him after his conviction for his Ukranian shenanigans. However, keep in mind that just because Trump expects loyalty from his associates doesn’t mean he’ll reward it. This is especially if that person is in trouble and makes him look bad.

Nonetheless, on Friday December 14, 2018, Vox reported that Paul Manafort provided advice to Donald Trump and several senior White House officials on the FBI’s Russia investigation during the Trump administration’s earliest days. According to government records and interviews, Manafort gave guidance on how to undermine and discredit the FBI’s inquiry into whether Trump, his campaign aides, and his family members conspired with the Russian government and its intelligence services to covertly defeat Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign. While the White House knew about him being under investigation. In addition, Manafort gave advice on how to discredit witnesses against him and Trump.

First, Paul Manafort advised Donald Trump and his allies to move aggressively and attack the FBI and other federal law enforcement agencies investigating the Trump administration. The former campaign chairman wanted nothing less than to “declare a public relations war on the FBI,” according to one of Vox’s anonymous sources as well as “delegitimize” the investigation itself. He also wanted to discredit then-FBI director James Comey and other senior FBI officials since they had become increasingly likely witnesses against Trump. Trump did just that though it’s unclear what role Manafort’s advice played into his attacks. Because Trump isn’t a man who takes advice. Besides, other more influential advisers recommended him to do the same thing. Not to mention, Trump didn’t really need to hear any guidance from Manafort or anyone else.

Through an intermediary, Paul Manafort advised a senior Trump administration official to attack the Justice Department, the FBI, and Obama administration officials for seeking court-authorized FISA warrants to eavesdrop on him and campaign aide Carter Page, as part of investigations and criminal investigations into whether they or others conspired with Russia to help Donald Trump win the 2016 election. Know that FISA warrants are granted when the court is presented with sufficient evidence that the potential target may be acting on behalf of a foreign power and there’s a high legal threshold in obtaining it. The Foreign Intelligence Service Court allowed for an electronic surveillance on Manafort before, during, and after his role in the Trump campaign. Donald Trump then alleged that then-President Barack Obama authorized wiretapping him and his campaign aides as part of an “illegal” espionage scheme. These allegations have since become central to Trump’s attacks to the Justice Department, FBI, and the Mueller investigation. Though Trump and his allies haven’t produced any evidence to show that any of this is true.

As part of these efforts, Donald Trump and his Capitol Hill allies made publicly sensitive classified information that endangered intelligence sources’ lives and interfered with ongoing criminal investigations. In May 2018, the Justice Department wrote to then House Intelligence Committee chair Rep. Devin Nunes, warning him that information he was about to make public would, “risk severe consequences, including potential loss of human lives, damage to relationships with valued international partners, compromise of ongoing criminal investigations and interference with intelligence activities.” But Nunes released much of the information, anyway. While Trump ordered the declassification of other intelligence information that law enforcement and intelligence officials warned would do similar damage. Attacking the FISA warrants’ use didn’t affect the Manafort criminal case’s outcome. But by discrediting the FISA process and the federal investigation into him and other campaign aides, it’s politically more feasible for Trump to pardon him.

Second, for distraction and scapegoat purposes, Paul Manafort counseled the White House to allege that the pro-western Ukranian government had colluded with the Democratic National Committee to try to help Hillary Clinton win the 2016 election. Despite total lack of evidence to back up said charges, the White House adopted Manafort’s recommendation in the summer of 2017 to specifically target DNC strategist and consultant Alexandra Chalupa for allegedly working with Ukranian officials to hurt Donald Trump’s candidacy. Despite the torrent of allegations, no evidence has surfaced that the DNC or Chalupa did anything wrong. Acting on Manafort’s advice, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders encouraged reporters to investigate, “the Democrat National Committee coordinated opposition research directly with the Ukrainian Embassy.” That same week, conspiracy propagandist, professional Trump asskisser, and Fox News host Sean Hannity intensified the allegations evening after evening on his show. Likewise, Republicans on Capitol Hill called for investigations into the “Ukranian matter.” That late July, Trump tweeted: “Ukrainian efforts to sabotage Trump campaign – ‘quietly working to boost Clinton.’ So where is the investigation A.G.” In August 2017, Matthew Whitaker and a conservative advocacy group he then headed, the ironically named Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust (FACT) formally asked the Federal Election Commission to investigate the DNC’s dealings with Chalupa. The FEC hasn’t given any indication that it’ll investigate the matter further. Mainly because they saw right through the ploy.

Even though the allegations were total bullshit, they were effective whatabout propaganda to the white conservative Fox News audience. The White House made claims shortly after the public disclosures that Donald Trump Jr. had hosted the infamous Trump Tower meeting between a self-described intermediary for the Russian government and himself, Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort, where the Russians promised “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. The White House tried drawing a parallel between its meetings with foreigners and the DNC’s via Alexandra Chalupa. But the comparison has always been a flimsy one. Since the White House and its surrogates couldn’t prove their counterparts did anything wrong. Not that lack of evidence didn’t stop them from pushing baseless conspiracy theories anyway. But Russia, a US enemy, engaged in a covert intelligence effort to influence the 2016 election’s outcome. Trump Jr., Kushner, and Manafort agreed to meet with individuals they knew were associated with the Russian government to get “dirt” on Clinton. Trump Jr. particularly acted on his dad and the Trump campaign’s behalf. Remember that it’s illegal for a campaign to accept help from a foreign individual, entity, or government. And it’s illegal not to disclose it. No wonder the meeting’s a focus in the Mueller investigation.

Fortunately, Alexandra Chalupa looked into Paul Manafort’s role as adviser to former Ukranian President Viktor Yanukovych, an authoritarian strongman who wanted to cut ties with the European Union and become more closely aligned with Russia. She then set out to sound the alarm. At one point, she even organized a protest in Manafort’s hometown of New Britain, Connecticut, with protestors holding signs saying, “Putin, hands off the US election.” But these endeavors had nothing to do with her work at the DNC, where she co-chaired DNC affiliate the National Democratic Ethnic Coordinating Counci during the 2016 presidential election. When Chalupa brought up Manafort with anyone at the DNC, they were uninterested. In July 2016, she left her DNC part-time consulting role to work full time in human rights advocacy. The DNC and the Hillary Clinton campaign claimed they weren’t involved in Chalupa’s efforts, while no evidence has surfaced to contradict it.

Third, in early 2017, Paul Manafort provided the White House specific information on how Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign had sponsored research ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. Particularly, Manafort provided information to the White House on how to discredit the so-called Steele dossier, written by a former MI6 Russia desk head named Christopher Steele, about alleged ties that Donald Trump and his associates had to Russia. In fact, Manafort provided the background to the White House lawyers about specific allegations and information in the document that he claimed was suspect. Manafort recommended that Trump play up that the Clinton campaign had commissioned the work by a private investigation firm that they hired. In reality, the work on the Steele Dossier had been commissioned by a right-wing entity during the GOP primaries.

Paul Manafort’s contacts with the White House continued even after his cooperation with Robert Mueller. Without telling prosecutors, Manafort’s defense attorneys secretly provided details of their client’s cooperation with the special prosecutor to Donald Trump’s legal team, in another apparent effort Manafort engineered to undermine the investigation and/or win a Trump pardon. In the process, Manafort may have helped Trump tailor his answers to questions the special counsel’s office recently provided.

Former US attorney and deputy assistant attorney general told Vox: “The open pipeline between cooperator and suspect Trump may have been not on only extraordinary but also criminal. … What purpose other than an attempt to ‘influence, obstruct, or impede’ the investigation of the president can be discerned from Manafort’s service as a double agent? And on the Trump side, the communications emit a strong scent of illegal witness tampering.” In other words, in trying to cover up and obtain a presidential pardon Get-Out-of-Jail Free Card, Paul Manafort and others committed more crimes. Each “discernable lie” Manafort told is a potential new felony charge of lying to federal investigators, perjury, or obstruction of justice. Now what’s an obvious interest to Robert Mueller is whether others, most notably White House officials, conspired with Manafort to lie, mislead investigators, or commit obstruction of justice and what Donald Trump knew of all this.

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The Donald J. Trump Foundation: A Self-Dealing Charity for One

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When it comes to rich people, there is a lot I have to criticize on how they perpetuate economic inequality through their vast sums of money and power while leaving the poorer masses with little leverage to assert themselves. But when it comes to their philanthropic foundations, I think that they at least put their own money in it and donate the money for a good charitable cause. Even if it’s just to name some sort of building after themselves. After all, many wealthy people usually contribute their money to the arts, college campuses, research facilities, libraries, and public works projects. Hell, though I think Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos treat their workers like shit, the fact they want to contribute some of their vast fortunes for going to Mars seems pretty cool.

However, despite that Donald Trump’s excessive vanity is the stuff of legend, such philanthropic endeavors don’t seem to be the case with the Donald J. Trump Foundation. Trump originally created this foundation in 1988 for his proceeds from his book Trump: The Art of the Deal to charitable causes. However, in since 2008, Trump had stopped contributing personal funds and instead solicited donations from outsiders. Though the foundation was based in New York City’s Trump Organization, with no paid staff or dedicated office space. Until its forced closure in 2017 due to an array of complaints in self-dealing, its board of directors consisted of Trump, his 3 adult children by Ivana, and Trump Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg (though he told investigators he wasn’t aware of being a board member “at least for the last 10 or 15 years.”) In 2015, a Trump Organization spokesperson told The New York Post that Trump made all the decisions regarding the Trump Foundation money grants. Despite calling himself an “ardent philanthropist,” Trump has only donated $3.7 million to his foundation from 1990-2009.

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Here’s a sheet of David Fahrenthold’s notes he showed on Twitter to prove that what he wrote about the Trump Foundation wasn’t fake news. He ended up winning a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize for his coverage in 2017.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, The Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold initiated an investigation into Donald Trump’s philanthropic activities after Trump held a fundraiser for veterans in January 2016 in lieu of a televised Republican debate appearance. Trump claimed the event raised $6,000,000 for veterans’ causes, including supposedly $1,000,000,000 of his own money. Fahrenthold began his investigation by trying to confirm the receipt and dispersal of that $6 million. All donations should’ve gone to the Trump Foundation which should’ve granted the money to others. Instead, Fahrenthold determined that, several months after the rally, the Trump Foundation had yet to send any funds to veterans-related charities. Though some of the funds went directly to causes without passing the Trump Foundation, Fahrenthold widened his search to a wider investigation.

In June 2016 as a response to this criticism, Donald Trump publicly asserted that he had given approximately $102 million to charitable causes from 2009-2015 and released a 93-page list of the money’s beneficiaries. However, subsequent reporting by the Washington Post and other news organizations found that many of the donations Trump claimed making personally over this 5-year period were made by the Trump Foundation. And by 2009, no longer held any of Trump’s money. While further investigations led to an increasing of abuse inside the foundation since its creation. David Fahrenthold’s investigation into the Trump Foundation and Trump’s history of personal charitable giving involved hundreds of calls to Trump-associated charities. It’s also notable in that Fahrenthold heavily drew support and investigative help from a larger number of his Twitter followers helping him track down leads on specific charities. The accusations against the Trump Foundation are many, including the following (which mostly comes from Wikipedia, by the way And yes, it’s most of the information comes from cited sources, including Fahrenthold).

Failure to maintain proper governance

In June 2018, the New York Attorney General office filed a petition explaining that: “…none of the Foundation’s expenditures or activities were approved by its Board of Directors. The investigation found that the Board existed in name only: it did not meet after 1999; it did not set policy or criteria for choosing grant recipients; and it did not approve of any grants. Mr. Trump alone made all decisions related to the Foundation.” Also, Trump Foundation treasurer Allen Weisselberg claimed he wasn’t even aware of his position on the foundation’s board until investigators approached him. Such signs in a foundation give a bright red flag to a charity scam.

Donation solicitation without a license

Under New York state law, a nonprofit foundation must register as a “7A Charitable Organization” if planning to solicit outside donations over $25,000. Initially, the Trump Foundation was registered as a private foundation set up solely to receive Donald Trump’s own personal donations. As long as it was registered as a private foundation and not soliciting outside funds, it didn’t have to file annual reports with the New York State Charities Bureau. Of course, given Trump’s aversion to transparency in financial matters, this might’ve been the reason why the Trump Foundation didn’t register as a “7A Charitable Organization.” But records show that Trump began soliciting donations at least as early as 2004, maybe even 1989.

Mishandling of funds raised for veterans’ causes

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Here’s that fucking piece of shit Donald Trump bestowing a large check to a veterans’ charity in Iowa in 2016. Still, I wouldn’t cash in that check if I were these ladies. Mostly because the check might bounce.

In April 2016, Fox News reported that more than 2 months after Donald Trump said he raised $6 million for veterans at a pre-Iowa Caucus fundraiser, “most of the organizations targeted to receive the money have gotten less than half of that amount.” At the same time, Trump said he contributed $1 million of his personal funds. In late May, Trump revised the figures, claiming that $5.6 million had been raised at the event and that he contributed his $1 million share only the week before after the media criticized him. He also provided a list of beneficiaries of that $5.6 million. Although a 2018 New York state lawsuit further disputes this, citing $2.8 million.

Coordinating foundation grants with Trump’s presidential campaign

It should surprise nobody that Donald Trump might’ve used Trump foundation grants to advance his presidential campaign. This violates rules barring charities from engaging in political activity. Trump at least distributed some of the funds publicly at “Donald Trump for President” political rallies, displaying large-size checks including his campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again” or a link to a campaign website. In an October 2017 deposition, Trump Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg testified that he witnessed Trump’s campaign staff coordinate with him to use the Iowa fundraiser for the campaign’s benefit. In a larger suit against the foundation in 2018, New York State Attorney General Barbara Underwood alleged that Trump in using the foundation for campaign promotion during and after the Iowa fundraiser, had violated charities laws.

Grants to the National Museum of Catholic Art and Library

In each of 1995 and 1999, the Trump Foundation granted $50,000 to the National Museum of Catholic Art and Library. According to a 2001 Village Voice report, after visiting the East Harlem museum, the facility had “next to no art” and no official connection to the Catholic Church, despite having a 10-year track record of soliciting large-scale donations for its collection. The Voice and later, The Washington Post concluded that Trump may have directed the grants to the museum to curry favor with then museum chairman, Eddie Malloy, who was also head of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York. The Council had worked on behalf of one of the workers’ unions who worked on Trump construction projects.

Failure to make pledged 9/11 donations

An October 2016 New York City Comptroller office investigation showed that Donald Trump or the Trump Foundation might’ve failed to honor at least one pledge to charities established to provide relief to 9/11 victims. In late September 2001, Trump pledged $10,000 to the Twin Towers Fund on The Howard Stern Show. Created by then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the Twin Towers Fund was “to benefit the families of firefighters and police officers who died in the attacks.” During the 2016 Republican National Convention, Giuliani announced that Trump made unspecified “anonymous” donations after the September 11 attacks. Though such donations have never been identified. Ever the sycophant, Giuliani also said in support of Trump’s candidacy, “Every time New York City suffered a tragedy Donald Trump was there to help,…. He’s not going to like my telling you this but he did it anonymously.”

The New York City Comptroller’s office told the New York Daily News it manually reviewed “approximately 1,500 pages of donor records of the Twin Towers Fund and the related entity NYC Public/Private Initiatives Inc., containing the names of more than 110,000 individuals and entities that were collected as part of the audits” through August 2012. According to them, Comptroller Scott Stringer, “found that Trump and [the Trump Foundation] hadn’t donated a dime in the months after 9/11.” However, because the reviewed period only covered one year after the attacks, the Comptroller office was “unable to conclude definitively” that Trump never gave to the fund after August 2002. According to its IRS Form 990 tax filings, the Trump Foundation made no grants to the Twin Towers Fund or to the NYC Public/Private Initiatives, Inc. it’s a part of from 2002-2014. Though Donald Trump might’ve made personal donations after August 2002 that wouldn’t have shown up in the filings.

After the convention in 2016, Donald Trump’s campaign suggested that the Trump Foundation made a grant to the American Red Cross after the attacks. But no record exists in its tax filings from 2002-2014. As with the Twin Towers Fund, a personal donation by Trump wouldn’t have shown up in its filings.

Using Trump Foundation money to settle Trump Organization legal disputes

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Those who read my post about Donald Trump in Mar-a-Lago may remember the outsized flag dispute with Palm Beach. Well, guess where he got the money to pay for that. Yep, his Trump Foundation slush fund.

Donald Trump might’ve used Trump Foundation money to settle his personal or business legal disputes on at least 2 occasions. In 2007, Trump used foundation money to settle his 2006 legal dispute between the town of Palm Beach, Florida and Trump’s Mar-a-Lago country club. This pertained to Trump putting up a gigantic flagpole that was too high and hoisting a flag that was too large as far as the town’s ordinances are concerned. If you read my post on Trump at Mar-a-Lago I published earlier this month, then you probably know how it goes. Anyway, settlement documents show that in return for discharging the club’s obligations to Palm Beach, Trump agreed to personally donate $100,000 to a veterans and military families charity Fischer House. However, Trump made the grant using foundation money, not his.

Donald Trump’s foundation paid $158,000 to the Martin B. Greenberg Foundation as a settlement in a lawsuit Greenberg brought against the Trump National Golf Club Westchester in Briarcliff Manor, New York. Martin Greenberg alleged that he rightfully won a $1 million prize for scoring a hole-in-one during a 2010 charity golf tournament. But the club denied the award on technical grounds, arguing the hole was shorter than the required 150 yards. He sued and both parties reached a settlement according to the Washington Post that, that “on the day that Trump and the other parties told the court that they had settled the case, the Donald J. Trump Foundation made its first and only grant to the Martin B. Greenberg Foundation, for $158,000.” In September 2016, the Post reported that the grant money was directly linked to the legal settlement, likely violating IRS self-dealing rules by using charitable funds to pay Trump’s personal or business obligations. To raise the needed money for the settlement, the Trump Foundation auctioned a prize of a Trump-owned golf course lifetime membership, with a $157,000 donation to the Trump Foundation as the winning bid. The auction winner might’ve believed they were donating to Trump Foundation charitable causes instead of Trump’s tax exempt personal piggy bank. According to the foundation’s available tax returns, Trump National Golf Club Westchester paid over $200,000 to the Trump Foundation in 2016, with $158,000 of the funds for the Martin B. Greenberg settlement.

Donation to Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi

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This is Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi. In 2013, during her office’s investigation into Trump University, Donald Trump gave her money from his foundation to make it go away. She dropped the case shortly afterwards. And she’s not the only one either.

In 2013, Donald Trump donated $25,000 in support of Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi’s election campaign while her office was reviewing fraud allegations against Trump University, a for-profit real-estate program scam Trump created. At the same time, Trump also hosted a fundraiser for Bondi at his Mar-a-Lago resort at a fee well below his normal market rate. In return, Bondi’s office ended the investigation without bringing charges. According to a Trump Foundation attorney, “the [$25,000] contribution was made in error due to a case of mistaken identity of organizations with the same name.” But Trump personally reimbursed his foundation for the $25,000. It paid a $2,500 fine for violating IRS rules against political contributions by charitable organizations. In 2016, then New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman publicly stated that the Trump Foundation was now subject to investigation by his office.

Nonprofit watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed a complaint with the IRS. Obtaining a letter from the Trump Foundation’s lawyer to the New York Attorney General’s office also cast doubt on Donald Trump’s story. According to CREW Communications Director Jordan Libowitz, “We’re past the point where a reasonable person could believe this is just a never-ending series of once in a lifetime errors. This may not be anything nefarious, but if it isn’t, that would mean that the Trump operation is completely inept when it comes to running the Trump Foundation.” In October 2016, The Wall Street Journal reported details of how Trump had made campaign contributions to various US state attorneys general while reviewing cases involving the Trump Organization or himself personally, on several occasions since the early 1980s. Though the Bondi case is the only one cited as involving Trump Foundation money.

Grants allegedly made for political purposes

In 2012, Donald Trump paid $100,000 to the Reverend Billy Graham Evangelical Association. NBC News has called Graham “an early ally” of his. In 2011, Graham told ABC News, “The more you listen to him, the more you say to yourself, ‘You know, maybe the guy’s right.’” In October 2016, Graham revealed to the Charlotte Observer that he instructed Trump to make a $100,000 donation which was used for full page ads urging voters to support 2012 presidential candidates who support “biblical values.” The time and tone of the ads indicate they were placed in support of Mitt Romney as the Observer suggested. Graham also headed the Boone, North Carolina-based Samaritan’s Purse, a Christian relief agency that received $25,000 from the Trump Foundation in 2012. Graham credits then-Fox News anchor Greta Van Susteren for soliciting the donation from Trump. Van Susteren had accompanied Graham on Samaritan’s Purse trips to Hawaii and North Korea. The Charlotte Observer quoted Graham saying, “[Trump] was on her show, and [Van Susteren] said, ‘I was just in Haiti and Samaritan’s Purse is doing this down there, and Donald, you need to help.’ He sent a check out.” In 2016, several media outlets alleged that Van Sustreren had been producing overtly pro-Trump reports on her Fox News show On the Record. These donations seem to explain some of Trump’s support with some white evangelicals in the Bible Belt.

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Here’s Donald Trump shaking hands with David Bossie, best known for being head of Citizens United. You know the group in that Supreme Court case that ditched a slew of campaign finance laws and allowed rich people to spend as much money they wanted on political candidates. Also Trump gave money to him via Trump Foundation funds.

In 2014, the Trump Foundation made a $100,000 grant to the Citizens United Foundation, a charitable foundation closely related to David Bossie’s conservative group, Citizens United. If that sounds familiar, Citizens United was the group behind the Supreme Court case that allowed unlimited contributions from corporate donors, Super PACs, and dark money in political campaigns. At the time, Citizens United was engaged in a lawsuit against then-New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, whose office was also pursuing a civil lawsuit against Trump University. It was the largest single grant the Trump Foundation made that year. Schneiderman’s office called the grant part of a “vendetta” by Donald Trump. While Citizens United rejected any connection between the grant and its own lawsuit against Schneiderman. The Trump Foundation’s 2014 tax filing misidentified Citizens United as a public charity (501(c)(3)) when it’s actually a social welfare organization (501(c)(4)).

From 2011-2013, the Trump Foundation donated at total of $40,000 to the Drumthwacket Foundation, a charitable organization formed to pay for renovation and historical preservation of the New Jersey governor’s mansion of the same name. In 2011, Donald Trump was trying to get permits for a personal cemetery on the fairway at Trump National Golf Club in New Jersey and may have needed political help in obtaining approval. Keep in mind that Chris Christie was governor at the time.

Donald Trump directed $100,000 in Trump Foundation money toward the National September 11 Memorial Museum days before the 2016 New York State Republican presidential primary, where he was on the ballot, mischaracterizing the foundation grant as a personal donation.

In May 2015, the Trump Foundation granted $100,000 to conservative filmmaker and conspiracy theorist James O’Keefe’s Project Veritas. In October 2016, O’Keefe released videos apparently revealing how Democrats incited violence at Donald Trump’s rallies through dubious means. Except that’s not true. During the third 2016 presidential debate, Trump claimed the new videos O’Keefe produced and released that week proved that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama “hired people” and “paid them $1,500” to “be violent, cause fights, [and] do bad things” at Trump rallies. Despite the fact such details are utter bullshit. Besides, there are many instances where Trump has incited violence at his rallies. A Democratic National Committee spokesperson noted Trump’s donation after Project Veritas released another video on the 2016 election. A Project Veritas spokesperson responded saying, “We have a multi-million dollar budget and the cost of this video series alone is way up there. The donation Trump provided didn’t impact our actions one way or the other.” Though you have to strongly doubt that.

Then there’s the fact that Donald Trump might’ve directed Trump Foundation money to support his presidential campaign. In one case, the grants were used specifically to pay for newspaper ads. In October 2016, Real Clear Politics reported that Trump directed significant amounts of foundation money to conservative organizations, possibly in return for political support and access. They found that from 2011-2014, Trump had “harnessed his eponymous foundation to send at least $286,000 to influential conservative or policy groups…. In many cases, this flow of money corresponded to prime speaking slots or endorsements that aided Trump as he sought to recast himself as a plausible Republican candidate for president.” At least 2 of the groups are based in Republican-leaning early presidential primary states. In addition to the infamous Citizens United, groups include Iowa’s The Family Leader, the South Carolina Palmetto Family Council, the American Conservative Union, and the American Spectator Foundation. Trump’s foundation money grants could’ve violated the law if it was in return for his personal right to speak and gain access to networking events. Considering that he seemed to be an outsider early in the 2016 campaign, I wouldn’t put it past him.

  • The Trump Foundation’s $10,000 grant in 2013 to The Family Leader might’ve led to a speaking engagement for Donald Trump. The Family Leader is an Iowa-based organization whose stated mission is to “strengthen families, by inspiring Christ-like leadership in the home, the church, and the government.” Following the grant, the group’s leader Vader Plaats invited Trump to speak at its leadership summit. Because The Family Leader is a (501(c)(4)) corporation established “develop, advocate and support legislative agenda at the state level” and not a charity, these grants might’ve been illegal. Though Trump might’ve intended to make a grant to The Family Leader Foundation, which is a 501(c)(3) charitable foundation. Either way, it seems shady.
  • Donald Trump was invited to speak at the American Conservative Union’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in 2013 after directing $50,000 of Trump Foundation money to the organization. That same year, Trump was invited to speak at Washington’s Economic Club after the Trump Foundation made a grant there.

Partial payment of an assessment owed by the Plaza Hotel

In 1989, the Trump Foundation paid more than half for a “voluntary assessment” imposed on the Plaza Hotel by the Central Park Conservancy. The Trump Organization owned the hotel at the time and the assessment was for the renovation of the severely dilapidated Pulitzer Fountain at Grand Army Plaza directly facing the place. Toward the $500,000 assessment, the foundation granted $264,631 to the Conservancy while the Trump Organization paid between $100,000 and $250,000. The grant to the Conservancy was the Trump Foundation’s largest single grant since its inception through 2015.

Using foundation money to purchase personal or business goods or services

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Here’s one of the paintings Donald Trump bought with his fake charity money. This one from Doral was discovered on TripAdvisor and a Univision reporter just had to check it out.

On 2 occasions, Donald Trump used the Trump Foundation’s money to buy portraits of himself.

  • In 2007, Donald Trump spent $10,000 in Trump Foundation funds to purchase a 6ft-tall portrait of himself by artist Michael Israel at a Florida benefit for a charity, the Children’s Place at Hornespace, held at his Mar-a-Lago club after his wife Melania made the highest bid. The painter’s former production manager told The Washington Post that he shipped the painting to the Trump National Golf Club Westchester in Briarcliff Manor, New York, allegedly for display in the country club’s conference room or boardroom, at Melania’s request. The charity paid half the proceeds to the artist for the painting, establishing that it had a fair market value of at least that amount. Tax experts told the Post that if it was displayed at a golf club, it could violate IRS rules prohibiting nonprofits from self-dealing (like using charity funds for noncharitable purposes). In September 2015, President Barack Obama publicly criticized Trump’s painting purchase.
  • In 2014 at a charity benefit for the Unicorn Children’s Foundation at his Mar-a-Lago resort, Donald Trump bought a 4ft tall painting of a 1990s version of himself by Argentine artist Havi Schanz, paying for it with $20,000 Trump Foundation funds. A photo of the portrait was found on a TripAdvisor review of Trump National Doral Miami. Later a Univision reporter went to the club, asked the various staff about the painting, and eventually discovered it hanging on at the golf resort’s Champions Bar & Grill restaurant. Trump campaign spokesman Boris Epshteyn explained on MSNBC that Trump’s use of the painting there was not only proper but beneficial to the foundation based on IRS rules allowing individuals to store items “on behalf of the foundation – in order to help with storage costs” and that its use at the restaurant is “absolutely proper” in that Trump was “doing his foundation a favor.”

During a charity auction at his Mar-a-Lago club in 2012, Donald Trump bid $12,000 for a Tim Tebow autographed NFL football helmet and a Tebow football jersey. Newspaper accounts credited Trump for his generosity. However, the purchase was made with $12,000 in Trump Foundation money, not his own. The helmet and jersey’s current whereabouts are unknown. But according to tax law experts, if Trump kept them, the purchase might’ve violated the self-dealing rule, banning private foundations from “the furnishing of goods” to their own officers.

In 2008, Donald Trump used $107,000 in Trump Foundation funds to purchase luxury trips to Paris, including a meeting with actress Salma Hayek at a charity auction for the Gucci Foundation.

In 2013, the Trump Foundation made a $5,000 grant to the nonprofit D.C. Preservation League. According to The Washington Post, the nonprofit’s support was helpful to the Trump Organization in obtaining the rights to convert Washington D.C.’s historic Old Post Office Pavilion into the Trump International Hotel. In acknowledgement for the donation, the Trump Foundation received ads in the event programs. But the ads promoted the hotel rather than the foundation, in possible violation of IRS self-dealing rules.

The Palm Beach Post has suggested that Donald Trump benefitted personally when the Trump Foundation made grants totaling $20,000 from 2011-2014 in return for band and choir performances held at his resorts.

Diverting business or personal income as donations to the foundation

Donald Trump may have directed income personally owed to him to be sent to the Trump Foundation instead of his bank account, in possible tax rules violation. In September 2016, The Washington Post reported that Trump directed that $2.3 million owed to him by various people and organizations should be paid instead as donations to his foundation. Hell, the Post found old Associated Press coverage showing that Trump may have started directing income to the Trump Foundation as early as 1989. IRS rules prohibit individuals from diverting taxable income owed to them toward charities if they benefit directly from them, unless the person declares the income on their personal tax forms. Since Trump has yet to release his tax returns as of 2018, the Post couldn’t confirm if Trump declared the income for any of the received donations.

The Trump Foundation received at least $1.9 million from ticket broker Richard Ebbers who had bought goods, services, including tickets from “Trump or his businesses.” He was allegedly instructed to pay for them to the Trump Foundation in the form of charitable contributions instead as Trump Organization income.

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Donald Trump had his money from his WWE appearances directed as donations to the Trump Foundation totaling to $5 million. I guess it was to avoid taxes since he doesn’t like paying them.

In 2007 and 2009, the Trump Foundation received a total of $5 million in donations from World Wrestling Entertainment owner Vince McMahon and his wife Linda. Trump appeared twice for WrestleMania events in those years. The 2007 donation was $1 million while the 2009 one was $4 million. The WWE later told The Huffington Post that, “during this period of time, WWE paid Donald Trump appearance fees separately,” and “separately, [WWE chief executives] Vince and Linda McMahon made personal donations to Donald Trump’s foundation.”

In 2007, the Celebrity Fight Night Foundation hosted a fundraiser to benefit the Muhammad Ali Parkinson’s Center in Phoenix, Arizona. According to a CFNF spokesperson, in return for Donald Trump’s appearance and his offering a New York-based dinner with himself at auction, Trump stipulated that the Parkinson’s charity share the total auction proceeds with the Trump Foundation, which totaled to $150,000 that would’ve otherwise gone to the center benefitted Parkinson’s Disease research.
Other donations made to the Trump Foundation that might’ve been in return for Donald Trump’s personal work include:

  • $400,000 from Comedy Central for Trump’s attendance at a celebrity roast in his honor.
  • $150,000 from People Magazine in return for exclusive photos of Trump’s son, Barron.
  • $500,000 from NBC Universal in 2012 while airing Trump’s show, The Apprentice.
  • $100,000 from the family of Donna Clancy, whose family law office had been renting space at the Trump Organizations 40 Wall Street building.
  • $100,000 in 2005, for Melania Trump’s work for Norwegian Cruise Lines on a segment later included on The Apprentice. A company spokesperson confirmed that Melania’s appearance fee was paid in a Trump Foundation donation

Granting money to charities that rented Trump Organization facilities

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These people are protesting the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute for holding events at Trump resorts. Good thing, since Donald Trump earns money from their fundraisers than what his foundation gaves to them.

Donald Trump has been accused of directing money toward several charities that in turn paid the Trump Organization to host charity events at Trump-owned resorts and golf clubs. High-profile charity events at Mar-a-Lago cost as much as $300,000. Notable examples include:

  • In 2010, Donald Trump was personally honored by the Palm Beach Police Foundation after the Trump Foundation donated to the charity $150,000 during the 2009-2010 period. According to the police foundation’s public tax records, the Palm Beach Police Foundation paid the Trump Organization $276,463 in rent in 2014 for it “Police Ball and Auction” held at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago hotel. The 2014 tax filings also lists $44,332 in unattributed “direct expenses” the police foundation paid for the same event along with $36,608 in “direct expenses” for its annual “Golf Classic” it holds yearly at a Trump Organization-owned golf course. For each of the 4 years prior to 2014, the police foundation’s public tax records show significant “direct expenses” incurred for both the Police Ball and Auction and the golf tournament. Though filings don’t list expense categories.
  • In 2013, according to The Washington Post, Donald Trump donated to the V Foundation, a cancer-fighting founded by former basketball coach Jim Valvano, in return for the V Foundation hosting a fundraiser at his Trump Winery in Virginia.
  • The Dana-Farber Cancer Institute paid the Trump Organization substantial fees to hold annual events at Mar-a-Lago. In turn, the Trump Foundation granted a total of $85,000 to the Institute in 2006 and 2007, among other grants in subsequent years.

Donald Trump taking personal credit for donations made using foundation money

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Donald Trump often likes to boast about his philanthropy. But in reality, he often donated to charity using other people’s money from his Trump Foundation personal piggy bank. And he’s said to be one of the least charitable billionaires to date.

In 2016, both Fox News and The Washington Post reported that Donald Trump has repeatedly claimed in public to have made over “$102 million” in charitable donations “in the past five years.” The Trump Organization provided journalists with a 93-page donation list. None of the cash donations were confirmed to come from Trump personally while many were grants from the Trump Foundation, which no longer contained any of his own money.

For instance, Donald Trump took personal credit while honored for a Trump Foundation grant to the Palm Beach Police Foundation that actually came from an outside source. Though he pledge money personally before the Trump Foundation solicited $150,000 earmarked for the police foundation from an unrelated philanthropic organization, the Charles Evans Foundation. It took that money and paid it to the Palm Beach charity. The police then personally honored Trump with its annual Palm Tree Award at his Mar-a-Lago hotel during its annual fundraiser. The Washington Post wrote that, Trump had effectively turned the Evans Foundation’s gifts into his own gifts, without adding any money of his own.”

The Dana-Farber Cancer Institute has honored Donald Trump variously as “Grand Benefactor” and “Grand Honorary Chair” at its annual fundraisers held at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate. However, Trump may have also earned money from the event fees he received from the Institute than the Trump Foundation paid to them in grants. Since 2010, Trump has directed at least $300,000 in Trump Foundation grants to the Institute.
On his prime-time TV show, The Apprentice, Donald Trump has received highly visible praise for his personal generosity on multiple occasions. He’s frequently offered to make generous donations to his contestants’ charities. But records show that he ultimately directed the Trump Foundation to make a grant or instead had the show’s network, NBC Universal to make the donation instead. Examples include:

  • A 2008 episode where Donald Trump told mixed martial artist Tito Ortiz, “I think you’re so incredible that — personally, out of my own account — I’m going to give you $50,000 for St. Jude’s [children’s hospital].” St. Jude’s is also Eric Trump’s favorite charity. Trump then had the Trump Foundation make a $50,000 grant to the children’s hospital.
  • In 2012, Donald Trump promised at least 6 personal $10,000 donations each to contestants’ chosen charities on a Celebrity Apprentice episode. In another episode from the same season, he pledged $10,000 to contestant Aubrey O’Day’s chosen charity, a gift “that moved [contestant and comedienne Lisa] Lampanelli to tears.” According to The Washington Post’s review of the tax filings, Trump directed all this money to be granted to the charities out of Trump Foundation funds.
  • In 2013, Donald Trump promised personal $20,000 donations each to charities of basketball star Dennis Rodman, singer La Toya Jackson, Playboy Playmate Brande Roderick, and actor Gary Busey. Trump then used Trump Foundation money to make the payments. He told them, Remember, Donald Trump is a very nice person, okay?” According to a Washington Post reporter reviewing the show’s transcripts, by 2013, “contestants had come to expect these gifts — and even to demand them, when Trump didn’t offer money on his own.”
  • For a $14,000 gift to the Starkey Hearing Foundation, a Marliee Matlin’s chosen charity, Donald Trump was credited this this “personal donation” though it actually came from the Trump Foundation.

Other alleged examples include:

  • In 2009, Donald Trump appeared on Extra where he promised to pay a struggling viewer’s domestic bills. “This is really a bad time for a lot of people,” he said as the contest was announced. Trump eventually paid the winner with Trump Foundation money. A Trump representative later explained the grant was legal because the winner qualified as an “indigent” individual under Internal Revenue Code section 4945(d)(3), a contention at least one tax expert has disputed.
  • Donald Trump was honored with a chair and a plaque with his name at the Raymond J. Kravis Center of the Performing Arts after the Trump Foundation donated $10,000.
  • In 2014, Donald Trump took personal credit for a $25,000 Trump Foundation grant at a speech honoring slain journalist, James Foley. At the time The New Hampshire Union Leader published an article titled Trump leads tribute for slain journalist James Foley. Foley was posthumously awarded the 12th annual Nackey S. Loeb First Amendment Award, “given annually to New Hampshire organizations or residents who protect or exemplify the liberties listed in the First Amendment to the Constitution.” Trump was the ironic, “featured speaker of the event.” Compare this to how Trump regularly attacks the media for reporting negative stories about him instead of lavishing him with unearned praise like Fox News does. Or how he’s willing to defend Vladimir Putin or the Saudi Arabian Crown Prince despite that these 2 have had journalists murdered.
  • In 2016, Donald Trump received personal praise for a $100,000 Trump Foundation grant to the National September 11 Memorial Museum ahead of the 2016 New York State Republican primary.

Making grants to other private foundations without fulfilling IRS “expenditure responsibility” rules

By law, the Trump Foundation was responsible for ensuring that any grant it takes to another private foundation is strictly used for charitable purposes. To fulfill this IRS “expenditure responsibility” the foundation is required to attach “full and detailed” reports describing the grant money’s uses to its IRS 990 tax return for each year to a private foundation is made. Trump Foundation tax returns show it failing to do this all of the 20 grants it made to private foundations from 2005-2014. Such grants in this period totaling to $488,500 could be subject to significant fines and penalties.

Receiving donation from Ukranian oligarch during 2016 presidential campaign

In 2015, Ukrainian Victor Pichkun donated $150,000 to the Trump Foundation in return for Donald Trump’s video conference link appearance at the Yalta European Strategy Conference. The appearance was broadcast on a large screen and lasted 20 minutes, including translation and technical difficulty delays. Pichkun is the son-in-law of former Ukranian president Lionid Kuchima. In 2018, the New York Times reported that Special Counsel Robert Mueller was investigating this donation as a possible illegal in-kind foreign national campaign contribution intended to curry favor with then-candidate Donald Trump.

From Russia with Donald Trump

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As of 2018, we don’t know whether the Trump campaign willingly colluded with Russia in its efforts to undermine the 2016 election. But we do know that Russia hacked into DNC emails and spread fake news propaganda on social networks to help Donald Trump. We know the Russians wanted Trump to win and did whatever they could to accomplish that. We know the Trump campaign was at least okay with the Russian hacking and efforts. Hell, one Trump campaign official even drunkenly bragged about the Russians hacking into Hillary Clinton’s emails. And we know that several Trumpworld figures have corresponded with Russian hackers, Russian oligarchs, and people with ties to the Russian government. Furthermore, Trump has praised Russian President Vladimir Putin in his speeches, even when he’s every opportunity to criticize the Kremlin dictator. Though collusion hasn’t been proven, what we do know of Trumpworld’s connections with Russia gives us a reasonable case for Robert Mueller to investigate.

On November 9, 2016, just a minutes after Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, a man named Vyacheslav Nikonov made a very unusual statement in the Russian State Duma. “Dear friends, respected colleagues!” he said. “Three minutes ago, Hillary Clinton admitted her defeat in US presidential elections, and a second ago Trump started his speech as an elected president of the United States of America, and I congratulate you on this.” Since Nikonov is the leader of the pro-Putin United Russia Party, his announcement that day was a clear signal that Trump’s victory was a victory for Putin’s Russia.

Longtime journalist Craig Unger has attempted to gather all the evidence we have of Donald Trump’s connections to the Russian mafia and government and lay it all out in a clear, comprehensive narrative in his book, House of Trump, House of Putin: The Untold Story of Donald Trump and the Russian Mafia. Though the book claims to tell the “untold story,” it’s not entirely unclear of how much is new. Because like a lot of the skeletons in Trump’s gilded closet, one of the hardest things to accept about the Trump-Russia saga is how transparent it is. In fact, so much evidence hides in plain sight, and somehow that’s made it more difficult to accept. In his book, Unger names 59 Russians as Trump business associates and follows the purported financial links between them and the Trump Organization, going back decades. Many of them are quite shady. Although Unger doesn’t provide any evidence that Trump gave Russia anything concrete in return for their help, the case he makes for how much potential leverage the Russians have over Trump is damning. In fact, Unger thinks Russia’s use of Trump constitutes “one of the greatest intelligence operations in history,” as he puts in his book.

As Craig Unger claims. what most Americans don’t understand is that the Russian mafia is different from the American mafia. While American crime syndicates are often targets for FBI investigation, the mafia is essentially a state actor in Russia. When asked about the mafia, former KGB Russian counterintelligence operations Gen. Oleg Kalugin told Unger, “Oh, it’s part of the KGB. It’s part of the Russian government.” In Russia, there’s no Wall Street or anything like Goldman Sachs. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, rich gangsters and government officials were able to privatize and loot state-held assets in coal, oil, minerals, and banking. In Vladmir Putin’s Russia, criminal syndicates have become increasingly intertwined with its intelligence services, blurring the line between mafia dons and spies. In fact, Russia expert Mark Galeotti would agree with Unger since he wrote in his book, The Vory: Russia’s Super Mafia that Putin’s Kremlin consolidated power by “not simply taming, but absorbing, the underworld.” Putin didn’t care what these gangsters did as long as they strengthened his power and personal financial interests. Since the 1990s, its estimated that some $1.3 trillion has flowed out of Russia.

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Semion Mogilevich is one of the richest and most influential gangsters in the world. Known as the ultimate Russian mob boss, he may not have any direct connection to Donald Trump. But many of his associates and underlings do.

One of the key mob bosses is the squat Ukranian Semion Mogilevich. In Russia, he’s a big time Russian crime boss with a multibillion empire and a wide range of crimes that will make Al Capone look like an inept convenience store robber. According to the FBI, Mogilevich started out as the key money-laundering contact for the Solntsevskaya Bratva, or Brotherhood, one of the richest criminal syndicates in the world. Craig Unger believed that he could’ve been the CEO of Goldman Sachs if he was born in America. The FBI considers Mogilevich the “boss of bosses” of the Russian mafia who’s even feared by his fellow gangsters as “the most powerful mobster in the world.” He’s run drug trafficking rings at an international scale. He’s used a jewelry business in Moscow and Budapest as a front for art that Russian gangsters stole from museums, churches, and synagogues all over Europe. He’s even been accused of selling $20 million in stolen weapons to Iran. From what the FBI has on him, Mogilevich has laundered money through more than 100 front companies around the world and held bank accounts in at least 27 countries. Mogilevich is famous for designing elaborate financial schemes that are extremely difficult, even possible to detect. Since the planning and setup can take years and involve a wide range of people in various positions of power whose roles/identities are sometimes never discovered. In Russia, his influence reaches all the way to the top. Ex-Russian spy, Alexander Litvinenko said in an interview with investigators in 2005, “Mogilevich have good relationship with Putin since 1994 or 1993.” A year later Litvinenko was dead, suspiciously poisoned by Kremlin agents. Many of the Russian mobsters who bought units from Donald Trump have ties to this man.

According to Craig Unger, it probably all began as a money-laundering operation with the Russian mafia. After all, anyone who’s known about Donald Trump for a long time knows that he likes doing business with gangsters. Partly because they pay top dollar and loan money when traditional banks won’t. Essentially, for more than 30 years Trump was working with the Russian mafia. He profited from them. They rescued and bailed him out, taking him from being $4 billion in debt to becoming a multibillionaire again. And they fueled his political ambitions. And since Trump had worked with the Russian mafia, he was in bed with the Kremlin as well, whether he knew it or not.

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This is a chart of the Russian-linked and notorious criminals who lived and worked at Trump Tower. Since the place has been the HQ for money laundering operations and more. Helps that during the 1980s, it was the only high-rise to accept anonymous buyers.

To Craig Unger’s knowledge, the very first documented episode he could find was in 1984 when a man named David Bogatin met with Donald Trump in Trump Tower right after it opened since it was the only high-rise in New York City at the time to accept anonymous buyers. Now Bogatin is a Russian mobster, convicted gasoline bootlegger, and close ally of major Russian mob boss and king of money launderers Semion Mogilevich. Anyway, Bogatin came to that meeting prepared to spend $6 million which is equivalent to $15 million today. At that meeting, he bought 5 condos, which the Kremlin later seized on claims they were used to launder money for the Russian mob. We don’t exactly know what was in Trump’s head at the time or what he knew. But Unger has documented 1,300 transactions of this kind with Russian mobsters. These real estate transactions were all cash purchases made by anonymous shell companies that were obviously fronts for criminal money-laundering operations. By the early 2000s, 1/3 of the buyers of Trump Tower’s most expensive condos were either Russia-linked shell companies or individuals from the former Soviet Union. In Florida, about 63 Russian buyers spent at least $98 on Trump properties while another 1/3 of the units were bought by shell companies. Since this represents a large chunk of Trump’s real estate activity in the United States, it’s difficult to argue he had no idea what was going on. Aside from Bogatin, there’s his brother Yakov, who was involved in an elaborate stock fraud with Mogilevich. Two of Trump’s Sunny Isles buyers Anatoly Golubchik and Michael Sall were convicted of taking part in a massive international gambling and money laundering syndicate run out of the New York Trump Tower.

Another Trump buyer was an Uzbek mob-connected diamond dealer named Eduard Nektalov. At the time, Nektalov was under investigation by a Treasury Department task force for mob-connected money laundering. He bought a condo in midtown Manhattan’s Trump World Tower on the 79th floor, directly below Kellyanne Conway. A month later, he sold his unit for $500,000 profit. The next year after rumors circulated of him cooperating with federal investigators, Nektalov was gunned down on Sixth Avenue.

In 1991, Semion Mogilevich paid a Russian judge to spring fellow mob boss Vyachelsav Kirillovich Ivankov, from a Siberian gulag. In Russia, Ivankov was infamous for torturing his victims and boasting about murders he arranged. After his release, Ivankov headed to New York City on an illegal business visa. Once there, he bought a Rolls Royce dealership to use “as a front to launder criminal proceeds.” One of Ivankov’s partners in the operation was Felix Komarov, an upscale art dealer who lived in Trump Plaza on Third Avenue. After receiving a briefcase filled with $1.5 million in cash, over the next 3 years, Ivankov oversaw the mob’s growth from a local extortion racket to a multibillion dollar enterprise. According to the FBI, he recruited 2 “combat brigades” of Special Forces veterans from the Soviet war in Afghanistan to run the mafia’s protection racket and kill his enemies. Feds later found out that Ivankov made frequent visit to Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, New Jersey, where Russian gangsters routinely laundered huge sums of money. So much that it was repeatedly cited by the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network for having inadequate money-laundering controls. And in 2015, was fined $10 million and admitted for having “willfully violated” anti-money-laundering regulations for years. The also found that he lived in a luxury condo at Trump Tower. Though despite being Donald Trump’s neighbor, there’s no evidence they knew each other personally. But the fact a top Russian mafia boss lived and worked in Trump’s building shows just how much high-level Russian gangsters saw Trump’s properties as a home away from home.

Then there’s Russian mob leader Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov who ran an entire gambling and money-laundering network out of Unit 63A at Trump Tower (which is 3 floors below Donald Trump’s residence). In fact, Tokhtakhounov was a VIP attendee at Trump’s 2013 Miss Universe Pageant in Moscow just 7 months after the FBI busted his gambling rings and rounded up 29 suspects. The operation, which prosecutors called “the world’s largest sports book,” was run out of Trump Tower condos, including the building’s whole 51st floor. In addition, Unit 63A served as “sophisticated money-laundering scheme” moving an estimated $100 million out of the former Soviet Union, through shell companies in Cyprus, and into investments in the United States. According to the federal indictment, the money launderers paid Tokhtakhounov $10 million. A decade earlier, Tokhtakhounov was indicted for conspiring to fix the ice-skating competition at the 2002 Winter Olympics and was the only suspect to avoid arrest.

Russian mobsters and oligarchs also had ties to some of Donald Trump’s other properties outside the United States. In November 2017, NBC News reported Trump’s Panama hotel had ties to organized crime. While a Russian state-owned bank under US sanctions helped finance the construction of the 65-story Trump International Hotel and Tower in Toronto. And in December 2016, Jared Kushner met with that bank’s CEO. Since this represents a large chunk of Trump’s real estate activity in the United States, it’s difficult to argue he had no idea what was going on.

But how did Donald Trump become a “person of interest” to the Russians over 30 years ago, before his ascent to the presidency was even fathomable? It’s actually not as strange as it seems. First of all, Russians have always wanted to align with certain powerful businessman. Nor was Trump the only guy they targeted. For the Russians have a history going back to the American businessman Armand Hammer during the 1970s-80s who they turned into an asset. In fact, Russia had hundreds of agents and assets in the US. According to Gen. Kalugin, the US was a paradise for spies and they had recruited roughly 300 agents and assets in the country. Trump was one of them.

Nor were Russian operations just limited to money laundering for there was a parallel effort to seduce Donald Trump. Sometime in 1986, Russia’s ambassador to the US, Yuri Dubinin visited Trump in Trump Tower, said that his building was “fabulous,” suggested that he should build one in Moscow, and they arranged for a trip to the Russian capital. According to Gen. Kalugin, this was likely the first step in the process to recruit and compromise Trump, which they probably succeed with flying colors. Since Trump is a sucker for flattery. So we shouldn’t be the least surprised if the Russians have compromising materials on Trump’s Moscow activities. Since they’re very good at acquiring compromising stuff on just about anyone. Not that it would be hard for them.

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Here’s a picture of Donald Trump with Tevfik Artif and Felix Sater. Artif would be busted for running a prostitution ring on his boat in Turkey. While Sater served as an informant while doing his Russia-linked dirty deeds to avoid prison time for racketeering.

Though we don’t have evidence whether such compromising material on Donald Trump’s Moscow activities exists and Craig Unger has tried but couldn’t find any corroboration from several people who assured him it does. But that’s all beside the point. Since Unger believes that the real evidence is already out there in the form of the Bayrock Group, a real estate development company located on Trump Tower’s 24th floor. The founder was a Kazakh man named Tevfik Arif while the managing director was Felix Sater. In 2005, Bayrock proceeded to partner with Trump and helped him develop a new business model he desperately needed. Because Trump was $4 billion in debt after his Atlantic City casinos went bankrupt that he couldn’t get a bank loan from anywhere in the West. Bayrock came in with a new business model that says, “You don’t have to raise any money. You don’t have to do any of the real estate development. We just want to franchise your name, we’ll give you 18 to 25 percent royalties, and we’ll effectively do all the work. And if the Trump Organization gets involved in the management of these buildings, they’ll get extra fees for that.” Apparently, Trump found the idea fabulously lucrative. Meanwhile, the Bayrock associates (particularly Sater) operated out of Trump Tower as well as constantly flew back and forth to Russia. In his book, Unger detailed several channels through which various people at Bayrock have close ties to the Kremlin. While he talked about Sater’s trips to Moscow even as late as 2016, hoping to build Trump Tower there.

Yet, Bayrock and its deals became quickly mired in controversy. First, Forbes and other publications reported that the company was financed by a notoriously corrupt group known as the Trio. In 2010, Turkish prosecutors arrested Tevfik Arif on charges of setting up a prostitution ring after found aboard his boat with 9 young women, 2 of whom were 16 years old. He was later acquitted since the women refused to talk. That same year, 2 former Bayrock executives filed a lawsuit alleging Artif started a firm “backed by oligarchs and money they stole from the Russian people.” In addition, the suit alleged Bayrock “was substantially and covertly mob-owned and operated.” According to them, the company’s real purpose was to develop expensive properties bearing the Trump brand and use the projects to launder money and evade taxes. Though the suit doesn’t claim that Donald Trump was complicit in the scam, The Financial Times found that Trump SoHo had “multiple ties to an alleged international money-laundering network.” In one case, a former Kazakh energy minister is being sued in federal court for conspiring to “systematically loot hundreds of millions of dollars of public assets” before purchasing three condos in Trump SoHo to launder his “ill-gotten funds.”

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Donald Trump has often denied his association with Felix Sater. Yet, in reality, the two have been quite close as this business card shows.

During his collaboration with Bayrock, Donald Trump became close to the man who ran the firm’s daily operations, Felix Sater. Sater had numerous ties to Russian oligarchs and Russian intelligence. His father was a boss for Semion Mogilevich who was convicted for extorting local restaurants, grocery stores, and a medical clinic. Sater tried making it as a stockbroker. But his career came to an end in 1991 when he stabbed a Wall Street foe in the face with a broken margarita glass during a bar fight, opening wounds requiring 110 stitches. He then lost his trading license over the attack and served a year in prison. In 1998, Sater pleaded guilty to racketeering on grounds of operating a “pump and dump” stock fraud partnership with alleged Russian mobsters that bilked investors of at least $40 million. To avoid prison time, Sater turned informer. But according to documents from the lawsuit against Bayrock, he also resumed “his old tricks.” By 2003, the suit alleges, Sater controlled the majority of Bayrock shares and proceeded to use the firm to launder hundreds of millions of dollars while skimming and extorting millions more. In addition, the suit claimed that Sater committed fraud by concealing his racketeering and that he threatened “to kill anyone at the firm he thought knew of the crimes committed there and might report it.”

By Felix Sater’s account in sworn testimony, he was very tight with Donald Trump. He flew to Colorado with him. He accompanied Donald Jr. And Ivanka on a trip to Moscow at Trump’s invitation. And he met with Trump’s inner circle “constantly.” In Trump Tower, he often dropped by Trump’s office to pitch business ideas. Trump and his lawyers claim he wasn’t aware of Sater’s checkered past when he signed on to do business with Bayrock. This is plausible since Sater’s plea deal in the stock fraud was kept secred due to his role as an informant. But even after The New York Times revealed Sater’s criminal record in 2007, Sater kept using office space provided by the Trump Organization. In 2010, he received a Trump Organization business card reading: FELIX H. SATER, SENIOR ADVISOR TO DONALD TRUMP. As of 2017, Sater apparently remains close to Trump’s inner circle. One week before National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was fired for failing to report meetings with Russian officials, Trump’s personal attorney Michael Cohen hand-delivered a “back channel plan” for lifting sanctions on Russia to Flynn’s office. According to the Times, the co-author was Felix Sater.

Nonetheless, like many of Donald Trump’s business projects, his deals with Bayrock didn’t bear fruit. International projects in Russia and Poland never materialized. A Trump Tower being built in Ft. Lauderdale ran out of money before completion, leaving behind a massive concrete shell. Trump SoHo was ultimately foreclosed and resold. But Trump’s Russian investors left him with a high-profile property he could leverage since he and Ivanka are still listed as managers. And it’s said he made $3 million from it in 2015.

But is there any evidence that Donald Trump actively sought out Russian money by making clear that his businesses could be used to hide ill-gotten gains? According to Craig Unger, it’s difficult to say. Because he’s not sure if Trump had to. From how the Russian mob transactions took place, Trump didn’t have to say anything. After all, the Trump Organization was desperate for money and knew the caliber of people they were dealing with. So they were either okay with this or deliberately chose not to do their due diligence. Other real estate developers may do this as well, but they usually don’t become president of the United States.

Donald Trump seems much more motivated by money than political ideology. But was his drift into politics in any way influenced by his financial entanglements? There’s no clear answer. Yet, Craig Unger told Vox one weird anecdote about Trump’s first wife, Ivana, whom he married in 1977. Apparently, Czech secret police had started following her and her family in the late 1980s and one of their files said that Trump was being pressured to run for president. But what does that mean? Who was pressuring him and why? How were they applying the pressure? And did it have anything to do with potentially compromising materials the Russians had on Trump during his 1987 trip to Moscow? What we do know is that when Trump returned from his first Moscow trip, he took out full-page ads in the Washington Post, New York Times, and Boston Globe which pushed anti-European and anti-NATO views that were aligned with the Soviet plan to destroy the Western alliance. Whether he always believed such things or not, it’s worth noting.

Now Craig Unger didn’t go to Russia for obvious reasons given how Vladimir Putin tends to murder critical reporters. But most of what he found out came from public sources, which is stunning. One of his sources tipped him off on the high-ranking Russian mob boss Semion Mogilevich, whom he had never heard of before. He’s even been accused of selling $20 million in stolen weapons to Iran. Anyway, that led Unger to an online database revealing home ownership in the state of New York, along with purchases and sales. So he went to the Trump properties. Every time Unger found a Russian name, he’d research it. He’d take their name and Mogilevich in Google and as he told Vox, “it was like hitting the jackpot on a slot machine, time after time after time.” Among the Russians Unger found on the Trump property listings, there were countless people either indicted on money laundering or gunned down on Sixth Avenue. He also found a huge percentage with criminal histories, which sort of got him started. He also had a research assistant who spoke Russian and helped him break the language barrier for him.

But does Craig Unger’s book about Donald Trump and Russia offer anything new? Well, the insights Unger gained from Gen. Kalugin were completely new. Yet, most of what he did was compile what was out there but haven’t been pieced together. For instance, he found a lot of the Russian-connected stories published in the crime pages of the New York Post and the New York Daily News. These were just straight-up crime stories you’d see in a tabloid. After all, Americans don’t think crime stories involving the Russian mob would have any geopolitical implications or forces behind it. Nevertheless, many of these seemingly random Russian crime stories appearing in the tabloids again and again was connected to a much larger operation ensnaring Trump and the people around him.

Still, even if Donald Trump has no idea how many deals he and his businesses made with Russian investors, he certainly didn’t “stay away” from Russia. After all, he and his organization have aggressively promoted his business there for decades, seeking to entice investors and buyers for some of his most high-profile developments. Whether he knew it or not, Russian mobsters and corrupt oligarchs used his properties not only to launder vast sums of money from extortion, drugs, gambling, and racketeering, but even as a base for their criminal activities. In the process, they propped up Trump’s business and enabled him to reinvent his image. Without the Russian mafia, Trump wouldn’t be president of the United States.

However, if Donald Trump is a Russian asset, he’s not the only one targeted. During the 1980s and 1990s, the US government saw a pattern by which criminals used condos to launder money. As former Clinton official Jonathan Winer told The New Republic, “It didn’t matter that you paid too much, because the real estate values would rise, and it was a way of turning dirty money into clean money. It was done very systematically, and it explained why there are so many high-rises where the units were sold but no one is living in them.” One of the things Craig Unger’s book shows is that there’s a new kind of global war going on in which the weapons are information, data, social media, and financial institutions. The Russian mafia is only one weapon in this global conflict and the Russians have been smartly fighting it since the fall of the Soviet Union. The Russians start businesses and front companies and commodities firms appearing legitimate but essentially work to advance the Russian state’s interests. Many of today’s Russian oligarchs seek to portray themselves as unremarkable businessmen, preferring that their life-and-death struggles for riches in the 1990s fade into history. Yet, as their influence in the west grows, it becomes more important to understand any links to the authoritarians and kleptocrats back home. The Russians are very good at getting people financially entangled and then using that leverage to get what they want. This appears what the Russians have done with Trump and now he’s president. As former top official Elsie Bean told The Financial Times, “Russia has long been associated with dirty money. Anyone getting substantial funds originating in the former Soviet Union should have known that the funds were high risk and required a careful due diligence review to ensure the money was clean.”

Nonetheless, the most troubling part of all this is that the Russians simply exploited our own corrupt system. The studied our pay-to-play culture, found its weak spots, and very carefully manipulated it. As long as our culture remains unchanged, we should expect this kind of exploitation. Sometimes the worst part about a scandal is what’s legal. The Russians studied our campaign system and campaign finance law and masterfully exploited it. They’ve used pharmaceutical companies, energy companies, and financial institutions to pour money into politics. And we really have no idea the extent of their influence. Vladimir Putin may be right in his insistence that American democracy is also corrupt while he’s showing us exactly how screwed up it is. Donald Trump is just the most glaring example. But there are others, most of who we don’t know anything about.

Whether you believe Donald Trump is owned by the Russian mob or not, Craig Unger presents a compelling case in his book. Though some of his statements in issues might read like conspiracy theories, but so much of it makes a lot of sense. Besides, Unger isn’t the only guy who thinks the Russian mafia owns Trump. Nor Trump is the only prominent figure with shady Russian ties as you can see within his administration. Nor is the Trump Organization the only entity. Trump’s longtime personal lawyer Michael Cohen had an uncle who owned a Brooklyn catering hall called El Caribe, which “for decades was the scene of mob weddings and Christmas parties,” and housed offices of “two of New York’s most notorious Russian mobsters.” Then there’s the matter with the NRA receiving money from 23 Russian donors during the 2016 campaign. Not to mention, Rep. Dana Rohrbacher was considered “Putin’s favorite congressman” long before Trump ran for president and was instrumental in killing some critical anti-Russian legislation. Thankfully, he’s lost to a Democrat this year. We may not know whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia or the full extent of the Trump-Russian relationship. But as with many aspects of Trump’s business practices, what we know is damning. There is no doubt that Trump has taken Russian money. And when Trump receives millions of dollars from someone, he’s more likely to be beholden to them. But that doesn’t mean Trump is loyal to them, because he’s just as likely to drop his Russian backers once they prove no longer useful. Since Trump’s true loyalty is only to himself. So we must be concerned.

The Coming Saturday Night Massacre

There are times when moments you long wait for don’t always taste so sweet as you’d think they would be. On November 7, 2018, Donald Trump asked Attorney General Jeff Sessions to resign, ending the longtime Alabama senator’s nearly 2 years running the Department of Justice. Now you’d think this would be a good thing. After all, Sessions is so racist that Coretta Scott King wrote a letter to the US Senate not to confirm him as a federal judge during the 1980s. And as attorney general, Sessions pulled back federal oversight of local police departments. He’s moved to prosecute anyone who illegally crosses the US-Mexico border, regardless of the conditions they’re facing back home, while pushing immigration judges to take on more deportation cases. And he’s even rescinded previous limitations on harsh mandatory minimum prison sentences for low-level drug offenses, and asked prosecutors to consider the death penalty in some drug trafficking cases. Furthermore, Sessions was an early Trump ally and a true believer with his boss on practically every single issue the Justice Department oversees whether it’s policing, immigration, prisons, or voting rights, all of which make up key parts of Trumpism. And because he so much embodied Trumpism is why I am happy to see him go. And it’s deliciously ironic that Trump removed one of his most loyal foot soldiers, which could imperil many parts of Trump’s agenda.

However, despite how it’s a spectacular blow to Trumpism, we shouldn’t celebrate Jeff Sessions’ firing. In fact, we should be very alarmed by it since the reason for his ouster is quite scary. In Donald Trump’s eyes, the ousted attorney general committed an unforgivable sin and act of betrayal that saw his ouster as a long time coming. For months, Trump has expressed anger which has prompted repeated questions about how long the attorney general would last. After all, Sessions has previously offered to resign at least once, which Trump refused to accept. But he’s also become Trump’s punching bag who’s had to endure tons of abuse all because he recused himself from the probe into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia, when it came out he had met with then- Russian ambassador to the US, Sergei Kislyak. This set the stage for the appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein who has repeatedly declined to fire him even at Trump’s request. Trump has also complained that Sessions wasn’t sufficiently loyal because, since then he’s failed to prevent Mueller from indicting a growing number of Trump confidantes and targeting others. Trump’s anger also transferred another gripe that Sessions wouldn’t investigate connections between Hillary Clinton and Russia during the 2016 presidential campaign. And in February 2018, Trump complained that Sessions wouldn’t corroborate his unfounded belief in the existence of a widespread conspiracy theory, led by federal law enforcement personnel to undermine his candidacy during the 2016 presidential election. Because Trump believes that the FBI tricked the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) to surveil former campaign member, Carter Page, based on a Democrat-connected Steele dossier. Yet, none of this is true. For one, the FBI investigation into the Trump campaigns Russian connections began when Trump aide George Papadopoulos drunkenly bragged about getting Clinton dirt from the Russians to an Australian ambassador. Second, surveilling Page was justified with ample evidence beyond the so-called “Steele Dossier” and was renewed several times by appointed judges all appointed by GOP presidents and selected for FISC duty by Chief Supreme Court Justice John Roberts. Because they deemed the ongoing surveillance as fruitful. Now Mueller is currently investigating whether Trump’s alleged efforts to push Sessions out formed part of an endeavor to obstruct the probe, which would be a potentially criminal offense.

Now when a cabinet member resigns, you’d normally expect the Department No. 2 to take over in an acting capacity until a president hires a permanent replacement. In Sessions’ case, that should be Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. But Trump hates him since he’s overseeing the Mueller probe, has refused to fire Mueller, and doesn’t really care much about politics. So Trump tweeted that Sessions’ chief of staff, Matthew Whitaker would take over as acting DOJ head and will oversee the Mueller probe for the time being. Still, the fact he could either let Mueller do what he’s doing, curtail, or shut down the investigation should concern you. After all, Whitaker’s name cropped up in September as a replacement for Rosenstein when he appeared on the verge of getting fired himself. A former Iowa attorney, he’s the “eyes and ears” in the Justice Department, according to the New York Times. He’s also a fiscal and social conservative who unsuccessfully ran for the US Senate in 2014. Yet, what’s the most disturbing about Whitaker is that he was paid to sit on the advisory board of World Patent Marketing, which was ordered to pay a $26 million following federal legal action on allegations it tricked aspiring inventors into paying thousands of dollars to obtain patents and licensing deals for their inventions. As federal authorities noted, they “failed to fulfill almost every promise they make to consumers.” According to court filings, Whitaker received payments of $1,875 from the Florida-based company and sent a threatening email to a scam victim who complained to the Better Business Bureau, where he cited his former role as a federal prosecutor.

Still, why would Donald Trump tap in Matthew Whitaker as a temporary replacement for Jeff Sessions? Because while Whitaker aligns with Trump and Sessions on issues regarding crime and immigration, he comes with an added perk of having criticized the Mueller probe. In fact, Whitaker has expressed skepticism about the Mueller probe before joining the Trump administration as Sessions’ chief of staff in the fall of 2017. In August he wrote a CNN op-ed blasting the investigation which stated, “Mueller has come up to a red line in the Russia 2016 election-meddling investigation that he is dangerously close to crossing. If he were to continue to investigate the [Trump family’s] financial relationships without a broadened scope in his appointment, then this would raise serious concerns that the special counsel’s investigation was a mere witch hunt.” In July of that year, he appeared on CNN offering his own take on how an acting attorney general could sideline Mueller. He said, “I could see a scenario where Jeff Sessions is replaced with a recess appointment and that attorney general doesn’t fire Bob Mueller, but he just reduces his budget to so low that his investigation grinds to almost a halt.” Beyond this Mueller scrutiny, Whitaker has publicly lambasted Hillary Clinton. While serving head of the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust, a right-leaning organization criticizing Democrats on ethics matters, Whitaker said in May 2017 that Clinton should be “extremely grateful” she wasn’t prosecuted for having a private email server. 3 months later, he wrote for The Hill that Clinton’s Ukraine connections were “worth exploring.” And let’s just say when a man dips into Clinton conspiracy theories, you know he shouldn’t be running the Justice Department.

But the truth is with Donald Trump firing Jeff Sessions and replacing him with loyalist Matthew Whitaker should literally scare the shit out of us. Indeed, Sessions was a terrible attorney general and an unapologetic racist sack of shit who’s been rolling back Americans’ civil rights. Granted, I don’t like the guy at all and part of me wants to feel glad to see him go. But while he’d do anything for Trump’s love, there were certain lines he wouldn’t cross. And it’s because Sessions wouldn’t cross them that he’s no longer attorney general. Nonetheless, Sessions’ firing should inspire the same surprise and anger on the level of May 2017’s James Comey firing as head of the FBI, which much of Washington treated as a serious crisis in American democracy. Because both cases have Trump nakedly assert power over an investigation’s direction while sacking people to block oversight into his own conduct.

However, this time, the panic is more muted. While Democrats and some Never Trumpers are objecting, Jeff Sessions’ firing doesn’t have the same earth-shattering impact the Comey firing did. And the fact Donald Trump has been signaling this move for awhile normalized it, routinized it, and made it thinkable. It probably didn’t help he did it the day after Democrats won control of Congress in the midterms. Yet, slowly but surely this is how the threat to American democracy has kept growing during the Trump era. Since actions once considered as inconceivable and abhorrent back in 2016 have become accepted parts of our everyday reality. They’re just facts of life in a country governed by Trump’s Republican Party.

As we know, the Robert Mueller investigation grew out of the firing of FBI Director James Comey as a way of protecting the Trump-Russia investigation from presidential interference. Since Day 1, Donald Trump has been raging against Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from the probe. In addition, he demanded that Sessions either take control of the investigation or resign and let someone else do it. Ever since then, Trump has repeatedly violated the norms of governing the way a president should treat an attorney general and the Justice Department. For Christ’s sake, he admitted that the Comey firing was about the Russia investigation on national television. He’s suggested that the attorney general’s job should be defending the president, not investigating him. He blasted the “Jeff Sessions Justice Department” for bringing charges against Republican members of Congress before the midterms because it might jeopardize Republican chances of holding onto the House. Individually, each of these shatters longstanding norms of how a president is supposed to think and act about the Department of Justice. Yet, it’s harder to muster outrage over each one individually. Though disturbing as these incidents are, no single one constitutes the end of American democracy, or even the DOJ’s independence. But even if these little norm violations don’t make a big difference by themselves, they cumulatively amount to a major change in how a president gets to treat an agency that’s supposed to be a check on his power. The same thing happened, in microcosm with Jeff Sessions’ firing. Trump’s berating of the attorney general in public, the insults, the humiliation weren’t enough to incite intense public outrage. But they served together to construct a new normal when it comes to a president’s relationship with an attorney general. By the time we got to the actual firing and replacement with a loyalist, it felt less like a novel event and more like an inevitable result of an ongoing process. And it’s this what makes Trump’s approach to firing Sessions such a worrying moment.

While it’s difficult to see how American democracy would collapse would look like in practice, Donald Trump’s firing of Attorney General Jeff Sessions shows how democratic backsliding is possible. Since taking office in Hungary in 2010, President Viktor Orban spent the last 8 years setting up a system resembling democracy but isn’t actually one. He didn’t abolished elections, but gerrymandered parliamentary districts and seized control of the civil service administering elections. He didn’t ban the free press, but either bought up critical publications or forced them to sell to government-friendly allies. There was never a specific moment in time when you could say that Hungary wasn’t a democracy. It just evolved over time into something different and unfree. Same thing happened in Venezuela.

Nonetheless, Donald Trump’s firing of Attorney General Jeff Sessions is a serious threat to the health of American institutions. Even if acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker doesn’t fire Robert Mueller right away, it’s possible he could hamstring the probe behind the scenes with bureaucratic tools like refusing to approve Mueller’s indictments and subpoenas. Indeed, Whitaker has even floated the idea of cutting probe funding. He could run the same playbook of small fights over a major confrontation that helped him assume office without a huge public fuss.

Whether knowingly or not, Donald Trump is exploiting a weakness in the democratic immune system. Democracies depend on a motivated and involved public for their survival. But if politicians only take one small step away from democracy at a time, each one narrow enough to be justifiable by their political allies, then a systematic shift away from democracy and constraints on presidential power never ends up truly galvanizing the opposition. Since if you don’t give anyone a crisis point to rally around, you can get away with a lot. But the slow degradation of institutions and the normalization of an authoritarian approach to politics, makes any warning about a particular development seem out of proportion to the immediate threat. But let’s be honest about the big picture. Along with the public flagellation and eventually firing of Jeff Sessions, Trump’s approach to politics is damaging the foundations of American democracy. Though the Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives is certainly a good thing and will provide a check for Trump, the threats of American democracy can’t be solved with one election. Since they involve big structural problems like polarization of elites and politicians, growing hatred of the opposition party, deep emotional affiliation with one’s own party, and white anxiety over the loss of control over American politics and culture that’s driving authoritarian impulses and conservative polarization within White America and the Republican Party.

Donald Trump of Mar-a-Lago

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From the moment in 1985 when Donald Trump decided to make Mar-a-Lago his personal castle, he has shattered the Palm Beach, Florida old-money conventions with the same thin-skinned, sue-you-in-a-heartbeat, self-congratulatory ethos which has made him such a mesmerizing character akin to a derailed train you want to ignore but can’t look away. As we’ve learned since 2015, you can’t write too much about Trump since he’s a narcissistic sociopath with no moral scruples and way more scandals than Henry VIII. Whether you like him or hate him, you can’t write too much about Trump since he’s an inexhaustible source of good stories.

The last of Palm Beach’s estates to stretch from the Atlantic Ocean to the Intracoastal Waterway, Mar-a-Lago was a single-family of grand design. This Mediterranean-Revival style mansion had 118 rooms, including 58 bedrooms, 33 bathrooms, 35 dining rooms, a ballroom, a theater, a 6 car garage, a 9-hole golf course, 3 bomb shelters, and a 75ft tower you could see for miles. Built in 1927 for cereal heiress and richest woman in America at the time, Marjorie Merriwether Post, she willed it to the federal government for use as a winter White House for American presidents after her death in 1973. Though the home became a National Historic Landmark, presidents didn’t use it while the federal government became sick of paying $1 million a year to maintain it. So the federal government gave the estate back to the Post Foundation who put up for sale for $20 million.

At the time, Donald Trump was a hotshot 39-year-old real estate developer who had opened his 58-story signature Trump Tower skyscraper in Manhattan. Eager to get the Florida mansion off their hands, the Post Foundation agreed to a bargain $10 million sale- $7 million for the property and $3 million for the furnishings and in a contract requiring Trump to only put down $2,812 of his own money. A Palm Beach County property appraiser later wrote in a court brief that anyone buying a “rabbit warren condo” in a lower-middle class neighborhood would’ve had to put more money down than Trump did. Nonetheless, Trump listed his purchase of Mar-a-Lago as an example of his deal-making prowess writing in The Art of the Deal, “I’ve been told the furnishings in Mar-a-Lago alone are worth more than I paid for the house.” Mar-a-Lago was “as close to paradise as I’m going to get.” Palm Beach County agreed by assessing Mar-a-Lago’s property at $11.5 million, which was 64% than he paid for it. This left Trump in a tough position of politically bragging about getting his spare mansion in Palm Beach for a bargain, while privately arguing in court filings he should get a tax deduction. He testified, “I paid the highest price for a piece of land that’s costing $2 or $2 ½ million a year to maintain. Maybe the tax assessment will force us to develop the land, which I’m sure won’t make the town very happy.” Except he didn’t. Furthermore, a 1988 Associated Press article depicts how Trump fought against a $200,000 property tax bill, which he claimed should’ve been half. Nonetheless, back in the 1980s, this was the kind of brash talk Palm Beach’s old-money aristocrats feared from Trump. Since he wasn’t the sort of genteel patrician Palm Beach’s Social-Index Directory favored. In fact, some regarded him as a gated community barbarian as well as a hustler too eager to impress. While his threat of chopping up Mar-a-Lago was an open of some rough relations on the horizon.

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While Donald Trump was trying to acquire Mar-a-Lago, he launched another real estate venture called Trump Plaza of the Palm Beaches. However, he ended up selling about 100 out of 221 condo units as well as borrowed $60 million which he couldn’t pay back. In the end, Trump lost his financial stake in the project and the bank took over.

While his Mar-a-Lago investment was in doubt, Donald Trump launched another local real estate venture across the Intracoastal Waterway in West Palm Beach. The property was an ailing 33-story, twin tower complex that a Palm Beach developer had lost in foreclosure. In 1986, Trump bought it for $40 million cash which was $3.2 million less than what the Bank of New York paid to reclaim the property at a public foreclosure auction. And like Mar-a-Lago, it was becoming a deal he couldn’t afford. Trump then renamed the West Palm Beach condo project after himself while spending millions to spruce up the Trump of the Palm Beaches’ public areas and advertise the sale of its luxury condos in Northeastern newspapers. Trump said at the time, “This is not a very large deal for me, but it’s a quality deal. We expect a lot of people in Palm Beach to be buying apartments for family, et cetera.” But after 4 years of heavy promoting, he only managed to sell 100 of the 221 units, which was less than half. In addition, Trump borrowed $60 million from the Marine Midland Bank of New York to pay for the project, which he couldn’t pay back. In 1991, 2 months before filing for corporate bankruptcy on his Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, Trump turned over the Trump Plaza of the Palm Beaches to Marine Midland Bank of New York for his $14 million personal guarantee on the loan. The bank unloaded the unsold units in a fire-sale auction accepting bids of $75,000 for units previously priced as high as $470,000. Yet, because he can’t admit to personal failure, Trump took a victory lap saying, “It’s great for me because I get off a guarantee. Only because of the success of the development could I have done that.”

However, Donald Trump was still trying to find a way to salvage his Mar-a-Lago deal. So he didn’t want to give his Palm Beach neighbors the notion he was really drowning in debt. So after the bank sold off units from Trump Plaza of the Palm Beaches, Trump took out a full-page ad in The Palm Beach Daily News, which read: “This is an advertisement to explain the great success of a development, Trump Plaza of the Palm Beaches, which many people, until recently, had not been fully aware. When I look at Trump Plaza from Mar-a-Lago, I am proud that even in the horrendous real estate market of the early 1990s, I was able to rescue this previously troubled and unsold development, add management, construction expertise and the name Trump … and make it into one of Florida’s greatest success stories.” It didn’t mention that he completely lost his financial stake in the condos or how the project actually achieved full occupancy. So basically, Trump took an ad bragging about his “success” of his Palm Beach condo project, which was actually a total failure that he lost to the bank. Nor did that “success” change the fact that Trump still couldn’t afford Mar-a-Lago as a single-family home. And nobody was coming along to relieve him from the deal on “paradise” he had made.

Donald Trump’s proposed solution was to chop his National Historic Landmark into something he called the Mansions of Mar-a-Lago. This was a development that would put a public road running through the middle of the estate, leading to the 10 mini-mansions he’d build on the property, including one on the front lawn. But the Palm Beach Town Council shot down all of Trump’s proposed changes to the property, even when he reduced his mini-mansion plans from 10 to 7. Instead, they encouraged Trump to find a buyer if he couldn’t afford to keep the estate intact. After all, New York packaging magnate, Nelson Peltz had spent $21 million to buy Palm Beach oceanfront estate Montsorrel, 2 years after Trump bought Mar-a-Lago. So the town council advised Trump to just buy another Nelson Peltz to take the estate off his hands. However, as we all know, Donald Trump didn’t act on the Palm Beach council’s advice. In fact, when the town government refused to bend to his demands, he sued. The lawsuit against the Town of Palm Beach would eventually cause his neighbors to lawyer up against him. One of these lawyers told The Palm Beach Post at the time, “There are rules around here, and those rules apply to everyone, whether or not you have a famous name.”

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When Donald Trump’s Mansions of Mar-a-Lago plan fell through, he decided to turn it into a private club it is today. Naturally, the Palm Beach Town Council took him on it since it was an all around win-win situation.

After Palm Beach rejected his Mansions of Mar-a-Lago, Donald Trump found another way to salvage his stake in his property. He offered to drop his lawsuit if council members allowed him to convert his estate into a new private club on the island. Since so much of Palm Beach social life was dictated by club memberships, this was a tempting offer. This was especially since there hadn’t been a new club on the island for a quarter century. In the deal, the town would get to have Mar-a-Lago remain in appearance it was in the Merriwether Post days. While Trump could unburden himself of its expenses by selling off memberships while maintaining his property ownership. Membership would be capped at 500, not including spouses and children. The initiation fee would be $50,000 with $3,000 annual dues (fee is now $200,000 with $14,000 in annual dues and charges $2,000 for meals). Members would get to dine, swim in the pool, and attend private parties and special events with world-class singers, lecturers, and entertainers. The town eventually approved the club.

But many Palm Beachers were still reluctant to trust Donald Trump. Socialite Tamara Newell said at the time, “A lot of people like to think Palm Beach is a little more genteel and old money. This is a new-money idea at an old-money location.” And approval of the club only gave them more reasons to peck at him. Now a lot of these disputes in the 2016 Politico article I read about his war with Palm Beach consist of a lot stupid shit like wedding fireworks, attendance limits to an Elton John AIDS concert, or changing the coat of arms to put Trump as an advertising ploy. While Trump is known for being notoriously petty, Palm Beach is filled with petty rich people and a town government that once banned shirtless joggers for tackiness and scented its sewer water with lilac and honeysuckle fragrances. Such petty disputes between Trump and the rich set of Palm Beach don’t seem to interest me much. Mostly because I care more about Trump deliberately screwing people out of their money or using intimidation tactics to get his way.

Yet, there is a telling incident in the 2016 Politico article on Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago that’s very telling, especially on his insatiable appetite for self-promotion and the media’s role should be. In the first January after his divorce from his first wife Ivana was final, Trump’s publicist called all the local TV news and newspaper outlets in Palm Beach County to say that Trump was about to hold the party of all parties for that Winter’s Palm Beach social season. The publicist explained that one reporter from each news outlet would be allowed to attend this party-of-the-year to mingle with a guest list of invited celebrities such as Tom Selleck, Slyvester Stallone, and football star Herschel Walker. Frank Cerabino was on the guest list to cover the event for the Palm Beach Post. But it turned out his role at the party was far more complex than he imagined. Writing for Political in 2016, he recalled, “As the real guests arrived, which included busloads of fashion models from Miami, I was part of a local media contingent who wasn’t allowed to actually come into the party, but instead would form a visual tableau of over-eager reporters playing the role of gate crashers to those who would see us as their cars drove up to the portico of the mansion.” He continued, “Trump left us standing in his driveway in a little cluster. We were unaware, at first, of our role. But he couldn’t help coming over to wring out every last drop of publicity for the night.” In other words, Cerabino and the local reporters were at Mar-a-Lago to make him and his party look good as props. Going out of his way to show that he was winning divorce (like you can even do that), Trump invited a national TV reporter Judd Rose and his crew from ABC’s Prime Time Live show, into his home as guests for the weekend. Rose and his crew eventually filmed the money shot of the invitees, but shunned the local reporters yelling across the driveway to Trump to let them in. While Trump made a shooting gesture as if to wave them off and later described the reporters in the driveway as those who invited themselves to the party. Over the years, Cerabino has learned that Trump admires or despises journalists based on how useful they are to him while his sense of humor doesn’t include anything directed to him.

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One of the biggest Donald Trump disputes of legend at Mar-a-Lago was when he put up an oversized American flag on a tall pole at the resort. This incident would later be lampooned on The Colbert Report.

In 2006, without getting a permit and variance, Donald Trump put up an 80ft tall flag pole with a 15 x 25ft flag flying from it on his Mar-a-Lago resort. Since Palm Beach restricts residents flying flags no bigger than 4 x 6ft and on pole no higher than 42ft, he knew he was plainly inviting a lawsuit by out-flagging his neighbors. Taking the bait, the town council cited the oversized pole and flag as town code violations and fined Trump $250 for every day the display remained on his estate. In retaliation, Trump responded, “The town council of Palm Beach should be ashamed of itself. He went on Nancy Grace’s TV show to complain about Palm Beach’s lack of patriotism. Then, ignoring the town’s violations, which grew into a $120,000 fine and counting as of 2016, he filed a lawsuit against Palm Beach for $25 million in damages to what he called an abridgement to his constitutional right of free speech. Trump eventually dropped his flag lawsuit white town waived its fines. As terms of a court-ordered mediation, he’d file a permit and be allowed to keep an oversized pole on Mar-a-Lago that was 10ft shorter and on a different lawn spot. He was also called to donate $100,000 to veterans’ charities.

Tucked into Donald Trump’s patriotic posturing was a completely unrelated legal but more important matter: a complaint about the town code requiring large commercial enterprises to be “town serving.” Under this ordinance, Palm Beach requires proof from local businesses that local residents contribute at least 50% of their business to them. For instance, when Neiman Marcus opened in Palm Beach, the town allowed it as long as it only advertised in the local newspaper, and not in publications to shoppers not living on the island. For Trump, eliminating the “town serving” requirement would mean he could offer more memberships to his Mar-a-Lago social club to people with no Palm Beach connections, making it easier for him to keep his club full. Creating a distraction on the flag issue to pursue some other angle is a classic Trump move. Though he has yet to get this particular exemption waived, Palm Beach knows that Trump’s lawsuits never get settled, they just become dormant. While one of his Palm Beach lawyers told Politico in 2016, that the “town serving” issue is still unresolved and ripe for more litigation.

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Also in West Palm Beach is the Trump International Golf Club. Donald Trump got this made out of a dispute with the county airport. Though he wanted the jail moved, which he obviously didn’t get.

While playing defense against Palm Beach’s constant attempts to rein him in, Donald Trump went on the attack against the county and its airport. Airlines routinely used a flight path in and out of Palm Beach International Airport in nearby West Palm Beach that brought the planes directly over Mar-a-Lago. This didn’t sit well with Trump, arguing that the noise and fumes were ruining his investment, and that the decent thing for the county to do was to move the airport farther west. Actually Trump had been arguing that for years, to no avail. Acting like a spoiled brat not getting his own way, he called airport director, Bruce Pelly, among other things, a “moron” and “the worst airport director in the country.” It turned out to be a useful gripe for Trump, which he could turn into a new business opportunity. For just south of the airport was a 214 acres of vacant scrub land owned by Palm Beach County, which he wanted. So like any rich spoiled adult, he sued the county for over $75 million over the airport noise. Only to negotiate to drop that lawsuit in exchange for the county giving him a 75-year lease on the nearby property for $438,000 a year. That land became the Trump International Golf Club, a $40 million, 18-hole, Jim Fazio-designed course that imported nearly 2 million cubic yards of dirt to transform the flat scrub into hilly terrain with waterfalls, rock formations, a clubhouse 4 stories above sea level. While planning to open the course with initiation fees starting at $100,000, Trump wanted the county to do one more thing for him: move the jail. Because no matter how much landscaping he brought to the course, there was no way disguising the 12-story Palm Beach County Jail towering over the course’s north side and was visible from some of the holes. So as he had done with the airport, Trump asked the county to move the jail. Naturally, they refused, while the sheriff found the idea amusing.

Yet, Donald Trump’s war with the Palm Beach International Airport hasn’t quelled. When the airport considered expanding by adding another runway, Trump threatened another lawsuit. Though the expansion never came, Trump sued the airport again in 2016 for $100 million from county taxpayers for the sooty residue left by planes flying over Mar-a-Lago. Still, perhaps his actions aren’t about the airport, which he’s using for leverage to get what he wants but can’t have at the moment. Because Trump is always at war and woe to those who stand in his way.

Over the years, Palm Beach has gradually come to accept Donald Trump’s outsized personality along with his private club as more of an asset than a potential source of trouble. Mar-a-Lago has hosted many glittering social events, charity balls, and political fundraisers. As a concert hall, it has housed Palm Beach Opera shows and performances from top-notch entertainers like Celine Dion and Tony Bennett. As town officials moved on, their successors gradually loosened their tight reins on the club, easing the restriction on the numbers of outdoor beach barbecues it would allow, permitting the construction of an outdoor pavilion, and allowing the club to build a 14,000 sq. ft. kitchen on the grounds so waiters don’t have to use golf carts for hauling food inside and outside the mansion. Trump has also figured how to pay less taxes on Mar-a-Lago. By giving up development rights on the land to the National Historic Trust for Historic Preservation, it eliminated the county property appraiser’s ability to tax the place on the “highest and best use” standard that contemplated the estate can be still chopped up into lots and sold off. Yet, while Trump has become a Palm Beach fixture, it would be wrong to say he’s mellowed for he never does.

But that doesn’t mean Donald Trump’s presence hasn’t disrupted Palm Beach life in recent years. In fact, since his election to the presidency, his stays at Mar-a-Lago have raised issues not seen since he was a private citizen. Since they involve security and the impact his visits have on people and businesses in Palm Beach. Nowadays, whenever Trump resides in the Palm Beach region, the area becomes a zone of temporary flight restrictions affecting flights and other air operations within a 30 nautical mile radius. Coast Guard and Secret Service secure the 2 waterway approaches, ocean and lake. While the Secret Service cordons off streets to Mar-a-Lago. At Latana’s Palm Beach County Park Airport, the situation is dire. Whenever Trump is at Mar-a-Lago, Federal Aviation Administration restrictions ban all flights out of that airport, which is one of the busiest of its size in the country. It doesn’t help that the airport receives most of its business on weekends and holidays, particularly during the winter at peak snowbird season, when Trump would most likely be there. For instance, by the third weekend of February 2017, the Palm Beach County Park Airport had been shut down for 3 consecutive weekends, accumulating significant financial losses for multiple businesses. So to put it this way, as president, Trump’s visits to Mar-a-Lago during the winter have basically costs Palm Beach County millions of dollars in lost revenue from tourism. The county is also worried about the police overtime it’s racking up, which could be $60,000 a day.

While Donald Trump may give plenty of things for Palm Beach locals to talk about, there are other aspects we should discuss. First, since Trump became president, his visits have cost taxpayers millions of dollars for federal security detail, which has gone to the Trump Organization’s coffers. But it’s very clear that he’s making money off his presidency. Nonetheless, Mar-a-Lago club members enjoy the fact having Trump president gives them personal access to political power during his visits. In fact, since his inauguration, guests have been flocking to Mar-a-Lago to catch a glimpse of him. But the fact access to a president can be bought for thousands of dollars at his private club should worry every American. And it should make it alarmingly clear that Trump is a man of and for the 1%. Already, ProPublica claimed that a trio of ultrawealthy Mar-a-Lago members are effectively running the Department of Veterans Affairs in influencing policy and making personnel decisions. In fact, a veterans’ group has sued the VA over it.

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Here is Donald Trump with Melania and Barron posed with Mar-a-Lago’s employees. Most of them have HB-1 visas despite that Palm Beach locals were perfectly willing to do those jobs.

Second, despite Donald Trump’s self-promotion as a “champion” for US workers (which he isn’t), Mar-a-Lago has consistently hired a predominantly foreign workforce. He claims the local workforce is unwilling to do the work and that his foreign employees are best suited for the jobs. Except that’s not true. In 2016, The New York Times reported that over 200 locals had applied to work as cooks, waiters, and housekeepers since 2010. Only 17 of them were ever hired. Also, as with many Trump enterprises, there are plenty of wage theft complaints from contractors and employees. Given that foreign workers are easier to exploit since they can be threatened with deportation if they don’t toe the line, perhaps that’s why Trump prefers to employ them over locals.

Furthermore, The Palm Beach Post reported that Trump scored visas to hire 70 foreign workers at Mar-a-Lago for the 2017-18 tourist season. Third, in January 2017, Mar-a-Lago’s kitchens were hit with 13 health and safety violations, including 3 that were called “high priority.” Inspectors claimed that meat wasn’t properly refrigerated and could be unsafe for consumption, undercooked or raw fish that hadn’t undergone proper parasite destruction, and not maintaining coolers in proper working order. Another inspection in November resulted in 15 more health citations, according to the Miami Herald. In January 2018, Mar-a-Lago was cited for maintenance violations which could’ve posed a threat to public health, safety, and welfare like broken staircases, improper food storage, and inadequate smoke detectors.

Then there’s Mar-a-Lago’s security and cybersecurity woes. In recent years, Gizmodo reported that hackers found 3 of its networks as so weak that they could’ve breached the systems within 5 minutes. The 3 hackers behind the article claim they made the discovery using a 2ft wireless antenna from on board a 17ft motor boat parked offshore. Though Donald Trump’s company has expressed confidence in its cybersecurity as spokeswoman Amanda Miller told Gizmodo, “Our teams work diligently to deploy best in class firewall and anti-vulnerability platforms with constant 24/7 monitoring.”

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In April 2017, we have Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe receiving news of North Korea launching a nuclear missile in Japan’s direction. Note the classified information being shown in the cell phone screen.

Speaking of security breaches, Donald Trump’s trips to Mar-a-Lago afford an unprecedented opportunity for eavesdropping and building dossiers on his routines and habits along with those in his inner circle around him. Add that with each repeated visit, the security risk escalates. As former Obama official David Kris told TIME, “The president is the biggest, richest intelligence target in the world, and there is almost no limit to the energy and money an adversary will spend to get at him.” According to former Secret Service agents, the security setup at Mar-a-Lago and Trump’s other private clubs presents challenges to the agency wasn’t built to deal with. Since the Secret Service’s main job is to protect the president from physical threats and monitoring for wiretaps and other listening devices. Not from the kinds of counterespionage challenges presented by the president’s choice to eat, sleep, and work at a club accessible to anyone who can get a member to invite them in. White House visitors must go through a rigorous background screening before they’re let in the door. Agents scan every visitor’s full name, birth date, Social Security number, city of residence, and country of birth. Gaining entry at Mar-a-Lago doesn’t require that degree of disclosure. Sure guests entering the club have to pass multiple security checkpoints staffed by Secret Service agents looking for weapons or other immediate threats. But there’s only one requirement to produce a photo ID, while the club doesn’t ask guests to provide their names or other information as they enter through the main wrought-iron gated door. At public events, attendees are only asked to provide their name. Since has Trump has become president, the lax security measures can make Mar-a-Lago a free-for-all for spies.

Hell, spies don’t even need to go to Mar-a-Lago to do their work. In early 2017, lists of the club’s nearly 500 exclusive dues-paying members were leaked to the news media, giving foreign intelligence names of potential targets for surveillance, bribes, or blackmail that could help them get closer to Donald Trump. In addition, a page on Mar-a-Lago’s website (which is accessible to the public with just a little search engine sleuthing), reveals the names, work email addresses, and phone numbers for more than a dozen critical club employees, including the managing director, the housekeeping director, the official in charge of food and beverage services, and the chief of security. All would be obvious targets for operatives trying to get information on Trump or others in his entourage.

Mar-a-Lago may be a winter White House for Donald Trump. But since his inauguration, it has become another political arena where one with wads of cash can have access to political power. Indeed, plenty of these guests are rich people from old money. Though others can be politicians, foreign dignitaries, and corporate heads wanting something in exchange for their service. This can be donations, but it can also be policy that could affect our lives and not for the better. Yet, it’s another arena that can be prone to spy infiltration from eavesdroppers listening into conversations which can compromise our national security. Since it’s already happened in 2017. Nonetheless, we must be wary when Trump goes there since his visits are marketing events and he’s used his trips to make money off the presidency, which is a very clear conflict of interest.

 

Tragedy at Tree of Life

At 10:00 am on Saturday, October 27, 2018, a gunman opened fire during a shabbat service at Squirrel Hill’s Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. After several people barricaded inside the building and called the authorities, the shooter fired at police officers upon their arrival after he was detained in 2 confrontations. 11 people are now dead while 6 others were injured, including 4 police officers. Identified as 46-year-old Robert Bowers who carried an assault rifle and 3 semi-automatic handguns, he is now in custody and could be charged with a hate crime as soon as possible. Pittsburgh’s top FBI official said, “this is the most horrific crime scene I’ve seen in 22 years with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.” So far, the authorities haven’t yet confirmed any information on the perpetrator’s motive. Since initial eyewitness accounts can turn out to be wrong as the investigation unfolds. Though KDKA has reported that eyewitnesses heard the shooter shout, “All Jews must die” before firing during the morning shabbat service. Still, the shooting may have been the deadliest attack on Jewish people on American soil.

According to preliminary reports, Robert Bowers was an avowed anti-Semite with a number of posts on the far-right social networking site Gab. There, he blamed Jews for among other things, mass migration and climate change. Posts that appeared authored by Bowers include one written about an hour before the shooting stating, “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics. I’m going in.”

The Tree of Life shooting comes amid a steady increase in anti-Semitic incidents and hate crimes since the 2016 campaign and Donald Trump’s inauguration. And it represents a further intensification of the resurgence of toxic and at times, violent Anti-Semitism during this time. According to the FBI, in 2016, hate crimes had increased 5% since 2015, and 10% since 2014. And out of the 1,273 hate crimes for which FBI found religious hatred as a motivation which is 20% of the total, half were against Jews. In the last year for which complete data was available, the Anti-Defamation League found there have been 1,986 reported incidents in the United States that year, including acts of vandalism and physical violence. That figure was a 57% increase from 2016, which itself has seen a 35% uptick from 2015. The 2016-17 surge was the highest increase on-record since the ADL began reporting on them in 1979. As the 2016 presidential campaign reached fever pitch, over 800 journalists received a staggering 19,000 anti-Semitic messages on Twitter. During events like the 2017 Unite the Right in Charlottesville, Virginia, right-wing extremists openly recited Nazi slogans and carried Nazi paraphernalia.

Incendiary rhetoric has remained intense throughout 2018. Verbal attacks against liberal Jewish philanthropist George Soros whose political activities have become subject to far-right conspiracy theories, have reached fever pitch. In fact, just this month Donald Trump publicly blamed Soros for funding the activist opposition to now-Supreme Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination who’s been accused of multiple sexual assault allegations. More recently, Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz and Campbell’s Soup executive vice president Kelly Johnson blamed Soros for financially supporting the Honduran migrant caravan making its way to the US border, accusing him of being in control of migrants and refugees. Soros was among the recipients of a series of mailed pipe bombs sent to prominent left-wing media outlets and politicians, including the Clintons and the Obamas.

Now I don’t know much about George Soros except he’s a rich old Jewish liberal with lots of money. However, tune into Fox News, and you’ll find plenty of right-wing conspiracy theorists claim that he’s the devil incarnate or the head of the Illuminati or New World Order. Yet, despite that I know full well he can’t be as nearly as terrible as conservative nutjobs make him out to be, rhetoric against Soros reflects a wider trend in anti-Semitic discourse: a conspiracy theory of imagined “globalists” secretly pulling the puppet-strings of the capitalist world order that’s been a populist rhetorical mainstay since at least the European not-so-Enlightenment in the 18th century. According to the Washington Post, Soros’ “name has become a synonym for a well-worn anti-Semitic canard: the idea that Jews are malevolent fomenters of social dissent, agitators slyly funding and masterminding protest, seeking to undermine a white, Christian social order.” Should the Tree of Life’s shooter’s anti-Semitic motivations be confirmed, it would be the culmination of a week of extraordinary right-wing violence.

Tree of Life’s neighborhood of Squirrel Hill is usually considered Pittsburgh’s de facto Jewish community center. While the Tree of Life synagogue represents a powerful symbol of Jewish life. And the recent shooting reflects another disturbing trend such as the degree to which places of worship have been targets for acts of possible domestic terrorism. From synagogues to Christian churches and Sikh temples, these places have increasingly become targets for extremist violence within the last decade. Many of these have been explicitly white supremacist or right-wing in nature, targeting perceived liberals, ethnic minorities, or women. In each case, these attacks have been designed to maximize emotional effect. Since they’re community hubs designed for children, adults, and the elderly. By targeting a house of worship, the attacker commits a powerful symbolic transgression of profaning a sacred and communal space. Attacking a place of worship isn’t just an attack on worshippers but attack on the community itself. Examples include:

2008: Jim David Adkisson opened fire at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee during a community theater production of Annie. He killed 2 and wounded 7 others. Citing Unitarian progressive policies, Adkisson later told police he did so because he believed the Democrats were “ruining” the United States and that all liberals should be killed. He pled guilty and is currently serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

2012: An avowed white supremacists and Army veteran Wade Michael Page attack a gurdwaras or Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. He killed 6 people and wounded 4 more before killing himself. A longtime member of the white power music scene, Page had been on federal investigators’ radar for years before committing this deadly act.

2015: White supremacist Dylann Roof murdered 9 members of the congregation along with the senior pastor at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Roof had written frequently and publicly about his desire to kill non-whites as he wrote in his prison journal, “I would like to make it crystal clear, I do not regret what I did. I am not sorry. I have not shed a tear for the innocent people I killed.” Since his 2017 conviction, Roof is currently on death row.

2017: Devin Patrick Kelley opened fire at First Baptist Church at Sutherland Springs, Texas, killing 26 in the deadliest church shooting in American history. Unlike the other perpetrators, Kelley didn’t have clearly defined political views or a specific agenda. But he did have a history of domestic violence which included fracturing his infant stepson’s skull in 2012. While the shooting precipitated by conflict with his mother-in-law who attended First Baptist. Kelley was killed during the attack.

Anyway, the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue is another indication that we must acknowledge that homegrown, right-wing, domestic terrorism is huge problem in the United States. While the 2008 election of Barack Obama as well as 2007 and 2008 economic collapses have created fertile ground for hateful, right-wing extremism. Despite the outrage of the conservative news crowd over the prophetic 2009 Department of Homeland Security report, we’ve had extremists occupy federal land in Oregon, pipe bombs mailed to Democratic Party leaders, and commit mass shootings targeting minority groups. Sure Fox News will coddle their old white conservative viewers by assuring that they’re okay and that everything is fine with white conservative America as long as certain outgroups don’t get their way. Despite that the Republican Party has sold their souls to Donald Trump. While Trump continues to pander to right-wing extremists and white supremacists as well as inspire and incite violence at his rallies and tweets. And yet, when it comes to properly labeling domestic terrorism as terrorism, the right-wing conspiracy theory mad cable news network is hardly outside the mainstream. Since all 24-hour news are reluctant rattle the status quo cages too much. Since a cable news network needs you to keep watching and will make sure to keep you glued to your TV by not suggesting that the US is rife with right-wing extremist terror. Despite the fact it totally is. Why? For one, they don’t want to alienate conservative viewers who might meet such notions with an all-consuming outrage. At the same time, they don’t want to stir liberal viewers in to activism that goes far beyond watching TV. And in our current American landscape, TV news is king. There are certainly good-faith arguments against label this kind of violence terrorism which mostly have to do with waiting for the FBI to issue that label, or the fact that terrorism definitions usually involve some organized, radicalized sect than lone wolf operators inspired by YouTube, Fox News, or Trump.

However, homegrown, right-wing domestic terrorism isn’t going away any time soon. Donald Trump keeps using incendiary rhetoric encouraging violence against vulnerable people. Though he’d strongly condemn the Pittsburgh attack and anti-Semitism, Trump has failed to do so at other key points in his presidency, particularly the racist violence in Charlottesville last year. Besides, for week, Trump has been stocking fears about the migrant caravan, because his appeal to his supporters is based on fear of immigrants and racial minorities. And because he doesn’t take responsibility for anything, Trump blames the media for fueling political divisions and hate in America and for unfairly casting him as a contributor to the current situation. Despite that Trump has made extremist right-wing views more acceptable in the Republican Party. As long as Republicans keep backing Trump up and refuse to acknowledge the clear and present danger of right-wing extremism within the US, domestic terror incidents will only increase and intensify, especially since they won’t support gun control.

Which brings me to another point. If we want to prevent mass shootings and acts of terror in the United States, then we need to enact strict gun restrictions. Pennsylvania governor Tom Wolf has enacted a measure to keep firearms out of the hands of known domestic abusers. After all, mass shooters usually had a history of domestic abuse so it’s a step in the right direction. But state and local gun restrictions can only go so far. After all, while Chicago may have strict gun laws, its rate of gun violence is high. Mostly because many of the guns used to commit crimes are coming from outside its borders. So federal action is sorely needed. For if we don’t enact sensible gun laws to keep firearms out of criminals’ hands, we will see more mass shootings in the future.

Born in a Golden Cradle

We all know full well how Donald Trump repeatedly paints his start in business as an up-by-the bootstraps, riches-to-slightly-more-riches tale. He’s cast himself as a New York real estate Oliver Twist with only his name and a $1 million loan from his dear old dad to keep him company. Only to become a self-made billionaire real estate mogul. Trump not only used this description to promote his image as a skilled businessman, but also portray himself as a “self-made man” during his presidential candidacy.

Despite the image Donald Trump projects to his base at his ego boosting rallies, he has actually spent 5 decades pretending not only that his father never rescued him from financial dire straits, but played a minimal role in his business success. When he said that Fred only gave him a $1 million loan, Trump glossed over how central his dad was to his career. When Trump entered the Manhattan real estate business in the mid-1970s, Fred cosigned bank loans for tens of millions of dollars. These loans made it possible for Trump to develop early projects like the Grand Hyatt hotel. When he targeted Atlantic City’s casino market, Fred loaned him about $7.5 million to get started. When he floundered there during the 1990s, Fred sent a lawyer to a Trump casino to buy $3.5 million in chips so his son can use the funds for a bond payment and avoid filing for corporate bankruptcy. In other words, Trump’s wealth has always been “deeply intertwined with, and dependent on” on his father’s wealth.

On Tuesday, October 2, 2018, the New York Times published investigation results into Donald Trump’s wealth and tax practices. They revealed a pattern of tax evasion and business practices that allowed him to receive at least $413 million in today’s dollars from his father. According to the report, Trump and his siblings got hundreds of millions of dollars in today’s money from their dad’s real estate empire, starting from their childhoods. As they write:

“Much of this money came to Mr. Trump because he helped his parents dodge taxes. He and his siblings set up a sham corporation to disguise millions of dollars in gifts from their parents, records and interviews show. Records indicate that Mr. Trump helped his father take improper tax deductions worth millions more. He also helped formulate a strategy to undervalue his parents’ real estate holdings by hundreds of millions of dollars on tax returns, sharply reducing the tax bill when those properties were transferred to him and his siblings.”

In sum, Donald Trump’s parents transferred more than $1 billion to their children and paid about $52.2 million in taxes. Given the relevant tax rates on gifts and inheritances, they should’ve paid $550 million, which is 10 times more. The IRS didn’t really notice it. While the Times didn’t see Trump’s own tax returns, their reporting was based on documents, records, and interviews pertaining to Fred Trump’s financial empire. These included, “tens of thousands of pages of confidential records — bank statements, financial audits, accounting ledgers, cash disbursement reports, invoices and canceled checks” along with more than 200 tax returns from Fred and various companies and trusts he set up. Even though he can’t be prosecuted for them due to statute of limitations expiration, evidence suggests that Donald’s actions on paying taxes weren’t always above the fray.

When Donald Trump’s finances were “crumbling” during the 1980s and 1990s, Fred Trump’s companies increased distributions to him and his siblings. From 1989-1992, Fred created 4 entities paying Donald $8.3 million in today’s money. When Donald’s finances were at their worst in 1990, Fred’s income shot up $49,638,928 and earned him a $12.2 million tax bill. According to the New York Times report, there are indications Fred, “wanted plenty of cash on hand to bail out his son if need be.” A former Trump Organization told Tim O’Brien in 2005, “We would have literally closed down. The key would have been in the door and there would have been no more Donald Trump. The family saved him.” Of course, it wasn’t really Trump’s family who saved him from personal bankruptcy, it was his dad. On another occasion, Trump allegedly gave his dad a $15.5 million share of the Trump Palace condo skyscraper in New York to square off some debts with his loans. But Fred then sold the shares back to his son for $10,000, making the whole exchange of $15.49 a taxable gift. Fred never declared it as such.
But it wasn’t always rich dad bailing out his son. Fred and Donald Trump worked together. As the elder man aged, his kids had to continue the tax schemes their parents put in place. In 1997, Donald and his siblings gained control of most of their dad’s empire. They significantly undervalued the properties, claiming they were worth $41.4 million and selling them off for 16 times the amount.

Nonetheless, the wealth transfer between Fred Trump and Donald Trump (along with his siblings) was a lifetime affair. As the New York Times notes:

“By age 3, Mr. Trump was earning $200,000 a year in today’s dollars from his father’s empire. He was a millionaire by age 8. By the time he was 17, his father had given him part ownership of a 52-unit apartment building. Soon after Mr. Trump graduated from college, he was receiving the equivalent of $1 million a year from his father. The money increased with the years, to more than $5 million annually in his 40s and 50s.”

As the Times writes, there’s a fine line between tax evasion and tax avoidance. Rich people employ all kinds of tricks to lower their taxes all the time. But since Donald Trump has refused to release his tax returns, these journalistic investigations raise questions of what he’s hiding in his finances. For what the publication doesn’t have is what the American people have become accustomed to getting from their presidents like recent tax returns. Instead, the Times gave close scrutiny Fred Trump’s businesses which reveal the range of apparent illegal activity. Yet, everything the Times has is fairly old since Fred passed nearly 20 years ago while his years in business ended before that. So they no longer reflect the current state of Trump’s financial affairs. Furthermore, any illegal activity the Times sources revealed in this article can’t be prosecuted due to statute of limitations expiration.

The New York Times’ investigation is exhaustive and, to some extent, defies summary. But it’s worth recounting the most egregious thing they found as an illustrative example of the scope of crimes that serious forensic accounting can reveal. Basically, this was a 2-scams-for-the-price-of-one-caper, in which Fred Trump formed a shell company his children secretly owned. The company pretended to perform useful services for rent-stabilized buildings Fred owned, allowing to gift money to his children without paying a gift tax. Then, its bogus accounting was used to justify rent increases to regulators. As the Times wrote:

“The most overt fraud was All County Building Supply & Maintenance, a company formed by the Trump family in 1992. All County’s ostensible purpose was to be the purchasing agent for Fred Trump’s buildings, buying everything from boilers to cleaning supplies. It did no such thing, records and interviews show. Instead All County siphoned millions of dollars from Fred Trump’s empire by simply marking up purchases already made by his employees. Those millions, effectively untaxed gifts, then flowed to All County’s owners — Donald Trump, his siblings and a cousin. Fred Trump then used the padded All County receipts to justify bigger rent increases for thousands of tenants.”
This is a particularly shocking crime because of the way it was used to defraud thousands of tenants as well as tax authorities. But this wasn’t the only time Fred cheated the public. After all, he got his start in profiteering in millions from programs to help returning GIs receive housing, prompting President Dwight D. Eisenhower to throw a fit. In 1954, he was called before the Senate to testify about how he overcharged the federal government by inflating costs associated with a taxpayer-subsidized housing development in Brooklyn. As a result, Fred was banned from bidding on federal housing contracts. So he focused on state-subsidized projects. However, in 1966, Fred was called before a state investigations board to sit through embarrassing public hearings exploring how he overbilled New York State for equipment and other costs. These hearings essentially marked the end of Fred’s career as a major developer in public subsidized housing. Donald Trump would say that the government essentially reached in and took his dad’s business away from him. But this explanation ignores the fact that Fred’s business wouldn’t have gotten off the ground without government subsidies in the first place.

However, in terms of Donald Trump cheating on his taxes, it’s far from unique. In 1983, he’s admitted to sales tax fraud. He’s lost 2 income tax civil fraud trials. Hell, his own tax lawyer testified that Trump’s 1984 tax return was fraudulent. More strikingly, even before the Times’ investigation, we had numerous examples of Trump operating as a habitual criminal. While Trump would like to American people to forget about this, he got his start as a celebrity after the New York Times published an article detailing federal housing discrimination charges brought against him and his father. Ultimately, the charges were settled without admission of fault, which would be a pattern for Trump over the years. Even so, the fact his first foray into the real estate business involved criminal acts didn’t stop him from continuing in that business. When Trump branched out into casinos, he got caught accepting an illegal loan from his dad to stay afloat and got off with a slap on the wrist. He was even allowed to continue with the business as well.

From empty-box tax scam to money laundering at his casinos, racial discrimination in his apartments, Federal Trade Commission violations for his stock purchases, and Securities and Exchange Commission violations for his financial reporting, Donald Trump has spent his entire career breaking various laws, getting caught, and then essentially plowing ahead unharmed. Caught engaging in illegal racial discrimination to please a mob boss? Paid a fine. There was no sense this was a repeated pattern of violating racial discrimination law (despite being caught before in a housing discrimination case by the federal government). Nor there was certainly any desire to take a closer look at Trump’s various personal and professional connections to the Mafia. In New York, Trump Tower’s construction employed hundreds of undocumented Polish immigrants, paid them laughably low wages, and worked them beyond legal limits. Though Trump denied knowledge of the situation, a judge said his testimony wasn’t credible. Court records show that Trump and his children misled investors in failed condo projects in Baja California and Florida. Even as late as the post-election transition, Trump was allowed to settle a lawsuit about defrauding customers at his fake university for $25 million rather than truly face the music like a potential prison term. But he still insisted he did nothing wrong despite evidence to the contrary.

One of Donald Trump’s real insights in life was to see a bug in the system. When it comes to these white-collar crimes, it’s typically the government officials’ interest to agree to a settlement giving them positive headlines, raise some cash, and move on to the next investigation. But while these decisions can make sense individually, they let serial offenders repeat their crimes over and over again. After all, you wouldn’t want police to solve other crimes this way. Meanwhile, throughout the decades of Trump’s rise, the legal climate has only gotten more permissive.

The fact that Donald Trump appears to have been involved in serious financial crimes in the past is the most likely reason for his unprecedented lack of transparency. He didn’t magically stop committing them in the mid-1990s. Rather he’s just been getting away with it in an era of reduced law enforcement and fears his documents wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny. As a candidate, Trump promised to release his tax returns. Now that he’s in office, he has refused to do so. In response to the Times’ investigation, the White House released a statement full of bluster about the “wonderful” things Trump has achieved as president. But it didn’t deny any of the alleged facts. Instead, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders merely observed that “many decades ago the IRS reviewed and signed off on these transactions.”

It’s not entirely clear if the IRS reviewed all of these transactions. But it’s unquestionably true that Donald Trump got away with it. Because lots of people get away with a lot of crimes and that doesn’t make it okay. The IRS is no more perfect in its work than any other law enforcement agency. To make matters worse, the IRS has been starved of resources, making it even harder to catch rich tax cheats. To be clear, this wasn’t caused by austerity by budgetary necessity. Based on macroeconomic estimates, the IRS believes that business owners like Donald Trump underpay their taxes by $125 million a year. Investing more in catching these tax cheats would pay off easily. But congressional Republicans haven’t wanted to do it because they think it’s good that rich business owners can get away with cheating on their taxes. Yet, this also gives tax-cheating businesses a very good reason to fear transparency and disclosure. While the IRS is relatively unlikely to get a hard, rigorous look at any particularly rich person’s complicated tax submissions. But since Trump is president, he’d find Congress and the press heavily scrutinizing his finances. Trump got away with tax evasion during an era of generally more rigorous enforcement. It’s very unlikely that he simply stopped doing it during the more recent years when enforcement got laxer. If he disclosed his tax returns, we’d find out about the scams he’s running. Because that’s why Trump doesn’t want us to see them. And why we absolutely need to. We won’t really know why Donald Trump hides his tax returns until he stops concealing them. But the New York Times’ investigation sends a clear message that he’s got a track record of doing illegal stuff with his taxes.

However, though Donald Trump won’t release his tax returns as president, Congress can make him. But congressional Republicans have steadfastly refused to do so. Nonetheless, the American people have a right to know whether or not the man in the White House is a crook. Though the case for oversight became stronger once Trump became president, Republicans who once distanced themselves from him became uniformly devoted to covering up for him. In addition, Republicans have totally resisted Democratic efforts to force disclosure.

While congressional Republicans may tell themselves these returns are no big deal, they have no idea how serious the crimes are they’re helping Donald Trump hide. Mostly because Republicans decided it’s good when rich people cheat on their taxes despite that it’s not. In fact, cheating on taxes contributes to inequality, higher interest rates, weaker public services, and a range of social news. And despite the Republicans’ best efforts, it’s still illegal. Though the tax code currently has minimal taxes on inheritances and gifts as well as large loopholes for the wealthiest of the wealthy. The New York Times investigation into the Trump family’s wealth demonstrates how wealthy families wiggle out of taxes through licit and illicit means. Thus, starving the government of tax revenue, making the tax code less progressive than it’s designed to be, and effectively increasing the tax burden on low-income families and their businesses. The richer the family, the more likely they engage in tax evasion. In fact, one study shows that the richest .01% were shown to evade 25% of taxes, several times the rate seen among the general public. Because Trump is president, we need to know if he’s been breaking the law. All we need to do is have a congressional committee vote. But to get it, we need a new Congress.

Of course, since I’ve conducted extensive research on Donald Trump since he ran for president, the fact he’s not the self-made man he portrays himself to be doesn’t surprise me. I long knew that he never would’ve become what he is today if he hadn’t been born into wealth and privilege. And I knew about his dad vouching for him on his early projects and helping him out of his financial problems. Yet, millions of Americans still believe Trump as a modern Midas who’d lift them out of hard times as the super-rich flourish while everyone else’s incomes remain mostly flat. But the truth is that the man in the Oval Office isn’t the wealth-building entrepreneur he claims to be. In fact, he’s a financial vampire extracting cash from enterprises while leaving behind unpaid workers, vendors, and governments. And if you want to know what that will lead to, just take a visit to Atlantic City.