Hardly a day goes by without President Trump attacking Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s year-old investigation into contacts between his presidential campaign and Russia. The president has presented no explanation for why his campaign had so many contacts with Russian operatives. Instead, he appears to be betting his presidency on his ability to frame the entire investigation as a hoax and confuse us about the facts. Here’s a guide for the perplexed:
Call me skeptical.
I don’t believe that Facebook won the election for Donald Trump. That’s the claim put forth in this hagiographic profile of Jared Kushner in Forbes and in many other media outlets.
The traditional campaign is dead, another victim of the unfiltered democracy of the Web–and Kushner, more than anyone not named Donald Trump, killed it.
We see these stories every time a new president is elected. A while back it was Obama’s “data crunchers.” This time, the key to Trump’s victory, Kushner would like us to believe, were computer algorithms that targeted potential Trump supporters with social media to stunning effect.
The secret weapon was Cambridge Analytica’s computer algorithms that figure out who you are based and what motivates you based on all the times you click Like on Facebook, as Cambridge Analytica’s Jack Hansom explains in this video:
These algorithms turned up some surprising findings. Liking the New Orleans Saints mean you’re less likely to be “conscientious,” i.e. do the right thing. And liking the Energizer Bunny means you’re more likely to be neurotic.
So what? Well, one or two of these things don’t tell you much, but the average person has hundreds of Facebook Likes which allows Hansom and his colleagues to build a surprisingly accurate picture of your personality. You can test this on yourself here.
Facebook allows you to drill down to the kind of person in the kind of place you want. (You can even reach “Jew haters” in Idaho if you wish.) Here’s Cambridge Analytica’s CEO Alexander Nix showing how his company’s model could be used to drill down to find every “persuadable” gun rights advocate in Iowa:
It’s very impressive (and very creepy), and it makes for a good story, one that Silicon Valley loves in an everybody-is-stupid-except-for-me way.
But the problem with the claim that Kushner and his machine learning wizardry won the election for Trump is that everybody was doing it. Hillary Clinton had a team of mathematicians and analysts crunching data. Ted Cruz had hired Cambridge Analytica as well, but then he ran into the Trump train.
I may be wrong, but I’d wager the $1.8 billion worth of free airtime that TV networks gave Trump every time he opened his trap probably had a lot more to do with him winning the election than Cambridge Analytica.
Trump knows how to get on TV: He is a promotional genius. What will he say next? He’s a modern day PT Barnum and Jeff Zucker‘s CNN couldn’t get enough.
Setting that aside, the Facebook/Jared Kushner story is still pretty important. And what’s important about it is that Special Counsel Robert Mueller thinks it’s pretty important. Facebook may not have won Trump the election, but it may seriously damage his presidency.
CNN reported Sunday that Mueller, who’s investigating Trump’s links to Russia, had served Facebook with a search warrant. Mueller was interested in the $100,000 worth of ads purchased by bogus accounts that Facebook on Sept. 6 acknowledged had “likely operated out of Russia.”
Mueller’s search warrant for Facebook is a big deal, a former federal prosecutor explains:
Mueller would have had to show the judge that there was reason to believe that one or more foreign individuals committed a crime and the evidence of the crime could be found on Facebook’s servers.
The crime is that foreign nationals are prohibited from contributing money “or other thing of value” (like $100,000 worth of Facebook ads) in connection with an election. It’s also against the law to solicit, accept, or receive such a contribution. (Here is the statute.) And if someone on the Trump campaign knew about the Russian Facebook ads and did nothing to stop it, that is also a crime — aiding and abetting.
Did someone on the Trump campaign know about the Russian Facebook ads. We don’t know yet, but the answer lies in targeting. To put it in Watergate terms: Who targeted whom and when?
Were the Russian Facebook ads and the Trump campaign targeting the same people? And if so, how did a bunch of Russian trolls in St. Petersburg or Vladivostok or where ever know to target, say, black women in Milwaukee or rural voters in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, for example?
I tried to ask Alex Stamos, Facebook’s chief security officer, but didn’t get a reply.
This question intrigues Sen. Mark Warner, the leading Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, as he said on the Pod Save America podcast:
Warner: When you see some of the explanation and some of the fact that it appears that, for example, women and African Americans were targeted in places like Wisconsin and Michigan, where the Democrats were too brain dead to realize those states were even in play … It was interesting that those states seem to be targeted where the bots — where they could could create a lot of these fake Twitter and Facebook accounts, could in fact overwhelm the targeted search engines that would end up saying on your news feed, you suddenly got stuff that “Hillary Clinton’s sick” or “Hillary Clinton’s stealing money from the State Department.”
I get the fact that the Russian intel services could figure out how to manipulate and use the bots. Whether they could know how to target states and levels of voters that the Democrats weren’t even aware really raises some questions. I think that’s a worthwhile area of inquiry.
How did they know to go to that level of detail in those kinds of jurisdictions?
Vietor : I wonder if they just asked Jared [Kushner] like Trump does with all of his questions. We’ll find out.
Warner : We’ll find out. More to come on that.
Sen. Warner thinks it’s a worthwhile line of inquiry, and it’s a good bet Mueller does too. The information Facebook handed over to Mueller included the targeting criteria the bogus Russian accounts used, The Wall Street Journal reported.
An unnamed Trump campaign staffer told CNN that the key to the whole inquiry may be found on Facebook’s servers.
Only Facebook can answer three critical questions: were the same databases used by the Trump campaign and Russian operatives to coordinate targeting of voters; was money used to promote pro-Trump posts, and, if so, how much was spent and by whom; and will Facebook reveal if bots were successfully used to push fake news posts?
Hopefully, Robert Mueller knows the answers.
Bloomberg reports that Special Counsel Robert Mueller has decided that Trump’s sale of his Palm Beach mansion to a Russian billionaire is worth a deeper look.
As readers of this site know, Dmitry Rybolovlev, the Russian fertilizer king, bought the future president’s Palm Beach mansion in 2008 for $50 million more than Trump paid for it just a few years earlier. The mansion, called Maison de l’Aimitie (House of Friendship), was in such bad shape that Rybolovlev got permission to tear it down and sell off the land beneath it.
I’ve written how this transaction has the marks of a bribery case I followed here in San Diego.
Not long after the mansion sold, Trump was approaching default on loan from Deutsche Bank. And the $50 million Trump pocketed on the mansion sale was enough to cover the $40 million he had personally guaranteed to the German lender.
Here’s a bit more detail: The Palm Beach mansion sold in July 2008. That fall, Trump was desperately trying to get Deutsche Bank to extend a senior construction loan for the 92-story Trump International Hotel and Tower in Chicago. The Chicago project was already facing weak sales before the 2008 financial meltdown hit.
Unlike many other Trump Organization projects, the Donald was personally on the hook in Chicago. He hadn’t licensed his name. He had no partners. He arranged all the financing himself: He put $77 million of his own equity into the tower and had given Deutsche Bank a $40 million personal guarantee. (See “In Chicago, Trump Hits Headwinds,” The Wall Street Journal, 29 Oct. 2008.)
Trump’s Deutsche Bank loan came due Nov. 7, 2008 with an outstanding principal balance of $334 million, plus $251 million in interest. Not only did Trump not pay, but with his usual bombast, he sued Deutsche Bank to force them to extend the loan. Deutsche Bank countersued, and demanded Trump cough up his $40 million guarantee. Deutsche Bank ultimately extended the loan for five years and eventually Trump paid it.
There are a lot of dogs sniffing around this tree. The personal guarantees Trump made for his Deutsche Bank loans are also of interest to New York State regulators looking at the president’s relationship with the German lender’s wealth management division: according to The New York Times:
Additionally, the New York regulators recently requested information related to the hundreds of millions in loans Deutsche Bank’s private wealth management division provided Mr. Trump, one of the people said, paying particular attention to personal guarantees he made to obtain the loans. Those guarantees have declined as the loans were paid down and the property values increased, but it remains a source of interest to the regulators.
For those who want even more detail, I’ve embedded Trump’s Deutsche Bank personal guarantee at the end of this post. If anyone with some expertise in these matters finds anything interesting in there, please let me know.
Mueller’s team are also said to be interested in dealings involving the Bank of Cyprus. Rybolovlev, the Russian oligarch who bought Trump’s Palm Beach mansion, became the bank’s largest shareholder in 2010 when he purchased a 9.7 percent stake through his British Virgin Islands holding firm, Odella Resources. (Wilbur Ross, Trump’s commerce secretary, invested in the bank in 2014.)
The shady mansion sale is just one of the things FBI investigators and others are examining:
- Russian purchases of apartments in Trump buildings
- Trump’s involvement in a controversial SoHo development in New York with Russian associates
- The 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow
- Jared Kushner’s efforts to secure financing for some of his family’s real-estate properties.
It seems that Mueller’s team is looking for evidence of a payment disguised as a real estate transaction, fee or gift that would give Russians what the intelligence community likes to call “levers of pressure” that could be used against the US president.
Trump’s Personal Guarantee
Special Counsel Robert Mueller isn’t playing.
As I mentioned in my previous post, Mueller has brought on board attorney Lisa Caroline Page who worked on the FBI Task Force in Budapest that investigated Russian Mob kingpin Semion Mogilevich.
By adding Page, Mueller may be sending a signal that he’s going after links between Trump and Russian organized crime, and perhaps zeroing in on Mogilevich ties.
Catching Mogilevich was an important part of Mueller’s 12-year tenure as head of the bureau and big reason why the FBI put the Mob boss on its 10 Most Wanted List in 2009.
Here’s what Mueller himself had to say in 2005 during a visit to Budapest for the 10th anniversary of the International Law Enforcement Academy:
And the FBI/Hungarian National Police Organized Crime Task Force has been up and running for five years, working to dismantle organized crime groups. Just last month, we obtained approval to have FBI agents permanently stationed here in Budapest to work on the Task Force.
The Task Force has had a number of successes. Right here in Budapest , Ukranian-born Semion Mogilevich established the headquarters of his powerful organized crime enterprise. The group engaged in drug and weapons trafficking, prostitution, and money laundering, and organized stock fraud in the United States and Canada in which investors lost over $150 million.
As soon as the Task Force began investigating his activities, Mogilevich realized he could no longer use Budapest as his base of operations. He immediately fled the country, and is now hiding in Moscow. Working closely with Hungarian authorities, United States prosecutors obtained a 45-count indictment against Mogilevich and three other criminals, charging them with money laundering, securities fraud, and racketeering.
Mueller’s biographer, Garrett Graff, called the Budapest task force “perhaps the most unique FBI force in the world.” Hungary was the only country outside Afghanistan and Iraq where agents were permanently stationed.
The Budapest task force assembled a global picture of Mogilevich’s operation. According to a Dec. 22, 2006 report in The Wall Street Journal, FBI agents in Budapest got help from authorities in Israel, another of Mr. Mogilevich’s suspected bases of operations, and Cyprus, an offshore banking center used by many Russians.
So elusive was Mogilevich, however, that agents in Budapest were chasing smoke, sometimes even in their own backyard. Graff’s book, The Threat Matrix: Inside Robert Mueller’s FBI and the War on Global Terror, contains this tantalizing piece of information:
The full extent of Mogilevich’s US ties are still unknown. Although banned from entering the country because of his alleged criminal ties, Mogilevich has visited Boston, Philadelphia, and Miami under aliases to meet with U.S. associates, and the FBI photographed at least one of his aides attending a Republican Party fundraiser in Texas.
Mogilevich was arrested in Moscow in 2008 and then subsequently released him the following year. He lives more or less openly in Russia today. While US eventually caught up with Osama bin Laden, Mogilevich was the one who got away.
Mueller’s role as special counsel for Trump’s Russia links may be a second chance of sorts. By probing Trump’s links to Mogilevich, Mueller may be able to snare an even bigger fish.
No wonder he’s driving Trump crazy.