Category: Vladimir Putin

Trump/Russia Review in TLS

Andrew Sullivan has written a nice review of Trump/Russia: A Definitive History in the Times Literary Supplement of London, “the world’s leading journal for literature and ideas.”

Unless, that is, you see all of this as some grand plan hatched in the halls of the Kremlin to unsettle the post-Cold War order, break up the EU and NATO, and legitimize the authoritarian pseudo-democracy in Russia. Seth Hettena, an investigative journalist with the Associated Press, lays out the entire labyrinth of ties Trump has long had with the Russian mafia in New York, and with the Russian government itself. His essential insight is that there is no clear distinction between the two. Putin’s Russia is a mafia state; its oligarchs deep in financial crime and close to mobsters. And Trump was ensnared early on, as his Trump Tower and Taj Mahal casino in New Jersey attracted all manner of Russian hoodlums, tycoons and hit men. But it deepened as Trump became bankrupt, saved only by bankers who were acting to protect themselves, and sought new financing when America’s banks refused to loan to this shiftiest of failed businessmen. His son, Eric, blurted out the truth to a friend: “We have all the funding we need out of Russia. We go there all the time”.

Hettena writes that Trump Tower was one of only two buildings in Manhattan to allow buyers to conceal their true identities. Money-launderers flocked to it. Trump’s Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City was found to have “willfully violated” anti-money laundering rules of the Bank Secrecy Act, was subject to four separate investigations by the Internal Revenue Service for “repeated and significant” deviations from money-laundering laws, and was forced to pay what was then the largest ever money-laundering fine filed against a casino. The Trump World Tower, by the UN head­quarters in New York, had a large number of investors connected to Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan. Trump’s consigliere, Michael Cohen, was found by a Congressional Com­mit­tee to have “had a lot of connections to the former Soviet Union and . . . seemed to have associations with Russian organized crime figures in New York and Florida”. His campaign manager for a while – Paul Manafort – made a fortune channelling Kremlin propaganda in Ukraine. Trump’s new towers in Southern Florida were also humming with Russian buyers. Over a third of all the apartments in the seven Trump towers were connected either directly to Russian passports or to companies designed to conceal the owners. Hettena finds a prosecutor who spelled it out: “his towers were built specifically for the Russian middle class criminal”.

Trump’s unique refusal as a modern candidate to release his tax returns suddenly doesn’t seem so strange. And it is no surprise whatsoever that when the Trump campaign was told that the Kremlin had hacked Hillary Clinton’s emails and offered them to the campaign – as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr Trump” – they took the bait instantly. “If it’s what you say, I love it”, Donald Trump Jr emailed back to the Russian intermediary, “especially later in the summer”, clear proof of a conspiracy with a foreign power to corrupt the US elections. This led to the infamous Trump Tower meeting between Trump campaign officials and an emissary from Putin. In the autumn, the Clinton emails were duly unleashed, via WikiLeaks, and constantly touted by Trump himself. At one point, he even went on national television and directly asked the Kremlin to release more of them. Trump, in other words, was openly asking a hostile foreign government to help take down his opponent. But by then, his hourly outrages had lost the power to shock. As strong evidence emerged of a Russian campaign to influence the election in the summer and autumn of 2016, Obama proposed that a bipartisan group of senators release the information to warn the public. The Senate Majority leader, the Republican Mitch McConnell, refused. Much of the Republican Party would rather have the election rigged by Russians than see a Democrat win.

The quid pro quo appears to have been a promise to undo sanctions when Trump came to power – something his first National Security Counsel head, Mike Flynn, immediately started work on after the election victory….

The Problem with (Helsinki) Summit Notes

So my Rolling Stone piece is up about the dangers of a one-on-one meeting between President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland.

There’s an interesting bit of history I couldn’t fit into the story. It involves another Russian leader telling another U.S. president at a summit in Helsinki that he would help re-elect him.

And the fact that we know about this conversation is one more reason why Putin doesn’t want any notetakers around when he meets with Trump alone on July 16th.  Continue reading

Mr. Johnson Goes to Moscow

“Our freedoms are slowly but surely being taken away from us,” Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin declared on the Fourth of July. “The world would be a far better places if it were more free.”

It was no small irony that while he served up platitudes of democracy and freedom to his constituents, Senator Johnson himself was a world away in Moscow, appeasing a regime that attacked American democracy and wreaks havoc around the world.

Continue reading

Trump and the Russian Beauty Queen

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Part I: The princess in the gilded cage

Oxana Fedorova was a tall, raven-haired beauty from Pskov, a old Russian city near Estonia.  She was studying to be a police officer in St. Petersburg, Russia when she decided to try her luck in a local modeling contest. Fedorova entered the 1999 Miss St. Petersburg pageant and won. Two years later, the 23-year-old police lieutenant became Miss Russia, which awarded her a new Mercedes and a Cartier watch.

Vladimir Putin, newly installed as Russia’s president, was said to be a keen admirer of the reigning Miss Russia, a karate black belt and an excellent shot. A photo of Fedorova was on display near his office in the Kremlin. The Telegraph of London reported that the organizers of the Miss Russia pageant had crowned Fedorova “in a feudal display of loyalty to the head of state.” She was even rumored to be Putin’s secret lover. Not true, Fedorova said. “It’s just a coincidence that we are both from St. Petersburg, the work of fate. There are no links with the president.”

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Vladimir Golubev

Fedorova’s real boyfriend wasn’t the president. He was a Russian mobster from St. Petersburg.

Vladimir Semenovich Golubev, aka “Barmeley,” got out of  in prison and became a gangster in St. Petersburg in the 1990s. Golubev was a silent partner in Adamant Holding, a real estate company founded in 1992 that today controls 29 shopping malls in St. Petersburg.  (See Russian Forbes.)

The Russian press reported that Golubev had links to the Tambov gang, a criminal syndicate that dominated St. Petersburg in the 1990s. Back then, the deputy mayor of St. Petersburg, a man named Vladimir Putin, was collaborating with the Tambov gang to launder money and gain control of the gambling business. (See Karen Dawisha’s excellent book Putin’s Kleptocracy.)

According to Russian press reports, Golubev had supported Fedorova since she she had won Miss St. Petersburg as a teenager. Fedorova reportedly traveled either in his company or with guards he sent to accompany her. Officials with Miss Universe noted that money never seemed to be a problem for the beauty queen.  She was like a beautiful bird living in Golubev’s gilded cage.

Part II: Miss Universe

In 2002, Oxana Fedorova entered Miss Universe, the international beauty pageant then owned by Donald Trump.

The pageant was held in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Fedorova and other beauties from around the world competed for prizes that included a year’s salary and an apartment in one of Trump’s Manhattan buildings. (The apartment was more like a dormitory for Miss Universe shared it with Miss USA and Miss Teen USA.)

At the Coliseo Roberto Clemente in San Juan, Fedorova dominated the swimsuit competition and was crowned with the diamond-studded tiara.

Trump, who was in the audience watching, allegedly rigged the contest for Fedorova, according to Seth Abramson, an author and attorney. Abramson said he spoke to a source present that night in Puerto Rico who claimed that Trump told the celebrity judges — actors, fashion designers, and NFL star Marshall Faulk —  whom to choose as winner.

Four months after she was crowned Miss Universe, Fedorova was fired. Federova had failed to show at numerous photo shoots and other high-profile functions, including a commitment to help crown Miss Teen USA. It was the first time that a winner had been forced to surrender her title.

Trump said the president of the Miss Universe organization, Paula Shugart, had asked Fedorova to resign. “When Oxana didn’t resign, Paula had no choice but to terminate her,” he said. Anonymous “insider” sources quoted by the New York Post went for Fedorova’s jugular. “An unbelievably spoiled bitch,” one called her. Another said she was overweight and pregnant, which Fedorova denied.

Over the years, Fedorova has given several reasons for her decision to give up the title of Miss Universe. She had to care for an ailing relative.  She did not want to give up her studies. (She now holds a doctoral degree.) She was upset no one had warned her before her lewd interview with radio host Howard Stern.

Asked by Russian reporters whether pressure from her gangster boyfriend Golubev led her to abandon the Miss Universe crown, Fedorova replied, “This is my personal life, and I do not want to talk about it.”

The view from Russia was that Trump had been paid off to crown Fedorova. Nikolay Kostin, the organizer of the Miss Russia contest, suggested to a reporter for the respected Russian daily Kommersant that Trump had been bribed to hand the crown to Fedorova.

“Nikolay Kostin in response to such accusations only smiles and asks who then dared to offer a bribe to the owner of the Miss Universe contest Donald Trump, who presented the crown to Oxana Fedorova, and how much he was given.

Vitali Leiba, president of the model agency Red Stars, told the newspaper, “It is very difficult to determine the addressee of a possible bribe. We can say that Trump was given a bribe, or it is possible that the U.S., in the person of Trump, offered a bribe to Russia, encouraging her representative at the contest.”

Update: An astute reader points out that Vitali Leiba was a founding shareholder of Arigon Company Ltd., a Channel Islands company established in 1990 by the Brainy Don, Semion Mogilevich whose name keeps turning up in the Trump-Russia affair. An 1996 FBI report called Arigon “the center of the Mogilevich Organization’s financial operations.”

Part III: The Ugliness in Trump’s Beauty Contests

There is no proof that Trump was bribed or that he tipped the scale for Oxana Fedorova, but there were multiple claims that the pageants were rigged.

Michael Schwandt, a choreographer who worked on Miss Universe and Miss USA, told Guanabee.com that Trump would have all the contestants line up and he would walk past like a commander reviewing his troops with an assistant taking notes. “It’s just kind of common knowledge that he picks six of the top 15 single-handedly,” Schwandt said.

The choreographer said Trump told him he exercised the “Trump rule” so because some of the most beautiful women were not chosen as finalists in the past “and he was kind of upset by that.” Schwandt disavowed his comments but here is audio  of Trump explaining the “Trump Rule” to Miss USA contestants.

A contestant in 2012 Miss USA told a judge that her contest had been rigged. Sheena Monnin wrote on her Facebook page that a fellow contestant had seen a sheet of paper listing the five finalists before the contest. (She reaffirmed the claim in her delcaration.)

…. I witnessed another contestant who said she saw the Top 5 BEFORE THE SHOW EVER STARTED proceed to call out in order who the Top 5 were before they were announced on stage. Apparently the morning on June 3rd she saw a folder lying open to a page that said ‘FINAL SHOW telecast, June 3, 2012’. After the Top 16 were called and we were standing backstage she hesitantly said to me and another contestant that she knew who the Top 5 were. I said ‘who do you think they will be? She said that she didn’t ‘think’ she ‘knew’ because she saw the list that morning. She relayed whose names were on the list. Then we agreed to wait and see if that was indeed the Top 5 called that night. ….

Trump was furious. He said Monnin had “loser’s remorse,” and said that if you “looked at her and compared her to the other people who were in the top 15, you would understand why she was not in the top 15.” His  consigliere Michael Cohen called into TMZ Live and said that Monnin had 24 hours to retract her statement or that she could “bet [her] a** that [Miss Universe] will sue . . . seeking massive damages.” Consigliere Cohen was good to his word. Trump obtained a $5 million defamation award against Monnin in an uncontested arbitration proceeding, which was upheld by a federal judge.

A 2013 investigation by Jezebel found that a pageant recruiter in Trump’s Miss USA franchise allegedly demanded a blow job in exchange for magazine work that would allow a contestant to pay the $895 contest entrance fee.

Trump had acquired the Miss Universe franchise in 1996. He reportedly paid tens of millions of dollars (the exact figure was not disclosed) to buy it from ITT Corp., beating out beat two television networks and several South American media moguls. (The deal also included Miss USA and Miss Teen USA.)  Trump ran Miss Universe as a 50-50 partnership with TV networks, first with CBS, and, after 2002, with NBC.

On the surface, it looked like a good business. It cost $20 million to bring the 2013 Miss Universe pageant to Moscow. Emin Agalarov whose family owns the arena that hosted the pageant broke down the costs for Russian Forbes. A third of that $20 million went to secure rights. Another third: organizational costs. And the final third goes to the production and broadcast costs.  (Another report said overseas rights to Miss Universe were selling for $6 million in 2003.)

Very little of that money, however, was distributed to the general partners of Miss Universe. We know this because Trump had assigned his half of his interest in Miss Universe (25 percent of the company) to his publicly-traded corporation, Trump Entertainment Resorts, Inc.  In 2002, the year Fedorova won in Puerto Rico, Trump Entertainment collected a mere $700,000 for it quarter share of the pageant. In 2003 and 2004, Trump Entertainment earned nothing from Miss Universe.

Where was all the money going?

Even if the business was a stinker, there was one attraction for Trump. It allowed him to indulge his Porky’s-style adolescent fantasy of seeing beautiful women naked when they were in no position to refuse.

“I’ll go backstage and everyone’s getting dressed, and everything else, and you know, no men are anywhere, and I’m allowed to go in because I’m the owner of the pageant and therefore I’m inspecting it,” Trump told Howard Stern in 2005.

Listen for yourself:

Asked whether he had ever slept with a contestant, Trump declined to say. “It could be a conflict of interest. … But, you know, it’s the kind of thing you worry about later, you tend to think about the conflict a little bit later on.”

Trump sold Miss Universe in 2015 to the talent agency WME | IMG for $28 million. The value of the franchise had been damaged by Trump’s description of Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists, which led NBC and Univision to drop coverage of Miss USA.

Who is Bill Browder? (Updated)

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Bill Browder

This much is clear: Vladimir Putin hates Bill Browder.

Browder was once the largest foreign investor in Russia and, it needs to be said, a great admirer of the Russian president. Today, he is perhaps the Putin’s regime’s fiercest critic, and Browder must derive some satisfaction in the way he grates on the Kremlin.

Browder’s change of heart came well after he was kicked out of the country in 2005. It was the death of an accountant who worked for Browder named Sergei Magnitsky that did it. Magnitsky was thrown in prison, where he was beaten and left to die in 2009 from lack of medical treatment. His crime? Magnitsky had had the temerity to expose  a massive $230 million tax fraud perpetrated by Russian officials.

In response, Browder lobbied Congress to draft legislation imposing sanctions on the Russian officials responsible for Magnitsky’s death. The Magnitsky Act was signed into law by President Obama in 2012.  Browder has continued his campaign in Canada, the United States, and Europe —  and it has driven Russian officials bat-shit insane.

Russian legislators responded to the Magnitsky Act by banning adoption of Russian children by Americans — harming their most vulnerable citizens for what, political retaliation? A year later, in a shameful display of injustice, a Moscow court convicted Magnitsky of tax evasion in a posthumous trial. (Browder was found guilty of fraud in absentia.) The Trump campaign was drawn into a June 2016 meeting with Russians on the Magnitsky Act when the future president’s son was promised dirt on Hillary Clinton.

In the latest hysterical response, now it’s Browder who is suspected of murdering Magnitsky. According to Russian prosecutors, Browder colluded with a British intelligence agent to convince Russian prison doctors to withhold care for Magnitsky. The evidence is comical: poorly written communications that were allegedly intercepted from Western spy agencies.

Russia managed to get Browder briefly banned from entry to the United States by putting him on an Interpol wanted list. His visa privileges were restored by the Trump administration on Monday after members of Congress and the press leaped to Browder’s defense.

The reason the Magnitsky Act drives the Kremlin nuts is that it hits the kleptocrats in their unprotected flank. Russian oligarchs and the kleptocrats who steal from the state store their assets in the West. And what is the point of stealing a fortune from the Russian people if you can’t buy condos in Miami or Manhattan or send your kids to exclusive British schools because of some lousy sanctions?

Browder has rightly been praised for his courage in standing up to the Putin regime. And his book, Red Notice, is an excellent read.  However, the laudatory coverage Browder regularly receives from a press corps he has skillfully cultivated and his star treatment before a US Congress he lobbies require a selective reading of events.

The fact is that Browder was once one of Putin’s biggest cheerleaders, as he admitted during deposition:

Q: So in 2005, you were quite a supporter of Vladimir Putin’s, right?

A: Correct.

Most gallingly, he defended the 2003 arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the head of Yukos, one of the world’s biggest oil producers. Stalin would have approved of the way Khodorkovsky was convicted, imprisoned in a gulag at Russia’s border with China, and then put on trial and convicted again. His  company was seized and acquired by the state.

It wasn’t exactly clear what Khodorovsky had done wrong except he had criticized Russia’s corruption during a televised meeting with President Putin a few months before his arrest and funded a movement promoting the rule of law and democratic values called Open Russia.

Khodorkovsky’s arrest and the seizure of Yukos wasn’t democracy; it was Mafia tactics. But Browder hailed Khodorkovsky’s arrest as progress toward Russia’s return to greatness:

Putin, was only doing “what any leader would do to further his nation’s interests,”  Browder wrote. “While there may be some things about Putin that we disagree with, we should give him the benefit of the doubt in this area and fully support him in his task of taking back control of the country from the oligarchs.”

As for Khodorkovsky, Browder said he was hiding something. “Khodorkovsky collected an enormous pile of cheap assets from the government and minority shareholders, and then embarked on an impressive charm and lobbying offensive to legitimize himself and his wealth. He has been very successful in getting people to forget his not-so-distant past,” Browder wrote.

Now, it’s Browder who has been very successful in getting people to forget his not-so-distant past. Putin’s No. 1 enemy, as he describes himself, was once Putin’s No. 1 fan. (To his credit, he did expose corruption at the companies in which he invested such as the gas giant Gazprom, and this made powerful enemies.)

Here is part of a presentation by Browder in April 2005 titled Seven Big Myths About Russia

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Consider how The Wall Street Journal described Browder in 2006 after he had been kicked out of Russia:

Browder has been one of the most outspoken supporters among foreign investors of Russian President Vladimir Putin. He argued tirelessly that the western media and critics of the Kremlin were misreading the situation and that Putin’s administration was good for investors. He was defending the Kremlin as recently as January, when Browder spoke at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

That’s right. Browder was still defending Putin even after he was denied entry to the country.

Why such love for Putin? In deposition, Browder says the two men never met. The answer: It was just business. Investing in Russia was very profitable. His fund, Hermitage Capital Management, recorded $1 billion in profits and Browder pocketed $130 million in 2006.

When Browder was denied entry to Russia, ostensibly as a threat to national security, his Hermitage Capital Management was the country’s largest foreign investor with $4 billion in Russian equities. Like Khodorkovsky before him, Browder appeared to have made the mistake of believing that he was untouchable. Who in their right mind would ban the man who brought billions into the Russian economy?

Browder’s lobbying of US politicians and courts would sit better with me had he not given up his U.S. citizenship. In 1998, Browder obtained a passport from the more Russophilic United Kingdom. Published reports say he did this for tax reasons but he gave a different explanation during deposition:

Q. So why did you give up your U.S. citizenship?

A. Personal reasons.

Q. And what are those personal reasons?

A. My family was persecuted during the McCarthy era….

 Q. What kind of persecution did you face?

A. My grandmother was sick with cancer and the U.S. Government tried to deport her to Russia when she was dying. [Browder’s grandfather, Earl Browder, led the Communist Party in the United States.]

Q. What year was that?

A. In 1950 something.

Q. I see. And so 1998, this all came back as a rush of emotion and you decided to give up your U.S. citizenship?

A. No.

Interestingly, Britain, Browder’s new home, has been much slower to take up the Magnitsky cause. (A bill passed the House of Commons this year and is now being considered in the House of Lords.)  The Brits have a conflicted relationship with Russian rubles: They have to come to depend on them.  London is where Kremlin insiders like to stash their money. It’s where they buy homes through shell companies, go shopping and send their children to posh schools.

Billions of pounds have washed through Britain since the fall of the Soviet Union, (although nobody knows exactly how much). A group even offers kleptocracy tours of London. The imposition of sanctions by Great Britain against Mother Russia would drain that swamp but it might also drain the balance sheets of some powerful banks.

Browder has been demanding justice for Sergei Magnitsky — and rightfully so — but, at least in one instance, he literally ran away from an American court.  Here is what happened when a process server tried to serve Browder with a subpoena in New York following his 2015 appearance on The Daily Show:

The case involved a Russian financier named Denis Katsyv. At the time, Katsyv was accused in federal court of laundering money that was part of the fraud that Sergei Magnitsky uncovered. The case that was based on information Browder provided  to prosecutors in New York.¹   Browder eventually did have to testify and I’ve posted Browder’s Deposition.

Am I wrong in thinking that it’s grossly unfair and somewhat suspicious for Browder to demand justice for Magnitsky while fleeing a subpoena in the case he instigated?  Shouldn’t he be proud to stand up for his late friend and colleague?

Please don’t mistake what I’m saying here. I’m no fan of Putin, but Browder is undermining his own cause when he selectively uses the law and the press to serve only his own interests.

1. Katsyv’s case, U.S. v Prevezon Holdings, was settled for $5.9 million before trial.