Trump! Russia! Russia! Trump!

Next week should have some big developments in the ongoing story of Trump and Russia. James Comey is set to testify. I have no idea what he’s going to say – but I imagine it will be far less than he knows and far more than we did.

The public discussion on Trump and Russia has focused on the issue of campaign collusion. I think it’s obvious that there was collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia and that most of it happened in public and is already fully known to us. I don’t believe that people are going to prove that Putin conspired in advance with Trump to orchestrate his election to the presidency, because I think it simply never happened.

Trump loves Russians and he has friends who are friends with powerful people in Russia. There were certainly Russian actors who worked to advance his interests during the election campaign. There were certainly American actors who courted Russian influence, seeking an advantage. But we also have evidence that Russians occasionally freaked out during the campaign and at one point even suspended operations supporting Trump out of alarm at his unstable conduct. (check out page 13 of the infamous “unverified memo” if you want some evidence).

While some coincidences are perfectly random, most are not. That doesn’t mean, however, that all coincidences have to be causally connected to one another. Many times, coincidences arise because they share certain predicate conditions. They cluster on the truth like barnacles on a whale, but the whale’s body is the only true connection between them.

We have evidence that Trump’s ties to Russia are deep and long-standing. During his 2000 presidential campaign, Trump excoriated Boris Yeltsin, calling the ailing reformer an “out-of-control” “disaster.” More intriguingly, contenders to replace Yeltsin (which Putin ultimately did) were traveling to New York to court Trump’s support as early as 1997. (Retired Russian general Aleksandr Lebed had a one-hour closed-door meeting with Trump in 1997 as he sought support for a bid to replace Yeltsin.)

Trump’s influence in Russia predates Putin. If Trump (or more likely, Trump’s Russian business associates) were acting as king-makers in the struggle to replace Yeltsin, then we’re going to need to take a broader perspective to understand Trump’s bizarre conduct towards Russia. That story doesn’t start in July of 2015, when Trump descended his golden escalator. The real story starts in New York, with Tamir Sapir and Sam Kislin, Russian immigrants who rocketed in the early nineties from running a Manhattan electronics store to  controlling international business empires worth billions of dollars. Trump’s fortune has been deeply entwined with the rise of both men.

Reimagining Trump

We invite you to join us in a short thought experiment. Before we begin, please set aside everything you think you know about Donald Trump and his past business record. For the moment, we don’t know whether Trump was a serial bankrupt or an astonishingly successful business man.

Could we invent a story – straight out of a mobster movie – that would be consistent with the known facts of Trump’s life? It could be the story of a daring heist – the embezzlement of a billion dollars in borrowed money by two celebrities and their mob associates, pulled off like a magic trick in the public eye. In the aftermath of such a heist, stolen money could have been moved offshore while one of the celebrities laid low, staving off bankruptcy with luckily-timed receipts of “just enough” cash. Then, after the statute of limitations had passed, the money could have started slowly coming home, disguised as business loans.

Imagine that Donald Trump came up in this world as a successful New York real estate developer back when the mob controlled New York real estate development. Imagine that Trump followed this success with a brash entry into the New Jersey casino business at a time when mob interests were vying for control of the New Jersey casino business.

Imagine that organized crime got involved in the stock market as the 1980s progressed. Imagine that Donald Trump got involved in the stock market at the same time, often making bold bids to buy out public companies with borrowed money before backing away and failing to close the deal. Imagine Donald Trump even got sued by Federal regulators for using shell corporations to amass secret positions in publicly traded companies.

Imagine Trump borrowed $675 million in junk bonds to finance the purchase and construction of his Taj Mahal casino. Imagine that Trump’s business partner in that deal had proven ties to the mafia and later bankrupted his own company with $950 million in debt. Imagine that brokers were actually indicted for profiting off of insider trades based on that deal. Imagine that Donald Trump had managed to borrow as much as $2 billion overall by June of 1990, when he signed a five year plan to restructure and reduce his debt obligations.

Imagine that Trump somehow escaped this loan default without losing control of his lucrative casino, thanks to the negotiations of Wilbur Ross and Carl Icahn, both of whom are now part of his Administration. Imagine that for some reason, lenders ended up letting Trump keep a surprisingly large share of his assets and live on an allowance of $450,000 per month despite having lost hundreds of millions of dollars.

What if all this were one of the greatest heists of the twentieth century?  Imagine that Trump and his associates actually embezzled a huge share of this borrowed money, secreting it away in offshore accounts. Imagine that the spectacular bankruptcy of his casino and the ensuing cash flow problems were all a show, designed to legitimate the disappearance of money that had been embezzled, not squandered. What if Trump’s business empire doesn’t make sense because it’s all an elaborate shell game designed to hide the movement of stolen money? A lot of stolen money?

What might we expect to find if such a thing were possible? During the “near-bankruptcy” years, Trump’s financial solvency would have to hang by a thread, shored up by mysterious loans from shadowy sources.

Would we find a detailed study of Trump’s finances in June of 1995 prepared by New Jersey casino regulators that told us “for this four-month period, DJT’s cash position fell below the forecasts submitted on February 3, 1995”? Or that Trump’s cash position was only maintained by transactions that “appear to be one-time occurrences and do not represent continuing sources of funds”? Would we learn that Trump was facing a “June 30, 1995 maturity of the Override Agreement” that had resolved his debt negotiations five years earlier? Would the regulators certify Trump’s financial stability by noting “DJT’s flexibility is limited. However, DJT has demonstrated an ability to adjust cash flow requirements when necessary”?

Imagine what would happen if Trump began repatriating his offshore cash in the form of business loans from foreigners shortly after that bank agreement expired in June of 1995. This could be a classic money laundering technique known as a “loan-back.” First you steal some money. Then you secretly move it offshore. Then you give your stolen money to a bank or business overseas. They keep a cut, and loan back the rest to you. Then, you live off the loan itself, treating it as tax-free income. To an outside observer, you would seem to be very rich despite being terrible at business.

Imagine that a group of Hong Kong investors had bought the mortgage to a key Trump development out of foreclosure for $88 million, agreeing to “assume Mr. Trump’s debts and pay him 30 percent of the profits, as well as fees for helping to manage the development of the site, which they agreed to finance.” Would such a deal make more sense if it had been underwritten offshore with Trump’s own cash, embezzled from the earlier bond deals?

Or imagine that Trump purchased a 72-story skyscraper for a million dollars in cash from a Hong Kong-based entity in the latter half of 1995 (only months after the investigation of his finances by casino regulators had concluded). Imagine that Trump claimed to have invested an additional $65 million renovating the building by 2004. Imagine that the building was encumbered with $145 million in mortgages by 2005. Imagine that Trump had somehow come up with that $1 million in cash and secured those millions in mortgages in the same year that he reported losses of $916 million on his taxes. Wouldn’t we wonder why he’d borrowed $80 million more than he had spent? Could such a building, bought for so cheap, allow Trump to live tax-free off of the loans themselves, as though they were income for years?

How would your understanding of Trump change if many of those perplexing business deals he struck after 1995 weren’t bad business loans at all? What would we expect to find if we were looking for evidence of a  scheme? A foreign bank that has loaned $364 million to Trump despite a checkered history of repayments, but where Trump maintained brokerage accounts worth at least $20 million and possibly as much as $50 million?

What if Trump really had been a lot wealthier this whole time than any of us realized? What if that wealth had stemmed from a billion dollar stock fraud pulled off in 1990, and all those strange loans from foreigners would have just been Trump’s stolen money coming back home? What would we expect to find if such a story were true?

We’re sorry we’ve been so quiet lately. We’ve been doing a lot of research into Trump’s business dealings. Many of them are even starting to make sense.

Let’s Talk About Money Laundering

We at RAGEPATH predict that money laundering is about to become a major topic of public discourse in America. While there will be many specific things to say about that topic and its relationship to Trump in the near future, we thought it might be helpful to provide a little primer in the basics of money laundering. You deserve to be prepared.

What is Money Laundering, exactly?

Good question! Let’s say you come into some money you’re not supposed to have. You want to enjoy the possession of your money, but you’re not supposed to have it. So to enjoy your money, you have to come up with a story to explain how you came into unexpected money. Let’s start with a really simple example.

I’m not proud of it, but when I was a child, I used to steal money from my older siblings. They were old enough to earn an allowance and work for the neighbors, but I was not. As long as I wasn’t too greedy, my siblings wouldn’t notice a dollar missing here or there. But I was too young to have any legitimate income! So how could I explain coming into a dollar?

The scheme I came up with was quite simple. While walking to school one day, I’d be sure to walk half a block ahead of my siblings. Then I would noticeably stop and walk over to a bush. I would then hold up my stolen dollar and claim I had just found it lying in the bushes! Everybody saw me find the dollar, so there could be no doubt it was legitimately mine.  Even the sibling who had been robbed would agree that it was truly my dollar and marvel at my good fortune!

Voila. The money had been laundered. Stolen cash was turned into honest cash by telling a good story of how I’d come by it. And that’s all money laundering is. You concoct a lie to explain why you deserve money that has been acquired improperly.

The “dirty money” may have been simply stolen. It may have been confiscated from honest businesses as “protection” from harms you would otherwise inflict on those same businesses. It may have been earned illegally – by selling drugs, selling sex, performing assassinations for hire. The laundering process doesn’t care where the money came from. It’s just a method for explaining why you have money that you’re not supposed to have.

OK… so … how does money laundering work?

That’s another great question! While there are many different schemes for laundering money, all money laundering schemes have three basic components:

  1. Placement: This is the earliest stage of the laundry cycle, and it’s kind of like “spot cleaning” your dirty clothes. The cash you’ve generated illegally has to enter the money system. But large transactions trigger reporting requirements that require people to identify themselves and explain how they came up with the money. The most common form of placement is called smurfing – you divvy up your ill-gotten gains among lots of different people, who each make transactions too small to trigger reporting requirements. Collectively they create a legal pool of money that doesn’t have to be explained. Casinos can be very helpful to smurfs. Especially if they don’t make required transaction reports. But of course, at a real casino you’d expect to see actual gangsters trading in illicit cash for chips if there were truly something amiss.
  2. Layering: Once your smurfs have generated a pool of money with no origin story, that money has to be moved around enough times that nobody is going to know or care where it came from. This is where offshore money laundering havens like the Caribbean island of St. Martin or the Dominican Republic come in handy. Money gets shipped to secretive jurisdictions outside the reach of law enforcement, then it gets shipped to somewhere else. When it arrives somewhere else, there’s no way to know where exactly it started.
  3. Integration: This is the last and most important stage of the process, because this is the moment where the crook actually receives his filthy lucre. This is the drama of finding the dollar under the bush. Everyone sees you get the dollar, everyone knows it has to be legit. Putting out a press release announcing a doomed financial deal with America’s most famous real estate tycoon could be a great way to show off the legitimacy of a transaction.

So, that’s the basic structure of every money laundering scheme.

Am I going to need a glossary?

Probably. You’ve already learned what “placement, layering and integration” are. Here are some other key terms you might want to understand:

  • Smurf: A “smurf” is someone who receives a small share of a large pool of illegal cash and makes transactions too small to trigger reporting requirements. These busy beavers are the smallest fish in the money-laundering food chain. It should be noted that in nearly lawless states (like many former Soviet republics), smurfs are not necessarily required to create a pool of untraceable money.
  • Nominee: A “nominee” is someone who seems perfectly legitimate, receives laundered funds, then secretly passes it back to the crook who “earned” the ill-gotten gains. In some ways, a nominee is the negative image of the money laundering crook. While the crook comes into cash that he never earned, the nominee earns cash he never gets to keep.
  • Shell Corporation: A “shell corporation” is a corporate entity whose only purpose is to pass funds around, obscuring their true source. It needs a bank account. It might also have weird assets – like an Asian trademarking company that owns private real estate in Virginia.  The point is, that the shell company conducts no recognizable business activity, but holds or passes assets and/or liabilities.

We may update this post to add more terms if I think you’ll need them.

Are there any common money laundering schemes I need to know about?

Yeah, there are quite a few common schemes. I’m very enchanted with the elegance of the “Black Market Peso Exchange Operation,” but if you’re as interested in Trump as I am, you don’t need to worry about that one. What do people interested in Trump want to know about?

Loan-Backs: A “loan-back” money laundering scheme is a particularly ingenious way to come into laundered cash without even having to declare it as taxable income. The goal here is to “borrow” money from a foreign bank (or a domestic financial institution that acts like a bank but isn’t regulated like one) that you may or may not ever repay. The nice thing about borrowing money is you don’t owe income taxes on it. If you repay it, the repayments are tax deductible as a business expense. If you don’t repay it, you might owe taxes on the forgiven debt. But not if you offered collateral that the bank can confiscate when you refuse to repay. And if it’s a foreign bank or a “shadow bank” that collateral might not be in the United States. It might even be a direct product of the illicit activity you’re trying to conceal! If bank secrecy laws are tight enough or regulators are lax enough, nobody will ever know.

So, the basics of this scheme work like this. You steal money overseas… wherever you like… Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine, wherever works. You move that money around until it looks legitimate enough to deposit in an ostensibly reputable Western bank. Then you can use that deposit as security or a guarantee to finance a crazy loan in a Western country. Once you receive the loan in the West, you’ve got a legitimate reason to own and use that cash. Who cares if you never pay it back?

[More to come… smurfing in casinos, smurfing in real estate, other known real estate schemes]

Quick Take: Suffer the Children

I was saddened this morning to read of Jimmy Kimmel’s new son’s health struggle that led to the infant boy undergoing open-heart surgery. In the opening monologue of his show last night, Kimmel parlayed the experience into a political plea to support medical care for everyone:

Kimmel condemned President Trump for proposing funding cuts for the National Institute of Health, and he praised Obamacare for guaranteeing insurance regardless of preexisting conditions. “Until a few years ago, millions and millions of us had no access to health insurance at all,” Kimmel said. “Before 2014, if you were born with a congenital heart disease like my son was, there was a good chance you would never be able to get health insurance because you had a preexisting condition. If your parents didn’t have medical insurance, you might not even live long enough to get denied because of a preexisting condition.”

“Don’t let partisan squabbles divide us on something that every decent person wants,” Kimmel concluded. “No parent should ever have to decide if they can afford to save their child’s life.”

(Rolling Stone, May 2, 2017)

Steeped as I am in all things Trump, I can’t help but notice the contrast with our sitting President. Back in 2000, Trump cut the medical benefits to his nephew’s infant son, who was suffering from a serious medical condition that ultimately led to cerebral palsy. The move was a power play by Trump in a dispute over his father’s will.

Even when it comes to a sick baby in his family, Donald Trump is all business. The megabuilder and his siblings Robert and Maryanne terminated their nephew’s family medical coverage a week after he challenged the will of their father, Fred Trump.  “This was so shocking, so disappointing and so vindictive,” said niece Lisa Trump, whose son, William, was born 18 months ago at Mount Sinai Medical Center with a rare neurological disorder that produces violent seizures, brain damage and medical bills topping $300,000. […]

They offer a rare window into one of New York’s most prominent families, a world where alliances and rivalries are magnified by power, money and the tough-nosed tactics of Donald Trump. “When [Fred 3rd] sued us, we said, ‘Why should we give him medical coverage?'” Donald said in an interview with the Daily News last week. Asked whether he thought cutting their coverage could appear cold-hearted, given the baby’s medical condition, Donald made no apologies. “I can’t help that,” he said. “It’s cold when someone sues my father. Had he come to see me, things could very possibly have been much different for them.”

(Daily News, December 19, 2000)

Here at RAGEPATH, we’ll be joining the atheists in praying for Kimmel’s son, who will hopefully go on to lead a healthy and fulfilling life. We whole-heartedly endorse his plea to guarantee the health care of every sick infant under every circumstance. But also – significantly – we don’t think you should believe that President Trump wouldn’t hold the health of sick infants hostage to win a political fight. He’s done it to his own kin.

Research Tips – Calling Public Officials

One of our goals at RAGEPATH is to provide you with the tools necessary to examine the record of public officials for yourself. Often times, that involves requesting public records maintained by government agencies. Usually, such requests are best begun in writing, using the old-fashioned mail. But often times, it becomes necessary to follow up on the phone. Sometimes a phone call is the best way to figure out where to direct a request.

The following is a brief tip sheet for calling up public officials to request information about public records that you have previously requested or are trying to locate. We expect to generate more tip sheets similar to this as time goes on.

Tips And Tools For Calling Public Officials

It’s Scary Until You Start!  I’ve been doing research for years, and I still find it daunting to pick up the phone and start asking for documents.  It’s very normal to feel some apprehension before you start calling people up.  Resist the temptation to procrastinate. There’s always something more urgent and easier that you can do – so at some point, just make the time to get it done.

Study Up Before You Call And Know What You Want.  The person you’ll be talking to is usually a specialist. You don’t have to match their expertise, but you need to understand before you call:  What am I asking for?  How is it described?  If you know what you want, they will usually be required to provide it to you. They don’t have to help you figure out what you’re looking for.

Consolidate Your Requests.  If you’re going to need six things from a person, they’d rather get one call than six.  If you have to call someone, check to see if there are any other records on file that you might want to ask about (expired permits that might need verification or aren’t on file).

Prioritize Your Requests And Go Through Them In Order.  When you’re in a discussion, start with the most urgent items first.  Then do the easiest items.  Save the most confusing cases for last.  People run out of patience at different rates – you want to get as much as possible as quickly as possible.

Be Nice, Not Weak.  Most of the time, people will be very helpful from the very outset.  So be as friendly as possible and use words like “please” and “thank you” a lot.  But don’t forget that the information you’re requesting is a public record and the person on the other end of the line is usually required to provide it.  Don’t let them push you around – if they try it, make it clear that you are entitled to the information you’re seeking and you expect to receive it.

Document Every Phone Call.  When you’re on the phone, write down anything important that someone tells you. Memory is short and unreliable. I strongly recommend using paper notes – it doesn’t make the clicking sound that typed notes do (which can intimidate some people) and there’s a risk of getting buried in too many computer windows.

Explain What You Were Told And When You Were Told It.  When writing emails and letters or leaving voicemails, always explain your understanding of the previous conversation you are following up on.  Tell them when you had the conversation, and tell them what they told you.

Be Mindful Of Personality And Cultural Differences.  America’s a big place and there are a lot of different sub-cultures in it.  If you are dealing with a public official who lives in a different part of the country than you, be mindful that they may have very different ways of speaking. If someone strikes you as brusque or terse or overly chatty, your perceptions may stem from cultural differences rather than any unfriendliness or desire not to cooperate with you.  Recognize that people have different communication styles and be mindful of that when speaking with them.

Be Persistent!  Sometimes government bureaucrats are lazy – they’ll promise the moon while they sit on their hands.  But they will work if you keep calling them up, if only to make you go away.  If you don’t follow up, they’ll usually forget about you.

Dealing With The Trickier Cases – (These are rare!)

Never Come Away Empty-Handed.  Even if someone can’t provide the information you’re looking for, they can usually provide some kind of helpful information.  If they can’t help you themselves, get a referral or a name of someone who can.  Once someone starts helping you, they’ll usually feel some obligation to finish the job, so if you run into a roadblock later, you can come back to the person and explain how the help they provided turned out to be insufficient.  Once you win someone over, you have an ally inside the organization who can often be much more effective than you can.

Never Get Angry, Never Get Personal.  From time to time, you’re bound to run into a very difficult person.  Incompetence, malice, or even rudeness can get under your skin.  If you feel your temper rising, don’t take it out over the phone or in an email. Don’t get into a discussion about your feelings or about another person’s character.  Take the focus back to the facts – explain what are you asking for, why you are entitled to it, and what obstacles have been thrown in your way.  Once you’ve explained the problem, ask them to come up with a solution.

Don’t Make Threats.  If someone isn’t giving you what you need, don’t make threats about lawyers or supervisors or future consequences.  It can help to explain the problem to them and ask them to recommend taking the “next step.”  (Example:  It is my understanding that you cannot or will not provide me with this document, but it is my understanding that the open records law entitles me to it.  Can your agency’s general counsel help us figure this situation out?)

Think Before You Escalate.  With enough patience and enough persistence, almost any problem can be solved.  Sometimes that may involve going up someone else’s chain of command – speaking with a supervisor or a friendlier person in a related department.  Before you do that, take a step back and assess how far you are really prepared to go.  Getting what you want today could make it harder for yourself or others down the road.  You should make an informed decision about costs and benefits before things go too far.

Ethnic Nationalism and Economic Growth

Trump’s close relationship with ethnic nationalists is one of the most unusual features of his political agenda. Barrels of ink have already been spilled on the topic, and I don’t really have the time or energy to rehash the whole story at the moment.  Instead, I want to flag something very specific that I find deeply troubling.

Continue reading “Ethnic Nationalism and Economic Growth”

Fed Plans to Expand Airport to Increase Deportations

I just got an interesting tip from a supporter in the Midwest.

Local officials in Kankakee, Illinois are preparing for a program to expand the local airport’s runway to accommodate increased levels of deportation. A local blog – the Edgar County Watchdogs – has posted video of the local airport’s board meeting with a state representative to discuss the project. (Click here to watch.) The board discusses “the ICE Project” which would upgrade the airport’s capacity to handle larger airplanes used by a private company that carries out deportations. The airport expansion would be financed 90% by the federal government, 5% by the state government, and 5% by the local government. IDOT – the Illinois Department of Transportation – is apparently playing a large role.

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Yes, Donald Trump’s Hands are Abnormally Small

People have been mocking Donald Trump’s abnormally small hands for decades. The matter of Trump’s hand-size rose to the level of a full-fledged campaign controversy during the 2016 Presidential campaign. One of Trump’s opponents needled Trump for having small hands. Trump responded by insisting during a televised debate that his hands were not small (a demonstrably false claim) and boasting about the size of his penis (a claim that can only be judged in light of Trump’s overall credibility). The issue continued to bother Trump, prompting an extensive meditation by Trump about his hand size during a meeting with the Washington Post’s editorial board.

Continue reading “Yes, Donald Trump’s Hands are Abnormally Small”