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  May 15, 2017

Time for Trump to Come Clean on Russian Connections and Money Laundering

If Trump has nothing to hide, he would have allowed the investigations to continue, to prove that there is nothing improper with his connections to Russia, says investigative journalist James Henry
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James S. Henry is an investigative economist and lawyer, a Global Justice Fellow at Yale University, and a Senior Advisor at the Tax Justice Network. Previously, James served as Chief Economist at the international consultancy firm McKinsey & Co. As an investigative journalist his work has appeared in numerous publications like Forbes, The Nation and The New York Times.


SHARMINI PERIES: It's the Real News Network! I'm Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. When President Trump fired FBI director James Comey on Tuesday, he justified the firing saying attorney general Jeff Sessions recommend sacking Comey because of FBI's mishandling of the investigation into Hilary Clinton's email server. The second reason that Trump hinted at, is that the FBI's investigation of his campaigns connection with the government of Russia. There is also a third possibility; by firing Comey, Trump wanted to prevent another FBI investigation into his connections with the Russian oligarchs, perhaps to counter this hypothesis that Trump's tax attorneys released a letter back in March saying that Trump's income tax filings show no connection to Russia with the minor exception that he was paid 95 million by a Russian billionaire, Dmitry Rybolovlev for a Trump owned estate in Florida. And another connection is a 12.2 million in payments in connection with the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow. Joining us now to discuss Comey's firing and Trump's financial ties to Russia is James Henry. James is a leading economist, attorney, and investigative journalist who has been investigating Trump's economic ties to Russian oligarchs. Thanks for joining me here, James.

JAMES HENRY: Good to be with you.

SHARMINI PERIES: James, what about that third possibility that I mentioned with Trump's connection to the Russian oligarchs? You and I have talked about this, the purchase of the Trump estate in Florida by a Russian oligarch, and him having paid 95 million dollars. Give us this connection, and more details about other Russian dealings he's had.

JAMES HENRY: Well, I think there's a number of Trump business ventures like the Trump SoHo in Midtown, the Trump Tower in Toronto, the ocean club in Panama, where he has accepted investments on behalf of people who have deep ties to organized crime and a history of dodgy business practices. It isn't always Russians, sometimes it's- As we saw in the Dutch TV documentary released by Zembla this week, that there were Kazakhstan kleptocrats involved in investing alongside Trump. But the issue is not does he have investments in Russia, it's perfectly true that he doesn't have very substantial economic investments there.

But, the point is that for his most important projects, most of which have failed, he was very dependent on this tidal wave of flight capital and dirty money that flowed out of the former Soviet Union. Countries like Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Russia itself, and the case of the Miami apartment you mentioned- Or the Miami acquisition. That was with an oligarch who was trying to move money out of Russia and he paid about twice what Trump had paid for this property in Palm Beach, just conveniently at the time when Trump was having a lot of economic troubles in 2008 and the real estate market in the United States was already falling. So it's very hard to understand that deal. That wasn't a case of a Russian mobster, it was a case of an oligarch.

So the pattern here that needed to be investigated, and the congress has spent a lot of time avoiding this issue, is this pattern of dealing with dodgy business partners, sometimes knowing that they were felons, knowing that they were organized crime types, as in the case of Bayrock LLC in New York- And allowing Trump to basically effectively operate as a kind of money launderer for these people.

SHARMINI PERIES: Now, James, do you see any evidence from what you have learned, and unraveled, and read about, and documentaries out there- Is there any evidence for FBI investigation into this? Do you think that this was somewhat already underway, or Comey was looking into it, and that's why he got sacked?

JAMES HENRY: I would be surprised if he wasn't looking at some of this material. It's quite important and salacious, and the statute of limitations for money laundering goes back 10 years. That being said, we just don't know. There was supposedly a grand jury meeting in Virginia. There were subpoenas that were about to be issues. I think if the president really wanted to put this matter behind us, and I think quite a few Americans would be quite happy to see it go, including me- I want to get back to investigating other economic issues.

The way to do this was not to fire, first of all, Sally Yates, who was doing a great job as deputy attorney general. And then this week's firing of Comey, who all the FBI agents I talked to say was the best FBI director in years- He was restoring morale. He was very involved with going around the offices, and empowering local agents. I get a lot of respect from the agents, and many FBI agents are just completely flabbergasted that he was treated so poorly.

But if Trump had really wanted to put this behind him he would have been saying, "go ahead." I'll make my staff available to you. Everybody will be testifying before Congress, we'll have- But that's not what we're seeing. So this guy is behaving like a mad king who is just afraid of what the Comey investigation would have produced and is trying to stonewall the congressional investigations. And I think that that's not healthy for the United States.

SHARMINI PERIES: Great. Now, you yourself said you're ready to move on, and yet there's about five congressional committees looking into this issue further, from what I see; senate intelligence committee, the house intelligence committee, the senate judiciary committee, the house judiciary committee, the house oversight and government reform committee- They're spending a lot of time and energy looking into this. But do you think that these investigations will continue? Or will it be stopped with Comey's firing?

JAMES HENRY: I don't see the democrats backing off this issue. I think the Republicans have managed to make it an issue for the 2018 election. It would have been, in principle, if there was really nothing going on here. I mean, maybe Trump just had a few bad apples in his campaign staff and they were having some bad conversations with Russia. The more this goes on, and the more there seems to be a kind of [inaudible 00:07:23] on the part of the administration, it's not gonna be possible to put this aside. And there's more stuff coming out every day about his business dealings.

What I'm surprised at, is to some extent the fact that the leading investigative documentaries on this material have been done by Dutch public television, by the German public television- They have a great documentary coming out this month, the BBC has done some outstanding work, but we haven't seen the kind of investigative journalism on the part of the American broadcasting networks that we'd like to see. So that's an important constituent- And now that we don't have congress, able to really complete its investigations because of the deadlock in congress. It's going to be very important for investigative journalism to come back into play here.

SHARMINI PERIES: Alright. And then, of course Trump was doing business in Russia, and in that clip I was showing you he claimed he had actually nothing to do with Russia. This is such a misleading the American public. Why is he doing that? Why doesn't he just come out and say, "yes." He was a business man. He had realistic dealing. He has done business in Russia, and he's had several trademarks- As we've talked about, underway and pending in Russia.

JAMES HENRY: I mean, the key things that he's done have been with Russian money, that's what I've said, outside of Russia. He certainly did pursue business inside Russia and the Soviet Union. He had the Miss Universe pageant in Moscow in 2013, kind of a strange place to put that pageant, but he made 13 million dollars from it. But in all of the big projects that he's done in the United States, we see hundreds of millions of dollars of former Soviet Union flight capital and kleptocracy money pouring into projects like the Trump SoHo and many of his condos in Florida, Arizona, Chicago, the Trump Tower in Toronto.

There's no question that he's benefited from that, and profited from it. It's time for him to really come clean on this if he wants to put this behind him. After all, he was the one who introduced Russia into the campaign last year. He was bragging about the relationship that he would have with Putin. And that sort of struck people as odd at the time. But since he raised this question, he has a duty and a responsibility, I think, to stop firing people if he wants it to go away.

SHARMINI PERIES: Alright, James. I thank you so much for joining us and I'm sure this issue isn't going away, so we look forward to having you back.


SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on the Real News Network.

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