As the legal cloud surrounding President Trump and his associates grows, the new book “House of Trump, House of Putin: The Untold Story of Donald Trump and the Russian Mafia,” argues that Trump is compromised by financial links to Russian mafia money laundering. Author Craig Unger discusses his book
AARON MATE: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Mate.
The legal cloud surrounding President Trump and his inner circle has gotten considerably larger. Longtime fixer Michael Cohen and former campaign chair Paul Manafort were convicted last week, just moments apart. Cohen also implicated Trump in a hush-money payment scheme to influence the outcome of the 2016 election. New York prosecutors have granted immunity to two more Trump associates in their probe of Cohen for making those payments on Trump’s behalf. And Manafort’s second trial is set to begin September 17.
Well, my next guest argues that there is a whole lot more to Trump’s legal exposure, including ties to the Russian mafia. Craig Unger is a veteran journalist, bestselling author and author of the new book, House of Trump House of Putin: The Untold Story of Donald Trump and the Russian Mafia. Welcome, Craig. With all that’s going on right now, the indictment of Cohen the conviction of Manafort, Manafort standing trial again. And then we have Trump associates including Allen Weisselberg, a key member of his organization, receiving immunity in the Cohen case. If you were Mueller right now, and if you were the prosecutors investigating Cohen, where would you be looking and what do you think Trump is most exposed?
CRAIG UNGER: Well, I think he’s exposed in multiple, multiple places. Richard Nixon went down when John Dean flipped on him, who was Nixon’s council. Trump is now facing six or seven people who have flipped on him. You have Don McGahn, who’s the White House counsel. You have, as you say, Michael Cohen. Paul Manafort is in a position where he may flip. Allen Weisselberg is the CFO of the Trump organization. He’s got the numbers, he’s got where all the money has been coming from. So, in each of these places you’re seeing things start to unravel. And what interests me and my book is that a lot of it leads to the Russian mafia. And Trump has repeatedly said he has had no contact with Russia. I found at least fifty nine people who were intermediaries between him and Russian transactions, and it goes back more than thirty-five years.
AARON MATE: Okay. Before we get into that, just one quick thing. So, Don McGahn, the White House counsel, has not flipped on Donald Trump. He’s testified to the Mullar probe, but that was done, Trump says, at his direction. I mean, the Trump legal strategy from the beginning they say has been full cooperation. So, McGahn has been talking to Muller voluntarily and with Trump’s blessing, he says. Now there’s some-
CRAIG UNGER: But in thirty hours of talks, I guarantee you that Donald Trump does not know exactly what Don McGahn, and I would be surprised if McGahn wasn’t looking out for himself.
AARON MATE: Right, okay, right. Because it’s rumored that Don again doesn’t want to take the fall for whatever improprieties Trump may have committed. So, your contention there is that could threaten Trump.
CRAIG UNGER: Absolutely, I think especially when it comes to issues like obstruction of justice the Don McCampbell would have knowledge. And I know that I think on issues like obstruction of justice Donald Trump who is tweeze as implicated it’s also providing a lot of evidence that Mullers likely use.
AARON MATE: Okay, we’ll see if Twitter will become grounds for evidence. I mean, we’ll obviously find out when Mueller issues his report. I’m skeptical whether what Trump says on Twitter can be used in a court of law against him, but we’ll see on that. Time will tell. Let’s talk about the focus of your book, Trump’s alleged ties to the Russian mafia. You did a lot of reporting on this, you went back many years looking at how Russian mafia elements and wealthy Russians have used Trump properties to possibly launder money. Give us the overarching story on that.
CRAIG UNGER: Well, I wanted to see how and why this all began. There have been over two hundred documents, and I think readers are being tempered with news stories one after another and they’re seeing one piece of the jigsaw puzzle come in after another. And I wanted to present the whole picture and try to piece them together. So, I went back to the beginning, in the late 70s and early 80s. And in 1984, a man named David Bogatin in Atlanta Trump in Trump Tower. And he came up with six million dollars in cash, that’s the equivalent of about fifteen million today, and said he would buy, and he bought, five condos in Trump Tower, which was then the new glitzy crown jewel of Trump’s empire.
According the state attorney general of New York, that was laundering money and David Bogatin was tied to Semion Moglievich, one of the great crime bosses in the Russian mob. And that was the first time at which it could be said the Russian mafia was using Trump properties to Launder money. And then, thirty-five years in the future up to the present, you can see that that kind of transaction happened at least thirteen hundred times.
AARON MATE: Thirteen hundred times in Trump properties but not entirely Russians.
CRAIG UNGER: I’d say Trump branded, a good many of these are buildings that have been franchised by Trump and are labeled Trump. And it totaled well over a billion dollars in money laundering.
AARON MATE: Right, okay. But even there, there is a key point there. Because as you say, these are Trump-branded properties, which means that Trump is receiving a percentage, possibly, of the money that’s used to purchase these homes but he’s not receiving all the money and probably not receiving most of it because because they’re licensed. He’s only sold his name for those properties.
CRAIG UNGER: Right. He set up what to me is a money laundering machine. And there are plenty of intermediaries in all this of this. And he can turn a blind eye, it’s very very hard to know what’s going through his mind. You might think, and there is a legal concept called willful ignorance, and I, think that the prosecutor would argue that well, Donald Trump has done this at least thirteen hundred times. It’s hard to believe he really doesn’t know what’s going on. This is how he rebuilt his empire. He was four a billion dollars in debt, he had six bankruptcies, no bank in the Western world loaned him money. The Russian mafia came to his aid and that’s how he got back on feet.
AARON MATE: But wait, Craig, you know that? I mean, do you actually know that the Russian mafia rescued Trump from financial ruin? I mean, the alternative theory is that- well, for example The Apprentice, this reality show he starred, made him over two hundred million dollars. He reinvented himself also as a sort of brand instead of actually owning things. He sold his name to different properties and that made him a considerable amount of money, too.
CRAIG UNGER: Excuse me, I’m sorry?
AARON MATE: Him reinventing himself as a brand and as a reality TV show star was also very lucrative for him after his period of financial difficulty. So, I’m wondering what proof do you have that it was the Russian mafia that rescued?
CRAIG UNGER: The TV star came later, didn’t start until 2004. Trump would wipe out in Atlantic City with four billion dollars in debt. The whole idea of franchising, there were some other people taking part in it. But when Bayrock, a real estate firm called Bayrock which had a lot of ties to Russian organized crime actually moved into Trump Tower itself, they were located on the twenty fourth floor of Trump Tower. And the managing director, Felix Sader would see Donald Trump on a regular basis. And that was his path to rebuilding himself. The Apprentice until later. And he actually introduced himself on the Apprentice, saying he had been completely wiped out and now he’s back on his feet. Well it was the Russian mafia who put him there.
AARON MATE: Okay, Craig, is there any financial paper trail that shows that the Russian mafia financially rescued Trump?
CRAIG UNGER: Well, I looked at hundreds of court cases all over the world. And there are several involving Bayrock, which as I said, was located in Trump Tower. And my research, I’ve tracked all the- some of the principals at Bayrock. It’s all itemized in my book. I’m not I have time to get into the weeds here, but you will see, again and again, these were people who had long ties both to Russian intelligence and Russian mafia. And I want to make something very clear when we talk about the Russian mafia, because I think most Americans when they hear the word mafia they think of the Godfather or John Gotti and the Italian American mafia.
The Russian mafia is quite different. And I interviewed General Oleg Kalugin, who was head of counterintelligence for the KGB. And he told me, “Oh, the mafia? That’s just part of the KGB.” It’s part of Russian intelligence now and they report directly to the Kremlin, really. So, this is something that is deeply, deeply disturbing. When the FBI was tracing mobsters like Vyacheslav Ivankov, who was one of the heads of the Russian mafia here in New York. They thought he lived in Brooklyn. In fact, he lived in Trump Tower. He lived in the same building as the man who is now president of the United States.
And I traced several operations that were actually based in Trump Tower. This is a colossal security breach when you think of it, that having people tied to Russian intelligence who are mobsters in the home of the president of the United States. I think that is deeply, deeply disturbing.
AARON MATE: Is there a financial paper trail between the Russian mafia and Donald Trump in terms of them rescuing Donald Trump from financial ruin? You said that there are mafia-type figures who bought some properties in his building and you said that this firm, Bayrock, operated out of Trump’s building. I’m wondering, is there a financial paper trail showing that they rescued Trump to the tune of hundreds of millions or billions of dollars?
CRAIG UNGER: There are dozens of court records showing the relationship between Donald Trump and Bayrock. Absolutely, that’s a paper trail.
AARON MATE: What is the nature of that relationship? How much did they-
CRAIG UNGER: Royalty fees worth something like eighteen to twenty-five percent, which is extraordinary in that world for franchising, just extraordinarily high. And why would he get such high royalty rates? It’s far, far higher than Marriot or Hyatt. And the rationale, I believe, is that he was not asking questions and allowing them to launder his money. There was an excellent investigation by BuzzFeed that showed that at least thirteen hundred condos in Trump-branded properties had been sold under conditions that set off alarm bells for money laundering. That’s over a billion dollars in money laundering. That’s a lot of money. And for the president of the United States to do that from the Russian mafia who was tied to Russian intelligence is an extraordinary problem.
AARON MATE: Okay, Craig, I don’t dispute that number. I guess my question is how much of those properties were tied to the Russian mafia?
CRAIG UNGER: Well, I give you the exact number. I can tell you that in Trump World Tower, about a third of those properties were sold to to Russians. Then in Sunny Isles Florida, again, about five hundred units there, about one hundred and seventy of them were tied to this to Russians. You go to Panama Trump Tower, again, Panama, a country not exactly convenient for Russians. Higher Russian oligarchs and mob have been putting all their money there. It appears to be money laundering.
AARON MATE: Okay, an so, your contention then is because there is a lot of Russians laundering their money via Trump properties, then that could- and because the Russian mafia, you say, is intertwined with the Russian state. You’re saying that that’s the conduit there between Trump and the mob.
CRAIG UNGER: It’s all in my book. There is a paper trail, there is evidence and if you look at the footnotes in my book, it’s all there.
AARON MATE: ALl right. Well, we’ll leave it there, Craig, because we’re out of time and we want to thank you for coming on. Craig Unger, author of the new book, House of Trump, House of Putin: The Untold Story of Donald Trump and the Russian Mafia. Craig, thank you.
CRAIG UNGER: Thanks for having me.
AARON MATE: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.