Why Further Revelations on Trump’s Russian Connections Might Fail to Bring Him Down

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Investigative journalist James Henry argues that the revelations on Manafort and further inquiry into Trump’s ties to oligarchs are unlikely to produce a ‘silver bullet’ against the administration – and says there’s no substitute for grassroots organizing in preparation for the 2018 elections

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Story Transcript

KIM BROWN: Welcome to The Real News Network in Baltimore. I’m Kim Brown.

Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort was heavily involved in working for a Russian oligarch, and for the government of Vladimir Putin about ten years ago, according to an Associated Press report that was released on Wednesday. The report details how Manafort received $10 million from Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska who is also a close ally of Vladimir Putin’s.

Now, in exchange, Manafort is said to have helped Deripaska obtain visas to the U.S. and worked on a plan to promote Russian interests in the former So,viet republics. White House spokesperson Sean Spicer responded to the AP report by saying that Manafort’s links to Russia are decades old and have nothing to do with his brief service as Trump’s campaign manager.

Joining us to talk about this latest development is James Henry. James is a leading economist, attorney and investigative journalist who has been investigating Donald Trump’s economic ties to Russian oligarchs.

James, we appreciate you joining us. Thank you so much for being here.

JAMES HENRY: Good to be with you.

KIM BROWN: What is the significance of this latest AP report because we already knew that Manafort was tied to the former pro-Russian government of the Ukraine, which is why he was removed as Trump’s campaign manager, so what is new about this latest report from AP?

JAMES HENRY: Well, here we have the second one of two campaign managers… I mean, Manafort was Trump’s campaign manager and he was a significant player, not just a minor figure in the Trump campaign up until his dismissal last summer. And then his business partner, Rick Davis, was John McCain’s campaign manager back in 2008.

So, here we have two Republican presidential campaign managers in a row here, that, except for Romney, that were, turns out, both of them were on the take from not just a Ukrainian oligarch that nobody’s ever heard of, or president of the Ukraine, but someone who was very close to President Putin, very wealthy Russian oligarch. Deripaska is his name. And this is a fellow that Paul Manafort was reportedly taking $10 million per year from 2006 to 2009, after having proposed in June of 2005 to help Russia really combat its bad image around the planet. And, you know, proposing really, to help run a PR campaign effectively on behalf of President Putin.

So, I think, you know, the FBI is going to have to examine this fellow very closely. But what I know about Deripaska is from another case that I’ve studied, which is that involving Bobby Levinson who has disappeared in Iran about ten years ago. It turns out that when the FBI was looking for him, they turned to Deripaska to try to find him. And Deripaska is a very well connected guy in the sense of lots of Mafia-type connections, and he actually turned to some Canadian business associates and was working for a while with the FBI in order to get these visas that Manafort apparently was involved in getting for him. He was trying to locate Bobby Levinson in Iran based on his connections in Iran.

So, what I want to know from Manafort is were you involved in basically the search for Bobby Levinson? And, by the way, why do the FBI turn to someone with such peculiar connections when we know that Levinson was one of the leading experts in the United States on Russian organized crime, and none of the people around Deripaska or Putin would’ve had any love lost for Bobby Levinson.

KIM BROWN: Interesting. And when we were talking about Sean Spicer’s reaction to being asked about Paul Manafort and his connection to this Associated Press report…

JAMES HENRY: Yeah.

KIM BROWN: …I mean, Sean Spicer basically tried to make it sound as if Paul Manafort was, like, an intern on the campaign. He was just handing out t-shirts. Like, he didn’t have a huge role.

JAMES HENRY: Yeah, you know… they are running away from the story as fast as possible. I mean, today, you had Nunes, the Chairman of the House Intel Committee reversing himself and saying, hey, by the way, there was probably collateral intelligence, incidental intelligence, picking up Trump team people talking to Russian diplomats in the fall.

You know, Trump tweeted then saying that, oh, this confirms my theory about wiretapping. It does no such thing. I mean those were normal kinds of monitoring activities that the NSA always does with the leading Russian diplomats just to protect against their recruitment of U.S. spies. And so this… Nunes has just reversed himself two days ago. He was saying there was no evidence at all of any such connections.

KIM BROWN: And also not to mention that there was a story recently that was just a refresher story, as it were, about the Russian gambling ring that was busted in Trump Tower. I believe it was 2010. I may have to double-check on the year, but I think that was a case that Preet Bharara, the former U.S. Attorney General of New York, did prosecute. So,, Trump Tower has been under surveillance.

JAMES HENRY: Well, it turns out that his leading campaign manager was getting ten million bucks a year, and was talking to his proposal to Deripaska had talked about significantly influencing public opinion in Western countries, it seems to be consistent with what we think went on in the 2016 election. And that’s a lot of money per year to be flashing around. It raises the question of who else in the Republican Party got money from the former Soviet Union, or from Russians.

We do know that Senator Mitch McConnell, for example, got a $1 million donation from Viktor Vekselberg’s business partner, Leo Blavatnik, back in October. Blavatnik’s a former Russian ‘garch. There seems to be a kind of an odor here of at least, at the very least, being willing to turn a blind eye to businesspeople that we know have all kinds of unsavory connections. I mean, nobody gets to be a ‘garch like Deripaska without having Putin’s nod these days.

That being the case, I think there’s a risk that the U.S. center-left is basically obsessed with this story and is looking for kind of a magic bullet solution to the Trump administration. That’s going to distract us from going back to work doing the kind of organizing at the grassroots level that’s necessary for the 2018 elections. We need to fight and get ready for all of the issues that are on the table with respect to that – with respect to climate change, Obamacare, the social programs that are being stripped, the outrageous increases in the defense budget.

There is not probably going to be, I think, down the road, unless the FBI comes up with some direct evidence of these contacts, you know, a special prosecutor or a Watergate-type committee coming out of this Republican-controlled Congress. I think that’s kind of wishful thinking.

KIM BROWN: But so much of this is historic, James. I mean, in terms of the policy proposals that Trump is putting forward, those are historic, the cuts that he’s making to different federal agencies and social programs. But also… I mean, this level of scandalaciousness – ‘scuse me for making up the word …

JAMES HENRY: Yeah. No, that’s a good one. I like that one.

KIM BROWN: I mean this is some scandalous stuff. I mean he’s only been in office not even 100 days. So, I wanted to ask you, you know, as someone that has studied U.S. history and our political system and our process, historically, is there something that you can compare this to? We hear a lot of Watergate comparisons, but Watergate doesn’t kind of fit because there wasn’t a foreign power associated with Watergate. So, is this kind of like Iran-Contra? Like, is there something in our history that we can compare what we’re experiencing right now?

JAMES HENRY: Yeah. I would say this is on a whole new level, and it’s partly just due to the fact that this is the first kind of global business guy that we’ve elected president of the United States, so there are bound to be dozens of conflicts of interest, just from that fact alone.

Secondly, we’ve had a guy in office who’s basically amoral about who he does business with. I mean, we have him… all of his… many of his projects were failures, but, you know, in the process of coming up with them he was basically willing to take money from all kinds of oligarchs. I mean, the Trump SoHo in New York, Trump Tower in Toronto, Panama Ocean Club, the Baku project, these are all riddled with dodgy investors.

Third, I think, you know, what we may also realize is that Putin may have buyer regret here. He has got to be worried about getting what he asked for. Trump is on a mission to increase the defense budget. He wants NATO to spend 2% of GDP. These are probably things that Trump… that Putin is not going to like, and he hasn’t had the sanctions reversed yet, either.

Because in effect, Trump has been put on the spot here. I mean, he’s probably bending over backwards to appear to be tough on Russia, and so that may backfire from the standpoint of what Putin was after. I mean the main thing that Trump has delivered to Putin so far is on climate change and energy prices. He’s basically sustained the carbon bubble for at least four more years. But aside from that, I mean, Putin may be regretting some of the assistance he gave to the Trump campaign back in the fall.

KIM BROWN: Well, we’re certainly not at a loss of Russian connections to Donald Trump and his inner circle and those connected to his campaign, so as you said, James, we’re probably going to see more of these stories coming forward in the future.

We’ve been speaking with James Henry. James is a leading economist, attorney and investigative journalist. We appreciate you speaking to us today, James. Thanks.

JAMES HENRY: You’re quite welcome.

KIM BROWN: And thank you for watching The Real News Network.

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