Collusion is the Focus, But Trump Finances May Have More Answers

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Economist and attorney James Henry analyzes the latest developments in the Russiagate probe, and the unanswered questions surrounding Donald Trump’s business dealings abroad

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Story Transcript

Aaron Mate: It’s the Real News. I’m Aaron Mate. Another day brings more news in the probe of President Donald Trump’s ties to Russia. The Washington Post reports US government investigators have identified a White House official as a person of interest. The official is said to be a senior Trump advisor. I’m joined now by James Henry, an economist and attorney, who has been reporting on Trump’s ties to Russia. Mr. Henry, welcome.

James Henry: Good to be here.

Aaron Mate: There’s two facets to this whole Trump-Russia issue. There’s the collusion issue whether or not him in his campaign colluded with the Russian government during the presidential election and then there’s the issue that goes way back further about Trump’s financial dealings with Russian interest. Before we get to that, let’s talk about the case so far of the collusion investigation including this latest news now we have, that a person of interest in the case is a senior White House official. What’s your assessment so far of how the investigation into alleged Trump-Russian collusion is going?

James Henry: We’ve had quite an exciting two weeks here. The President has not only fired Comey, but he’s tipped to Russians a piece of intelligence that apparently came from at least one of our closest allies, maybe two have been mentioned. Then he’s made all kinds of comments that I can’t imagine anyone who looks at them objectively will think that they’re really going to clear the air here. He’s described the appointment of the special counsel this week, Robert Muller as a continuation of a witch-hunt, claiming it’s the worst example of a witch-hunt in American history. Obviously, he’s not read much about the McCarthy era. You know he should back to the 17th century and read about the Salem Witch Trials. This is a president who is embattled and I think he’s probably believed to be flying to Israel and Saudi Arabia this weekend.

The appropriate thing would be for him to clear the air here, to start cooperating with these investigations. I think in an odd way, the appointment of Robert Muller who’s someone that has a lot of respect in both major political parties is a way of putting this issue to rest for a while and having a breather. I think the American people are approaching a bit of fatigue about it. Those of us who’ve looked at all of the issues across both the financial scandals and the collusion issue have basically apart from getting leaks from inside grand juries, we’ve got the issues out there about as far as we can go in the journalism community.

We need now to have good with subpoena power like Muller or like congressional committees to actually do some investigating and to get into the details of all this. The problem I have with the Muller appointment is simply that it could take first of all, a very long time to get to the bottom of this stuff. Previous special counsels or special prosecutors have taken them a number of years. So this could be unresolved for a long time. Secondly, the scope of his investigation may not reach some of the financial chicanery that we’ve identified as an important potential issue here, but that remains to be seen.

Aaron Mate: Before we get to this financial issue, which I know you’ve looked at extensively, let’s talk a bit more about the collusion probe. You mentioned subpoenas. The same Washington Post report that I mentioned about a White House official being named a person of interest. It reports that subpoenas are expected to be issued relatively soon as this investigation picks up. Let me put you the fact that there still is no hard evidence of collusion. When even democratic law makers like Dianne Feinstein are asked about this, they say that they’ve seen to date after all these months, after all these leaks, after all this investigation, still no evidence of collusion. What does that tell you?

James Henry: It tells me a lot of this evidence is classified and is only going to be subject to review behind closed doors, or by real investigators.

Aaron Mate: But they’re not saying [crosstalk 00:04:46]

James Henry: If I may [crosstalk 00:04:46]

Aaron Mate: They’re saying there’s [crosstalk 00:04:48] evidence. They’re saying there’s no evidence that they’ve seen of collusion.

James Henry: I don’t think that’s accurate, that they have seen no evidence. We have 17 intelligence agencies and at least three of them too a hard look at this stuff and they did conclude that first of all the Russians did try to hack the elections. There is an extraordinary number of interactions on the part of senior members of the Administration from Jeff Sessions, and Carter Page, and you know, Michael Flynn, who was his Head of National Security. Paul Manafort who was Trump’s campaign advisory. The list goes on and on, and I think it’s just hard to account for that kind of degree of interaction over a sustained period of time. So you know there’s plenty of smoke pouring out of this basement. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that.

Aaron Mate: I think smoke is the key word. I’m making what I think is a pretty uncontroversial statement which is that, after all this time we still have not seen hard evidence of Trump-Russia collusion. I would like to move on though to the issue of financial dealings between Trump and Russia. You’ve studied this extensively. There was just a report in the Wall Street Journal about the Russian state-owned development bank, VEB financing a Russian-Canadian developer who built the Trump Hotel in Toronto. This is among many sketchy financial links that are tying Trump to Russia. Can you comment on this one and let’s talk about the broader context here for Trump-Russia ties.

James Henry: Yeah, I think that the thing I was trying to account for in the articles I’ve been writing about the origins of Trump and his relationship to Russian and former Soviet Union money, is how Donald Trump was able to finance his business recovery after the year 2000 when he had basically six bankruptcies. In the 1990s no U.S. bank would lend to him. The only bank that would lend to him was Deutsche Bank, which he has close ties to through President Putin. So I think in a situation where he was able to profit in project after project from the fact that Russian flight capital was pouring out. Also, countries like Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan who had oligarchs and plutocrats who were looking for safe havens for their assets. So they really in project after project, but the Canadian Tower that they built. The tallest building in Canada turns out to be an example of that.

Here he had a Russian state-owned bank that basically arranged to get a loan to a company that we don’t know who owns it but they bought a huge steel mill from a Canadian of Russian origin. Who then turned around and made a deal very quickly with Donald Trump. Gave him $15 million for a license and they proceeded to produce this Trump Tower, which has just gone bankrupt this year, like most of his projects have done. You know that’s another case of where we need more investigation. But the article I wrote in the American Interest back in December had identified this Canadian partner as worthy of investigation because of his ties to lots of interesting people in Russia. Now it turns out that Putin who was Chairman of this bank, extended $800 million to do a favorable buyout to him shortly before he did the deal with Trump.

So you know we see this similar kind of thing going on in Trump’s Soho, and Midtown Manhattan. We see projects in Panama, the Ocean Club, his biggest project in the world. Where some of the investors in those projects turned out to be basically moving lots of shady money abroad and that’s a pattern that I think reflects poorly on the President’s business judgment. He seems to have turned to these people with kind of a blind eye to their business background. Whether it went beyond that, whether he was actually deceiving investors, those are all questions that investigators and grand juries have to determine.

Aaron Mate: In terms of what is out there in public right now and that you think people should be focusing on, if they’re interested in connecting Trump financially to Russia. What should people be keeping their eye on? I know also there was a Dutch documentary recently purporting to probe Trump’s ties to organized crime of some kind.

James Henry: One of them you just mentioned is the Dutch Public Television Network, goes by the name of Zembla on Twitter. Z-E-M-B-L-A, but there are links on their Twitter site to their Dutch documentary, which is, they have two hour long documentaries on Donald Trump and his Russian connections, which I think come highly recommended. German Public Television, ZDF Network is producing another documentary that will be aired around the end of this month. It’s ironic that the lead in these issues has been established by foreign documentary producers and these are outstanding documentaries. There’s another one by the BBC that’s in the works. But we have so far not hear much from Frontline, or from CBS 60 Minutes, or ABC News Brian Ross. The people you usually would turn to and I think it’s a fair question to ask why U.S. broadcast media has been so remiss in terms of covering all of these connections. But we do have those outstanding documentaries that are really worth watching if you want to get up to speed on the financial crimes’ aspect of the story.

Aaron Mate: Well just to answer your question and to connect it to my earlier point, perhaps it because the media here is overly focused on trying to find some evidence of collusion between Russia and Trump when it comes to the campaign. We have to leave it there though. James Henry, economist and attorney. Okay go ahead with your final comment.

James Henry: Final comment. I think you are exactly right. To some extent American journalism has gotten used to the kind of model of investigative journalism that Woodward and pioneered, you know admirably back in the 1970s. Where you basically were a kind of conveyor belt for things that, in that case senior FBI agents wanted to tell you. That’s good up to a point but in this case I’m afraid it’s going to take much more hard, kind of, gumption journalism. Going out and getting people to tell you things that they really oughtn’t tell you. That’s what investigating reporting at its best is really all about.

Aaron Mate: James Henry economist, attorney, investigative journalist who’s been following the Trump-Russia connection, especially the paper trail when it comes to money. James, thanks for joining us.

James Henry: Very welcome. Thanks very much.

Aaron Mate: And thank you for joining us on the Real News.