|SAVO PRELEVIC / AFP-GETTY IMAGES|
Although they ruled empires 4,600 miles apart, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin shared a vision.
Trump, the billionaire New York real estate mogul and reality television star, wanted even more power and money, while Putin, the autocratic Russian president, wanted even more power and influence. Trump fantasized about becoming president of the United States while Putin dreamed of returning the former Soviet Union to its Cold War glory and was willing to do whatever it took, most especially undermining America's standing as the sole superpower.
Trump and Putin saw each other as enablers for their respective goals, and so the seeds were planted for a clandestine collaboration that has mushroomed from an assault on the bedrock of American democracy unleashed by its greatest foe with the help of one of its greatest celebrities into the most explosive scandal since Soviet spies stole atomic bomb secrets over 70 years ago. The scandal is now so big that it threatens to take down Trump's improbable presidency.
Although scandal investigators are focused on 2015 because that was the year Putin set in motion his plan to meddle in the 2016 presidential election and Trump -- probably not coincidentally -- announced his long-shot candidacy, it is possible that the confluence of Trump's and Putin's visions occurred not long after November 2013 when Trump was in Moscow for the Miss Universe Pageant.
A meeting between Trump and Putin was arranged by Putin aide Dmitry Peskov, and although Trump has said he "badly wanted to meet" a man he had long admired and had praised publicly on innumerable occasions despite his thuggery, he and Putin did not connect. Trump's departure from the U.S. was delayed because he wanted to attend evangelical minister Billy Graham's 95th birthday party in North Carolina, while Putin was unable to have the anticipated sit-down with Trump when he did finally arrive in Moscow because he was busy welcoming the king of Holland.
But keen to build a relationship with the American, Putin sent Sheyla Agalarov, the comely daughter of oligarch Aras Agalarov, to deliver a gift to Trump after he had returned home to his gilded penthouse atop Trump Tower high above New York's Fifth Avenue.
"They treated me great," Trump said of his Moscow trip in a speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference in March 2014. "Putin even sent me a present, a beautiful present."
The nature of that beautiful present and the contents of the personal note that undoubtedly accompanied it are not known. But a relationship between the wannabe president and very real president had blossomed and was doing very well, thank you for asking, by late 2015 when U.S. intelligence agencies were tipped by Britain's GCHQ, which is equivalent to the U.S.'s NSA, that it was monitoring suspicious interactions between individuals connected to Trump and known or suspected Russian agents.
At first glance, Trump and Putin would seem to be strange bedfellows.§
But when you understand the people with whom they have done business over the years, a crystal-clear pattern emerges: These people create shell companies by the dozens and the hundreds that help shield them from lawsuits and prosecution. They use bankruptcy as an everyday tactic and not a last-ditch effort to save a failing business. They are adept at money laundering. They often have mob ties. Most importantly, they have ties with the Kremlin. And sometimes they are the very same people.
Among those very same people is none other than Aras Agalarov.
The Azerbaijani-Russian billionaire is a close Putin ally and partnered with Trump on the 2013 Miss Universe Pageant and possibly other ventures. Trump made a cool $12 million from the pageant, according to his tax lawyers in their disclosure earlier this month of a scant few of his Russian investments in an effort to lower the volume over demands that Trump release his federal income tax returns, which critics correctly believe might show the full extent of his mostly hidden Russia ties.
The similarities between Trump's and Putin's associates make Trump's storied if sordid business history an especially fertile avenue of inquiry for newly appointed Justice Department special counsel Robert Muller and other scandal investigators. This follow-the-money entry point may make the by-now well publicized connections between Trump associates Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, Carter Page and Roger Stone and Russian officials and intelligence assets comparatively less important than they may seem at the moment.
When you follow the money, you stumble on Trump business deals with partners in Russia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey, the Philippines and Indonesia, to name but a few countries, that may not stand scrutiny under U.S. banking laws. Muller understands this.§
And practically everywhere you turn, there is Jared Kushner.
Kushner is Trump's son-in-law, husband of senior White House aide and push-up brassiere entrepreneur Ivanka Trump and is the senior White House adviser who is the "significant person of interest" to Russia scandal investigators, accordingly to a deeply sourced Washington Post story published to widespread shock and awe last Friday.
Far from being the "steadying influence" on the president that aides portray him as, Kushner is a hothead who has been seething with anger over the cloud of suspicion hanging over the White House and himself. He not only was supportive of Trump's summary firing of FBI Director James Comey, but urged the president to counterattack before calmer heads prevailed.
Kushner and his wife are close to Flynn and, according to reports, assured him that he would be named Trump's national security adviser as a reward for his "loyalty" to the family.
He also accompanied Flynn to the meeting with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, who is a spy in diplomat's clothing, at which the easing of Obama administration sanctions on Russia was discussed that eventually cost Flynn his job, and Kushner was the go-between for other meetings between Trump associates and Russians that have not been disclosed.
In December of last year, only weeks before Trump was inaugurated, Kushner met with the chief executive of Vnesheconombank.
This is a development bank with close ties to Russian intelligence services. It had been sanctioned by the Obama administration in 2014 prior to the arrest of Evgeny Buryakov, a spy working undercover as an executive in the bank's New York office who had met with onetime Trump foreign policy adviser Carter Page in 2013 in an effort to have him engage in clandestine intelligence activities for Moscow. Page has the distinction of being the only Trump associate who is the known target of a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant, a legal bazooka that typically is reserved for suspected terrorists. Buryakov, meanwhile, was prosecuted for espionage in 2015 and did prison time.
Kushner has kept nearly 90 percent of his vast real estate holdings even after pledging to separate his private interests from his public duties. He is the kind of greedy creep who believes he is smarter than everyone else, failed to mention, as was required by law, his meetings with the Vnesheconombank executive and Kislyak, as well as business contacts with dozens of other foreign officials when he sought a high-level security clearances that would give him access to the nation's most closely guarded secrets.
It bears repeating as I have several times in the two weeks since Comey got axed and the Russia scandal has grown from a lot of smoke to a nasty fire and on to a general-alarm conflagration that Trump's impeachment or forced resignation is still an abstraction. And that the use of the presidency as a profit center by Trump and his family -- and especially Kushner -- for their business enterprises, while obscene, is not the primary focus of any of the four main investigations by Justice, the FBI and Senate and House intelligence committees.§
The appointment of Muller as a special counsel actually takes us further away from appointment of a special prosecutor who would be largely immune to the president's imprecations. But that doesn't particularly matter for the moment because the four main investigations are accelerating away from behind-the-scenes legwork to the conducting of interviews, holding public hearings and issuing subpoenas.
Some of those subpoenas will be going to Tump's aides, and the more thoughtful among them will be confronted with a stark choice: Stand up for their boss or stand up for America. But don't expect a flood of resignations. Most of these people are amoral pissants.
The scandal will have entered another realm, if not possibly the beginning of the end, when Trump lawyers up, as in hiring a mega-bucks defense attorney. (Perhaps Bill Clinton can suggest one.) That Trump already has not done so is surprising until you consider that in his own alternative-reality world, the Russia scandal still is "fake news" and a "witch hunt," although reality occasionally has a way of penetrating the skulls of even the most delusional narcissists.
Meanwhile, Flynn has refused to honor a subpoena from the Senate intel committee to hand over all documents related to his dealings with Russian interests. As that general-alarm conflagration grows, he may find that the committee has become less interested in his immunity-for-blabbing offer unless he can hand over a very big fish.
You know who I mean.
Click HERE for a timeline of the Russia scandal.