|JEENAH MOON FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES|
Will we look back on this week as the beginning of the end of the Trump presidency? If that is the case -- and I'm somewhat skeptical it is despite the pronouncements of a goodly number of pundits -- will Trump's fall have more to do with the rampant corruption surrounding Michael Cohen and his own family business than Kremlin collusion?
Possibly. Any way will suffice so long as it's the highway, but it is a pisser that all that rot has been hiding in plain view for many years.
Way back in the late 1990s -- you know, when Bill Clinton was getting spit roasted for having sex with that woman and lying about it -- tens of millions of money-laundered dollars were flowing into Trump's luxury developments and Atlantic City casinos from Russians, many of them mobsters.
It is not an exaggeration to say that dirty Russian money saved Trump, if only barely. By the late 1990s, he owed $4 billion to more than 70 banks, with $800 million of it personally guaranteed, but his own economic crisis coincided with one in Russia.
In 1998, Russia defaulted on $40 billion in debt, which accelerated the exodus of money. By one estimate, some $1.3 trillion in illicit capital has poured out of Russia in the last 25 years, including many tens of millions of dollars that flowed into Trump properties. Trump's Taj Mahal casino subsequently received a $10 million slapdown by the Treasury Department in what was then the largest fine in U.S. history for money-laundering violations.
"Without the Russian mafia," says journalist Craig Unger, who has written extensively on Trump's businesses, "it is fair to say Donald Trump would not be president of the United States."
In Azerbaijan, Trump did business with a sanctions-busting money launderer for Iran's Revolutionary Guard. In the Republic of Georgia, he partnered with a group involved in an immense bank fraud scheme, while in Canada, Brazil and Indonesia, he climbed into bed with known crooks.
Then there are all of Trump's links to New York mafiosi and myriad other homegrown financial irregularities, which bring us back to Cohen, whom Trump hired because he viewed him as a conduit for money from Russia and other countries of the former Soviet Union because of his extensive cash-intensive business contacts. (These include taxi medallion businesses in New York, Chicago and elsewhere that have piqued investigators' interest.) And because Cohen could make Trump's "problems" go away, whether through legal sleight of hand, lawsuits or intimidation.
Cohen and Donald Jr. and Ivanka, Trump's two eldest children, basically ran the Trump Organization while Daddy-O starred in a reality TV show and chased glamorous Playboy model Karen McDougal and porn star Stormy Daniels, among many other women. It was Cohen and the kids, not Don't Bother Me With the Details Donald, who did most of the deal making with an astonishing array of bad people from whom other businesses fled in horror.
While all that all rot has indeed been hiding in plain view for many years, it did not escape the notice of the elite Public Corruption Unit of the U.S. attorney's office for the Southern District of New York, which has such an impressive record of bringing down politicians and businesspeople, Democrats and Republicans alike, that it is jokingly referred to as the "Sovereign District" in legal circles because of its nonpartisanship and autonomy.
Lawyers for Cohen and Trump were back in court on Monday, and Daniels put in an appearance, as well.
Their lawyers argued that many of the records seized by FBI agents assigned to the Public Corruption Unit in April 9 raids on Cohen's office, apartment and hotel room (based in part on a referral from Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller). Agents took 10 boxes of documents and as many as a dozen electronic devices, including cellphones and computer hard drives.
The lawyers want to examine the records first in order to determine which among them might be protected by that privilege. a very important step because it could affect which documents prosecutors can ultimately use. And in a play from Trump's campaign to undermine the Justice Department and FBI, they argued that the raids and document seizures were tainted by "toxic partisan politics."
At the insistence of U.S District Judge Kimba Wood, the lawyers reluctantly revealed that Cohen currently has only three clients -- Trump, Elliott Broidy, the Trump mega-fundraiser and Republican National Committee finance chair . . . and following a heated debate and to gasps from the gallery, Sean Hannity, the Fox News anchor and Trump sycophant and apologist.
Cohen had resisted naming Hannity, citing his client's expressly made request that his identity not be made public. Cohen lawyer Stephen Ryan further explained to Wood that the client would be "embarrassed" to be identified as having hired Cohen. At that point -- and in a singularly amazing moment in American jurisprudence -- Robert Balin, a lawyer for several media outlets, interrupted the proceedings to argue that embarrassment was not a sufficient legal argument to keep a client's name secret. Wood agreed.
(Like a deer caught in headlights, Hannity in effect said that Cohen was not his lawyer but was his lawyer. "To be absolutely clear," he added, his contacts with Cohen "never involved any matter between me and a third-party." Hmm. We shall see.)
Because Cohen was the key intermediary between the Trump family and its sleazy global partners and presumably kept records of it all, his records should provide prosecutors with an invaluable window into Trump's relationship with Cohen, including his role in helping to arrange payments during the 2016 campaign for women having sex with Trump and him lying about it.
At the end of the two-and-a-half hour hearing, Wood rejected the attempt to block prosecutors from immediately reviewing the seized material while signaling that she was considering appointing a special master to assist in the document review.
Adding to Cohen's woes, and indirectly to Trump's, is evidence that Cohen and Keith Davidson, who was Daniels' first lawyer and negotiated big-buck deals for her and McDougal to remain mum about their affairs with Trump, were operating in concert.
When a former Playboy model found out she was pregnant by Broidy, she contacted Davidson, according to the Wall Street Journal. Davidson then brought in Cohen to contact Broidy. Cohen was Broidy's lawyer in negotiations that resulted in a $1.6 million settlement and confidentiality agreement, for which the Journal says Davidson bagged a $640,000 fee and Cohen $250,000.
(Broidy also is emerging as a big Russia scandal player because of his association with fixer George Nader, who arranged a secret meeting with Erik Prince and a Russian in the Seychelles in an effort to open a back channel between Trump and the Kremlin, and the efforts of Broidy and Nader to buy off Trump associates on behalf of Gulf state potentates.)
A couple, three wee questions here: If Davidson and Cohen were operating as a team, was that not unethical and may represent criminal fraud and possibly even extortion? And isn't it curious that Cohen used the Delaware shell company he created for the Daniels payoff for his legal fees until StormyGate broke when he then began using a personal account?
The backdrop to all of this is, of course, James Comey's Personal Absolution Tour.
While the tour will sell lots of copies of the fired FBI director's scathing take-down memoir of Trump, it should change few minds regarding how quick he was to investigate Hillary Clinton for her use of a private email server while secretary of state and painfully -- and unforgivably -- slow to take seriously the Kremlin's attack on a bedrock of American democracy and the Trump campaign's complicity.
Then there is the backdrop to the backdrop.
Mueller has notched Russia scandal indictments against 19 individuals and has secured the cooperation of several key players in the Trump campaign, but is only just getting started. A journalist colleague says he'll be furious if a big-boobed broad ends up bringing down his presidency and not the special prosecutor. But like I said, any way will suffice so long as it's the highway.
ANOTHER VICTIM FOR PUTIN'S HIT LIST
Meanwhile, another victim -- and yet another Russian investigative journalist -- can be added to the hit list of Donald Trump's best friend, Russian president Vladimir Putin.
Maxim Borodin, 32, who had incurred Putin's wrath in writing recently about Russian mercenaries being killed by U.S. special forces in Syria for the newspaper Novy Den, died on Sunday from severe injuries sustained after falling from his fifth-floor balcony in Yekaterinburg on April 12.
The mercenaries, known as the Wagner Group, were reportedly killed in the clash in Deir al-Zour province on February 7. Outgoing CIA Director Mike Pompeo said last week that "a couple hundred" mercenaries died while taking part in an attack by pro-Syrian government fighters on the headquarters of a U.S. ally, the Syrian Democratic Forces.
In February and March, Novy Den published several dispatches by Borodin from the town of Asbest, home to several men who had left for Syria to fight with the Wagner Group, a secretive paramilitary organization with murky ties to the Kremlin and Yevgeny Prigozhin, an oligarch nicknamed "Putin’s chef," who was indicted in February by Mueller for overseeing a St. Petersburg troll factory that waged information warfare against the U.S.
Predictably, authorities said Borodin's death was a suicide.
Mysterious falls from high places masked as suicides are a recurring theme among the 30-plus other possible victims of Putin's use of assassination as a political weapon. They sometimes involve exotic, hard-to-trace poisons and often are carried out by hitmen for the FSB, a state security agency headed by Putin until he became prime minister and then president, and sometimes by mobsters loyal to Putin.
As if on cue, Trump on Monday put the brakes on a plan to impose additional economic sanctions on Russia for its involvement in Syria, walking back a Sunday announcement by U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley of the new punishment. His move came shortly before U.S. and U.K. intelligence agencies warned that state-sponsored Russian hackers are actively seeking to hijack essential internet networking hardware that could be used in a future hacking offensive.
Click HERE for a comprehensive timeline of the Russia scandal
and related developments.