Michael Caputo, a leader of Trump’s New York Republican primary campaign, lived in Russia and worked as political consultant there in 1990s, where he at least once butted heads with the U.S. State Department for working against U.S. interests there. When he came back to the U.S. at the end of the decade, he founded a PR firm and, through that firm, helped to lead an effort to improve the then-recently-newly-elected Russian President Vladimir Putin’s public image in the U.S. at a time when he was coming under criticism from the U.S. government for attacking free press in Russia. He has expressed regret for that work for Putin.
Then there is retired Geneneral and former Defense Intelligence Agency head Michael Flynn, a foreign policy advisor to Trump who gave an intense pep-rally-style speech at the recent Republican National Convention. In December 2015, he sat near Putin at a Moscow dinner celebrating Russia Today (RT), the international Russian TV network and website funded by the Russian government that is a notorious anti-U.S. propaganda machine advancing Putin’s agenda. His appearance raised eyebrows, and he was invited to address the dinner, and both RT and Flynn at first declined to answer if he was paid for his speech, though Flynn later deflectively and evasively confirmed that he was. Gen. Flynn has also been a repeat guest on RT’s programming. He is a true hawk when it comes to ISIS and Islamic extremist terrorism, and has issued blistering criticism of the Obama Administration’s counterterrorism strategy for not emphasizing the Islamic nature of the threat (to do so would actually be a very counterproductive move), among other reasons. His strong stance against Islamic terrorism may be a posture that he feels he shares with Putin, and Gen. Flynn is on record advocating closer U.S. ties with Russia, in particular on the issues of Syria and terrorism.
On to Carter Page, who is another Trump foreign policy advisor. Page used to be the head of Merrill Lynch’s Moscow branch for three years, beginning in 2004, helping to advise the Russian state-run gas behemoth Gazprom. Gazprom was active at this time in Firtash’s political laundering scheme, funneling money to pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine, and throughout this period Firtash was working with Paul Manafort, raising the possibility that Manafort and Page might have connected during this period, even worked together on the Gazprom scheme (such a possibility surely deserves investigative scrutiny).
Today, Page is still an investor in Gazprom and attends its annual investor meeting, and seems to lament the effects of U.S. sanctions on Russia enacted in response to Putin’s invasive military moves in Ukraine. And just this month in Moscow, Page gave a speech heavily criticizing U.S. policy towards Russia that would have been completely in line with the editorial slant of RT, excoriating American “hypocrisy,” actions directed at regime change, and criticism of Russia for corruption, a corruption level that he opined was not any worse than corruption in the U.S. When asked by a Russian student if he really believed that America was a liberal democracy, Page noted with a smile that “I surround the word ‘liberal’ with quotes,” and that ”I tend to agree with you that it’s not always as liberal as it may seem,” concluding with an “I’m with you.”
Shortage of Big U.S. Investors for Trump = Opening for Russian Investment? There’s Something Going On!
Then there is the issue of Trump’s relationships with the banking industry.
Many major U.S. bank won’t lend to Trump anymore; after doing business with him throughout the 1980s and 1990s, today Wall St. banks have “pulled back in part due to frustration with his business practices but also because he moved away from real-estate projects that required financing, according to bank officials,” to quote The Wall Street Journal; these banks include Citigroup, J.P. Morgan Chase, and Morgan Stanley. Additionally, one Goldman Sachs executive noted that its people “know better than to pitch” any deals with the Trump name on them.
One of the banks with which Trump has one of his largest relationships is the German giant Deutsche Bank, which has loaned Trump billions ($2.5 billion in loans and $1 billion in loan guarantees to Trump/Trump-affiliated companies), but executives there, too, have found him difficult to deal with and the relationship has been rockier of late. Deutsche Bank, is, in fact, the only Wall Street bank of a larger scale that still loans to Trump, and overall, he owes “at least” $250 million to banks, mostly small banks.
But it should be noted that Deutsche Bank seems to have had a huge problem when it came to dealing with Russian transactions of an illegal or suspect nature: between 2012 and 2014, some $10 billion was found to have passed through Deutsche Bank from Russia fitting a “suspected money-laundering pattern” due to “systemic” failures of internal safeguards, and it was revealed that bank officials “ignored” or “dismissed” warning signs for a whole year. Included among the people whose money is being scrutinized are several close associates of Vladimir Putin, who, as the Panama Papers recently made abundantly clear (among other investigations), is hardly new to money laundering. The bank is currently under U.S. investigation. And, without access in recent years to major U.S. banks, the move by Trump to seek shadier investment from shadier sources, as with the SoHo deal, is not surprising, given Trump’s long history of flirting with and courting business with and in Russia and with Russians.
Individually, these aspects might raise an eyebrow but not more. But all of this taken together? Is it possible “there’s something going on,” as Trump is fond of saying? It seems reasonable to believe that, yes, “there’s something going on.”
But wait, this is even without going into the hacking…
The Other Democratic E-mail Scandal: There’s Something Going On!
This mid-June, the Democratic National Committee (DNC)—the national leadership and braintrust of the Democratic Party—and the cybersecurity company CrowdStrike announced that two different groups of Russian hackers working for two different Russian government intelligence agencies had been successfully hacking the DNC’s servers. A week later, it was announced that the same Russians seemed to have penetrated the Clinton Foundation’s network.
The first group planted spying software on DNC servers last summer in June, giving it full access to DNC communication passing through DNC servers for almost a whole year. The DNC eventually suspected it had been hacked and called in CrowdStrike early in May of this year to assess the situation. Hillary Clinton’s campaign headquarters in Brooklyn, NY, also seemed to have been attacked but without a clear picture as to if data was stolen. Crowdstrike was able to drive out the hackers from the DNC servers earlier that June. The DNC only seems to have had “standard cyberprotections” wholly incapable of protecting against focused and persistent hackers acting with the support of foreign governments and intelligence agencies. This first hacking group has been nicknamed Cozy Bear by CrowdStrike and is also known as APT 29, and seems to be the one that had previously hacked into unclassified e-mail systems of the White House and State Department; the cleansing process for the State Department infection resulted in a few shutdowns throughout 2014 and 2015, at the height of negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program and international sanctions. This group is tied to the F.S.B., the modern version of the K.G.B., from which Putin emerged years ago,and is thought to be the better of the two hacking groups. The other group, labeled Fancy Bear and also known as APT 28, apparently hacked the DNC this April; it is thought to be run by Russia’s military intelligence service, the G.R.U., and has hacked aerospace and military installations in the West (including in the U.S.), Japan, and South Korea. The two hacking groups do not appear to have coordinated their efforts. Among the many pieces of information stolen by the hackers was the DNC’s opposition research on Trump, stole in the second April hack.
The story basically faded from the public consciousness until a few days before the Democratic National Convention began and one day after the Republican National Convention ended; on that Friday, the quixotic activist organization known as WikiLeaks posted nearly 20,000 e-mails taken from the DNC servers. As is normal with WikiLeaks, the organization and it controversial founder and leader, Julian Assange, decline to offer any details on how they obtained the information, but experts suspect the Russian hackers were the ones who handed them over to WikiLeaks. The e-mails contained information that showed controversial hostility to Bernie Sanders and discussions as to how to put Sanders on the defensive on the part of seven DNC staffers, including some senior ones (one staffer whose comments were felt to be the most offensive offered an apology). While no evidence was found on the e-mails that demonstrated a concerted DNC policy of working actively against Sanders in a material way (as one old college friend summed up the incident on social media: “so, lemme get this straight: some staffers from a national political committee expressed personal political opinions on their work email? ok, gotcha.”), the revelations nevertheless led to a massive outrage, especially with Bernie Sanders’ supporters, a group already prone to conspiracy theories and victimized thinking and that often feeds off of outrage.
Almost lost in the scandal about the DNC’s impartiality coming into question was the issue of the timing of the leaks and who orchestrated then. Obviously, releasing this information the day after Trump’s Republican National Convention ended and just at the beginning of the weekend before Clinton’s Democratic National Convention is designed to provide maximum benefit to Donald Trump and the Republican Party while inflicting massive harm and embarrassment upon Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party. Especially after the embarrassment and disorganization of the divided and divisive Republican National Convention, Clinton and the Democrats were poised to begin their convention in a particularly strong position; with the e-mail leak dominating the headlines all weekend and even Monday as the Democrats’ convention began, focus was driven away from Clinton’s announcement of Virginia Senator Tim Kaine and Bernie Sanders supporters began to stew in a rage that fomented and grew and boiled over the weekend and on Monday before the evening’s Convention proceedings.
Because of the leak, the Democratic Party’s raw wound was reopened and was in danger of becoming seriously infected at the very moment when it was the most important time to project Party unity. The scandal threatened to blow up and ruin the Democratic National Convention, and possibly Hillary Clinton’s chances of winning the presidency, and only some furious and frantic last-minute scrambling on the part of both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, as well as their campaigns and the staff of the DNC, including the new interim DNC Chairwoman Donna Brazile who had taken over only on Monday, averted what could have been a historic disaster for Clinton.
The first and only tangible casualty thus far was DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a congresswoman from Florida, who tenure of late was marred by difficulty; this DNC e-mail leak was the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back, and Sunday, not even 48 hours after the WikiLeaks release and on the day before the Convention, it was announced that she would be stepping down from her position at the DNC, but only after the Convention. This did little to assuage the concerns of Democrats, the Clinton campaign, and especially Bernie Sanders supporters, especially as Wasserman Schultz made clear she still planned to gavel-in and gavel-out the Convention and publicly address it while in session.
Reality seemed to set in Monday, when both Rep. Wasserman Schultz and Sen. Bernie Sanders were booed loudly and continuously during dayime meetings, making clear the reality that more had to be done. Within a few hours, all talk of Rep. Wasserman Schultz gaveling and appearing at the convention disappeared and she agreed to stay away from the Convention; as a face-saving gesture for her long years of hard work on behalf of the Democratic Party, the Clinton campaign named her an honorary chair of the campaign’s “50-state program,” a move that failed to placate some and was seen by many in and of itself as a controversial mistake. Only deft political maneuvering, both behind the scenes and on the convention floor during the actual convention throughout the convention, up to and including Clinton’s culminating acceptance speech on Thursday, prevented far worse damage that might have resulted in a spectacle of sustained chaos and potentially ruined the Convention and Clinton’s candidacy, as the capacity of Bernie Sanders supporters for disruption had been well demonstrated several months earlier at Nevada’s Democratic Convention, which was closed out amid security forcing an end to the events as concerns for safety passed a red line.
Also on Monday as the Democratic National Convention’s first day unfolded, it was learned that government investigators had tried to warn the DNC of a possible intrusion months before the DNC took substantive action to address it, raising questions as to how competently the hacking problem was handled, and that the FBI was now investigating the hack.
In just a short period of time, WikiLeaks was able to do real damage to the Democratic Party, and nearly succeeded in doing far more damage. Was this all in the name transparency and fairness?
Questioning WikiLeaks Motives: There’s Something Going On!
As for WikiLeaks, its leader Julian Assange has made it abundantly clear that he harbors a great animus, both personal and professional, for Clinton, describing her and her policies in strident language—saying that a vote for Clinton is “a vote for endless, stupid war”—and making it clear that he deliberately timed the release of the DNC e-mails just before the Democratic National Convention to harm Clinton and her candidacy.
But beyond that, there are serious questions as to if WikiLeaks has a relationship with the Russian government. For starters, after Assange took up residence in the Ecuadorian Embassy to the UK in London to avoid arrest, the state-funded Russia Today (RT) network gave Assange a TV show for a time, which was extremely critical of the U.S. even as it praised the founder of Hezbollah. On one of this shows, Assange quite hypocritically supported the crackdown on Ecuador’s free media by the Ecuadorian president, who is increasing his ties to Russia. There was also an incident that saw documents in the possession of WikiLeaks given by a WikiLeaks staffer to the government of the pro-Putin dictator of Belarus, which it used to arrest and suppress Belarusian pro-democracy activists. Since Assange was close to that staffer, that staffer apparently was not criticized or reprimanded for this act.
It may very be that WikiLeaks is unwittingly playing into serving Russia’s interests, rather than in a spirit of collusion, but the picture is murky and either way, it does not look good; either way, it seems Russia has “weaponized” WikiLeaks for its own anti-American purposes. But this also fits what seems to be Assange’s agenda, which is more anti-American and anti-Western than anything else; Assange even criticized the Panama Papers leaks, which detailed a lot of embarrassing information about Putin’s private fortune and those of Russian elites, as serving American interests. Assange had promised to reveal information embarrassing for and damaging to Russia in 2010, but never did (perhaps because of thinly veiled F.S.B. threats from Russia? Perhaps he’s been intimidated and/or coopted into serving Russian interests? We may never know for sure. Notably, he threatened to release that info before he was given his Russian TV show). Oh, and contrary to the many other sources agreeing that Russia is behind the DNC hacking, Assange claims there is “no proof” of that…
On a disturbing side note, the WikiLeaks DNC release was not very discriminating, including Social Security and credit card numbers of DNC donors, certainly violating their right to privacy, with even Edward Snowden (who has been helped greatly by WikiLeaks, especially in his getting asylum in Russia) criticizing this aspect of the leak.