Judicial Watch & The Transparency Crisis

Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton was up on Capitol Hill recently preaching the transparency gospel. A few days later, he delivered the same message to the White House and at a special Judicial Watch presentation with House Government Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz. His urgent report: the nation is facing a transparency crisis.

“The United States government is bigger than ever and the most secretive in recent memory,” Tom told the House Oversight Committee. “To be frank, the Obama administration was an enemy of transparency. President Obama promised the most transparent administration in history, but federal agencies turned into black holes in terms of disclosures.”

Judicial Watch is the national leader in filing and litigation of Freedom of Information Act requests. We filed close to 3,000 FOIA requests with the Obama administration. Our attorneys fought nearly 200 FOIA cases through the courts. Famously, Judicial Watch repeatedly scooped the media and government investigators by uncovering documents on Clinton finances, Benghazi, the IRS scandal, the Fast & Furious gun scandal, electoral abuses and illegal activities on the southern border. Our work drives the government and media agenda.

I’m often asked, What is the secret of Judicial Watch’s success? How does it get documents that the mightiest media newsrooms and powerful congressional players seem unable to obtain? I’d like to ascribe it to the brilliance of its chief investigative reporter, but I can’t. The secret sauce of Judicial Watch’s success comes from its dedicated donors, experienced leadership, and most importantly, a cadre of battle-tested litigators and investigators.

Experience counts. The Judicial Watch leadership team—President Tom Fitton, Director of Litigation Paul Orfanedes and Director of Research & Investigations Christopher Farrell—brings almost sixty years of combined FOIA experience to the table. Chris Farrell spearheads a team of accomplished investigators thoroughly versed in state and federal freedom of information statutes. Critically important to these endeavors, all of which come with strict filing requirements and multiple deadlines, is our FOIA program manager, Kate Bailey, who makes sure the FOIA trains run on time.

Paul Orfanedes commands the deepest bench of expert FOIA attorneys in the country. It’s an unfortunate fact of FOIA life that government agencies will often do everything they can to avoid complying with sunshine laws: delays, stonewalls, legal obfuscations and all sorts of chicanery are the name of the game when it comes to high-stakes FOIA actions. Paul and his team have seen every trick in the book. Often—all too often—after our investigators have exhausted every avenue of administrative appeal, it’s time to say “see you in court” and turn the case over to our legal team. In many instances, that’s when the really important documents start to emerge.

I have received countless notes from donors saying, in essence, “I don’t have much money, but I believe in your mission and here’s what I can afford to keep you going.” All my colleagues at Judicial Watch have received similar notes and we are proud of, and grateful for, each and every one. Because without our donors, there is no way our mission could continue. Special investigations and lawsuits are expensive.

At the Capitol Hill hearing, Tom made a revolutionary proposal—he suggested that “Congress should apply the freedom of information concept to itself and the courts, the two branches of the federal government exempt from transparency laws.” He also called attention to a transparency case Judicial Watch is pursuing in regard to hidden assets at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and open-records resistance at the Smithsonian Institution. You can read more about them here. In the coming weeks, we’ll take a look at other legislative proposals for fostering transparency. Meanwhile, let the sunshine in.

***

Investigative Bulletin leaves for vacation at the end of the week and will return in mid-April.

Micah Morrison is chief investigative reporter for Judicial Watch. Follow him on Twitter @micah_morrison. Tips: mmorrison@judicialwatch.org

Investigative Bulletin is published weekly by Judicial Watch. Reprints and media inquiries: jfarrell@judicialwatch.org

 

Road Map To The Russian Connection

The headlines out of Monday’s House Intelligence Committee hearing on the Russian connection confirmed what has been widely reported: the FBI is investigating Team Trump’s alleged involvement with Russian government entities during the 2016 election and Mr. Trump’s charge that Barack Obama wiretapped him during the campaign is baseless. Every high-profile congressional hearing is largely kabuki theater and this one was no different: the party out of power sees abuses everywhere and the party in power plays defense, but careful observers often can glean indications of what is happening behind the scenes. That’s the case with Monday’s session.

The money quote comes from FBI Director James Comey. The FBI’s Counterintelligence Division, Mr. Comey said, is “investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government, and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts.”

That’s a broad mandate. As I’ve noted before, the most consequential of the many probes launched into the Russian connection—Congress, law enforcement, the media—will come from the FBI. Mr. Comey is back in the hot seat. Congress has an important public-information role to play, including on the related issues of leaks and cyber-security, but the main game is the FBI.

On Monday, Mr. Comey and National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers repeatedly turned aside questions about the Trump campaign, but important clues about the direction of the investigation surfaced in the opening statement of Representative Adam Schiff, the minority leader on the committee. Mr. Schiff is a partisan Democrat, but he’s also a former federal prosecutor and a member of the Gang of Eight—the top congressional leaders who receive classified briefings from the intelligence community, including on the Russian connection. So Mr. Schiff knows more than he can say. On Monday, he pushed the envelope.

Mr. Schiff signaled that four individuals are at the center of the FBI counterintelligence probe: Carter Page, Michael Flynn, Roger Stone, and Paul Manafort. None of these names come as a surprise to anyone following the story. All have been named in press accounts.

But Mr. Schiff did wake up the room by invoking the controversial Russian dossier compiled by former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele. Calling Mr. Steele “a former British intelligence officer who is reportedly held in high regard by U.S. intelligence,” Mr. Schiff drew attention to a murky incident noted in the Steele reports. Mr. Schiff said that “Russian sources” told Mr. Steele that Carter Page “had a secret meeting with Igor Sechin, CEO of Russian gas giant Rosneft. Sechin is reported to be a former KGB agent and close friend of Putin’s. According to Steele’s Russian sources, Page is offered brokerage fees by Sechin on a deal involving a 19 percent share of the company. According to Reuters, the sale of a 19.5 percent share in Rosneft later takes place, with unknown purchasers and unknown brokerage fees.” Brokerage fees from an $11 billion oil deal is a whole lot of motive. The Reuters report is here. The Trump Administration is also linked to Rosneft through Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

Mr. Schiff noted that the Steele dossier reports that Paul Manafort “chose Page to serve as a go-between for the Trump campaign and Russian interests.” Mr. Schiff called Mr. Manafort “the Trump campaign manager and someone who was long on the payroll of Pro-Russian Ukrainian interests.” As the Republican National Convention was about to open, the party platform was changed to remove a clause that supported the provision of defensive weapons to Ukraine.

Michael Flynn, Mr. Schiff noted, “has been paid by the Kremlin’s propaganda outfit, RT, and other Russian entities in the past.” Appointed national security adviser after the election, Mr. Flynn “has a secret conversation with [the Russian ambassador] about sanctions imposed by President Obama on Russia over its hacking designed to help the Trump campaign.”

As for Roger Stone, Mr. Schiff noted that the longtime Trump associate and “self-proclaimed political dirty trickster” had boasted in a speech about being in communication with Julian Assange of Wikileaks. Wikileaks, it later emerged, acted as a conduit for documents and emails stolen by Russian intelligence from Democratic National Committee accounts and laundered through media outlets into the 2016 presidential campaign.

“In the middle of August,” Mr. Schiff said, Mr. Stone “also communicates with the Russian cutout Guccifer 2.0, and authors a Breitbart piece denying Guccifer’s links to Russian intelligence. Then, later in August, Stone does something truly remarkable, when he predicts that John Podesta’s personal emails will soon be published. ‘Trust me, it will soon be Podesta’s time in the barrel. #Crooked Hillary.’

“In the weeks that follow, Stone shows a remarkable prescience: ‘I have total confidence that @wikileaks and my hero Julian Assange will educate the American people soon. #Lockherup.’ ‘Payload coming,’ he predicts, and two days later, it does. Wikileaks releases its first batch of Podesta emails. The release of John Podesta’s emails would then continue on a daily basis up to election day.”

Adam Schiff is no friend of the Trump presidency. But that’s not the point. The point is, he just traced a road map of the FBI counterintelligence probe into the Russian connection.

***

Micah Morrison is chief investigative reporter for Judicial Watch. Follow him on Twitter @micah_morrison. Tips: mmorrison@judicialwatch.org

Investigative Bulletin is published weekly by Judicial Watch. Reprints and media inquiries: jfarrell@judicialwatch.org

The Preet Heat

President Trump sent another shock wave through the legal system Friday with an abrupt Justice Department demand that all forty-six U.S. Attorneys held over from the Obama Administration hand in their resignations immediately. The U.S. Attorney from the storied Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara, had good reason to think he might be exempt from this demand: in November, following a highly publicized meeting in Trump Tower, then-President-elect Trump asked Mr. Bharara to stay on.

What changed? Mr. Bharara simply may have been a victim of raw power politics—he is a former chief counsel to Senator Chuck Schumer and there is no love lost between the Senate minority leader and the president. But as I noted in November, the SDNY is no ordinary crime-fighting post. It’s been home to law-enforcement legends such as Henry Stimson, Thomas Dewey, Robert Morgenthau and Rudy Giuliani. It’s size, Manhattan location and jurisdiction over Wall Street make it an important player in the U.S. justice system, famously independent of Washington.

Mr. Bharara established himself as a respected non-partisan scourge of political corruption, sending to jail more than twenty-five corrupt New York political figures, including Speaker of the New York State Assembly Sheldon Silver, a Democrat, and the majority leader of the New York State Senate, Dean Skelos, a Republican. The SDNY is currently taking a close look at associates of New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo in separate corruption cases.

The SDNY is connected to several Trump-related matters as well. It’s deep into a complex series of tax and money-laundering cases involving Deutsche Bank, a major Trump Organization creditor. It’s investigating whether pro-Trump Fox News structured illegal payments to employees in sexual harassment cases. An ethics group filed a lawsuit against President Trump in the Southern District alleging he has violated the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution. Mr. Trump has been caught up in controversies involving Russia and Turkey, and Mr. Bharara has tangled with both countries. He is banned from Russia over his successful prosecution of international arms dealer Victor Bout and has been condemned by the president of Turkey for making an Iran sanctions-busting case against the Turkish gold trader Reza Zarrab.

Mr. Bharara refused to hand in his resignation on Friday. On Saturday, the Justice Department fired him. On Sunday, he noted in a cryptic tweet, “now I know what the Moreland Commission must have felt like.” Governor Cuomo created the Moreland Commission in 2013 to investigate public corruption in New York and suddenly shut it down a year later, infuriating Mr. Bharara. He investigated the closure for possible obstruction of justice but did not bring charges.

Was Mr. Bharara signaling with his tweet that he too had been shut down with nefarious intent? U.S. Attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president and it is standard practice for an incoming administration to install its own people. But rarely does it happen in such a sweeping and abrupt manner.

Some of us with long memories remember the events of early 1993, when press reports were mounting about federal criminal investigations related to the Whitewater land deal and the new president, Bill Clinton. His Attorney General, Janet Reno, fired every sitting U.S. Attorney in the land. A longtime Clinton associate, Paula Casey, took over as U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas, rejecting early criminal referrals on Whitewater from the Resolution Trust Corp. and turning down a plea bargain overture from a crooked Arkansas insider before recusing herself from the case.

That’s how you derail an investigation. When the Senate takes up President Trump’s nomination for the next U.S. Attorney for the Southern District, it should make sure the candidate is a person of the caliber of a Preet Bharara or a Robert Morgenthau, independent and free from any taint of cronyism.

***

Micah Morrison is chief investigative reporter for Judicial Watch. Follow him on Twitter @micah_morrison. Tips: mmorrison@judicialwatch.org

Investigative Bulletin is published weekly by Judicial Watch. Reprints and media inquiries: jfarrell@judicialwatch.org

 

Deconstructing The Russian Connection

President Trump threw gasoline on the bonfire of the Russian connection over the weekend, tweeting that “Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory.” In case anyone wasn’t getting the message, in another tweet he added, “This is Nixon/Watergate.” A spokesman for Mr. Obama swiftly rejected the charge. On Sunday, the White House demanded that Congress investigate President Trump’s charge of Mr. Obama’s abuse of power.

To Mr. Trump’s critics, these developments are the continuation of a pattern of outrageous statements designed to shift the focus away from his administration. To his supporters, the Russian connection is a baseless concoction whipped up by the media and political opponents—and driven by a steady flow of leaks from within the government—to delegitimize his presidency.

In November, the website Heat Street reported that the FBI obtained a warrant from the special Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court to examine activities by individuals related to the Trump campaign. Other similar reports followed. If they’re accurate—and color me a skeptic—President Trump can settle the wiretap issue quickly by declassifying and releasing any FISA warrants related to the campaign.

But whatever side you take in the Russian connection, it’s clear this scandal is not going away anytime soon. With that in mind, let’s briefly deconstruct what this mess is actually about.

The central issue of the Russian connection is Kremlin-linked hacking and related activities during the 2016 presidential campaign. Did Mr. Trump or his team have any knowledge of these activities, other than news reports? Did they in any way knowingly collude with agents of the Russian government?

Throughout the 2016 campaign, Mr. Trump repeatedly went to great lengths to defended Vladimir Putin’s kleptocratic regime. Suspicions grew that the Russians had something damaging on the candidate. That question now haunts his presidency.

The most consequential of the investigations into the Russian connection is led by the FBI. So once again, James Comey is in the hot seat. The House and Senate intelligence committees, judiciary committees, and the House oversight committee all are conducting probes as well. Media reporting and leaks continue to drive the story. Will there be a special select committee, a bi-partisan panel or a special prosecutor? Only if there are additional damaging revelations, and only after the congressional probes play out.

Beyond the 2016 election, two key areas link Mr. Trump to the Russians: his financial dealings in the early years of the new century with figures associated with Russian organized crime, and his history with Atlantic City casinos and customers.

Last week, we looked at Mr. Trump’s relations with Felix Sater of the Bayrock Group, a real estate development firm based in Trump Tower. Mr. Sater—a convicted felon and FBI informant—has been linked to the Russian mafia through the Mogilevich organized crime family. Russian organized crime and the Russian intelligence services have long had a marriage of convenience. Bayrock was founded around 2001 by a former Soviet official and brought on Mr. Sater as chief operating officer. It appears to have been an amazing turn of good fortune for Mr. Sater, whose previous work was largely related to low-level stock frauds and buying weapons off the Russian black market for the FBI and CIA.

Mr. Sater went into business with Mr. Trump around 2003. By 2007 “Bayrock and its partners reportedly had more than $2 billion of Trump-branded deals in the works,” according to investigative writer James S. Henry, who has compiled an extensive record of Mr. Trump’s Russia connections. In 2008, Donald Trump Jr. told a real estate conference that “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets” and that “we see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.” Most of the Trump deals with Bayrock appear to have been failures. Bayrock’s heyday was from around 2002 to 2008. After that, its fortunes declined. By 2014, the firm had pretty much vanished, leaving behind a trail of lawsuits.

Mr. Trump’s Atlantic City history follows a similar pattern. The go-go casino years ran from around 1982 to 1991, followed by a decline into massive debt, bankruptcies and lawsuits. Long before Mr. Trump sought the presidency, the investigative journalist Robert Friedman wrote that Mr. Trump’s Taj Mahal Casino “had become the Russian Mob’s favorite East Coast destination.” Mr. Friedman added that “scores of Russian hoodlums received ‘comps’ for up to $100,000 a visit for free food, rooms, champagne, cartons of cigarettes, entertainment and transportation in stretch limos and helicopters.”

According to published reports, numerous alleged Russian mob figures, including high-rolling gamblers, took up residence at Trump Tower in New York. The intelligence writer and former National Security Agency analyst John Schindler claims that Russian organized crime’s “secret ties” to the Trump Organization are “well known” in intelligence circles. The Mogilevich crime family’s footprints “are all over” the Trump Organization, he says. In 1992, Mr. Schindler notes, a top Mogilevich capo, Vyacheslav Ivankov was dispatched to the United States, splitting his time between Trump Tower and the Taj Mahal Casino. The Mogilevich family “launders money in the West, including the U.S.A., on a gargantuan scale…FBI knows all about it,” Mr. Schindler says.

***

Micah Morrison is chief investigative reporter for Judicial Watch. Follow him on Twitter @micah_morrison. Tips: mmorrison@judicialwatch.org

Investigative Bulletin is published weekly by Judicial Watch. Reprints and media inquiries: jfarrell@judicialwatch.org.

Who Is Felix Sater?

Felix Sater is back. The Donald Trump business associate last month splashed down in the middle of a New York Times story about a freelanced Ukraine “peace proposal” hand-delivered to the White House by Mr. Trump’s longtime lawyer, Michael Cohen. Mr. Cohen dropped the proposal off in a sealed envelope at the office of then-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. The deal outlined “a way for President Trump to lift sanctions against Russia” in exchange for a withdrawal of Kremlin-aligned forces from eastern Ukraine and a long-term lease of Crimea to Moscow, the Times reported. The government of Ukraine was not pleased. A spokesman called the deal a “gross violation of the [Ukraine] Constitution” by forces “covertly representing Russian interests.”

A Russian-American businessman with a colorful criminal past, Mr. Sater was the middleman for the Ukraine deal. He connected a possibly corrupt Ukrainian politician, the putative author of the proposal, to Mr. Cohen, the Trump confidant. Mr. Sater’s history with Mr. Trump fills in a few blanks about the president’s Russia links prior to the 2016 presidential campaign. The Ukraine case puts him in the here-and-now, at the center of the Trump universe, drawing a line from Mr. Trump’s past activities to his inner circle today.

Every president has sketchy characters in his past. Barack Obama and Tony Rezko, George W. Bush and James Bath, Bill Clinton and Dan Lasater, and David Edwards, and James McDougal, and…don’t get me started. But these figures are usually pushed to the margins of the administration—or right out the door. Mr. Trump has had several opportunities over the years to show Mr. Sater the door, but Mr. Sater keeps appearing in the middle of Mr. Trump’s business.

Mr. Sater is a kind of template for the fight over the Russian connection. Is he a sinister figure advancing Russian interests? Or merely a happenstance Trumpian Zelig elevated by the media and the president’s opponents? Is the controversy over Russian influence in the 2016 election a scandal of Watergate proportions or ridiculously overblown?

The battle lines have grown clearer in recent weeks. The Washington investigative axis and many anti-Trumpers see a huge scandal forming—a threat to American democracy in the Russian hacks, the Trump circle’s alleged ties to Russian intelligence and maybe even to Russian organized crime. Skeptics, not limited to the president’s supporters, see the uproar over the Russian connection as an attempt to delegitimize the Trump presidency and a head fake by the liberal media and their partisan allies to divert attention away from damage done by Obama holdovers and Clinton partisans in leaking highly sensitive intelligence information.

The Wall Street Journal called it “troubling” that Michael Flynn, the ousted national security adviser “may have been targeted for political destruction by intelligence sources inside the government” and noted that “the existence of transcripts of Mr. Flynn talking with a foreign official suggests that he may have been the subject of a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) warrant.” The Journal added that “the House and Senate intelligence committees ought to include any FISA warrants and leaks as part of their probe.”

That’s a good idea. A declassified report on the FISA warrants would presumably establish why wiretaps were ordered against members of Mr. Trump’s circle and who was behind them. But FISA warrants issued in 2016 likely won’t get to the heart of questions about Mr. Trump’s history with the Russians.

Mr. Sater connects some of those dots. He was born in Russia in 1966, moved to Israel and then moved on, arriving in the United States in the early 1970s. A document filed in one of the many court cases surrounding Mr. Sater cites an FBI claim that his father, Michael Sheferovsky, was a “syndicate boss” for the notorious Mogilevich organized crime family in Russia. In 2000, Mr. Sheferovsky pleaded guilty to two counts of extortion for shaking down businesses in Brooklyn.

In 1991, Mr. Sater stabbed a commodities trader in the face with a broken bar glass and was sent to prison. By 1993, he was out and working a pump-and-dump stock scheme in Brooklyn. The investigative economist James S. Henry has put together the most extensive record of Mr. Trump’s Russian connections. Writing in the American Interest, he called the Brooklyn scheme “an innovative joint venture among four New York crime families and the Russian mob aimed at bringing state-of-the-art financial fraud to Wall Street.”

In 1998, Mr. Sater was arrested in the $40 million swindle. Eighteen other U.S. and Russian mob-connected traders participated in the scheme, Mr. Henry reports. Mr. Sater pleaded guilty to racketeering and became an FBI informant, sending many of his co-conspirators to jail. Court documents and other records suggest that Mr. Sater was an active FBI informant from 1998 to 2001. Sometime in 2000, according to Mr. Henry, Mr. Sater got himself in more trouble when the NYPD “reportedly discovered that he had been running a money-laundering scheme and illicit gun sales out of a Manhattan storage locker.”

Mr. Sater fled to Russia. The attacks of September 11 brought another change to his fortunes. According to several published reports, Mr. Sater went to work for the FBI and CIA, buying up Stinger anti-aircraft missiles from sources in the Russian black market—getting the terrorist-friendly weapons off the black market was a top priority for Western intelligence. This service earned Mr. Sater a free pass back to the United States.

In 2002, back in New York, Mr. Sater joined the Bayrock Group, a real estate development firm based in Trump Tower. Bayrock was created by a former Soviet official and wealthy Kazakh investors and Mr. Trump was soon doing deals with them. Mr. Sater worked at Bayrock until 2008.

He appears to have been close to Mr. Trump. He escorted Ivanka Trump and Donald Jr. to Moscow in 2006 in pursuit of deals and flew to Colorado with Mr. Trump. By 2007, Mr. Henry reports, Bayrock and its associates had partnered with Mr. Trump to pursue “more than $2 billion in Trump-branded deals.” In 2008, Donald Trump Jr. told a real estate conference that “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets” and that “we see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”

None of the Bayrock deals seem to have been successful. The most spectacular failure involving Mr. Sater, Mr. Trump and Bayrock was the Trump Soho hotel condominium in lower Manhattan, a marquee Trump effort launched in 2006 amid much spectacle. By 2010, a civil lawsuit alleging fraudulent enticement in sales of condos was gaining traction and the Manhattan district attorney had started exploring criminal charges. The New York Times has an excellent rundown of the complicated case here. Mr. Trump settled and the criminal case was closed. Meanwhile, another Sater project, Trump Tower in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, went broke.

Mr. Sater was eased out of Bayrock in 2008 following a Times article detailing his criminal past. In 2009, eleven years after pleading guilty in the $40 million Brooklyn stock swindle, he was sentenced by a federal judge. He received a $25,000 fine, no jail, no probation, and no restitution order. At the time, he was living the good life in Sands Point, on Long Island’s Gold Coast. Around 2010, Mr. Trump named him a “senior adviser” and gave him an office in Trump Tower. It’s unclear how long that arrangement lasted.

Mr. Trump distanced himself from Mr. Sater in a 2013 videotaped deposition. “I don’t know him very well,” he said. He added, “if he were sitting in the room right now, I really wouldn’t know what he looked like.” Mr. Sater says his relationship with the Trump Organization continued until as recently as the fall of 2015, when he had been working on a plan for a Trump Tower in Moscow. That deal, he told the Times, came to a halt because of Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign

***

Micah Morrison is chief investigative reporter for Judicial Watch. Follow him on Twitter @micah_morrison. Tips: mmorrison@judicialwatch.org

Investigative Bulletin is published weekly by Judicial Watch. Reprints and media inquiries: jfarrell@judicialwatch.org.

Trump & The Anti-Semites

After days of mounting criticism, President Trump yesterday forcefully denounced the rise in anti-Semitic incidents across the country. Last week, not so much denouncing anti-Semitism, plenty of denouncing the press. History shows a connection between the two.

Following a tour of the National Museum of African American History & Culture, President Trump declared that the institution was “a meaningful reminder of why we have to fight bigotry, intolerance and hatred in all of its very ugly forms. The anti-Semitic threats targeting our Jewish community and community centers are horrible and are painful and a very sad reminder of the work that still must be done to root out hate and prejudice and evil.”

At last week’s press conference, the president took it personally when a reporter asked him about bomb threats called in to Jewish community centers. “So here’s the story, folks,” he said. “Number One, I am the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life. Number Two, the least racist.”

When Jake Tur, the yarmulke-clad reporter from the Hasidic weekly Ami Magazine, began to protest that he had not, in fact, said the president was anti-Semitic, Mr. Trump silenced him. “Quiet, quiet, quiet,” he said, then he claimed the reporter “lied” about the question (he didn’t) and then added, “welcome to the world of the media.”

On Friday, the president escalated his attacks on the media, tweeting that the New York Times, NBC, ABC, CBS and CNN were “the enemy of the American people.”

Mr. Trump famously does not read books. But to anyone who does, the phrase “enemy of the people” is chilling. Hitler used it in his war against the Jews. Coming from Stalin or Mao, it was a death sentence. In a provocative essay for the Los Angeles Review of Books, “Explaining Hitler” author Ron Rosenbaum explored Hitler’s forgotten campaign to destroy the Munich Post newspaper and parallels with the Trump era. “The Munich Post never stopped investigating who Hitler was and what he wanted,” Mr. Rosenbaum writes, “and Hitler never stopped hating them for it.” Now, let’s be clear: Donald Trump is not Hitler and the U.S. in 2017 is not Germany in 1933. But there are things to be learned from reading books. Such as, attacks on liberty often begin with attacks on journalists and Jews.

In October, the Anti-Defamation League released a report documenting “a troubling, year-long rise in anti-Semitic hate targeting journalists on Twitter” during the 2016 presidential campaign. “These aggressors,” the ADL noted, “are disproportionately likely to self-identify as Donald Trump supporters, conservatives, or part of the ‘alt-right,’ a loosely connected group of extremists, some of whom are white supremacists.” The Trump campaign did not support any of this ugliness, but it did nothing to stop it.

Yesterday one of the stars of the alt-right came crashing down. Milo Yiannopoulos was disinvited from a starring role at the Conservative Political Action Conference, stripped of a lucrative book deal and resigned under pressure from Breitbart News after a videotape emerged of him praising pedophilia. Mr. Yiannopoulos is a professional provocateur with a long history of deeply offensive taunts, including anti-Semitic jibes.

Mr. Trump himself has had brushes with anti-Semitism—mainly a reluctance to distance himself from racist followers and anti-Semitic commentary, as well as some really bad Jewish jokes. But he also has many defenders who forcefully reject the anti-Semitism charge. Among them are his Jewish son-in-law Jared Kushner, Mr. Tur from Ami Magazine, and the prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, who called him “a great friend of Israel and the Jewish people.”

I don’t think Donald Trump is an anti-Semite. But he does have a weird relationship with anti-Semitism. He appears to sincerely believe he is “the least anti-Semitic person” ever, but he invokes the Nazi charge “enemy of the people” and the isolationist and anti-Semitic slogan from another era, “America First.” He wants an administration that is all about “love,” but brings into his White House top aides associated with the racists and xenophobes of the alt-right. He is an avid consumer of conspiracy theories spreading paranoia and hatred. Whatever drives Donald Trump—an idea of “strength,” perhaps, or a dystopian view of America shaped by decades inside his surreal celebrity billionaire bubble, or his strange sense of grievance—it is not Jew-hatred.

But the haters are out there—and it’s not just the Jews, of course. Also out there: a fear among many about what President Trump may do. The haters are nothing new. The level of fear, that is new.

***

Micah Morrison is chief investigative reporter for Judicial Watch. Follow him on Twitter @micah_morrison. Tips: mmorrison@judicialwatch.org

Investigative Bulletin is published weekly by Judicial Watch. Reprints and media inquiries: jfarrell@judicialwatch.org.

The Flynn Edge Of The Wedge

So National Security Adviser Michael Flynn has become the first casualty of the Russian connection. Not counting Paul Manafort and Carter Page, thrown off the Trump Train during the presidential campaign. Not counting two Russian intelligence agents arrested for treason, who may or may not have been involved in hacking the U.S. election, who may or may not have been assisting the CIA. Not counting Christopher Steele, the former MI-6 agent and author of the notorious Russian dossier, currently in hiding.

So call Mike Flynn the first high-level casualty of the Russian connection. He’s likely the thin edge of the wedge. His Monday night resignation—ostensibly for misleading the vice president about conversations he had with a Russian official before Mr. Trump took office—has revved up the investigative axis in Washington. What did Mr. Trump and his aides know and when did they know it? Did Mike Flynn just take a bullet for the president?

Before the circus moves on from the spectacle of Flynn fallen in the arena, it’s worth noting that he served his country with honor and distinction for thirty-three years in the United States Army, rising to the rank of lieutenant general. He led dangerous intelligence missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Later, apparently the same qualities that made him a successful battlefield intelligence leader got him in trouble as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency.

In the wake of the Flynn resignation, Democrats are calling for an “independent investigation” of the Russian connection. What they mean by that is not entirely clear, probably a specially charted commission, a special select committee or a special prosecutor. In any case, none of that is going to happen, at least not anytime soon.

First, the institutional probes will play out. The FBI, CIA, NSA and Treasury are up to something, according to the New York Times—an inter-agency task force, a “working group,” whatever. President Trump owns the executive branch for the moment and you can be sure this FBI-led effort is under tremendous pressure. John Schindler reports that the intelligence community is “starting to push back” against the president, a move with enormous implications.

In Congress, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the House Intelligence Committee have opened broad investigations. The Senate Armed Services Committee, led by John McCain, will take a run at cyber-threats and Russia, before handing off the matter to a new cyber-security subcommittee. Elsewhere, major media groups are tasking reporting teams on the issue and the internet is alive with freelancers and interested parties—cue the usual carnival of conspiracy theories, dangerous craziness and occasional wisdom.

The essential investigative question for all these inquiries is the same. How deep? How deep into the U.S. electoral system did Moscow penetrate? And how deep is the Kremlin into Donald Trump?

Getting answers won’t be easy. Kremlin-linked hacking activities and related intelligence activities are a wilderness of mirrors. Mr. Trump has a long history of dealings in Russia and with Russians, and so far has resisted detailed disclosure. Cynics will say that Jim Comey will roll over one more time for Team Trump, but I don’t buy that. The inter-agency investigation led by the FBI, in my view, is the one to watch.

For the media and the internet gang, the temptation to chase rabbits down holes will be irresistible. The Trump Administration has decided to make the media the enemy, so expect relentless attacks on “fake news” and the like. But as the Flynn episode demonstrates, the media have an ally in the U.S. intelligence community. If you’re keeping score at home, Mr. Flynn’s resignation was forced not so much by his speaking with the Russians, but by public disclosure of those conversations, most likely through IC leaks. Look for the media and leaks to drive story. More evidence of that came last night with a New York Times disclosure that Trump associates “had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials” in 2016. President Trump fired back this morning, tweeting that the “real scandal” was the leaking of intelligence information.

Congress will struggle with its investigations, mainly because it’s a Republican-led institution investigating a Republican president. The institutional pressures to back off will be intense. The executive branch will slow-roll document production and balk at providing witnesses. Congressional subpoenas are basically useless and anyway the Republicans won’t go there. The minority Democrats have limited options. Kicking and screaming only gets you so far.

Congressional investigations often are tripped up by their dual mandate. They’re supposed to get to the bottom of something—Benghazi, Fast & Furious, Lois Lerner and the IRS, Whitewater, Iran-Contra, etc.—but they also have a public information role. Tell us what happened. The most successful congressional investigations have focused on telling the story. Based on what we already know—a tumultuous election, foreign intelligence hacking, sensational charges and presidential politics—the Russian connection reports should read like thrillers.

In the public information role, Congress should be hearing from Messrs. Flynn, Manafort and Page, along with top Trump aides Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon, on what they knew about the Russian connection and when they knew it. And what, if anything, they told Mr. Trump. As I noted in December, unusual Russia-connected episodes unfolded through the presidential campaign and mark Mr. Trump’s business history. Mr. Trump’s tax records are a Rosetta Stone to the Russian connection, at least as it relates to the president’s financial ties to the country. IRS Commissioner John Koskinen would handle any congressional directive to produce the records for confidential intelligence committee reviews. Or not. Mr. Koskinen cut a private-sector business deal with Mr. Trump back in 1975 and they have been friends ever since.

***

Micah Morrison is chief investigative reporter for Judicial Watch. Follow him on Twitter @micah_morrison. Tips: mmorrison@judicialwatch.org

Investigative Bulletin is published weekly by Judicial Watch. Reprints and media inquiries: jfarrell@judicialwatch.org.

Putin’s Poisons

As America sets out on its long strange trip with President Trump, nothing seems stranger than his repeated defense of Russian strongman Vladimir Putin. “But he’s a killer,” Bill O’Reilly reminded the president in a weekend interview. “Putin’s a killer.”

“We’ve got a lot of killers,” the president responded. “What do you think—our country’s so innocent. You think our country’s so innocent?”

Meanwhile in Russia, real killers appear to have made another move to silence a critic of the Putin regime. Last week, the Russian dissident Vladimir Kara-Murza collapsed in Moscow and was placed in a medically induced coma. His wife said doctors had diagnosed “acute poisoning by an undetermined substance.”

It’s a diagnosis that has FSB—the Russian intelligence service—written all over it. And it’s not the first time someone tried to whack Mr. Kara-Murza. In May 2015, he suffered multiple organ failure, fell into a coma and was hospitalized for two months. Mr. Kara-Murza believed he was deliberately poisoned for his political activities. His Moscow doctors thought maybe he took the wrong anti-depressant. Oh.

Mr. Kara-Murza was a close associate of Boris Nemtsov, the Russian opposition leader gunned down on a bridge near the Kremlin in February, 2015. In an amazing coincidence, all the security cameras on the bridge had been turned off for maintenance. At the time of his murder, Mr. Nemtsov was battling Putin regime corruption and organizing resistance to the war in Ukraine.

Russian intelligence uses the full tool kit against its opponents, but it has a particularly long association with poisons.

In 2004, the Ukraine opposition leader Viktor Yuschenko was slipped a near-fatal amount of TCDD, a contaminant found in Agent Orange, at a dinner with Ukrainian officials, including the deputy director of the intelligence services. Mr. Yuschenko survived the poisoning with substantial facial disfigurement. The Ukrainian intelligence official fled to Moscow.

The same year, crusading investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya became violently ill after drinking poisoned tea aboard a Russian airline flight. She survived. Two years later, assassins caught up with her and shot her dead in the elevator of her apartment building. Thirty-four journalists have been murdered in Russia since 2000 in cases linked to political corruption and crime. The number for the same time frame in the U.S.? Three.

In a sensational case seen as telegraphing a warning to Kremlin critics, former FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko died a gruesome death in London in 2006, poisoned by highly radioactive polonium-210, most likely slipped into his tea during a meeting with two Russian agents. Mr. Litvinenko had charged that Mr. Putin rose to power through a series of brutal bombings and murders. From his deathbed, he blamed the Russian president for his poisoning. Scotland Yard later concluded that evidence in the case suggested that “the only credible explanation” for the Litvinenko murder is “one way or another the Russian state is involved.”

Several mysterious deaths swirl around the Magnitsky Act, a U.S. law sanctioning corrupt Russian officials. The law was named for Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who died in prison in 2009 while investigating an alleged $230 million tax fraud connected to public officials and the Russian mafia. Andrew Kramer of the New York Times has noted that five people linked to inside information in the case “have died under mysterious circumstances that, in their sophistication, suggest state-sponsored killings.”

Two of them, men in early middle age, died of organ failure. Another plunged from a balcony. Mr. Magnitsky’s death has been attributed to an abdominal rupture or heart attack. And then there is banker Alexander Perepilichny, who fled to London and passed wire-transfer records to Swiss investigators. At age 44, he suffered an apparent heart attack while jogging. Three years later, Mr. Kramer reports, a botanist identified traces of Gelsemium in the banker’s stomach. It’s a rare plant grown in the Himalayas and used by Chinese assassins.

Yes, yes, none of these deaths can be directly linked to Vladimir Putin, etc. But no serious observer of Russian society believes that he has clean hands. He set the tone, gave the green light for the gangster economy, empowered his old FSB allies and now sits atop an unsteady throne. As for President Trump, he seems unwilling or unable to explain how the United States has “a lot of killers” like Mr. Putin. So chalk it up as a remark cut from the same cloth as his attacks on the dishonest media, so-called judges, rigged elections, fake news and the like. But he too is setting a tone, giving a green light, and the road ahead is uncertain.

***

Micah Morrison is chief investigative reporter for Judicial Watch. Follow him on Twitter @micah_morrison. Tips: mmorrison@judicialwatch.org

Investigative Bulletin is published weekly by Judicial Watch. Reprints and media inquiries: jfarrell@judicialwatch.org.

Rex & The Resource Curse

The Trump Presidency has opened with a bang. Death to ObamaCare, a new SCOTUS nominee, a Muslim ban, a Mexican wall, various conspiracies—the Russians and the dossier, the electoral tally, the inauguration crowd size—attacks on the media, on Boeing, Lockheed Martin, General Motors, Toyota, Hollywood actors, John Lewis, John Brennan, alternative facts, the global gag rule, the death of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the rebirth of the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines. The president is tweeting. The president has kept his campaign promises. The president has lost his mind. The town is in tumult. The opposition is aghast. Critics have assigned the president his own Robespierre. Grievances mount. “I haven’t slept in a month,” Kellyanne Conway tells Fox News Sunday. “If you are part of Team Trump, you walk around with these gaping, seeping wounds every single day, and that’s fine.”

Thirteen days into the new administration, the spectacle continues, delicious and appalling and mesmerizing. But in Congress real business is starting to get done. Follow the money. Cui bono? Who benefits? The answers to that timeless investigative question will tell us a lot about Mr. Trump’s Washington.

Last week, we flagged rule changes coming before Congress to reform the controversial EB-5 visa program. Critics of EB-5 say it’s a magnet for fraud, a national security risk and a vehicle for rich foreigners to purchase U.S. citizenship. The Trump and Kushner families, among others, have profited from the EB-5 cash flow. The powerful real estate industry opposes the reform measures. President Trump could swing the vote any way he wants.

This week, Congress put another anti-corruption measure into play. House Republicans introduced a resolution to repeal an SEC rule known as the Cardin-Lugar provision. It requires that extractive industries—oil, gas and minerals—listed on U.S. stock exchanges disclose payments to foreign governments. Such payments might include consulting fees, royalties, bonuses, and taxes. It’s a well-greased avenue for payoffs and bribes and Cardin-Lugar is a classic “follow the money” transparency measure.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy wrote in the Wall Street Journal that Congress will “take the ax” to the rule because it places an “unreasonable compliance burden on American energy companies that isn’t applied to their foreign competitors.” Mr. McCarthy added that the regulation puts “American businesses at a competitive disadvantage.” He neglected to mention that those foreign competitors are already complying with similar disclosure laws introduced in Europe and Canada.

President Trump can work his will with this one too. He wants to give American business a competitive advantage. He also wants to “drain the swamp” of corruption. One tweet, and Cardin-Lugar remains law.

Cardin-Lugar and similar measures are aimed at the so-called “resource curse.” The resource curse has been observed in many countries and is the subject of a lot of esoteric studies, but it’s not rocket science. Resource-rich developing countries are often “cursed” with failing economies. Corruption is one culprit. Wealth generated from extractive resources—oil, gas, timber, minerals, etc.—flows to the ruling class. The powerful, often abetted by large corporations, pillage the resources and throw crumbs to the hoi polloi.

Nigeria is a casebook example. Nigeria is the sixth largest oil producing country in the world and has vast mineral wealth. Yet its people live in crushing poverty. According to the activist group Global Witness, more than $400 billion in oil revenues have been lost to corruption and mismanagement since 1960. Last week, oil giants Dutch-British Shell and the Italian Eni company ceded control of a lucrative oil tract back to the Nigerian government after a $1.2 billion bribe to a former Nigerian oil minister and cronies was revealed. It’s precisely the sort of corrupt transaction that Cardin-Lugar is designed to counter.

One of the strongest opponents of Cardin-Lugar has been ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, President Trump’s secretary of state-designate. Mr. Tillerson is scheduled for a confirmation vote today. As CEO of ExxonMobil and head of the industry’s trade group, the American Petroleum Institute, Mr. Tillerson lobbied against Cardin-Lugar. Later, API successfully sued to overturn the provision—a newly crafted version is now before Congress. Sources on Capitol Hill say that Mr. Tillerson, lobbying against the bill in 2010, personally made the case to senators that successful passage of the measure would doom ExxonMobil’s chances to do business in Russia.

At his confirmation hearings, Mr. Tillerson offered up a whole lot of nothing when questioned about the resource curse and Cardin-Lugar. He said there would be “a lot of opportunity” through U.S. programs to “strengthen the institutional capacities and set standards of expectation in the developing part of the world, including those that have resource wealth.”

Former Senator Richard Lugar takes a particular interest in the issue and his Lugar Center in Washington closely followed the Tillerson hearings. Reporting for the Lugar Center, senior fellow Jay Branegan made it clear that Mr. Tillerson was not going to be an apostle of transparency and accountability.

ExxonMobil, by the way, reportedly is under investigation in Nigeria. The country’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission is examining ExxonMobil’s successful $1.5 billion bid for oil rights to four lucrative Nigerian fields. According to an investigative report in the Guardian, based on documents provided by Global Witness, ExxonMobil beat out the Chinese oil company CNOOC in 2009 in the deal. The only trouble? China bid $3.75 billion for the same oil rights.

How did ExxonMobil win Nigerian oil rights despite bidding $2.25 billion less than its rival? Golly, no one seems to know. But one former Nigerian oil minister is under investigation in London and Lagos for corruption involving billions in missing oil funds, and the inquiry is expanding. The minister denies any wrongdoing. So does ExxonMobil.

***

Micah Morrison is chief investigative reporter for Judicial Watch. Follow him on Twitter @micah_morrison. Tips: mmorrison@judicialwatch.org

Investigative Bulletin is published weekly by Judicial Watch. Reprints and media inquiries: jfarrell@judicialwatch.org.

The EB-5 Test

In 2008, the director of the Zhoukou Municipal Grain Reserve in China’s agricultural Henan Province began moving money overseas. Qiao Jianjun sent $4 million to U.S. banks. $2 million went to Canada. Another $6 million went elsewhere: Singapore, Switzerland, St. Kitts. Mr. Qiao’s wife obtained a U.S. visa and moved to Seattle and bought a four-bedroom home. In 2011, Mr. Qiao skipped town, flying out of Zhoukou City and joining his wife in the United States. The law caught up with Mrs. Qiao in 2015, arresting her for fraud and money laundering. She’ll do five years. Mr. Qiao is in the wind.

The story of the Qiaos should be of some interest to the new Trump Administration because they arrived in the United States thanks to the controversial EB-5 visa program, which is up for renewal in April. The Obama Administration proposed changes to the program on its way out the door. How the Trump Administration handles the proposed changes will provide an early test of its approach to real-world corruption issues.

Powerful forces are arrayed on both sides of the program. Currently under EB-5, foreigners—they are mostly Chinese citizens—gain a green card and a path to U.S. citizenship by putting up $500,000 to be used for job creation in the U.S. in a high unemployment district. Development projects financed by EB-5 are supposed to be centered in economically distressed “targeted employment areas,” but usually they’re not. Marketing for the program is hot, gaudy and largely unregulated. The program is beloved by the real estate industry because of the cheap financing it provides, bringing in $15 billion to $20 billion in easy money in the last decade and financing development projects in such distressed areas as Manhattan, Brooklyn, Las Vegas, Miami and Beverly Hills. Mr. Trump himself is loosely connected to the program through a $40 million EB-5 play by a Trump-branded luxury hotel in Austin. His son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, raised $50 million in EB-5 funds for a luxury tower in New Jersey.

Critics say EB-5 is a magnet for fraud and a vehicle for rich foreigners to purchase U.S. citizenship. Senator Charles Grassley denounced it on the floor of the Senate in December, saying the program “poses significant national security risks” and may be “facilitating terrorist travel, economic espionage, money laundering and investment fraud.” A Government Accountability Office report said international funds for EB-5 visas could come through the “drug trade, human trafficking, or other criminal activities.”

And those “targeted employment areas” intended to serve economically hard-hit regions? These days, critics charge, they’re often nothing more than a byzantine gerrymandering of pockets of high-unemployment mapped from census tracts to create a qualifying district.

The proposed regulatory changes go some distance to addressing reform concerns. The minimum qualifying amount for an EB-5 visa would be raised from $500,000 to $1.35 million for projects located in targeted unemployment areas. The power to designate such areas would be taken away from the states and given a consistent national standard. Transparency and accountability would be improved. Truly needy regions would be given a better shot at the money.

The real estate industry has reacted to the proposals with fear and loathing. “You can legislate all you want,” one EB-5 attorney told the Commercial Observer, “but if the bill went through as is, it would kill the program.” EB-5 proponents are looking to President Trump as a kindred spirit. “If you put aside his politics and just understand him as a real estate owner and investor,” John Banks, president of the influential Real Estate Board of New York told the Observer, “Trump understands that EB-5 is a good thing for the real estate industry.”

As for the case of the corrupt Chinese grain official and his wife, it turns out that Mrs. Qiao in fact was not Mrs. Qiao. Her name is Zhao Shilan. The couple had divorced in 2001 but claimed they were married on their EB-5 visa application. Riding EB-5, Ms. Zhao established U.S. residency, bought property and created shell companies with the stolen millions while waiting for her “husband,” who continued to loot Chinese government coffers until the scheme started to crumble. Then he got on a plane to the U.S. Then he disappeared.

Zhao Shilan went to jail for immigration fraud, money laundering, and international transport of stolen money. Mr. Qiao was last spotted in Switzerland. His run of great good luck will continue if it is the Americans and not the Chinese who catch up with him. In China, the sentence for official corruption is often a bullet to the head.

***

Micah Morrison is chief investigative reporter for Judicial Watch. Follow him on Twitter @micah_morrison. Tips: mmorrison@judicialwatch.org

Investigative Bulletin is published weekly by Judicial Watch. Reprints and media inquiries: jfarrell@judicialwatch.org.

First published January 25, 2017.