The Kushner Connection

 

The Russian connection story took another twist Friday with a bombshell Washington Post story that Jared Kushner sought a secret communications channel with the Kremlin. In a Trump Tower meeting with the Russian ambassador in early December, Mr. Kushner, Donald Trump’s son-in-law and a senior aide, proposed using Russian diplomatic facilities for secure communications, the Post reported. Michael Flynn—soon to be President Trump’s first national security adviser—attended the meeting.

Some might call this an overture to espionage. Need we add that if it had been government employee Jared Jones, he would have been picked up in the dead of night, stripped of his security clearance and grilled by the FBI? But this Jared, of course, is the husband of the president’s favorite child. So we sail again into uncharted waters.

No one knows where this incredible story is heading. Are we in a Pink Panther movie or Whittaker Chambers territory? Is it a comedy of errors—a tale of a dumb-but-not-criminal actions in the heat of a historic presidential race—or a tragedy of spycraft and treason? Is the president a victim of an organized “deep state” campaign of leaks and smears to do him in? Or did he collude with agents of the Kremlin to undermine American democracy and then cover it up? The director of the FBI (Comey) is out and a special counsel (Mueller) is in. And now, with the Kushner connection, the probe moves toward the president’s innermost circle.

The administration spins Mr. Kushner’s overture to Moscow as no big deal. “It’s both normal, in my opinion, and acceptable,” Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly told ABC. Uh, sure. Mr. Mueller is certain to be taking a look at the meeting within a broader context. And that’s where Mr. Kushner could be headed for trouble.

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Trump & The Hydraulic Power Of Money

Many years ago, at the prompting of Wall Street Journal Editorial Page Editor Robert Bartley, I visited Harry Albright, seeking insights into the corrupt, Saudi-dominated Bank of Credit & Commerce International. The former New York state banking superintendent had just been appointed trustee to oversee the sale of First American Bankshares, a BCCI-connected bank holding company. We met at his downtown office, the North Tower of the World Trade Center framed in his window on a sparkling sunny day.

“Think of the hydraulic power of money,” Albright cheerfully told me, spreading his hands, conjuring rivers of cash. BCCI was a multi-billion-dollar international criminal enterprise. It spread money far and wide, enriching insiders with bogus loans, purchasing the friendship of American politicians, buying up banks, extending letters of credit to arms dealers, tax evaders and racketeers, opening secret accounts for dictators, terrorists, drug dealers and spies, and providing a financial conduit for the development of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program. With front men from Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabian interests dominated the bank through major stakeholders such as Khalid bin Mahfouz, Ghaith Pharaon, and Kamal Adham, the head of the Saudi intelligence service.

Albright was giving me a lesson in influence peddling at the highest level of the global game. “All that money is out there in different pools,” he said, “it’s liquid, it flows from place to place. But as in hydraulics, you can exert tremendous pressure by drawing it through a narrow pipeline when you need to—by focusing the intense hydraulic force of that money on a particular person or institution.”

BCCI showed the sinister side of Saudi influence. With its secret purchase of First American—a prominent Washington bank—BCCI bought entry into the top tier of the U.S. power system. It installed a Democratic Party icon, Clark Clifford, as First American’s chairman. Loans and favors flowed to Democrats and Republicans alike. When BCCI started to unravel, the hydraulic force of all that money caused official Washington to drag its feet on investigating. It took crusading Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau and the Journal’s Bob Bartley to prod the feds, and the world, into action.

I thought of Harry Albright and BCCI while following the kerfuffle over the pledge by Saudi Arabia and the UAE to donate $100 million to Ivanka Trump’s proposed Women Entrepreneurs Fund, to be administered by the World Bank. News flashed around the world about “Ivanka’s Fund” and the Trumpian hypocrisy in a pay-to-play move so similar to the Clinton Foundation, swiftly followed by a Twitter outburst decrying “fake news”—because, after all, the enterprise would be run by the World Bank, not the Trumps.

Or maybe not. It’s worth noting that there is no Women Entrepreneurs Fund. The World Bank website makes no mention of it. It’s simply an idea Ms. Trump raised with World Bank President Jim Yong Kim recently. Mr. Kim steers a ship riven by controversy, even crisis. So any port in a storm and who knows whether Ms. Trump will feel compelled to “rescue” the fund.

The Saudis don’t care. The notion that the deeply patriarchal state has developed a sudden love for women’s entrepreneurship is ludicrous. This is a classic Saudi influence play aimed at America’s ruling family. We’ve seen this movie before. It’s a little exercise in the hydraulic power of money. If you’re an oil-rich monarchy sitting on top of a restive region, you never know when you’re going to need to call in a favor. The best way to ensure favorable treatment is to spread around a lot of money.

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Following The Trump Money

Amid the sound and fury over the firing of FBI Director James Comey and classified conversations in the Oval Office, a significant development in the Russian connection investigations received only fleeting attention. But it’s important. Investigators are getting serious about following the Trump money.

Senator Lindsey Graham signaled the new development at the end of the May 8 subcommittee hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee. It was quickly overshadowed by President Trump’s firing of Mr. Comey the next day.

Senator Graham asked former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper: “During your investigation of all things Russia, did you ever find a situation where a Trump business interest in Russia gave you concern?”

Mr. Clapper paused, then artfully dodged: “Not in the course of the preparation of the intelligence community assessment” of Russian meddling in the election.

Senator Graham was not deterred. “Since?” And, “At all, anytime?”

“I can’t comment on that because that impacts an investigation,” Mr. Clapper said.

Four days later, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, or FinCEN, would be sharing “financial records with an expanding Senate probe into possible ties between Russia and President Donald Trump and his associates.” The FBI is already making use of FinCEN data and analysis.

FinCEN is basically a gigantic vacuum machine sucking up massive amounts of global financial data. It tracks suspicious banking activity and other financial transactions for signs of criminal activity, fraud, tax evasion, terrorism and money laundering. The Patriot Act put FinCEN on steroids, elevating it as a national security and law-enforcement resource.

“The basic concept underlying FinCEN’s core activities is ‘follow the money,’” the agency notes on its website. “The primary motive of criminals is financial gain, and they leave financial trails as they try to launder the proceeds of crimes or attempt to spend their ill-gotten profits.”

The Journal report noted that Senate investigators “came across information that led them to inquire about Mr. Trump’s business ties,” marking “an escalation of the committee’s probe.” According to the Journal, investigators plan to look at a broad matrix of companies involved with Mr. Trump, possibly including “businesses owned or associated with Mr. Trump’s family members, including Kushner Cos., where his son-in-law and now senior White House aide, Jared Kushner, was previously CEO.”

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Golden Visas & The Promised Land

The scandal-ridden EB-5 program jumped back into the news this week with a Washington Post story about the Kushner company hawking Golden Visas in Beijing. Jared Kushner of course is Ivanka’s husband and a top adviser to the president. He has recused from EB-5 issues and divested from much of the family business, but that hasn’t fooled the Chinese. A culture that’s been around for four thousand years knows a few things about emperors and princelings.

We warned about EB-5 trouble in December and again in January. Critics say the visa program is a magnet for all sorts of shady deals. Senator Charles Grassley has denounced it on the floor of the Senate, saying the program 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.”

Under EB-5, foreigners—these days, mostly rich Chinese—pay $500,000 for the so-called “Golden Visa,” gaining a green card and a path to U.S. citizenship. The program has brought in around $20 billion and possibly a lot more—it’s hard to get a firm figure out of the loosely supervised initiatives. It is beloved by the American real estate industry because it provides cheap money to finance development projects, including lavish spreads in Miami, Manhattan Brooklyn, Las Vegas and Beverly Hills. Never mind that the program is supposed to provide funds for the creation of jobs in economically distressed areas.

The Trump Organization is connected to EB-5 through a $40 million play by a luxury hotel in Austin. Jared Kushner raised $50 million in EB-5 funds for a luxury tower in New Jersey. It’s the New Jersey project that thrust EB-5 back into the spotlight this week.

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Trump & Transparency

On the day Donald Trump was elected president, Judicial Watch signaled its view of the challenges ahead. “President-elect Trump should commit to a transparency revolution,” Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton said in a congratulatory statement. We pledged to continue our independent investigations and lawsuits to hold politicians of both parties accountable. We have continued to pursue litigation against the Obama administration and Hillary Clinton, bringing new information to light, because the rule of law did not end with the election. And we’ve been pressing President Trump to be more forthcoming on his tax returns, the White House logs and Russia-related documents.

It’s clear that transparency in the Trump era will proceed along multiple tracks. One of the most consequential sunshine experiments in recent history, the Digital Accountability & Transparency Act, is slated to kick into a higher gear next week. May 9 is the deadline for government agencies to provide standardized data for a searchable data base, USAspending.gov.

The DATA Act proposition is truly revolutionary: citizens should be able to closely track how the government is spending their money.

All federal agencies that make contracts, grants and loans are required to participate in the DATA Act. The May 9 launch is sure to be bumpy and several agencies have already informed project managers that they won’t meet the deadline. But the vast information project appears to be on track.

The implications of so much new financial information online and easily searchable are enormous. It’s “follow the money” on steroids, opening up new terrain for policy makers, academics, journalists and entrepreneurs. A more transparent money flow could pave the way for better policies and systems, improved economic performance and business models, and shine a brighter light on waste, fraud and abuse.

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Remember Cardillo

On an April morning forty-five years ago, NYPD Patrolman Phillip Cardillo was gunned down in a Nation of Islam mosque in Harlem. He died six days later. New York’s political and police leadership abandoned Cardillo within hours of the shooting. No one was ever convicted of the crime. The case was a sensation back in the day. Does it matter anymore?

It still matters to the Cardillo family, who have endured decades of controversy over the murder. It still matters to the thin blue line in New York, where “Remember Cardillo” became a watchword for a generation of cops, evoking the treason of the brass and the gnawing sense that a cloud of lies and cover-up had descended over the case.

Many details about the death of Cardillo remain hidden in the files of the NYPD and the FBI, but we do know a few things.

We know there was a cover-up.

A special prosecutor assigned to examine the Cardillo case concluded there was an “orchestrated effort” by members of the NYPD “to impede” the probe. The lead detective in the case wrote a scathing memoir, “Circle of Six,” accusing members of the city’s political and police establishment of a “purposeful negligence of duty” in the Cardillo affair. A Judicial Watch investigation unearthed a secret NYPD report containing evidence that was withheld from New York detectives and prosecutors.

Judicial Watch’s investigation also uncovered FBI surveillance reports linked to the main suspect in the murder, a Nation of Islam member known as Lewis 17X Dupree. And we published details of a covert FBI program targeting black radicals believed to be behind the assassination of police officers. Some evidence suggests that the secret, high-stakes Operation Newkill manhunt may have intersected with the Cardillo killing. You can read our investigative report here.

We know that for decades, every attempt to get to the bottom of the Cardillo case has hit the rocks. That includes an initial police investigation, a secret NYPD probe and the special prosecutor inquiry. And more.

Stung by a public outcry after the initial investigation went nowhere, the NYPD tried again. It handed the case to Randy Jurgensen, an NYPD detective highly regarded by his peers. Mr. Jurgensen’s probe was fiercely resisted by NYPD brass, but the headstrong detective persisted. Eventually he found a witness and gathered enough evidence to arrest Mr. Dupree. Mr. Dupree’s first trial resulted in a hung jury. He was acquitted at a second trial. Decades later, trial prosecutors told Judicial Watch they never saw important evidence then in the possession of senior NYPD officials and did not know the FBI had mosque members under surveillance.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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