ALL ROADS LEAD TO PUTIN Part 3: Trump Hotel, Azerbaijan, and the NRA

TRUMP INTERNATIONAL HOTEL AND TOWER BAKU, AZERBAIJAN

American voters are wising up to Trump's deep links to Putin, starting with years of laundering dirty Russian money.
American voters are wising up to Trump’s deep links to Putin, starting with years of laundering dirty Russian money. Click on thumbnail to see Keith Seidel’s cartoon full size.

 Our world tour of Trump properties now takes us to Baku, Azerbaijan, and the Trump International Hotel and Tower.

In March 2017, The New Yorker published an in-depth piece by contributing writer Adam Davidson: “Donald Trump’s Worst Deal.” Trump made millions from the deal; rather than indicating profitability, “worst” may have signified the most depraved of Trump’s criminal schemes that have come to light thus far.   

Azerbaijan, formerly part of the Soviet Union, is among the world’s most corrupt nations. The Trump Organization struck a deal with the Mammadovs, a family notoriously corrupt even by the standards of the former Soviet republics. Zia Mammadov was yet another career government official on a modest salary who miraculously became a billionaire.  

The piece in The New Yorker suggested that the Mammadovs have long been a front for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. In 2008, Mammadov awarded a series of multimillion dollar contracts to an Iranian construction firm allegedly controlled by the IRG. This appeared to be part of a larger scheme to export money from Iran to fund terror and other activities abroad.

The company was run by the Darvishi family, Iranians with close ties to the IRG. At least three Darvishis—the brothers Habil, Kamal, and Keyumars—appear to be associates of the Guard. In Farsi press accounts, Habil is referred to as a sardar, a term for a senior officer in the Revolutionary Guard. A cable sent on March 6, 2009, from the U.S. Embassy in Baku described Kamal as having formerly run “an alleged Revolutionary Guard-controlled business in Iran.” The company, called Nasr, developed and acquired instruments, guidance systems, and specialty metals needed to build ballistic missiles. In 2007, Nasr was sanctioned by the U.S. for its role in Iran’s effort to develop nuclear missiles.

Ivanka was all over this project, too. As the most senior Trump Organization official, “Ivanka personally approved everything,” according to the project’s Azerbaijani lawyer and the general contractor.

On her Web site, Ivanka posted a photograph of herself wearing a hard hat inside the half-completed hotel. A caption reads, “Ivanka has overseen the development of Trump International Hotel & Tower Baku since its inception, and she recently returned from a trip to the fascinating city in Azerbaijan to check in on the project’s progress.”

Davidson interviewed more than a dozen contractors who worked on the project. One of them was always paid in cash, and witnessed other contractors being paid the same way. “They would give us a giant pile of cash. I got a hundred and eighty thousand dollars one time, which I fit into my laptop bag, and two hundred thousand dollars another time.” Once, he said, a colleague picked up a payment of two million dollars. “He needed to bring a big duffel bag.”

THE STANDARD TRUMP DEFENSE: HEAR NO EVIL, SEE NO EVIL, SPEAK NO EVIL

Alan Garten, the Trump Organization’s chief legal officer, maintains that the Trumps had no legal or ethical responsibility because it was “merely a licensor.”  “We didn’t own it. We had no equity. We didn’t control the project. The flow of funds is in the wrong direction. We did not pay any money to anyone. Therefore, it could not be a violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.”

Trump's Azerbaijan deal was with a family linked to Iran's Revolutionary Guard.
Trump’s Azerbaijan deal was with a family linked to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.

He also said the Trump Organization had binding contracts with the Mammadovs that they could not just abandon.

As with all Trump’s lawyers, Garten’s legal position is flimsy, never mind morality, ethics, national security, or any other consideration.

“No, that’s just wrong,” said Jessica Tillipman, an assistant dean at George Washington University Law School and an expert on international sanctions.

 She said, “You can’t go into business deals in Azerbaijan assuming that you are immune from the FCPA. Nor can you escape liability by looking the other way. The entire Baku deal is a giant red flag—the direct involvement of foreign government officials and their relatives in Azerbaijan with ties to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Corruption warning signs are rarely more obvious.”

She added, “You can’t violate sanctions just because you have a contract with someone.”

In May, 2012, the month the Baku deal was finalized, the FCPA was on Donald Trump’s mind. In a phone-in appearance on CNBC, he expressed frustration with the law. “Every other country goes into these places and they do what they have to do,” he said. “It’s a horrible law and it should be changed.” If American companies refused to give bribes, he said, “You’ll do business nowhere. There is one answer—go to your room, close the door, go to sleep, and don’t do any deals, because that’s the only way. The only way you’re going to do it is the other way.”

The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act is never far from Trump’s mind. Recall his order to Stephen Miller to prepare an executive order to overturn it: “It’s just so unfair that American companies aren’t allowed to pay bribes to get business overseas,” he said. Now that’s the Donald Trump we know. And recall his Impeachment defense: that he was just worried about corruption in Ukraine.

Garten insisted that the Trump Organization still has no idea if the association between the Mammadovs and the Darvishis is real, or if it’s simply an allegation “spread by the media.” Fake News.

Erich Ferrari, an attorney who specializes in sanctions-related legal cases, commented on the Baku deal, “It takes a lot to shock a lawyer, but I’ve had very few clients do so little due diligence.”

 Allison Melia, formerly one of the CIA’s lead analysts of Iran’s economy, said, “Any reputable investigative firm conducting a risk assessment would have advised a U.S. company to avoid a deal with a family connected to the Revolutionary Guard.”

And of course Donald Trump has said, “My No. 1 priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran, the biggest sponsor of terrorism around the world. We will work to dismantle that reach—believe me, believe me.” More recently, Trump has made a big deal about tightening sanctions on Iran. But not so long ago, his company was happy to ignore existing sanctions when there was a profit to be made. The law is clear, as experts have emphasized.

American companies must ensure that they are not receiving funds that originated with any sanctioned entity. Ignorance is not a defense, especially if there is ample warning that a foreign partner could have a link to such an entity. Most firms, upon hearing of even a slight chance of Iranian involvement, conduct due diligence that is much more extensive than what is typical for compliance.

A DIFFERENT KIND OF MONEY LAUNDERING — THE NATIONAL RIFLE ASSOCIATION

U.S. election law prohibits foreign money in our elections. Putin doesn’t worry about the laws because the Russian people no longer can hold him accountable. For now, though, at least Trump’s supporters in this country must hide foreign money. Maria Butina and the National Rifle Association were a good vehicle for both Putin and Trump.

The NRA officially poured $30 million—some analysts believe it was more like $70 million—into Trump’s campaign. But even the lower amount is triple what the organization had spent on Mitt Romney in 2012, and more than it had spent in all races—House, Senate, and White House—during the 2008 and 2012 elections combined.

Most of the money was spent by an NRA entity that isn’t required to disclose its donors. The dark money operation makes it difficult to document how much was Kremlin money, which was the point. Mueller’s report is silent on the subject. But what is known reads like a badly plotted spy novel. 

The NRA's Wayne LaPierre helped give Russian agent Maria Butina entree into U.S. right-wing circles.
The NRA’s Wayne LaPierre helped give Russian agent Maria Butina entree into U.S. right-wing circles.

Butina, a Russian agent posing as a gun-rights enthusiast, used the NRA as her entrée to infiltrate right-wing American political circles. Parenthetically, this is in keeping with Putin’s overall posture of aligning with “traditionalist” values: the bare chested tough guy fighting sissy liberals, gays, atheists; Putin has systematically joined forces with, even financed, the hard right in many countries. More on that in a moment.

Butina’s handler was Aleksandr Torshin, a close Putin associate and deputy director of the Central Bank of Russia. (He had to leave Moscow and disappear for a while when the NRA scandal erupted.) Spanish law enforcement authorities say Torshin, already sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department, was a major money launderer for a Moscow-based crime syndicate.

Several years before the NRA operation was hatched, Torshin became a “Lifetime” NRA member, befriending then-NRA president David Keene. With Butina fronting the scheme, they formed a Russian gun rights group, the “Right to Bear Arms.”  

In 2015, that preposterous Russian arms organization held a convention in Moscow. John Bolton, a friend of Keene’s, recorded a video for the conference, praising “a new era of freedom” in Russia. Keene attended, as did a Republican political operative, Paul Erickson. Butina couldn’t resist his charms; but in addition to becoming her lover, he introduced her around to various right-wing characters.

Thus Torshin and Butina gained access to Republican Party leaders and to organizations like the Council for National Policy and National Prayer Breakfast.[1] They met Trump, Scott Walker, Rick Santorum, Bobby Jindal and other Republican politicians. They participated in the NRA’s million-dollar Golden Ring of Freedom donor program.

A network of Russian oligarchs and high-ranking Kremlin officials held out the promise of lucrative business opportunities with Russian entities. Here, for example, is Butina writing to NRA Vice President Pete Brownell, CEO of the country’s largest firearm accessories supplier and a future NRA president. She wants him to attend the Moscow event:

According to your plans about Russian market [joining the NRA delegation] would be very good trip for this purpose. In the NRA group’s schedule there are some meeting [sic] with Russian VIP including people how [sic] are responsible for our gun manufacturing and close to Russian government . . .

But especially for you and your company I have something more. During this week that I have spent in Moscow I had several meeting [sic] with key people in Russian gun retail and manufacturing, as well as with some manufactories of gun accessorizes [sic] and supplies, and we talked about The Brownells. They are ready to meet you and talk about export and import deals. One of the companies (they do Kalashnikov modifications, SYD and etc.) is located far away from Moscow. It is 2 days trip but could be really very good for your business.

That trip included meetings with weapons manufacturers that produce for the Russian military as well as many entities and individuals under United States sanctions. Butina dangled a possible meeting with Putin himself.

Brownell served as the NRA’s president from 2017 to2018. He resigned abruptly in the face of a Senate investigation pushed by Democrats on how Russia used the NRA to influence the 2016 election.

Eventually, the FBI arrested Butina. She pleaded guilty to conspiracy to act as an agent of a foreign government. She served 15 months in prison, and was deported to Russia where she is a celebrity and hosts her own TV program on RT. Erickson was indicted in South Dakota on wire fraud and money laundering charges in a separate case.

Ludicrous plot lines aside, the NRA came up with millions of dollars to help Trump get elected. Investigators haven’t revealed or don’t know how much or where all that money came from. But data from the Center for Public Integrity shows where it went: TV ads concentrated in Ohio, Pennsylvania and North Carolina, three states that were instrumental in tilting the election in Trump’s favor.

The NRA case underscores the fact that the 2020 election won’t be just Trump against whoever the Democrats nominate; we’re up against Trump, his many enablers who have no loyalty whatsoever to the United States, and Putin’s Russia.

THE PENETRATION OF THE NRA IS OF A PIECE WITH PUTIN’S POLITICAL MODEL

The second point that emerges from the NRA story hasn’t had the attention it deserves. The Kremlin’s penetration of the NRA and its funding of Trump’s campaign is of a piece with its overall strategy of financing extreme right wing political entities in many countries, with the goal of weakening democracies in general and the European Union specifically. The more these far-right parties threaten mainstream parties across Europe and in the U.S., the weaker the opposition to Putin.

Probably the best known of these is Marine Le Pen and her National Front Party in France. A Putin-controlled Russian bank provided her with at least 11 million euros, supposedly as a loan, a year after she supported Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Lesser known examples are Greece’s far-right Golden Dawn, Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), Geert Wilders’ Dutch Party for Freedom, Hungary’s Viktor Orban. These, and others, are all lined up behind Putin.

In the U.K., the then-Russian ambassador in London and other Russian officials reportedly offered investment opportunities to the largest funder of the Leave.EU campaign, thus supporting Brexit and the biggest fracture yet in the European Union.

Russia has a history of using the notoriously opaque energy industry to wield influence through political financing in Bosnia, the Czech Republic, Ukraine and other countries.[2]

Trump, of course, is the big fish. But Matteo Salvini is no minnow. Sometimes referred to as “Europe’s Trump,” Salvini heads Lega, Italy’s biggest party.  He has alliances with the far-right Brothers of Italy and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia.  Salvini wants to shape a new, nationalist Europe aligned with Moscow.

On July 4, 2019, Salvini aide Gianluca Savoini dined alongside Putin, who was being feted in Rome at a government-sponsored banquet during a state visit. Savoini has said, “We want to change Europe . . . . A new Europe has to be close to Russia as before because we want to have our sovereignty.”

BuzzFeed News published the transcript of an audio tape of an October 2018 meeting between Gianluca Savoini and two unidentified Italians discussing a scheme to funnel $65 million worth of oil profits to Salvini’s La Lega party ahead of Europe’s parliamentary elections in May 2019.

The meeting took place in Moscow’s Metropol Hotel. It reveals Russia’s strategy to finance Europe’s nationalist movements, and the far right’s eagerness to take in the Russian money. Once they get it, of course, they’re in Putin’s control—like Trump. Contacted by The Guardian for comment on the taped conversation, Gianluca Savoini called the story “fake news.”[3]

Heinz-Christian Strache, leader of Austria’s far-right FPÖ party, was forced to resign as vice-chancellor after being filmed offering preferential contracts to individuals posing as Russian businessmen in exchange for kickbacks to his Freedom Party. The scandal collapsed Austria’s coalition government. It wasn’t the Russians who exposed the plot; Strache was caught in a sting. But nobody who takes the Russian money fails to understand the consequences of being exposed; it’s that Neville Chamberlain thing.

Ahead of Britain’s EU referendum in 2016, Brexit’s biggest financial backer, Arron Banks, discussed gold and diamond investment deals offered via the Russian Embassy in London. Banks, who is currently being investigated by the UK’s National Crime Agency over the “true source” of £8 million he donated to the “Leave” campaign, said he declined the offers and denied any wrongdoing.

In Spain, Russia supports the left-wing Podemos party.[4] In Greece, though it’s a leftist party, Syriza moves closer to Putin.

We see pictures of a virile, shirtless Putin on horseback, flipping his judo partners, flashing his cross and otherwise hyping his religious values. None of that latte-drinking, limousine-liberal, pro-immigration nonsense with him! Putin is macho man. He won’t let anyone push Mother Russia around. He’s Making Russia Great Again.

Those autocratic poses are becoming disturbingly familiar here in America, too. Trump’s Mussolini-like posture; his “I alone can fix it” rhetoric; the brown, faux-military coat with ambiguous insignias on the lapels that he trots out when the occasion calls for it; the populist persona; while the transformation of Donnie Bone Spurs into a Stalin-like leader may not be convincing for many, there’s no doubt it works for the Base.

A Final thought:

Putin's hold on Trump is a gun to the head of American democracy.
Putin’s hold on Trump is a gun to the head of American democracy.

As for Putin, the admonition to be careful what you wish for comes to mind. Surely, he didn’t anticipate or want the assassination by drone of the Iranian military leader Qasem Soleimani. The killing of Iran’s second-highest official amounts to a declaration of war. Though that further weakens America, a plus for Putin, it threatens to unleash forces that can’t be controlled. Donald Trump continues to move the Doomsday Clock ever closer to midnight.

Ironically, Putin’s grip on him remains strong only if Americans can vote Trump out of office. After 2020, either we’ll see Trump unchained or back in private life and facing indictment. Our country won’t survive another four years of a Trump presidency. And it may well be the world that goes dark.

 

[1] The Council for National Policy is an ultra-right group, the hardest of the hard core. CNP’s membership comprises leaders in the family values, national defense and decency movements. Exactly the movements in which right-wing financiers like the Adolph Coors Foundation, the Koch brothers, Richard DeVos, Richard Scaife and others heavily invested for decades, part of their campaign to return the U.S. to nineteenth-century capitalism.

[2] https://www.axios.com/italys-salvini-embroiled-russian-scheme-aid-league-party-b51bc59d-7bdd-4d8c-b7e5-8cd281944b44.html

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jul/11/matteo-salvinis-party-under-investigation-for-alleged-russian-oil-deal

[4] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2017/11/17/the-european-parties-accused-of-being-influenced-by-russia/ See also https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/01/24/europeans-favoring-right-wing-populist-parties-are-more-positive-on-putin/

PLEASE SHARE THIS ARTICLE ON SOCIAL MEDIA

Share on facebook
Facebook
Share on twitter
Twitter
Share on linkedin
LinkedIn

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *