Updated: Sunday, July 16, 2017, 8:24 PM
Remember last week when I noted here that “follow the data” is the modern version of the Watergate mantra “follow the money” — meaning that the key to collusion between President Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russia may be learning how “fake news creators halfway around the globe figured out exactly which voters in Wisconsin and Michigan to target with their Hillary-hating memes? Here’s the thing, though: Modern political corruption is a little bit like the upscale department store at your local mall: Cash is still accepted, too.
The broad outlines of the Trump-Russia scandal have emerged: The GOP presidential candidate and his minions wanted dirt on Hillary Clinton and help in depressing Democratic voter turnout. That help was provided in the form of hacked Democratic Party emails and the overcaffienated “fake news” from Russian content farms that flooded voters’ Facebook feeds. Russia wanted a new American president who would drop the sanctions imposed on their homeland for invading Crimea in 2014, among other policy favors. But was there another angle to the story — one that involves the almighty dollar?
It didn’t make a lot of news in May when the U.S. Department of Justice abruptly settled a case against a Russian firm, Prevezon Holdings, that stood accused of laundering ill-gotten gains through Manhattan real estate. Reports said the case, which was about to go to trial, was settled for $6 million — far less than expected — and that the Russian firm was not required to make any admission of guilt. Officials with Prevezon at the time said (echoing “The Godfather” without irony) that the offer from the Jeff Sessions-led Justice Department “was too good to refuse.”
At that moment, it seemingly meant nothing that one of the lawyers in the case — representing the family of Pyotr Katsyv, the former vice governor of the Moscow region, whose son, Denis owned Prevezon — was a virtually unknown Russian named Natalia Veselnitskaya. She said in May that the favorable deal her client was offered by Trump’s Justice Department was “almost an apology from the (U.S.) government.”
Today, anyone who follows American politics knows who Veselnitskaya is: The woman whose June 9, 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner and then-Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, as well as a former Russian counter-intelligence officer turned lobbyist, has become the biggest bombshell revelation in the quest to learn the extent of any Trump-Russia collusion in last year’s election.
Not surprisingly, some Democratic members of Congress now want to know if the Trump campaign’s dealings — or dealing, anyway — with the Russian lawyer had any connection with the Justice Department’s decision to settle the lawsuit on terms so seemingly favorable to a client of the woman who came to Trump Tower billed as “a Russian government lawyer” peddling dirt on Clinton. The 17 Democrats sent a letter to Trump’s attorney general Sessions, stating: “We write with some concern that the two events may be connected — and that the Department may have settled the case at a loss for the United States in order to obscure the underlying facts.” They want to know if Veselnitskaya had any role in the settlement talks, whether Sessions — who’d been a campaign adviser to Trump — knew of the earlier contact, whether any Trump administration officials had contacted the Justice Department about the case. and they also asked for documents explaining the abrupt decision to settle.
Originally, the case would have been tried by the office of then-Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who was known as something of a pit bull on business corruption cases, including money laundering. It’s hard to imagine that Bharara — who’d initially been told he would stay on despite the change in administrations — would have signed off onto such a milquetoast settlement with the Russian schemers. But in March, Trump surprised legal observers by abruptly firing Bharara along with 45 other incumbent U.S. attorneys. (President Trump had tried to call Bharara the day before the firing, but the prosecutor refused to speak with him.) The settlement with Prevezon came just weeks later.
Cases of alleged business dirty-dealing — involving money laundering and a complex tax fraud scheme — rarely capture the public’s imagination. But this matter seems to intersect with too many key signposts of the burgeoning Trump-Russia scandal to ignore. You may have heard that the main goal of the Russian lawyer Veselnitskaya and the spy-turned-lobbyist who accompanied her to Trump Tower was overturning the Magnitsky Act — strict economic sanctions that the U.S. imposed on Vladimir Putin’s Russia three years ago. The law was named for Sergei Magnitsky, a Moscow attorney who blew the whistle on what he said was a massive scheme involving Russian mobsters, shady businessmen and the highest levels of the Kremlin to defraud the government of taxes and launder the money in the U.S. and elsewhere. Russian authorities arrested Magnitsky — who turned up dead a year later, victim of an alleged beating and poor medical care. One of the companies in the scheme that Magnitsky blew the whistle on was Prevezon Holdings.
It doesn’t help matters that Sessions — the nation’s highest-ranking law officer — has already disgraced his office with his rank dishonesty over his dealings with Russia. The former Alabama senator lied at his Senate confirmation hearing and said he’d had no contact with Russian officials during the 2016 campaign; a short time later it was revealed that he’d met the then-Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak on at least two known occasions. Sessions’ over-the-top dishonesty is part of a broader mosaic of lies that have permeated Team Trump’s contacts with the Russians, and which make it impossible to believe these dealings were fully above-board. What’s more, Sessions — after the debacle of his Senate testimony — announced with great fanfare that he was recusing himself from the Russia investigation, but there’s no reason to believe that he recused himself from the Prevezon settlement, tainted now by the same scandal.
Several quick caveats. Like most other aspects of the growing stench over Trump-Russia right now, there are more questions about the weak settlement of this money laundering case than answers. What’s more, it’s worth noting that Trump, Sessions and their Justice Department has already shown a bias toward corporate wrong-doers in its dubious handling of other cases, so I guess you could argue that the Prevezon deal wasn’t anything criminal, but just what these people do. And frankly, while I’m deeply troubled by the appearance of the settlement, I don’t find it as immoral as some of Sessions’ other long-term projects, like re-starting the drug war, reviving mass incarceration policies (and boosting profits for private prison companies), and curbing Americans’ voting rights.
But if America has learned anything in the last half-century, immorality doesn’t bring down our government leaders, but illegality can. (Take Richard Nixon, who got away with prolonging the carnage in Vietnam, expanding it to Cambodia, overthrowing the government of Chile and setting the climate for the murder of students at Kent State…only to lose everything over a simple black-bag job.) As noted here last week, we’ve now seen too many quids and quos involving the Trump campaign and Russia’s support for Trump to be a mere coincidence. Is a favorable settlement for a Russian money launderer with a super-connected lawyer one more quo? It sure looks that way.