|RIBER HANSSON / SYDVENSKAN, SWEDEN|
What is the big hammer the Kremlin is holding over Donald Trump's head, so big that he has backed himself into an ever tighter corner where he continues to bleat that the Russia scandal is "fake" news while flailing and failing to shut down the FBI's lead investigation, let alone the four congressional probes?
The most intriguing answer to that question comes in, of all places, the last paragraph of a New York Times story this week which itself was a follow-up to a Washington Post scoop on special counsel Robert Mueller investigating the beleaguered liar-in-chief for obstructing justice (although the explosive content of that last graf was not explicity mentioned in the WaPo story).
The Times graf:A former senior official said Mr. Mueller's investigation was looking at money laundering by Trump associates. The suspicion is that any cooperation with Russian officials [in their interference in the presidential election] would most likely have been in exchange for some kind of financial payoff, and that there would have been an effort to hide the payments, probably by routing them through offshore banking centers.Could this be the proverbial smoking gun? It may well be for those of us whose focus on the scandal has turned from how many meetings Jeff Sessions had with Sergey Kislyak or Trump's continuing attacks on James Comey and back several months to the takeaway observation of former British spy Christopher Steele in his infamous dossier:
The Russians had been "cultivating, supporting and assisting" Trump for years and have compromising personal and financial [both italics mine] information on him that could be used for blackmail.
The more salacious aspects of the dossier, including Trump's alleged romps with Kremlin-financed prostitutes in a Moscow hotel in 2013, have received most of the news media attention.
But the stories almost always have overlooked the big picture, which did not escape the attention of Comey when he was still FBI director and took Steele's digging so seriously that he considered putting him on retainer last October until Steele, frustrated by the bureau's slow progress investigating Trump-Russia ties, cut off contact and then went to ground after the explosion of media stories about the dossier.
As I wrote in March when the scandal seemed to be more smoke than fire:
Trump's infatuation with Russia has had much less to do with his admiration for Vladimir Putin's autocratic ways, although that is a factor, than the art of the deal and Trump's lifelong addiction to greed. That is, making, losing and then making more money in the service of gratifying an insatiable narcissism.
Post-Soviet Union Russia is merely a big crack house for Trump where he has been able to feed his addiction without the cops looking over his shoulder. Until now.
Mueller has not assembled a crack staff of white-collar fraud litigators for nothing. Nor is it a coincidence that of the seven Trump associates known to be under the investigative microscope, at least five (Michael Cohen, Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, Carter Page and son-in-law Jared Kushner) have had business dealings with Russians.
There are numerous transactions between Manafort and Bank of Cyprus, the offshore haven for money laundering by Russian oligarchs and mobsters, who can be indistinguishable from each other. Ukrainian authorities are investigating Manafort for allegedly receiving $2.7 million in illegal payments from Ukraine's former pro-Russia ruling party laundered through offshore accounts.
Two Trump companies are headquartered in Cyprus, which is the only EU country to give the Russian army and navy the right to freely use its facilities for bases of operation.
Meanwhile, Deutsche Bank, which loaned Trump $300 million when no American bank would extend him credit, was a prominent player in a Russian laundering scheme known as the "Global Laundromat" run by Russian criminals with ties to the Kremlin. The chairman of Bank of Cyprus is Josef Ackerman, former Deutsche Bank chairman. Wilbur Ross, Trump's secretary of commerce, was vice chairman.
Closer to home, wealthy Russians have invested nearly $100 million in Trump luxury high rises in Florida.
Trump can continue to blame a "biased" news media, which he no doubt will do. Or I should say promptly did after the WaPo bombshell:
So there you have it: Less than 150 days into the troubled presidency of a troubled man, the main Russia scandal investigation of a foreign government interfering in an election for the purpose of getting that man elected has now reached into the Oval Office and the man's dirty laundry, Vice President Mike Pence has decided to hire his own criminal defense lawyer, and the Senate has voted overwhelmingly to block Trump from easing Russia sanctions and to step up sanctions for Moscow's election interference.
Oh, and unlike Watergate, the cover-up still isn't worse than the crime.
Click HERE for a comprehensive timeline of the Russia scandal.