“You need to stop going to those websites.” That was a friend’s response when I offered a comment about the very strong likelihood that special counsel Robert Mueller and his team will find there was coordination between Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and Russian oligarchs with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
This exchange brought home the realization that many Americans still regard the “Russian connection” as the stuff of left-wing conspiracy theorists, not the obvious conclusion from a thorough reading of months of documented revelations carried in mainstream media, and even in some business and conservative sources.
The cast of characters with whom Trump surrounded himself in recent years, who then migrated into various roles in his campaign, can be most generously described as “colorful.” They also share another characteristic: close ties to Russians, involving huge amounts of money.
The recently-indicted Paul Manafort chaired the Trump campaign from May to August 2016, but he hasn’t confined his campaign management to American elections. For example, he engineered the successful multi-year makeover of a previously defeated Ukrainian politician named Viktor Yanukovych. Under Manafort’s tutelage, Yanukovych won election as Ukraine’s president in 2010. Then, in 2014, as he tried to move Ukraine away from closer ties with Europe and increase its dependence on Russia, the people took to the streets of Kiev and Yanukovych fled — to Russia and the protection of Putin.
Manafort resigned from the Trump campaign on Aug. 19 after The New York Times carried a story about a secret ledger found in Yanukovych’s former office in Kiev showing Manafort had received $12.7 million in cash. Manafort claimed he had not received the money, but still resigned.
While running the Trump campaign, Manafort, who refused a salary, offered private campaign updates to Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska, who is known to have close ties to Putin. One of the things the FBI and Mueller are probably checking is whether Manafort was being paid outside the campaign. Text messages from one of his daughters to a friend indicate he continued to run the campaign even after he formally resigned.
Carter Page, a Trump campaign foreign policy adviser, worked for a time in Moscow for Merrill Lynch. On a trip there during the summer of 2016, while working for Trump, he allegedly met with Igor Sechin, head of Russia’s giant oil company, Rosneft and a close ally of Putin. There is general agreement in most news stories that Page, who comes across in interviews as somewhat goofy, was targeted for recruitment by Russian intelligence. He figures prominently in the “Trump dossier” compiled by former MI6 spy Christopher Steele.
Then, of course, there is Michael Flynn, who was Trump’s national security adviser for 24 days. He recently pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI regarding his conversations with the Russian ambassador. The most famous picture of Flynn shows him seated next to Putin at a dinner for RT, a Russia-financed channel that carried many stories questioning Hillary Clinton’s health during the campaign.
None of the “colorful characters” around Trump surpasses Felix Sater, a convicted felon who served a year in prison. He was born in Russia, but grew up in Brooklyn with Michael Cohen, Trump’s personal attorney. Several years ago, Sater appeared to be on his way to a much longer prison sentence for major securities fraud in a “pump and dump” scheme. However, he avoided prison by providing valuable information about organized crime.
Although Trump seems to have trouble remembering who Sater is nowadays, Sater escorted Trump kids Ivanka and Donald Jr. to Moscow in 2006, even demonstrating considerable pull by arranging a picture of Ivanka at the Kremlin sitting in Putin’s desk chair. As a part of Bayrock Group, he worked for the Trump organization with an office two floors below Trump’s own office in Trump Tower. One of his useful skills was coaxing rich Russians, some with clear Russian organized crime connections, to buy trophy condos in various Trump properties in New York, Florida and in other countries.
On Nov. 3, 2015, Sater wrote an email to Cohen: “Buddy our boy can become President of the USA and we can engineer it. I will get all of Putin’s team to buy in on this.” The “buy in” was possibly in reference to a new Trump Tower in Moscow, which was never built.
It is perhaps appropriate to conclude with Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr. In 2008, speaking at a real estate conference, Trump Jr. said, “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of our assets. We see a lot of money flowing in from Russia.” According to USA Today, one broker, Dolly Lenz, claimed to have sold 65 properties in Manhattan’s Trump Tower to Russians.
Even without knowing what evidence was behind the conclusions stated by each of our three top intelligence agencies — the CIA, FBI and NSA — that Russia, at the direction of the highest level of its government, tried to interfere in our presidential election in favor of Trump, Americans still have plenty of information at their fingertips to know that something unusual, and quite possibly sinister, took place.
We can all hope there are innocent explanations for all of these seemingly suspicious activities, although that now seems improbable. It would be tragic if Mueller’s investigation were cut short for partisan political reasons. Our country needs well-documented answers in order to either regain faith in our election system or to repair its vulnerability to foreign manipulation.
Dave Kerr served in the Kansas Senate as a Republican from 1984 to 2004. He was Senate president from 2001 to 2004.