Point Austin: Beyond Fire and Fury
Trump’s White House follies obscure a deeper trail of corruption
I haven't yet read the hot new D.C. White House exposé, Michael Wolff's Fire and Fury. It only seems that I have, since all the juicy bits of the inside-gossip book have been reported ad nauseam elsewhere. The Trump administration has simultaneously accused Wolff of writing fiction and violating privacy (self-contradicting charges); would-be Imperial Consigliere Steve Bannon has been denounced and de-Breitbarted; Trump toady Stephen Miller, blasting Bannon and the book, told CNN's Jake Tapper that POTUS is indeed a "genius," and (in Wolff's arithmetic) "100%" of Trump's sycophantic official circle is convinced that he's an idiot.
"I thought everybody already knew this," Wolff has been telling interviewers, and the truth is, we did. The national disgrace has been abundantly obvious from Day 1 – when Trump brazenly lied about the size of his inaugural crowd – or indeed during his utterly shameless campaign, and it hasn't gotten any better. The book's title trivializes Trump's vicious threat to annihilate North Korea, a country of 25 million people, not to mention another 50 million South Koreans, our nominal allies. More recently, like a demented juvenile, he's boasted about the size of his nuclear "big button."
It would be laughable, yes, if it weren't so murderous. If reading Wolff's sensational confirmation of the insider version of what is in fact common knowledge helps eventually to put an end to the Trump era, by all means enjoy the read. But if you're looking for a book of more substance, that recounts in great detail the corrupt background of Trump's rise to wealth, prominence, and power, I recommend instead Luke Harding's Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money, and How Russia Helped Donald Trump Win.
The List of Suspects
Harding is a reporter for The Guardian, with a particular expertise on Russia, where he spent four years as Moscow bureau chief until he was expelled for reporting the regime deemed unfavorable. His latest book features the breezy style common to British journalism, but its relentless accumulation of detail compiles the damaging record of Trump's dubious business and political dealings. Does it demonstrate, if not prove, "collusion" with the Russian government and Russian sources? Consider just a few highlights.
• Carter Page – Trump's former "leading Russia expert" although both American and Russian sources routinely describe him as an "idiot" – made several trips to Russia seeking both business deals and political intelligence, and was told that Russia held compromising information on both Hillary Clinton and Trump.
• Michael Flynn, Trump's former national security adviser, repeatedly spoke with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the electoral transition, allegedly discussing removal of Ukraine-related economic sanctions against Russia. (Flynn was fired, ostensibly for lying to Vice President Mike Pence, and has since pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, in lieu of heavier charges.)
• Trump has been courted by Russian government and business sources (virtually indistinguishable) for decades, and specific Trump transactions smell of favoritism if not outright illegality. Notably, in 2008, oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev paid an inflated price for a Trump Florida property – "$95 million, leaving Trump … with a $50 million profit." (Perhaps Rybolovlev was a fool, or perhaps something else was at stake.)
A Trail of Corruption
Those are just the tips of a very large iceberg, and Harding constructs a narrative of Trump's Russian connections (and those of son-in-law Jared Kushner). Perhaps his most damaging chapter is "The Strange Case of the German Bank," i.e. Deutsche Bank. Trump had defaulted on a $330 million debt to the bank, and when it sued for payment, Trump countersued for $3 billion – on the grounds that the bank had helped cause the Great Recession.
The court threw out Trump's frivolous lawsuit, and in 2010 Trump settled the debt, by borrowing more money … from another wing of Deutsche Bank, creating another massive debt of which $300 million remains unpaid, by the sitting president. Simultaneously with that loan, reports Harding, "The bank was laundering money. Russian money. Not small amounts but many billions of dollars." The bank was heavily fined (early last year) – but has declined to respond to U.S. inquiries about the money-laundering trail, which could include major loans to Kushner.
Harding's epilogue summarizes what we know of the Robert Mueller investigation, including the indictments of Paul Manafort and his associate Rick Gates, and the curious role of Trump "foreign policy adviser" George Papadopoulos, also indicted – and as a cooperating witness, likely to confirm a nexus of contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence.
We can enjoy the schadenfreude of White House leaks about Trump's TV viewing habits, his short attention span, his laziness, his ignorance, his cheeseburgers. But Harding's book methodically confirms a long-reported history of apparent corruption and yes, collusion, with a foreign government seeking criminal influence over a U.S. election, and eventually the presidency. We can only hope Mueller is allowed to complete the story.