By Patricia H Kushlis
The subtitle of Craig Unger’s new book House of Trump House of Putin is The Untold Story of Donald Trump and the Russian Mafia. Basically, Unger’s book explores the multi-faceted connections between Donald Trump, his family, his campaign committee, his personal lawyer and staff with members of the Russian mafia, government and its intelligence services well prior to and during the 2016 campaign.
I don’t see that Unger has revealed much new because almost all of the information he includes is well footnoted and available piecemeal in various media including in two of his own commentaries. But I certainly found information I had not come across before. More importantly what makes this book worth reading is his careful assembling of the many pieces of this still unraveling story into a well written, searing and coherent fashion.
The case he makes for these all too close ties is damming.
If anyone is still critical of the amount of time, Special Counsel Robert Mueller is taking to investigate and document the 1,000 piece or more jigsaw puzzle that composes Trump’s Russian connections, I think he or she should stop right now. Complex money laundering cases with lengthy histories just take time and fastidious research to put the parts together and connect the multitude of dots.
Beginning at the beginning
Unger identifies an incredibly complex relationship or series of intricate relationships beginning with Trump’s first visit to Moscow in 1987 if not beginning with his marriage in 1977 to Ivanka Trump, a Czech citizen who was working as a model in Canada and whose father was under surveillance by Czech intelligence.
Yes, Trump’s first Moscow visit took place during the Gorbachev years, a time when the US had begun to encourage American business and private contacts with Russians four years before the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991. Nevertheless, in this context, perhaps the most important thing to consider is that although Gorbachev represented a new form of Soviet leadership, the country’s security services continued to march to their own drumbeat: collecting and carefully filing away compromising information on potential foreign targets for possible future use. Men like Trump were part of their bread and butter. For those of us who served in the Soviet Union, the police state and its secret services targeted against visiting westerners were daily realities.
The overall picture Unger portrays is one of the US president tethered to the Russian mafia which is tethered to Vladimir Putin and his Russian security services. The late Karen Dawisha described the Putin-oligarch-mafia connections accurately in her 2014 book Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia as a mafia state.
In a nutshell, if this sprawling tale can be condensed into a single nutshell, the Russian mafia was born and bred in Stalin’s gulags. Many of that future mafia were Russian Jews, discriminated against by Stalin. They had served prison terms in Siberia as a result. After Stalin’s death, the gulags were emptied and the former prisoners came home. But in reality, there was very little for the former Jewish prisoners to come home to especially since Jews continued to be heavily discriminated against in the Soviet Union - Stalin or not.
In the early 1970s they became some of the people that the Jackson-Vanik Amendment aided. This piece of legislation spurred the Soviets to issue exit permits to Jews and Armenians – the Jews to Israel and the Armenians mostly to the US - in return for enhanced trade. Many Russian Jewish emigres remained in Israel but some of them then emigrated to the US. In the US, the Russian Jewish mafia was concentrated in New York’s Brighton Beach whereupon they opened small scale businesses, got to know and became involved with Italian crime families and over time became conduits for incredible amounts of illicit cash flowing out of the Soviet Union and particularly Russia. The oligarchs needed places to park the money they had received from the cheap sales of Russian natural resources and the most legally opaque form of investment in both the US and the UK was real estate.
Donald Trump - "The King of Debt's" re-entry
Re-enter Donald Trump, a failed New York real estate developer with an enormous ego who had happened upon a simple but surprisingly effective financial model notes the author after his fourth bankruptcy.
“The King of Debt” was in desperate need of cash and the Russian oligarchs needed a place to launder their illicit fortunes in the West. A central player in this money laundering scheme appears to have been a now defunct real estate company called Bayrock LLC; and its collaboration with Trump became a match made in heaven. Trump’s name had brand value which he licensed to developers “who would do all the work and he could sit back and collect the royalties – often 18% of more.” (p. 125) As he marketed his Sunny Isles branded Florida apartments in Moscow, St Petersburg and other locations they were seemingly “designed to attract Russian organized crime money.” (p. 126)
As his son Donald Jr said at a Manhattan real estate conference in 2008, “In terms of high-end product influx into the US, Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of our assets. . . We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.” (p. 153) That statement, in and of itself, should have raised all sorts of red flags.
Thus, in 2004 when Trump was about to hit rock-bottom, he rose from the dead as it were and was suddenly making large cash expenditures for golf courses, estates, and up market houses in the US and abroad by 2006. This spending spree continued at least into 2014.