How two Soviet-born emigres made it into elite Trump circles — and the center of the impeachment storm

Lev Parnas, a Ukrainian-born emigre, appeared at a dark time in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Less than a month before the election, major GOP donors had been spooked by the revelation that Trump boasted about grabbing women during a recording of the television show “Access Hollywood.”

Parnas had never been a player in national Republican politics. But the onetime stockbroker chose that moment to deliver a $50,000 donation to Trump’s campaign and the Republican Party, and it quickly opened doors.

The contribution helped propel Parnas and his business partner, Belarus-born Igor Fruman, on an extraordinarily rapid rise into the upper echelon of Trump allies — before they became central figures in the presidential impeachment inquiry.

By spring 2018, the two men had

  • dined with Trump,
  • breakfasted with his son and
  • attended exclusive events at Mar-a-Lago and the White House, all while
  • jetting around the world and spending lavishly, particularly at Trump hotels in New York and Washington. That May, a pro-Trump super PAC reported receiving a $325,000 donation from an energy company the duo had recently formed.
Rudolph W. Giuliani, left, has coffee with Lev Parnas at the Trump International Hotel in Washington on Sept. 20. (Reuters Staff/Reuters)
Rudolph W. Giuliani, left, has coffee with Lev Parnas at the Trump International Hotel in Washington on Sept. 20. (Reuters Staff/Reuters)

Where Parnas and Fruman got their money remains a mystery. When they were arrested Wednesday on allegations of campaign finance violations, prosecutors alleged that Parnas and Fruman were backed in part by an unnamed Russian national who used them to funnel donations to state and federal candidates.

This summer, Parnas had begun working as a translator for the legal team of Dmytro Firtash, an Ukrainian gas tycoon who faces bribery charges in the United States, according to Victoria Toensing, one of Firtash’s lawyers. The energy magnate has been accused by federal prosecutors of having ties to Russian organized crime and has been fighting extradition to the United States from Austria. Firtash has denied wrongdoing.

As they scaled the ranks of Trump’s Washington, Parnas and Fruman demonstrated a remarkable facility for capitalizing on their newfound connections, according to people who observed them. They also appeared to be constantly in pursuit of new business ventures — “always hustling,” in the words of one Trump ally who interacted with them.

Igor Fruman, left, and Lev Parnas were arrested at Dulles Airport on Wednesday. (Alexandria Sheriff/Handout Handout/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
Igor Fruman, left, and Lev Parnas were arrested at Dulles Airport on Wednesday. (Alexandria Sheriff/Handout Handout/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

In 2018, they hired the president’s personal attorney, Rudolph W. Giuliani, to serve as a consultant as they launched a security business — and then helped Giuliani, in turn, reach Ukrainian officials in his quest to find information damaging to Democrats.

During a visit to Israel last summer sponsored by a pro-Israel charity, Parnas and Fruman were “mega-dropping Rudy’s name” as they snapped photos with well-known figures, according to former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci, who was also on the trip.

“ ‘We’re best friends with Rudy Giuliani,’ ” Scaramucci said the two men told him. “ ‘We work with him on everything.’ ”

Giuliani’s ties to the duo are now under scrutiny by both federal prosecutors and congressional investigators seeking to unravel how two businessmen trailed by creditors and failed past ventures came to be at the center of an expanding international drama.

Giuliani has denied knowledge of any wrongdoing. He said Friday that he had seen the two men “quite often.”

“I have no reason to believe that they are anything other than decent guys,” he said.

Parnas and Fruman, who made a brief court appearance Thursday in Alexandria, have not entered a plea to the charges against them.

Their new lawyer, John Dowd — who also previously served as a personal attorney for Trump — declined to respond to a number of questions about the two men, writing only in an email, “You publish at your peril.”

Elite Trump circles

Parnas, 47, was born in Ukraine but moved with his family to the U.S. as a child and grew up in Brooklyn. He told The Washington Post in an interview conducted before his arrest that he got his start in real estate, selling Trump condos for Donald Trump’s father, Fred, then worked in shipping in the former Soviet Union before becoming a securities trader. He moved to Florida in the mid-1990s.

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People who encountered the two men in recent years said that Parnas did most of the talking and seemed to be the public face of their U.S. partnership. But Parnas told The Post that Fruman was the one with especially deep connections in Ukraine.

Born in Belarus, Fruman, 53, owns a luxury jewelry business, a luxury car dealership and a hotel in Odessa, the port city on the Black Sea. He also owns an import-export business based in New York.

Both men have been trailed by financial problems, including a lawsuit filed against them earlier this year claiming they had failed to repay a $100,000 loan in 2018. The suit has been settled.

Parnas told The Post that he got involved in the Trump campaign because he admired the real estate developer, whom he said he had met several times before the election.

“I was really passionate about the president,” he said. “I started really believing that he could really make a change and make it happen. Then I jumped on the campaign, donated money and became a really big believer.”

Now, Parnas said, “I think he’s going to go down as one of the greatest presidents ever, even with all this negativity.”

As for Giuliani, Parnas said he had met the former New York mayor during the campaign but that the relationship “bonded and built over time.”

We’re just very close,” he said, calling Giuliani “a very good friend.”

Giuliani said Friday that he recalls first meeting Parnas and Fruman in “mid-to-late 2018” after a lawyer who is a friend referred them to him.

At the time, Giuliani said, the men were ramping up a company called Fraud Guarantee, which would use specialized software to identify possible fraud in companies.

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I know a lot about cybersecurity,” he said. “So they wanted my advice.”

Giuliani said his security consulting firm did “intense” work for the two men in 2018 and 2019, providing paid advice on how to structure their company.

Around the same time, the two men began to appear regularly at elite Trump-related events and started to track their travels on Facebook and Instagram. Their posts have now been deleted, but were captured by BuzzFeed and other news organizations before they were taken down.

Fruman posted photos of himself at a Republican National Committee fundraiser at Trump’s estate Mar-a-Lago in March 2018. In one, he was standing in front of a Florida flag next to Trump, who offered two thumbs up for the camera.

That May, Parnas posted photos and videos on Facebook that he wrote were taken at the White House, including one of him beaming as he stood next to the president between two American flags, giving a thumbs-up. “Thank you President Trump !!!” he wrote, adding, “incredible dinner and even better conversation.”

Ten days later, Fruman told the Brooklyn-based Russian-language publication Jewish World that the two men had been part of a group of just eight people who met privately with the president and discussed the upcoming midterm elections. Fruman said he also had discussed Ukraine-U.S. relations at the dinner.

White House officials declined to comment on the event.

Later that month, Parnas posted a photo of himself and Fruman breakfasting at the Beverly Hills Hotel Polo Lounge with Donald Trump Jr. and Tommy Hicks Jr., a close friend of the president’s son and top RNC official. “#Trump2020,” he captioned the photo.

An attorney for Trump Jr. declined to comment. Hicks did not respond to requests for comment.

In an exchange with reporters outside the White House on Thursday, Trump said he doesn’t know Parnas and Fruman, dismissing the photos of himself with the two men.

“I don’t know those gentlemen,” Trump said. “Now, it’s possible I have a picture with them, because I have a picture with everybody. . . . I don’t know about them; I don’t know what they do. I don’t know, maybe they were clients of Rudy. You’d have to ask Rudy.”

Parnas and Fruman were also patrons of the president’s hotel.

In one five-week period between September 2018 and October 2018, the two men racked up more than $13,000 in charges at the Trump hotels in New York and Washington, according to a person familiar with their finances, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share private information.

In December, they attended a White House Hanukkah party, posting a photo on social media that includes Giuliani, Trump and Vice President Pence. A White House aide said the event was attended by hundreds of people.

The two men also began donating liberally to federal and state political committees, including a $325,000 contribution in May 2018 to the pro-Trump super PAC America First Action.

All told, the two and their energy firm contributed at least $630,000 to federal GOP candidates and PACs since 2016, campaign finance filings show.

The money also flowed to candidates in Nevada, Texas, West Virginia and Florida. Prosecutors now allege the campaign contributions were part of an illegal scheme to funnel foreign money to “buy potential influence with candidates, campaigns and the candidates’ governments,” according to the indictment.

The two men, along with two other associates, are charged with laundering money through corporate bank accounts and using straw donors to obscure the source of their funds, including illegal foreign contributions.

Kelly Sadler, a spokeswoman for America First Action, said the super PAC is placing the contribution it received in a segregated bank account “until these matters are resolved. We take our legal obligations seriously and scrupulously comply with the law.”

Jay Sekulow, an attorney for Trump, said: “As the indictment states, neither the President nor the [Trump] campaign were aware of the allegations.”

Pitching a gas deal

Over the same period that they were cultivating political ties, Parnas and Fruman were involved with a dizzying array of business pursuits.

Apart from Fraud Guarantee, they planned to launch a recreational marijuana business in states such as Nevada with the Russian national, according to the indictment.

Parnas also received tens of thousands of dollars last year from the firm of Brian Ballard, a longtime Florida lobbyist who is close to Trump, according to a person familiar with Parnas’s finances. Another person familiar with the arrangement said Parnas was paid to refer possible clients, but none were connected to Ukraine.

In April 2018, the two men incorporated their new company, Global Energy Producers, which purportedly intended to sell liquefied natural gas. Quickly, the two began an effort to export American gas into Ukraine through Poland.

Efforts to bring more U.S. gas to Europe — particularly Ukraine, to reduce its dependence on Russian energy — have been a priority for the Trump administration.

Neither Parnas nor Fruman had any particular experience in the energy world, but at an energy conference in Houston in March, they made a pitch to Ukrainian state oil and gas giant Naftogaz.

Parnas and Fruman approached a top official at Naftogaz, Andrew Favorov, regarding their venture, according Dale W. Perry, an American businessman close to Favorov, as well as another a person familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition on anonymity to describe the private conversation.

Then, in a conversation first reported by the Associated Press, Parnas and Fruman pitched their LNG business and their hope to soon see new leadership at Naftogaz that would be receptive to their proposal. They asserted that U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, who opposed replacing the company’s chief executive, would soon be gone.

By May, Yovanovitch had been abruptly recalled from her post on Trump’s orders.

The implication, according to the person familiar with the meeting, was that the men would help Favorov take the top job at Naftogaz and then begin selling LNG to the Ukrainian state gas conglomerate.

Favorov declined the offer, Perry said. He said the Naftogaz official, a former business partner, contacted him soon afterward and described the encounter, which Favorov told Perry made him deeply uncomfortable.

Favorov and Perry were particularly concerned by the efforts of private businessmen with personal motivations to push for the ouster of Yovanovitch, who they view as a conscientious public servant, Perry said.

If she can be removed, then anything is possible now,” Perry said. “Where is the rule of law? Where is the stability?” Favorov could not be reached for comment.

Parnas, speaking to The Post before his arrest, said nothing ultimately came of his efforts to launch the LNG venture in Ukraine, in part because of the attention he and Fruman received for their political activities with Giuliani.

Now everybody is scared to do business with us,” Parnas said.

Backing Giuliani’s efforts

The campaign against Yovanovitch was embraced by Giuliani as part of his broader effort to pressure Ukraine to launch investigations into Trump’s political rivals. Parnas and Fruman assisted him in that project.

They were helping me a lot in Ukraine,” Giuliani said Friday.

According to Parnas, he was sitting at lunch with Giuliani in late 2018 when the former New York mayor was approached by an American with information about Ukraine. On learning of Giuliani’s interest in Ukraine, Parnas said he then worked to connect Giuliani with people in Ukraine who had information he believed could assist the effort.

“Me just being next to him, me being Russian speaking and having business there and knowing the culture and also knowing a lot of individuals and having a lot of relationships somehow just basically steamrolled into me taking an active role as a patriotic duty,” Parnas said. “And here we are now.”

Parnas has said he helped set up a call for Giuliani in January 2019 with Viktor Shokin, a former Ukrainian prosecutor who has alleged that he was fired in 2016 for investigating a company whose board included former vice president Biden’s son Hunter. Parnas said he and Fruman also connected Giuliani with Yuriy Lutsenko, who served as Ukraine’s top prosecutor until August.

“We took it upon ourselves as our patriotic duty, basically, whatever information we could get, to pass it on and to basically validate it as best as we could,” Parnas said.

Among other topics, Parnas has said he and Giuliani discussed Yovanovich, who was removed from her position in May on Trump’s orders after a whisper campaign that she was disloyal to the president.

Prosecutors said Thursday that Parnas’s efforts to remove Yovanovich came “at least in part at the request of one or more Ukrainian government officials.”

In recent months, Parnas has become even more financially entangled with Giuliani and his allies.

In an interview, Toensing said she and her husband, attorney Joe diGenova, retained Parnas this summer to work as a translator as they represent Firtash, who has been charged in Illinois with bribing Indian officials related to mining interests in that country. He is fighting extradition to the U.S. from Austria.

Firtash, who U.S. prosecutors have alleged in court documents is an “upper-echelon” associate of Russian organized crime, has denied wrongdoing. Earlier this year, he hired Toensing and diGenova, who appear frequently on Fox News and are close to Giuliani.

Toensing said she was “outraged” by the Justice Department charges against her client, adding that “the Indian government has investigated” the bribery claim and filed no charges in the case. She said Firtash’s Austrian extradition case included testimony from investigators who found that he had “no ties to organized crime.”

Toensing said she met Parnas through Giuliani and tapped him “to be our translator to review documents and to help with Ukraine,” noting that “he speaks Russian and our client does not speak English.”

Parnas and Fruman’s myriad political and business ventures came to an abrupt halt Wednesday.

The duo had lunched that day with Giuliani at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Hours later, they were at Dulles Airport, about to board a plane to Europe, when authorities in the hallway stopped them and asked to see their passports, according to a person who saw the encounter who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation.

Soon, the person said, about a dozen plainclothes investigators converged on the scene, and the two men were led away.

Monty Python Mafia vs Army

The mob threatens the army: it would be a shame if something happened ..

(Stock film of the amy. Tanks rolling, troops moving forward etc. Stirring military music.)

Voice Over: In 1943, a group of British Army Officers working deep behind enemy lines, carried out one of the most dangerous and heroic raids in the history of warfare. But that’s as maybe. And now . . .

(Superimposed Caption on Screen : ‘AND NOW . . . UNOCCUPIED BRITAIN I970′ Cut to colonel’s office. Colonel is seated at desk.)

Colonel: (Graham Chapman) Come in, what do you want?

(Private Watkins enters and salutes.)

Watkins: (Eric Idle) I’d like to leave the army please, sir.

Colonel: Good heavens man, why?

Watkins: It’s dangerous.

Colonel: What?

Watkins: There are people with guns out there, sir.

Colonel: What?

Watkins: Real guns, sir. Not toy ones, sir. Proper ones, sir. They’ve all got ’em. All of ’em, sir. And some of ’em have got tanks.

Colonel: Watkins, they are on our side.

Watkins: And grenades, sir. And machine guns, sir. So I’d like to leave, sir, before I get killed, please.

Colonel: Watkins, you’ve only been in the army a day.

Watkins: I know sir but people get killed, properly dead sir, no barely cross fingers sir. A bloke was telling me, if you’re in the army and there’s a war you have to go and fight.

Colonel: That’s true.

Watkins: Well I mean, blimey, I mean if it was a big war somebody could be hurt.

Colonel: Watkins why did you join the army?

Watkins: For the water-skiing and for the travel, sir. And not for the killing, sir. I asked them to put it on my form, sir – no killing.

Colonel: Watkins are you a pacifist?

Watkins: No sir, I’m not a pacifist, sir. I’m a coward.

Colonel: That’s a very silly line. Sit down.

Watkins: Yes sir. Silly, sir. (sits in corner)

Colonel: Awfully bad.

(Knock at the door, sergeant enters, and salutes.)

Sergeant: (John Cleese) Two civilian gentlemen to see you sir!

Colonel: Show them in please, sergeant.

Sergeant: Mr Dino Vercotti and Mr Luigi Vercotti.

(The Vercotti brothers enter. They wear Mafia suits and dark glasses.)

Dino: (Terry Jones) Good morning, Colonel.

Colonel: Good morning gentlemen. Now what can I do for you.

Luigi: (Michael Palin) (looking round office casually) You’ve… you’ve got a nice army base here, Colonel.

Colonel: Yes.

Luigi: We wouldn’t want anything to happen to it.

Colonel: What?

Dino: No, what my brother means is it would be a shame if… (he knocks something off mantel)

Colonel: Oh.

Dino: Oh sorry, Colonel.

Colonel: Well don’t worry about that. But please do sit down.

Luigi: No, we prefer to stand, thank you, Colonel.

Colonel: All right. All right. But what do you want?

Dino: What do we want, ha ha ha.

Luigi: Ha ha ha, very good, Colonel.

Dino: The Colonel’s a joker, Luigi.

Luigi: Explain it to the Colonel, Dino.

Dino: How many tanks you got, Colonel?

Colonel: About five hundred altogether.

Luigi: Five hundred, eh?

Dino: You ought to be careful, Co1onel.

Colonel: We are careful, extremely careful.

Dino: ‘Cos things break, don’t they?

Colonel: Break?

Luigi: Well everything breaks, don’t it Colonel. (he breaks something on desk) Oh dear.

Dino: Oh see my brother’s clumsy Colonel, and when he gets unhappy he breaks things. Like say, he don’t feel the army’s playing fair by him, he may start breaking things, Colonel.

Colonel: What is all this about?

Luigi: How many men you got here, Colonel?

Colonel: Oh, er… seven thousand infantry, six hundred artillery, and er, two divisions of paratroops.

Luigi: Paratroops, Dino.

Dino: Be a shame if someone was to set fire to them.

Colonel: Set fire to them?

Luigi: Fires happen, Colonel.

Dino: Things burn.

Colonel: Look, what is all this about?

Dino: My brother and I have got a little proposition for you Colonel.

Luigi: Could save you a lot of bother.

Dino: I mean you’re doing all right here aren’t you, Colonel?

Luigi: Well suppose some of your tanks was to get broken and troops started getting lost, er, fights started breaking out during general inspection, like.

Dino: It wouldn’t be good for business would it, Colonel?

Colonel: Are you threatening me?

Dino: Oh, no, no, no.

Luigi: Whatever made you think that, Colonel?

Dino: The Colonel doesn’t think we’re nice people, Luigi.

Luigi: We’re your buddies, Colonel.

Dino: We want to look after you.

Colonel: Look after me?

Luigi: We can guarantee you that not a single armoured division will get done over for fifteen bob a week.

Colonel: No, no, no.

Luigi: Twelve and six.

Colonel: No, no, no.

Luigi: Eight and six… five bob.

Colonel: No, no this is silly.

Dino: What’s silly?

Colonel: No, the whole premise is silly and it’s very badly written. I’m the senior officer here and I haven’t had a funny line yet. So I’m stopping it.

Dino: You can’t do that!

Colonel: I’ve done it. The sketch is over.

Watkins: I want to leave the army please sir, it’s dangerous.

Colonel: Look, I stopped your sketch five minutes ago. So get out of shot. Right director! Close up. Zoom in on me. (camera zooms in) That’s better.

Luigi: (off screen) It’s only ‘cos you couldn’t think of a punch line.

Colonel: Not true, not true. It’s time for the cartoon. Cue telecine, ten, nine, eight…

(Cut to telecine countdown.)

Dino: (off screen) The general public’s not going to understand this, are they?

Colonel: (off screen) Shut up you eyeties!

Trump’s Racism Is Feudal

The president wants African Americans to kiss his ring.

Why is Trump getting hysterical over the Mueller’s probe if “there was no collusion”?

I’m going to suggest another, non-exclusive motive. It comes from living in NYC with Trump’s showboating since the late 1970s. We NYers have followed Trump’s trainwreck career for decades. He’s such a media hound that it was impossible not to. I even interviewed for an IT job at Trump Organization in the early 90s and met him briefly in the elevator on the way out. He wore way too much cologne.

Trump will be tough for Mueller to nail on conspiracy because he never has his fingerprints on any of the shady stuff. He has others do the jobs for him while he pleads ignorance. Trump is like a mafia godfather insofar as he has capos and soldiers do his dirty work and report back while he keeps clean hands. That was the role of sleazeballs like Michael Cohen and Felix Sater. They’re the ones who are exposed. It explains why Mueller has leaned so heavily on Cohen, Stone, Manafort, et al. But they’re just the latest in a line of such “fixers”.

During the Trump Tower-to-early Atlantic City days it was John Cody and Daniel Sullivan (Google them), both with strong connections to the Genovese and Gambino crime families through the construction unions. As those old mafia families were dismantled by DOJ, Trump cozied up to the growing Russian mob in NYC. Cohen and Sater were perfectly placed for that through the old El Caribe club, the US headquarters for Simion Mogilevich, the boss of all Russian bosses. Cohen’s family owned that club.

Trump is hysterical because Mueller, and by extension the NY AG, Tish James, have an all-access pass to Trump’s past — 35 years of questionable business dealings, curious partnerships and cash and potential illegal activities that have already cost Trump tens of millions in fines. Most of it is protected by the statute of limitations but a lot of it isn’t, fraud being the main one. Fraud includes money laundering: years and billions in illicit Russian cash flowing through Trump, his company and his holdings. I believe this is where Trump is most vulnerable. For that matter, so does Steve Bannon, who said as much. I also believe that’s why he won’t release his tax returns.

If Mueller can build a case of long-term, organized fraud, guess what? He has a RICO predicate. The evidence doesn’t even have to point at Trump directly… not anymore than it did Fat Tony Salerno of the Genovese family, Tony Ducks Corallo of the Lucchese family and Carmine Persico of the Colombo family, all of whom got in excess of a hundred years each. It just has to show that he profited from it, controlled it and had some knowledge of it.

Trump’s lapdog DOJ director won’t sign off on the RICO predicate? Doesn’t matter. NY state has its own RICO laws that are just as draconian.

IOW, I think Trump is less worried about Russian “collusion”, where he believes he’s provided plenty of denial room for himself, than he is a RICO case targeting Trump Org.

I also think it’s very possible that there was no actual collusion on Trump’s part to influence the 2016 election. It could well be that Putin decided unilaterally to get Trump elected because it was in his best interests and the interests of his oligarch friends to have Trump in the White House to protect the gravy train. It’s curious that Felix Sater’s name never comes up in the course of Mueller’s investigation. He would be the logical point man for any organized money laundering with Russia and the mob. Perhaps he was the first to willingly flip? Another felony conviction would be Strike Three for him and a very long prison sentence. He’s already flipped to the government once before so it’s definitely in his genes.

The Trump-Russia Investigation and the Mafia State

many of us who write about Russia professionally, or who are Russian, have struggled to square what we know with the emerging narrative. In this story, Russia waged a sophisticated and audacious operation to subvert American elections and install a President of its choice—it pulled off a coup. Tell that to your average American liberal, and you’ll get a nod of recognition. Tell it to your average Russian liberal (admittedly a much smaller category), and you’ll get uproarious laughter. Russians know that their state lacks the competence to mount a sophisticated sabotage effort, that the Kremlin was even more surprised by Trump’s election than was the candidate himself, and that Russian-American relations are at their most dysfunctional since the height of the Cold War. And yet the indictments keep coming.

.. I mean that I’ve figured out how to think about what we know and not go crazy. The answer lies in the concept of the Mafia state. (And, no, I’m not invoking the Mob because Stone encouraged an associate to behave like a character from “The Godfather Part II,” as detailed in his indictment.)

As journalists who usually cover American politics have connected the dots of the story of Russian interference, those of us who normally write about Russia have cringed. Early on, it was common to point out that Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, who is now under arrest, worked for Viktor Yanukovych, who is often characterized as the “pro-Russian President of Ukraine.” In fact, there was no love lost between Putin and Yanukovych. After he was run out of town, during the 2014 Ukrainian revolution, Yanukovych did seek refuge in Russia, but during his tenure as President he was an unreliable partner for Putin at best. Perhaps more to the point, he’s a crook and a brute. He served time for robbery and assault before he became a politician, and he is wanted in Ukraine for treason, mass murder, and embezzlement. A visitor to Ukraine can take a tour of Yanukovych’s palace, famous for its marble, crystal, immense scale, and a life-size solid-gold sculpture of a loaf of bread. Manafort made a career of working for the corrupt and the crooked. That in itself tells us little about Russia or its role in the 2016 campaign.

.. In media coverage, her e-mailing with a lawyer in the Russian prosecutor’s office was portrayed as evidence of a direct line to Putin, suggesting that she met with Trump’s campaign officials as his emissary. To me, it read as a lot of bluster on the part of a minor operator. From all the available evidence, and contrary to her sales pitch, Veselnitskaya did not have any dirt to offer on Hillary Clinton. To the extent that Veselnitskaya had established connections to high-level Russian officials, they were the kind that are necessary for a lawyer to be at all effective in a corrupt system.

.. We cringed at the characterization of the Russian online influence campaign as “sophisticated” and “vast”: Russian reporting on the matter—the best available—convincingly portrayed the troll operation as small-time and ridiculous. It was, it seems, fraudulent in every way imaginable: it perpetrated fraud on American social networks, creating fake accounts and events and spreading falsehoods, but it was also fraudulent in its relationship to whoever was funding it, because surely crudely designed pictures depicting Hillary Clinton as Satan could not deliver anyone’s money’s worth.

What we are observing is not most accurately described as the subversion of American democracy by a hostile power. Instead, it is an attempt at state capture by an international crime syndicate. What unites Yanukovych, Veselnitskaya, Manafort, Stone, WikiLeaks’s Julian Assange, the Russian troll factory, the Trump campaign staffer George Papadopoulos and his partners in crime, the “Professor” (whose academic credentials are in doubt), and the “Female Russian National” (who appears to have fraudulently presented herself as Putin’s niece) is that they are all crooks and frauds. This is not a moral assessment, or an attempt to downplay their importance. It is an attempt to stop talking in terms of states and geopolitics and begin looking at Mafias and profits.

The Hungarian sociologist Bálint Magyar, who created the concept of the “post-Communist mafia state,” has just finished editing a new collection of articles called “Stubborn Structures: Reconceptualizing Post-Communist Regimes” (to be published by C.E.U. Press early this year). In one of his own pieces in the collection, using Russia as an example, Magyar describes the Mafia state as one run by a “patron” and his “court”—put another way, the boss and his clan—who appropriate public resources and the institutions of the state for their private use and profit. When I talked to Magyar on the phone on Monday, he told me that Trump is “like a Mafia boss without a Mafia. Trump cannot transform the United States into a Mafia state, of course, but he still acts like a Mafia boss.” Putin, on the other hand, “is a Mafia boss with a real Mafia, which has turned the whole state into a criminal state.” Still, he said, “the behavior at the top is the same.”

The Mafia state is efficient in its own way. It does not take over all state institutions, but absorbs only the ones necessary for extracting profit. Some structures therefore continue to work as though they were part of a normal state. This may explain why we saw the official Russian foreign-policy establishment preparing, in the lead-up to the 2016 election, for a working relationship with the presumed Hillary Clinton Administration.

When we think about a normal state, Magyar told me, “the assumption is that the state acts in the public interest, and if that doesn’t happen, that’s a deviation.” That is true of how we think about democracies but also, to a large extent, of how we think about dictatorships as well: the dictator positions himself as the arbiter and sole representative of the national interest. A Mafia state, on the other hand, acts only in the personal profit-seeking interests of the clan. “That’s not a deviation,” Magyar said. “It’s a substantive, structural characteristic of the state. The state itself, at the top, works as a criminal organization.”

By the metrics of a Mafia state, though, the Trump Presidency has yielded great results for Russia. A Mafia boss craves respect, loyalty, and perceived power. Trump’s deference to Putin and the widespread public perception of Putin’s influence over Trump have lifted Putin’s stature beyond what I suspect could have been his wildest dreams. As happens in a Mafia state, most of the benefit accrues to the patron personally. But some of the profit goes to the clan. Over the weekend, we learned that the Treasury Department has lifted sanctions on companies that belong to Oleg Deripaska, a member of Putin’s “court” who once lent millions of dollars to Manafort. If a ragtag team employed by or otherwise connected to the Russian Mafia state tried to aid a similar collection of crooks and frauds to elect Trump—as it increasingly looks like they did—then the Deripaska news helps explain their motivations. The story is not that Putin is masterminding a vast and brilliant attack on Western democracy. The story, it appears, is that the Russian Mafia state is cultivating profit-yielding relationships with the aspiring Mafia boss of the U.S. and his band of crooks, subverting democratic institutions in the process.

How Totally Screwed Is Trump? Commentary and Analysis of the Cohen and Manafort Filings

One odd wrinkle about the Cohen campaign finance case: Trump could have legally paid off Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal as long as he used campaign funds and reported the expenditure. And Trump wouldn’t have had to report the expenditure as “hush money to mistresses” or anything so damning. Campaign finance law experts have said he could have reported it as “legal services” or “litigation settlement.”

Indeed, they wouldn’t have needed to report the October 27 payment to Stormy (in contrast to the earlier McDougal payment) until after Election Day under Federal Election Commission rules.

So Cohen and Trump could have gone the legal route and quite possibly gotten away with it. Why didn’t they? Perhaps they were too ignorant to know this was an option, or they were paranoid that the underlying facts would somehow leak before the election.

The lessons here are to hire competent lawyers and listen to them, don’t have mistresses, and don’t pay them off. It’s good to have a lawyer, bad to have a mistress, and perilous to hush either.

 

.. Speculation has been building for months about the report that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III is obligated to write under the regulation governing his appointment. When will it come out? Will Rudolph W. Giuliani really write a “rebuttal” on President Trump’s behalf? Can the acting attorney general — whom Trump seems to have named to the job in a bid to exert more control over Mueller — or his replacement prevent the report from being made public, effectively burying whatever the investigation has found?

But Mueller has already been submitting his report, piece by piece, in indictments and other charging documents. He has hidden it in plain sight in the court dockets of individuals and organizations he has prosecuted. Many of those court papers have included far more detail than necessary to prove the culpability of defendants who have agreed to plead guilty. This isn’t just legal overkill on Mueller’s part — it’s the outlines of a sweeping narrative about the 2016 election.

.. Incoming and outgoing officials have more than Trump in common. Each American that works for this president does so knowing that there is a big chance they’ll end up implicated, perhaps inadvertently, in ongoing investigations. Every decision that the president has made, and will make, on Russia policy could be tainted by his other interests which should lead the special counsel (and perhaps the new Congress) to question officials about whether these conflicts of interests impacted policy decisions. Officials who served with Trump on the campaign, or are administration officials referenced in the Mueller filing on Manafort or as part of the work on Russia-related matters Mueller mentioned in his separate Cohen filing, likely have information pertinent to criminal proceedings.

 

.. Intelligencer’s Eric Levitz on how crazy it could get in 2020 if Trump isn’t just fighting for his presidency, but to avoid a post-presidency indictment for campaign finance crimes:

[Trump had little personal stake in this year’s midterms, and] yet, to boost his party’s 2018 prospects, the president proved willing to fabricate an impending “invasion” by migrant terrorists and gangsters; suggest that said invasion was being organized by the Democratic Party as part of an elaborate bid to steal the midterm elections; persist in fomenting such incendiary conspiracy theories even after they inspired one of his supporters to attempt the assassination of many leading Democrats; and deploy thousands of U.S. troops to the southern border, so as to give his big lie an extra measure of credibility.

Even before Mueller’s latest revelations, this behavior was sufficient to prompt widespread anxiety about what Trump would be willing to do to win reelection, and/or what he might incite “Second Amendment people” to do should he lose it. If the president’s personal freedom ends up on the ballot in 2020, a lot of worse-case-scenarios become more plausible.

 

.. Russia not only knew that Trump was lying, but when investigators first started looking into this deal, the Kremlin helped Trump cover up what really happened. That made Trump doubly compromised: first, because he was eager to get the financial payout and second because Russia had evidence he was lying to the American people — evidence they could have held over Trump by threatening to reveal at any time.

Since the president’s embarrassing performance at the Helsinki summit with Vladimir Putin — when he kowtowed to a foreign adversary rather than stand up for American interests — there has been open speculation about what leverage the Kremlin has over him. Now we know at least part of the picture, raising the specter of what other information Putin has, and how he is using it to influence Trump’s policy decisions.

.. The Guardian spoke with former prosecutors about the new filings and Robert Mueller’s tactics, and ended up having to include this telling disclaimer:

All the former prosecutors the Guardian spoke with cautioned that they did not mean by their analysis to say that Trump is a mob boss, or that the Mueller investigation is strictly an organized crime investigation. But the similarities kept coming up.

 

To wit, from the former deputy chief of the organized crime unit in the Southern District of New York:

“To play the mafia analogy out a little further,” [Daniel] Goldman said, “mob bosses hold sway over their soldiers because they hold the purse strings for their soldiers and their soldiers’ families, particularly when they go to jail, and they sort of rule with an implicit iron fist that reacts to cooperation with violence up to, potentially, death.

Trump holds sway over his associates through his presidential pardon power and he’s not afraid to explicitly reference that power in connection to individuals who may have information about his own criminal activity. And so the parallels are very strong.”

 

.. And the most likely scenario now is that there was no division between the apparent Trump-Russian collusion on business matters and in the election. The coincidences are piling up. The conversations are piling up. And Mueller’s evidence is clearly piling up as well.

.. Speaking with the Guardian, Patrick Cotter, a former federal prosecutor who was helped take down mobster John Gotti, also suggested that the current phase of Mueller’s strategy is more midgame than endgame:

I think these past couple weeks have shown us that we’re not really in the ninth inning as some people had said … that Mueller’s still got a lot of information that he’s processing and dealing with that’s turning into potentially criminal charges — and I think that the bigger picture is sort of starting to come into focus.

We’re in stage two. We’re hearing the indictments and the pleas, people cooperating. Then there’s going to be a stage three, where people who are not cooperating, just — the hammer falls. And I don’t know if it’s going to be Don Jr., or [Jared] Kushner, or who knows. But I think it’s going to happen, and I can’t tell you when. But I think it’s going to happen.

.. It also seems clear that Russia must have been overjoyed with the success of their meddling, as Garrett M. Graff sums up for Wired:

What intelligence professionals would call [the Kremlin’s] assessment and recruitment phases seems to have unfolded with almost textbook precision, with few stumbling blocks and plenty of encouragement from the Trump side. Mueller’s court filings, when coupled with other investigative reporting, paint a picture of how the Russian government, through various trusted-but-deniable intermediaries, conducted a series of “approaches” over the course of the spring of 2016 to determine, as [Lawfare’s Benjamin] Wittes says, whether “this is a guy you can do business with.”

The answer, from everyone in Trumpland— from Michael Cohen in January 2016, from George Papadopoulos in spring 2016, from Donald Trump Jr. in June 2016, from Michael Flynn in December 2016 —appears to have been an unequivocal “yes.”

.. At the New Yorker, Adam Davidson tries to put the memos in perspective, especially focusing on Mueller’s Cohen sentencing statement and what it says about Trump’s least favorite word:

The filing comes close to suggesting collusion without actually making that case. Mueller notes that Cohen’s effort to engage Russia with Trump’s knowledge and consent “occurred at a time of sustained efforts by the Russian government to interfere with the U.S. presidential election.” Mueller provided another hint by praising Cohen for providing the special counsel’s office “with useful information concerning certain Russia-related matters core to its investigation.” There is arguably only one matter core to the Mueller investigation, as defined by Mueller’s appointment as special counsel: “to ensure a full and thorough investigation of the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election … [and] any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump.” If Cohen’s information is core to the Mueller investigation, it is reasonable to conclude that Mueller does, indeed, believe he can prove that there was collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.

However — perhaps maddeningly for people who have been waiting for clarity on Mueller’s investigation — he does not, in the sentencing memo, lay out the details of possible collusion. But the document tells another damning story: Cohen repeatedly lied about his work, on behalf of Trump, to make money and develop political ties with the Kremlin. His lies were “a deliberate effort” intended “to set the tone and shape the course of the hearings in an effort to stymie the inquiries.”

.. The memo states that Cohen’s actions, “struck a blow to one of the core goals of the federal campaign finance laws: transparency. While many Americans who desired a particular outcome to the election knocked on doors, toiled at phone banks, or found any number of other legal ways to make their voices heard, Cohen sought to influence the election from the shadows.” His sentence “should reflect the seriousness of Cohen’s brazen violations of the election laws and attempt to counter the public cynicism that may arise when individuals like Cohen act as if the political process belongs to the rich and powerful.”

One struggles to see how a document that alleges that such conduct took place at the direction of Individual-1 “totally clears the president.”

 

.. [I]it is highly likely that senior Trump officials reviewed Cohen’s prepared, false testimony before he lied to Congress. This raises two important questions. Was Trump aware of the substance of Cohen’s testimony? If so, was Trump aware that Cohen’s testimony was false?

 

 

Congress, Do Your Job

After President Trump’s Terrible Tuesday, Republican lawmakers need to stop pretending that there are any red lines that he won’t cross.

Congressional Republicans have been operating under a see-no-evil policy with President Trump: ignoring his lying, his subversions of democratic norms and his attacks on government institutions or, when that’s not possible, dismissing such outrages as empty bluster — as Trump being Trump.

..Also on Tuesday, a federal jury convicted Mr. Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, of bank and tax fraud. How did Mr. Trump react? More like a Mafia don than a guardian of the rule of law. While criticizing Mr. Cohen on Wednesday, the president tweeted that, by contrast, he had “such respect for a brave man” like Mr. Manafort, who “refused to ‘break’ … to get a ‘deal.’ ” The president, in other words, felt moved to praise a convicted felon for refusing to cooperate in the pursuit of justice.

.. And how did Republicans in Congress react? They didn’t, if they could avoid it. John Cornyn, the majority whip in the Senate, shrugged that he had “no idea about what the facts” of Mr. Cohen’s guilty plea were “other than the fact that none of it has anything to do with the Russia investigation.” The office of the House speaker, Paul Ryan, said it needed “more information.” Most members opted for silence.

.. When members of Mr. Trump’s party pooh-pooh his thuggish rantings and otherwise signal that they will overlook even his most dangerous behavior, they are inviting him to act out even more. Like a willful toddler, Mr. Trump lives to test limits.

.. Republican lawmakers need not attack Mr. Trump in order to stop enabling his worst impulses and begin distancing themselves from his corruption. They simply need to stop cowering. An obvious first step is for Congress to pass legislation protecting Robert Mueller’s Russia inquiry

..  The president has toyed with the idea of firing Mr. Mueller and his superior, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, moves that would ignite a constitutional crisis. Lawmakers are deluding themselves to think that he won’t consider such radical acts again as his predicament grows more dire.

.. Much of the groundwork for a bill to protect the Russia investigation has already been laid, with a bipartisan plan having passed the Senate Judiciary Committee. Shamefully, Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican majority leader, has refused to bring the bill up for a vote

.. insisting that it is unnecessary because of course the president would never fire Mr. Mueller.

.. Mr. Ryan has spouted similar assurances. Then again, Mr. Ryan also laughed off the idea that Mr. Trump would strip his political critics of their security clearances, so clearly Republican leaders are not the best barometers of this president’s thinking.

.. Speaking of Mr. Ryan, the speaker needs to shut down the attacks on Mr. Rosenstein by Mr. Trump’s lackeys in the arch-conservative Freedom Caucus.

.. Mark Meadows and Jim Jordan threatened to force an impeachment vote on Mr. Rosenstein, claiming that he was impeding Congress’s harassment — uh, “investigation” — of the Justice Department and the F.B.I. When that plan flopped, the men set their sights on holding Mr. Rosenstein in contempt of Congress — which doesn’t sound as dramatic, but would, if successful, provide Mr. Trump an excuse to oust Mr. Rosenstein and replace him with a lap dog.

.. Once upon a time, campaign finance violations made congressional Republicans very angry indeed. During Bill Clinton’s second term, there was quite an uproar over allegations that the Chinese government had attempted to influence the 1996 presidential race via illegal campaign contributions. (Does Vice President Al Gore’s visit to a certain Buddhist temple ring any bells?)

.. His efforts to hide the money trail suggest he knew his behavior wasn’t kosher. And while the initial payments to the women were made before Mr. Trump won the election, he didn’t begin compensating Mr. Cohen until February of 2017 — thus any conspiracy was carried straight into the Oval Office.

.. Every week seems to bring fresh evidence that Mr. Trump, his inner circle and his main backers do not consider themselves bound by such pedestrian concepts as truth, ethics or the law. The latest confirmation for that was the corruption indictment of Representative Duncan Hunter, Mr. Trump’s second campaign supporter in the House. The first, Representative Chris Collins, was indicted two weeks ago on insider-trading charges.

Congress, unfortunately, remains crouched and trembling in a dark corner, hoping this is all a bad dream. It’s not. Republican lawmakers need to buck up, remind themselves of their constitutional responsibilities and erect some basic guardrails to ensure that — in a fit of rage, panic or mere pique — this president does not wake up one morning and decide to drive American democracy off a cliff.