Around our house, we have a new pastime. We call it “Squirrel!” Whenever The White House emanates some unhinged statement that makes no sense, we look elsewhere for its significance as a deflection – what else is going on, away from which attention must be diverted? It keeps us busy.
Late last week, we got a double dose. First, the Prez tweeted that after consulting with his generals (which may have been a typo for his locus of decision-making – after all, the Pentagon generals denied all knowledge), transgender Americans would be banned from military service. Later that day, his late, unlamented communications director unleashed a vulgar tirade that sent me scurrying to the Urban Dictionary for some semblance of its meaning.
So, what else was up?
The Squirrel! in this case may have been the testimony of financier William Browder (who? – see, it worked) before the Senate Judiciary Committee. A wealthy veteran of the Russia trade, he explained the Kremlin kleptocracy in chilling detail, including his informed belief that it has made Mr. Putin the world’s richest man, several times over.
His statement appears verbatim in The Atlantic, but most of the dailies missed it.
He recounted his personal history of having discovered a blatant, quarter-billion-dollar tax fraud, along with his attorney, Sergei Magnitsky. After duly reporting it to the Kremlin, Browder was charged with evading those taxes himself, and expelled from the country. His lawyer fared worse: he was beaten-to-death during year-long, pre-trial detention in a series of squalid Russian jails.
Browder testified: “Sergei and I were sure that this was a rogue operation and if we just brought it to the attention of the Russian authorities, the ‘good guys’ would get the ‘bad guys’ and that would be the end of the story. … It turns out, there are no good guys. Sergei was murdered as my proxy.”
You may recognize the lawyer’s name as having been attached to an Act passed into law in 2012 that potentially freezes assets and denies visas to persons involved in the lawyer’s murder. You might not know, if Browder is correct, that the Magnitsky Act therefore places at-risk many hundreds of billions in ill-gotten gains stashed in the west, where property rights and rule of law exist. Putin has given very, very high priority to its repeal – Browder testified to his belief that about $200 billion(!) of those bucks are Putin’s personal purloinings.
Browder also offered, during Q and A with the Senators, that if you play ball with the Russians and assist their asset laundering plots, they have you either way: dependent on their largesse, and under threat of blackmail if you try to disengage. You can truly “never leave.”
This puts a whole new element into the 2016 Trump Tower meeting between Russian lawyer Veselnitskaya (Browder describes her as a potent insider, assigned to repeal of the Magnitsky Act) and all those highest-ranking officials of the Trump campaign. Readers will recall that the first bogus explanation for that meeting (penned by the Prez, himself, but delivered by his son), was that it concerned “Russian orphans” (of whom Putin banned adoptions by Americans, in cruel retaliation for Magnitsky).
We later learned about the offer of dirt on Hillary, gleefully accepted. It has received most of the press ink, but maybe that offer was, itself, a diversion from the deeper purpose?
Now, absent a more-complete understanding of President Trump’s prior business practices (what we do know is sordid), there’s still a missing link – was he caught in the Kremlin’s web of multi-billion-dollar deceit? We don’t know yet, but we do know a few things:
o - our Senator Feinstein called Browder’s the most important testimony of the Judiciary Committee’s probe, to-date, and
o – Special Counsel Mueller has hired money-laundering experts onto his staff, and
o - over the past decade, the Trump Organization has changed its sales approach, and conveyed hundreds of valuable properties to unnamed buyers through anonymous, untraceable shell companies, and
o – the Prez has signaled that Mueller should stay away from his finances, and ruminated publicly about his powers of pardon for criminal acts, and
o – those withheld tax returns, and
o – Squirrel!
As a wise man advised in another era: Follow the money.