the national interest

While Mueller Stays Quiet, Suspicious Trump–Russia Clues Keep Popping Up

President Trump. Photo: Joshua Roberts/Getty Images

“I think we’ll be treated very fairly,” President Trump told reporters yesterday, after meeting with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. “Everybody understands there was no collusion, there’s no Russia. It was all made up by the Democrats.”

If Trump is going to shut down the Russia investigation, he is probably waiting until after the midterm elections, which he hopes will deliver a House Republican majority committed to protecting him from oversight or legal accountability. In the meantime, the scope of possibilities for what Robert Mueller might uncover continues to broaden.

Saturday, The Wall Street Journal updated one of the most curious side plots in the investigation: the role of Peter W. Smith, a Republican activist who in 2016 sought Hillary Clinton’s emails from the State Department on behalf (according to Smith) of Trump’s then-adviser Michael Flynn. Smith met with one cybersecurity expert in an attempt to acquire the emails, and waved off concerns about the ethics or legality of colluding with Russian intelligence. Smith died in 2017, very shortly after being contacted by a reporter, bearing a suicide note explaining that he had a “life insurance of $5 million expiring” and his suicide involved “no foul play whatsoever.”

The Journal’s latest report fills in many new details about Smith’s work. Smith raised at least $100,000, from at least four wealthy donors, as part of his effort. Smith “went to extraordinary lengths to ensure the privacy and secrecy of his projects,” reports the Journal. Smith personally donated $50,000 to the effort, a generous gift for a man who, only months later, putatively faced so much financial distress that he killed himself for the life insurance money.

Most interestingly, the Journal got in touch with somebody who spoke with Smith shortly before his death. “Retired Wall Street financier Charles Ortel said he spoke with Mr. Smith on the phone in the hours before his death about a new project to brief the Obama Foundation and warn its leaders against the mistakes they believed were made by the Clinton Foundation,” reports the Journal. “According to Mr. Ortel, Mr. Smith sounded excited, and he began brainstorming who to contact and how to proceed.”

As Betsy Woodruff reported earlier this summer, and as Ryan Goodman noted, Mueller recently added to his team attorney Kathryn Rakoczy, “best known for her work on violent crime cases.” This would support the likelihood that Mueller is investigating Smith’s death as a murder. It is obviously possible that Smith suddenly decided to commit suicide after this conversation without betraying any hint of his intention, and while sounding excited about a future plan. But it is looking increasingly plausible that somebody in fact killed him.

Monday, The New Yorker published an investigation by Dexter Filkins into the connection between the Russian Alfa Bank and the Trump Organization. The story was originally broken by Franklin Foer in the waning days of the 2016 campaign, and its basic contours have not changed very much. Computer scientists discovered patterns of suspicious traffic between the bank’s Moscow office and the Trump Organization during the campaign. When New York Times reporter Eric Lichtblau inquired with Alfa Bank in September 2016, the Trump Organization quickly shut down its server, suggesting the two were in close contact. “The knee was hit in Moscow, the leg kicked in New York,” a computer scientist told Foer.

Some experts have disputed whether the server was used for any real Moscow–Trump Tower communication, and a host of observers have treated the possibility as a crazy conspiracy theory. Filkins, frustratingly, does not resolve the question either way. He produces lots of deep circumstantial evidence and credible testimony suggesting the server played some role in collusion between Trump and Russia, but not enough to prove it.

If there is a smoking gun here, it will probably require testimony from one of the people involved in the campaign. We have no indication that that kind of testimony is coming — but, then, we have no indication of anything Mueller is up to, nor have we had much indication the entire time he’s been investigating.

The final and perhaps most intriguing development is last week’s explosive New York Times account of Donald Trump’s fraudulent tax schemes. What makes this report so extraordinary is that it breaks new ground on a figure who has been in the public eye for four decades, on matters at the very center of the source of his fame. It has not been known that Trump received hundreds of millions of dollars in payments from his father, nor that his methods included (according to the Times) outright criminality.

What does this have to do with the Russia investigation? Quite a bit, actually. It shows that Trump is willing not merely to skirt the law but to blatantly violate it. It reveals that he has been able to harbor enormous secrets even in the face of constant media coverage. And, most directly, it raises unanswered questions about his mysterious financial methods.

Trump is and always has been a bad businessman who relies on regular, large cash infusions from his father to stay afloat. Washington Post reporters David A. Fahrenthold and Jonathan O’Connell, piggybacking on the Times revelations, have raised another curiosity: it was about the time that Fred Trump’s payment stream dried up that Trump’s way of financing his operations took a sharp and sudden turn. Whereas before he financed his purchases with debt — he had called himself the “king of debt” — he began buying properties with cash.

It is unusual for real estate developers to make cash purchases, given the incentives they normally have to finance with borrowing. It’s especially unusual that Trump started doing this right after he lost his father’s continuous cash spigot. This was also the time in his career he started working closely with Michael Cohen and Felix Sater, both of whom had links to the Russian underworld.

It might feel like the Russia scandal is slowing down, as the stream of indictments halts before the midterm elections. In reality, the conclusion might not be anywhere close.

Mueller’s Quiet, But Suspicious Russia Clues Keep Popping Up