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'Set aside Putin and follow the money': a Russia expert’s theory of the Trump scandal

President Donald Trump (C) and Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (L) meet at the Oval Office of White House in Washington, D.C., on May 10, 2017.
Alexander Shcherbak | TASS | Getty Images
President Donald Trump (C) and Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (L) meet at the Oval Office of White House in Washington, D.C., on May 10, 2017.

"To understand the roots of the collusion, set aside Putin and follow the money."

That's what Seva Gunitsky, a politics professor at the University of Toronto and the author of Aftershocks, told me in a recent interview. I reached out to Gunitsky on Monday after he posted a short but incisive thread on Twitter about the financial roots of the Trump-Russia collusion case.

Gunitsky, who was raised in Russia, has followed the evolving relationship between Donald Trump and Russia for more than a decade. He says the prevailing narrative about Putin interfering in the American election in order to undermine democracy is wildly overstated.

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Putin is happy to sow confusion and distrust in America's system, of course, but to assume that's the basis of this operation is to overlook a much simpler motive: money.

The financial connections between Trump and various Russian banks and oligarchs (business elites with ties to the Kremlin) stretch back decades, which is likely a big reason why Trump won't release his tax returns. Trump's election, Gunitsky contends, presented Russian oligarchs with an opportunity to recoup losses and leverage Trump's debts for political gain.

I asked Gunitsky to lay it out for me as clearly as possible, and to explain the financial dealings between Trump and his Russian business partners.

Here's what he told me.

Sean Illing

This collusion story gets more convoluted by the day. But you seem to think it's pretty straightforward.

Seva Gunitsky

I think it's justifiable for you to say that it seems impossibly convoluted, but I would say it's still much simpler than this idea that there's a global conspiracy designed to bring down democracy. I'm not saying the political dimension is unimportant — surely it is. But if we're talking about the roots of the collusion, we have to look at where Trump's links with Russia begin. And it begins with money. [These roots] don't start with the election; they start with money, and namely Russian oligarch money.

Sean Illing

So walk me through the trail. Where does the money lead?

Seva Gunitsky

Again, this doesn't start with the election; it starts with Russian oligarch money pouring into Trump's real estate and casino businesses. Many of them Trump has been working with for years, well before he developed any serious political ambitions. And we're not talking about small change here; we're talking about hundreds of millions of dollars. Possibly even enough to keep Trump out of another bankruptcy.

Sean Illing

And we know this how, exactly?

Seva Gunitsky

We know because they've told us. We can talk about specific cases in a minute, but Donald Trump Jr. has already admitted the importance of Russian money to their business ventures. He said publicly in 2008that "Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia." It doesn't get much clearer than that.

Sean Illing

And this is why you think Western media has overplayed the centrality of Putin in all of this? We have this notion of Putin as a kind of master strategist playing 10-dimensional chess with Trump. I think it's obvious that once Putin saw an opportunity he took it, but these financial ties go back a long way, long before the 2016 election.

Seva Gunitsky

I think that's right. Putin is often put up as this sort of central antagonist, but the Russian government is not this shadowy monolith. It's sometimes portrayed this way in the West, but in reality the Russian government is messy and disorganized and ad hoc.

It's possible that Putin was not even fully aware of efforts to court Trump up until last year, or a couple years ago. Putin, we often forget, has supporters to keep happy as well, people who desperately want to open up those channels of Russian finance.

Sean Illing

We know there are deep links between Russian money and Trump, but let's talk about how the interests intertwine. What did you make of the recent revelations about Trump Jr.'s meetingwith the Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya?

Seva Gunitsky

So we have this infamous Russian lawyer who met with Trump Jr. last year and apparently several other people, including a former Soviet counterintelligence officer. I think the tough question critics have been asking is where is the quid pro quo in that? The Magnitsky Act, ostensibly the purpose of the meeting, isn't going anywhere, so people are concluding that there wasn't a quid pro quo here. But we should be talking a lot more about the Prevezon case.

Sean Illing

Explain what that is and why it matters.

Seva Gunitsky

So Prevezon is a holding company with links to Russian elites that has been accused of laundering hundreds of millions of dollars through New York City real estate. It's also part of Hermitage Capital, an investment fund that was being investigated by Magnitsky (the Russian lawyer who was killed in a Moscow prison in 2009) more than 10 years ago.

Prevezon was part of this giant tax fraud scheme that Magnitsky uncovered in 2008, which led to his death and which led indirectly to the Magnitsky Act of 2012. The U.S. Attorney's Office was also preparing a massive case against Prevezon last year. Until it was abruptly dropped.

Sean Illing

We'll circle back to the case being dropped in a second, but let's stick to the role of the Russian lawyer that Trump Jr. met with.

Seva Gunitsky

Now, Prevezon's lawyer was Natalia Veselnitskaya, who of course met with Trump Jr. last year. She had been pushing for a long time to get something done about the Prevezon case. So it's very possible that she went into that meeting essentially asking for help, in return for which she would give the Trump campaign dirt on Hillary and the DNC.

It's impossible to know for sure what happened in that room, but these are extremely plausible interpretations. It's hard to say what the groups' motivations were. These motivations are all entangled — I want to stress that. I don't want to insist that this was allabout the money. I'm only saying that the financial motivations in all of this have been understated in relation to its importance.

Sean Illing

So what happened with the Prevezon case?

Seva Gunitsky

Several months after Trump takes office, the Prevezon case is dismissed. So what happened? The U.S. attorney was carefully preparing a case against Prevezon Holdings. They were all set to go forward, and then suddenly the case was settled. Prevezon's own lawyers were kind of shocked. We know they paid something like $6 million, which is a fraction of what the lawsuit was about. So they were extremely happy about it.

Congressional Democrats have openly expressed concerns about what happened here. They want to know why it was settled so quickly. Was pressure being applied from above? In any case, we can see the possible motivations of the people approaching Trump for favors. When I say the collusion starts with financial interests, this is what I mean.

It's not that obstructing democracy wasn't important; it's that it was potentially a happy byproduct of these financial relationships. And I think for Trump it was always about the money. It's just that now he's undergoing a level of scrutiny that he's never experienced before.

Sean Illing

Do we have any evidence that Trump was involved in any way with Prevezon?

Seva Gunitsky

We don't know that Trump was involved in any way with that. Obviously, it's kind of his wheelhouse, New York City real estate, so I am sure he at least heard about it. But we don't know if he has any direct connections.

But it's not even necessary for him to have any direct connections here. They're only asking for some relief in this case, in return for certain compromising documents. So the interesting thing for me is, was there pressure placed on the U.S. Attorney's Office by the administration, by the Department of Justice? What we know is that Preet Bharara, the attorney in charge of the case, was fired in early March, and shortly thereafter the Prevezon case was dropped.

Sean Illing

And we still have no explanation about this?

Seva Gunitsky

Not as a far as I know. They had been ready to prosecute, witnesses were flown in, it was all set to go, and it was settled rather unexpectedly. So I think this is a case that hasn't really entered the public consciousness yet. But I'm sure that [special counsel Robert] Mueller's team is looking at it.

[Author's note: Foreign Policy published a detailed report about Attorney General Jeff Sessions's possible role in dismissing the Prevezon case.]

Sean Illing

Do we know of any public reactions to the dismissal of the Prevezon case from the Russian lawyer or from anyone else associated with this?

Seva Gunitsky

Veselnitskaya was ecstatic about the Prevezon case on her social media. She said it was "settled on Russian terms"; that's a direct quote. She said it was the beginning of the end of the Cold War, and she said there'd be more to come. Again, like so much of the evidence here, this doesn't prove anything definitively. But there's an unbelievable amount of smoke, and a massive web of overlapping interests.

Sean Illing

As hard as it is to make sense of all this, it does help to explain Trump's unusual consistency on all things Russia. This is a guy without a fixed ideological core, but his bizarre pro-Russia posture is arguably the only issue on which he's been consistent.

Seva Gunitsky

I'd only slightly disagree here and say the thing about which he's been most consistent is the desire to make money. And if we take that, then his consistency on Russia becomes much more sensible.

I think you're absolutely right that he has no strong ideological commitments. We've seen that painfully over and over during the last few months. But if his financial interests are tied up with Russian oligarchs, who in turn are tied up with the Kremlin and thus have parallel interests, then Trump's "consistency" becomes much more explainable.

And if we emphasize this financial angle a bit more, it also makes a lot of sense that he would not want to release his tax returns. Because that would expose just how deeply embedded he is with Russian money.

Sean Illing

To be clear about what you're saying, you're not denying the political motivations of Putin or the Kremlin. In your mind, this is about understanding what catalyzed the alleged collusion process, right?

Seva Gunitsky

That's right. I think the idea of parallel interest is key here, that the Russian intelligence service, once they saw what Trump was doing, quickly latched on in order to push their own agenda, which was very similar to the Russian oligarchy agenda. And it's hard to even separate the two because, as you probably know, in Russia the distinction between political power and economic power is very fuzzy.

Sean Illing

Looking at the timeline here helps to clarify your broader argument. It's not like the Russians foresaw back in 1987, when they first started dealing with Trump, that he might become president in 2017. It seems clear enough that the financial ties were already there, and when the opportunity presented itself, the Kremlin took full advantage of it.

Seva Gunitsky

Absolutely. There's a tendency here, in part because of our Cold War inertia, to see Putin as this creature with his tentacles in every part of the country. And I think that may be overstating the case just a bit. He's been in power for 17 years, the people who support him are starting to itch a little bit, and he has to keep them happy. They're not happy about sanctions; they're not happy about restrictions on their financial dealings.

If they have financial leverage over Trump, and they clearly do, then why wouldn't they want him to become president of the United States?