The ugly spectacle of Donald Trump trying to bully Attorney General Jeff Sessions into resigning leads inevitably to one question: What is the president afraid of?
Why has Trump unleashed a flood of verbal and twitter abuse against Sessions, one of his earliest and most loyal supporters, a man beloved by Trump’s base and backed by his former Senate GOP colleagues?
We know part of the answer. Trump is furious that Sessions (rightly) recused himself from the Russia probe due to his involvement in the Trump campaign, including meetings with Russian officials. Sessions’ recusal led to the appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel, investigating possible ties between the Trump campaign and Moscow.
Yet Trump’s fury is fueled by his grasp of a greater danger. Mueller, in full compliance with his mandate, is following a Russian money-laundering trail that could lead to Trump Tower. The president is desperate to drive Sessions to resign so he can install a flunky who will fire Mueller before his probe bears fruit.
But Trump doesn’t seem willing to dump Sessions himself. That would be like posting a neon sign in front of the White House: Here sits a man willing to fire anyone to block the investigation of a Russian money trail that could embroil Family Trump.
There is good reason why Mueller is reportedly examining a broad range of financial transactions with Russians involving Trump’s businesses as well as those of his family and associates. These include Russian purchases of apartments in Trump buildings, the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow, and Trump’s sale of a Florida mansion — for a massive markup — to a Russian oligarch in 2008.
Oligarchs, including many in Vladimir Putin’s circle, have reportedly laundered huge sums pilfered from state coffers by purchasing real estate abroad. Any effort to unveil political collusion between Trump allies and Putin’s circle would naturally investigate possible financial connections — or favors — between them. Recall that Donald Trump Jr. bragged in 2008 that “We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”
One especially tantalizing question is the possible link between the following two events: the infamous meeting during the campaign between Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner with a Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer in order to gather dirt on Hillary Clinton, and the abrupt settlement of a massive U.S. investigation into Russian money laundering in May.
Trump Jr. met with Natalia Veselnitskaya in June 2016 after an intermediary promised she would provide “information that would incriminate Hillary,” which was “part of Russia and its government support for Mr. Trump.”
But Veselnitskaya was also the legal counsel for Prevezon Holdings, a Russian-owned company accused of stealing about $230 million by appropriating the identity of a Western investment firm. The money was then laundered through real estate purchases in Manhattan.
The Russian lawyer who uncovered the fraud, Sergei Magnitsky, was arrested and beaten to death — which led to human-rights sanctions being imposed in 2012 by Congress against Russian officials complicit in the fraud and murder.
The case against Prevezon, brought by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, was meant to be a warning by U.S. courts to Russian gangsters. But Bharara was unexpectedly fired by Trump in March, and the Prevazon case was abruptly settled by Bharara’s successor for $6 million, with no admission of wrongdoing.
In light of the Trump Tower meeting between Trump Jr. and Veselnitskaya, 16 Democratic members of the House Judiciary Committee wrote to the Justice Department demanding to know if there was interference behind the surprise U.S. decision to avoid a trial.
There’s more. According to the Guardian newspaper, Kushner did a major real estate deal in 2015 with a Soviet-born oligarch who was a business partner of Prevezon. And, the Guardian noted, Kushner later borrowed $285 million in refinancing for his family’s real estate empire from Deutsche Bank, the German financial organization that has been linked to Russian money-laundering scandals.
Moreover, the third Trumpster at the meeting with Veselnitskaya was Paul Manafort, the onetime campaign manager, whose dealings with and indebtedness to pro-Russian oligarchs in Ukraine have made him another object of investigation.
Putin has been furious about the Magnitsky sanctions. Prevezon’s lawyer gave Trump Jr. an earful about the sanctions at Trump Tower. And Putin complained to Trump about them at the recent G-20 meeting in Hamburg, Germany. (In retaliation for the sanctions, Putin banned any U.S. adoption of Russian orphans.)
So there could be White House interference in U.S. efforts to stop Russian money laundering for political as well as economic reasons.
Or maybe there was no interference. But that’s what Mueller is tasked with finding out. And Trump’s denunciations of Sessions with the clear intent of axing the special counsel make him look guilty of political or economic quid pro quos with the Kremlin.
The only way to lift the cloud of suspicion — if Trump doesn’t deserve it — is to leave Sessions alone and let Mueller finish his job.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may email her at email@example.com.