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If Mueller didn’t follow the money, Congress must: There are huge red flags regarding potential Russian financial improprieties in the election


Donald Trump, left, Special Counsel Robert Mueller, right ((AP Photo/Evan Vucci) (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak))

Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report may be the most damning document ever released about an American president. It outlines clear efforts to obstruct justice and is a seemingly exhaustive catalogue of Trump campaign contacts with Russian actors, all while Russia waged a “sweeping and systemic” attack on our political system.

But the report barely mentions one incredibly important subject: money. Yet following the money is critical to the Russia investigation.

Money is critical to campaigns. It is why they fundraise incessantly and bombard supporters with donation requests. The most straightforward way for Russia to influence an election isn’t hacking a candidate or a social media campaign; it’s contributing financially to whomever they want to win. And yet, Mueller’s report does not say a word on whether Russia tried to financially interfere in the election.

Yet there are a number of potential red flags. Financial-disclosure reports say Trump himself spent $66 million of his own money on a campaign that even he thought he was going to lose. That’s enormous considering most of Trump’s fortune is believed to be tied up in illiquid real estate.

As Mueller documented, the Trump campaign was clearly open to Russian support. Extensive reporting has also demonstrated that Trump owes much of his net worth to Kremlin-linked buyers and financiers investing in Trump properties. It’s therefore critical to investigate whether the Kremlin went beyond hacking and troll farms to more direct financial assistance.

Obviously, the Russian government can’t donate to their favored candidate. But the U.S.’s lax campaign-finance and anti-corruption laws make it easy for a government with experience in laundering money — like the Kremlin — to create a secretive workaround.

Russia has a history of doing exactly that. In 2014, a Russian bank loaned France’s National Front party €9.4 million; three years later, the party’s leader and presidential candidate, Marine Le Pen, traveled to Moscow weeks before the 2017 election to meet with Putin. We saw similar recent reports regarding far-right Italian politician Matteo Salvini.

In the U.S., some of the same Russians who made overtures to Trump’s team were involved in massive unexplained flows of money. These include the Agalarovs, who moved tens of millions of dollars into the U.S. in the days after the June 9, 2016, meeting in Trump Tower, and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, who withdrew large amounts of cash right after the election and inauguration — not to mention large wire transfers to Russian embassies earmarked “to finance election campaign of 2016.” We don’t know where that money ended up, or why so much changed hands.

Looking at the money is crucial to understanding if Trump is compromised. The New York Times’ bombshell on Trump’s taxes reveals he spent more than 30 years lying about his finances. Simply knowing the truth about how he does business was enough to gain leverage and compromise him.

One of Russia’s favorite tactics was also evident in 2016: dangling corrupt deals for politicians willing to advance a pro-Kremlin agenda. Thanks in part to Mueller, we know that the Trump Organization spent much of 2016 secretly pursuing a tower deal in Moscow. That alone left Trump compromised.

According to Mueller, the so-called “Moscow Project” would have not only given Trump the tallest building in Europe but also made him “hundreds of millions of dollars.” This would dwarf Trump’s typical licensing fees; projects in Toronto, Indonesia and Azerbaijan reportedly made the Trump Organization less than $10 million each. It’s very possible that Trump Tower Moscow was dangled as a lucrative incentive.

Ruling out shady funding and whether Trump’s business dealings are compromised requires examining Trump’s finances and those of the Trump Organization. But there’s reason to believe Mueller was blocked from doing so. Trump repeatedly said investigating his businesses would cross a “red line,” and almost fired Mueller amid reports that he was looking into his relationship with Deutsche Bank. Those lend credence to David Ignatius’ under-discussed February bombshell that, according to a “senior government source,” Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversaw the investigation, may have “blocked any attempt to compel disclosure of the bank’s Trump file records to avoid getting himself or Mueller fired.”

There may be nothing there. Russia may not have sought to directly financially support the Trump campaign. But considering our campaign-finance system’s well-documented openness to abuse, as well as Russia’s keen awareness of how to exploit gaps in our political system, this should have been a major line of inquiry.

When Mueller testifies, Congress should ask him whether he investigated Trump’s finances. If he did not, then Congress must acquire Trump’s tax returns and other financial information in order to understand the full scope of Russia’s attack on our democracy. Trump’s unwillingness to comply with the law and turn over these documents is not only an effort to further obstruct justice but also undermines America’s national security.

Bergmann is a senior fellow and director of the Moscow Project at the Center for American Progress. He is also the host of “The Asset” podcast and a board member of Protect the Investigation. He served in the State Department from 2011-2017. Venook is a research analyst at the Moscow Project, an initiative of the Center for American Progress.