‘If Mueller was looking at your finances and your family finances, unrelated to Russia — is that a red line?’
Trump: ‘I would say yeah. I would say yes. By the way, I would say, I don’t — I don’t — I mean, it’s possible there’s a condo or something, so, you know, I sell a lot of condo units, and somebody -- and somebody -- from Russia buys a condo, who knows? I don’t make money from Russia. In fact, I put out a letter saying that I don’t make — from one of the most highly respected law firms, accounting firms. I don’t have buildings in Russia. They said I own buildings in Russia. I don’t. They said I made money from Russia. I don’t. It’s not my thing. I don’t, I don’t do that. Over the years, I’ve looked at maybe doing a deal in Russia, but I never did one. Other than I held the Miss Universe pageant there…’
This exchange between a New York Times reporter and President Trump last July is worth repeating at length for several reasons. Firstly, to fully appreciate the workings of Donald J. Trump’s mind, you really need to quote him in full – free-associating on the stump, meandering through interviews, jumping from subject to subject, often in mid sentence, leaving verbs and thoughts hanging. Secondly, this answer, coherent by the President’s usual standards, shows such focus on a subject that he was not actually asked about, the question referring to ‘family finances unrelated to Russia’. Finally, in the past 24 hours the red line appears to have been crossed. The US media says that the special counsel, Robert Mueller, is looking at whether the President’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, tried to get money for his family company from foreign investors during the presidential transition – and if he did, whether any laws were broken.
This is ‘according to people familiar with the inquiry’ so – a significant caveat – we must assume that CNN, who broke the story, did not actually speak to one of Mueller’s team. Since its inception, the inquiry has been a black box, no light leaking out from Mueller’s incredibly disciplined investigators. Sometimes the investigators talk to others who in turn talk to journalists, but no doubt things are lost or distorted in transmission. Another caveat is that, if true, this is not about the Trump Organisation but about 666 Fifth Avenue, the 41 storey boondoggle that Jared’s father, Charlie, bought in 2007 for $1.8bn (£1.3bn), then the highest price ever paid for a single building in Manhattan. It’s reported that so much of the office space remains empty that the revenue does not even cover the crippling monthly interest payments. Perhaps the ‘666’ is bad luck. The latest plan, for a new tower there costing $12bn, would rename the building 660 Fifth Avenue.
Kushner’s position – as set out by the family attorney – is that when he entered the White House, he passed any interest in 666 to a family trust. Nevertheless, CNN says that Mueller has asked Kushner whether he tried to get finance from a Chinese company and from Qatar during the transition. In all the fuss about Russia, China’s links with the Trump family have been little explored – the Trump Organisation itself has done a lot of business with Chinese interests (as the candidate used to boast on the campaign trail, while arguing that ‘China is raping out country’).
When it comes to Qatar, it seems that the Kushner family companies had a serious but abortive negotiation with Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund in early 2016. The fund is controlled by Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, known as HBJ. (‘I may run this country, but he owns it,’ the former emir of Qatar is supposed to have said.) I’ve spoken to two sources who say they are familiar with the negotiations. They say that HBJ set down a number of conditions that the Kushners were unable to meet, and so the talks came to a halt. All this was before the election – and this is the period CNN and others say Mueller is examining. But after winning the presidency, Trump made Kushner his special envoy to the Middle East (the 37-year-old Kushner taking lessons from Henry Kissinger). One very interesting question is whether the Kushner family trust continued in its efforts to find finance in the Middle East after the election. Even though Kushner is now at arm’s length from his family businesses, you could imagine how for some of the Gulf monarchies this might be a distinction without a difference.
One US source in a position to know told me this is exactly what happened – the Qataris had been approached again after the election, he said. There was, however, a flat denial from several senior Qatari officials who spoke privately about this. And the Kushner family lawyer says Jared has not been asked ‘a single question’ on 666 by Mueller’s investigators. This claim and counter claim is familiar from the main Russia investigation – with so little officially confirmed by Mueller, both the president’s supporters and his critics remain convinced that right is on their side.
Kushner has acknowledged that during the transition he was visited by the head of a Russian state owned bank, VEB, which Western intelligence people will tell you is virtually an extension of Russian intelligence. But Kushner says this meeting was not to seek finance but about unspecified matters of national interest. Still, such meetings – initially not disclosed by Kushner for his FBI background check – might be one reason why he does not have full security clearance, 13 months into his job in the White House. Americans may find this less interesting than the fact that Ivanka owes up to $100,000 (£71,000) on her credit card (according to the Kushners' latest financial disclosure forms) and they might wonder what Mueller is even doing looking at Qatar.
Mueller was appointed to investigate any ‘coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump’ – but also ‘any matters that may arise directly from the investigation.’ In other words, the special counsel can pursue whatever (alleged) crime he uncovers. And the discovery of (alleged) wrongdoing in an unrelated area can be used as leverage to flip a witness. So far, both Trump’s former campaign manager and his former National Security advisor have been charged with financial crimes or lying to the FBI – but there’s nothing on their charge sheets about Russia, yet. Michael Wolff’s exposé of the Trump White House says Ivanka and Jared are terrified that the Russia inquiry will encroach on the family businesses – and destroy them – as Mueller looks for leverage over Russia. If this is indeed what’s happening, President Trump should be worried too.