With the press recoiling from, and rightly hammering, Trump’s most recent shambles in Helsinki, the rest of us are just confused. The sit-com, that is contemporary US politics, is as baffling as it is unprecedented. However, hope is not lost. To make sense of the Commander-in-chief’s positionality, and therefore gain an insight into the rationale behind US foreign policy is surprisingly simple. Trump has a colorful past that helps us understand his policy decisions. In short, the skeletons in his closet are alive and well.
Whilst everyone has heard of “Trump’s ties to Russia”, few have taken the time to consider just how serious these ties are. A recent 10-month investigation by the Financial Times’ Tom Burgis has shed an illuminating light on The Trump Organisation, the incumbent’s primary source of income. The story revolves around the Trump International Hotel in Toronto which opened its doors in 2012 and went bankrupt by 2016. The venture, given Trump’s infamous credit rating, was funded by Midland Group, a holding company of Toronto-based Alex Schnaider and Moscow-based Eduard Shyfrin. Trump, in turn, licensing fee payments for using his name that officially came to $4 million. Various kickbacks and undisclosed payments are understood to have been much greater. Trump’s partners in this venture, Schaider and Shyfrin are crucial to this story. Schnaider’s father-in-law, Boris Birshtein was a renowned quasi-KGB operative that worked closely first with Brezhnev, and then his successors to capture post-soviet assets. Businessmen like himself, are renowned for expanding the soviet-sphere of influence abroad by funding separatist groups, movements and, more subtly, investing in particular business ventures. Separate from the official Russian government, their position gives them the unique ability to advance Kremlin and FSB interests abroad, by any means necessary. On one end of the spectrum you have the likes of Semion Mogilevich, don of post-soviet organized crime selling weapons to Kurds and al-Qaeda, and on the other, you have real-estate tycoons Birshtein legitimately constructing western sky-lines. Wherever these businessmen lie on that spectrum, they all kiss the same ring.
If Birshtein’s relation to Schnaider, and therefore, Trump, is not enough of a red flag enough then I have you covered. In early 2014, months before Russia annexed Crimea, Schnaider and Shyfrin’s Midland Group was approached by a buyer for one of its Ukrainian assets, a steel-mill in Zaporozhye, just miles away from the now separatist-held territories in the east. Whilst a sale had already been negotiated with a Ukrainian oligarch, Midland Group was ‘pressured’ to sell to this new buyer. The purchase of the venture was financed completely by VEB, a state-owned Russian bank known for being a financial extension of the Kremlin’s interests. The deal involved $850 million for Midland’s stake in the steel mill. $40 million of which were plowed by Schnaider straight into the Trump International Hotel. The cash-flow between the Kremlin and Trump has just one intermediary in this case. This is a sobering development, given that in the past the cash-flows were hard to follow and a lot easier to dismiss. Trump SoHo and Trump Ocean Club have similarly been accused, by Global Witness, of being ‘deliberately built for the purpose of laundering money’. However, these in these past cases the cash-flow was hard to validate and therefore tracing the ultimate beneficiary was virtually impossible.
Whilst turning a blind-eye to the laundering activities of Russian organized-crime syndicates might have been dismissible for a businessman chasing the bottom line, it completely undermines the positionality of a president. These sobering developments suggest a clear alignment of interests with those that brought him money and sustained his career, rather than with his electorate or the world-order we have come to know. After 30 years of dubious financial activity, up to as recently as 2014, the Kompromat, or leverage, gathered on Donald Trump is gargantuan. This confusing sit-com we are witness to is simply those skeletons in the closet pulling strings on their marionette in the White House.