The most famous adage in Washington scandals is probably “Follow the money.” Disappointingly, if perhaps not surprisingly, congressional Republicans seem resistant to doing that when it comes to President Donald Trump and the investigation into Russia’s interference into the U.S. political system.
“I don’t see the link at this stage,” Rep. Mike Conaway, the Texas Republican leading the House Russia investigation, told CNN. “Deutsche Bank is a German bank – I don’t see the nexus.”
Asked about exploring Russian-Trump business transactions, Conaway was not moved. “I bet every big bank has a Russian customer somewhere,” he said.
Well sure, every big bank may have some Russian customer somewhere. But there are a couple of things that distinguish Deutsche Bank in this regard. For one thing, it was fined $630 million in January 2017 for its involvement in a $10 billion Russian money-laundering scheme. For another, during the time-period the bank was washing the Russian cash, it was also doling out huge sums of money to reality television star and real estate developer Donald Trump. Deutsche Bank is itself the nexus, in other words. As someone dimly aware of, let alone leading, the Russia investigation, Conaway should know these things.
According to a December 2016 analysis by Bloomberg, Trump owed the German bank roughly $300 million as he was poised to assume the presidency. As The Guardian’s Luke Harding recounts in his book “Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money, and How Russia Helped Donald Trump Win,” this debt was not only unprecedented but bizarre: He had borrowed the money from Deutsche’s private wealth division, using the money to pay back a $330 million loan that he had defaulted on from the bank’s real estate division. “Asked whether it was normal to give more money to a customer who was a bad credit risk and a litigant, one former senior Deutsche Bank staff member said: ‘Are you [expletive] kidding me?'” Harding wrote.
Cartoons on President Trump and Russia
The fact of the debt in and of itself is something Congress ought to be keeping an eye on regardless of the Russia connection. As Harding writes:
This was an unprecedented sum for an incoming president and one that raised awkward questions about conflict of interest. If Deutsche Bank were to get into regulatory difficulty, one of the bodies that would investigate was the Department of Justice. Which reported to Trump. It was hard to see how the department could work dispassionately. Or how Deutsche Bank might take legal action against a sitting president if he defaulted again.
But the Russia connection adds immediacy to the Deutsche nexus. For all of the prurient interest in whether Trump ever engaged in unsanitary sexual acts with Russian prostitutes, financial enmeshment is another classic way for foreign intelligence agencies to coopt intelligence targets. And while he has long denied Russian business entanglements, the public record, including Donald Trump Jr.’s famous 2008 declaration that “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets. … We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia,” indicates something else. As The Washington Post’s David Ignatius put it last November: “What’s clear, reviewing the facts, is that Trump’s claim he had ‘nothing to do with Russia’ over the years is nonsense.”
Many of the precise details of any Trump financial arrangements with Russia remain a mystery, in no small part because he refuses to follow the long-standing tradition of presidential candidates and presidents releasing their tax returns – a decision with which his Republican congressional defenders seem utterly at ease.
None of this proves that Trump has concerning financial relationships with Russia. But that’s the point: You can’t know what you’re going to find until you look. And there’s enough smoke to at least look and see if something’s on fire – this isn’t some random fishing expedition, as Republicans dismiss it, where Democrats want to open up Trump’s books without any legitimate basis. (Though again, his refusal to disclose his tax returns is itself basis enough.)
Trump has said that looking at his finances qualifies as a red line which would be inappropriate to cross, and incredibly Republicans seem content to follow his lead on the topic.
Another illustrative quote: House Government Reform Chairman Trey Gowdy told Politico: “Isn’t that what Bob Mueller is doing?” Putting aside that such logic would dictate that Congress drop any investigation into Russia at all, the answer is: Yes.