Craig Unger on Kleptocracy
We interview Vanity Fair contributor Craig Unger, the author of the New York Times-bestselling book House of Trump, House of Putin: The Untold Story of Donald Trump and the Russian Mafia, a must-read and deeply researched book that reminds us yet again that Trump properties are a laundromat for Russian mafia money, and what this means for our democracy.
Andrea Chalupa: Welcome to Gaslit Nation. I'm Andrea Chalupa, a writer and the producer and screenwriter of the upcoming journalistic thriller Mr. Jones.
Sarah Kendzior: And I'm Sarah Kendzior, a journalist and scholar of authoritarian states focusing on the former Soviet Union and the author of the essay collection The View from Flyover Country.
Andrea Chalupa: We are here today with Vanity Fair contributing editor Craig Unger, the author of The New York Times best-selling book House of Trump, House of Putin: the Untold Story of Donald Trump and the Russian Mafia, a must read and deeply researched book that reminds us yet again that Trump properties are a laundromat for Russian mafia money—have been for years—and that Trump's ambitions to run for president and efforts to run for president go back several years as well, and so to his contacts with the Soviet Union, Russian oligarchs close to Putin, and so forth. So Russiagate, of course, did not happen overnight. It was the natural culmination of decades of corruption by Donald Trump, decades of inch of self-interest in power for power's sake, and self-enrichment through pro-Kremlin sources, including the Mafia. He is also the author of House of Bush, House of Saud: The Secret Relationship Between the World's Two Most Powerful Dynasties. So how are you still alive, Craig Unger?
Craig Unger: [Laughter] I don't know, just luck I guess. Bad luck, I'm afraid.
Sarah Kendzior: You have done these two books about these two very controversial topics, and now we're at a pivotal moment in U.S. history, and not a particularly good one. What connections do you see between your two books?
Craig Unger: Well, there are actually several, and one is I realize I've done four books now that could all be subtitled The Republican Party's War against Democracy, and the first one was House of Bush House of Saud. I sometimes get them confused, there are too many houses in it. But when I wrote it, a very funny thing happened, which was it had just been published, and I gave a talk at Columbia University. And after the talk, a guy came out of the audience and took me aside and invited me to lunch, and he was Russian, and he was with the Russian Consulate, and I saw no harm in having lunch with him. It didn't really occur to me till about 15 years later what was really going on, because essentially what I write about is power and how power really works, and I try to unmask the hidden mechanisms of power. And what House of Bush, House of Saud shows is how a bunch of young, incredibly rich Saudis came here knowing no one and wormed their way up to the highest echelons of power in the United States legally.
They took advantage of all the loopholes. And I realize, gosh, I gave the Russians a blueprint on what to do with this. Now believe me, I think a lot of people belong in jail. Don't don't get me wrong, and I'm delighted to see Paul Manafort going off to Ryker’s, but a huge portion of this, the real scandal, as Mike Kinsley used to say, is the real scandal is what is legal and what you can get away with legally. And I think the Russians have figured that out to a huge extent. And I think the Trump-Russia scandal, Trump or not, is gonna go on for many, many years till we get to the bottom of it. But a huge portion of it is how many loopholes there are in our legal system. The K Street lobbying system, for example. In House of Trump, House of Putin, I talked to one of my sources, who was an American businessman who'd gone to Russia in the 90s just after the Soviet Union had folded, and he realized he was getting in pretty deep stuff and one of the Russians he was trying to do business with wanted to bribe Tom DeLay, in fact—the Speaker of the House. And he said, "No, no, no. You can't do that. That's illegal. But why don't you come with me to K Street." And he explained the whole K Street lobbying system to the Russian, who said, "Oh you've legalized bribery. How wonderful." And they've taken up all those, and you can see it in the big law firms that are taking over the DOJ right now. And if you look at the Southern District of New York, you have people who were working for—I'm going to mangle his name—but the number two guy at Southern District. I'm talking about Robert Khuzami, if I'm pronouncing his name correctly, but he was, I believe, the number two guy at the Southern District of New York. But he had been at Kirkland and Ellis, where in 2017 his salary was eleven million dollars, representing Deutsche Bank. So now he's going to prosecute these cases. Tell me how that's going to work. And you have to take that kind of conflict, and there 30 40 of those from the top on down, from William Barr on down, and a huge number the lawyers are from either Kirkland and Ellis or Jones Day.
Sarah Kendzior: This is the same kind of lines that I've been thinking about, where they basically have infiltrated the system and structured the system in order to preemptively exonerate themselves against present and future crimes. I was wondering: for our audience that's not as familiar with the contours of this, can you explain just what is the, quote, "Russian mafia"—or is it more of a transnational mafia? What kind of criminal entity are we looking at?
Craig Unger: Right, well the Russian mafia, I think the most important difference to Americans, the difference between the Russian mafia and the Italian-American mafia that we know and love and saw on The Godfather and all that, and we saw Rudy Giuliani prosecute and all that, was the Italian-American Mafia was always at war with the FBI, and the Russian Mafia is a state actor. And this is hugely important, and it's not just speculation on my part. I interviewed General Oleg Kalugin, who had been head of counterintelligence for the KGB, and he said, "Oh, the Russian mafia; they worked with us." And he told me how he used to come over here to Brooklyn and he would go to a restaurant to nightspots like Rasputin and Tatiania, which were the old hangouts for the Russian mafia, and he would recruit people there. So it's very much part of that. Similarly, I've talked to people in the Russian mafia, and they make it very clear. So if you want to follow the money in this scandal—and that to me is what's amazing—I try to do it in my book—but it's like no one among the major press is following where's the money coming from and what is going on here and what you see is a plan and I think this dates back to the fall of the Soviet Union and I think the widely conventional wisdom is completely wrong, and I'm trying to rewrite history a little bit by saying, "You know what? Maybe we didn't win the Cold War, and that Russia really won the Cold War, and what Americans saw was the very genial face of Mikhail Gorbachev, who was in fact pretty easy going." What we didn't see was what the KGB was doing, and they had secret plans, and they were run by a guy named General Kryuchkov, who could see the fall of the Soviet Union coming, and he set up a plan to create over 600 companies that would exist as real companies, many of them multi-billion-dollar companies trading commodities, but in fact they would be run by KGB operatives. And so we see what came out of that, and the one instance I go to it in depth in House of Trump, House of Putin is you see the Ukraine energy trade, and you Semian Mogilevich, who's one of the most powerful Russian mobsters short of being granted the Ukraine energy trade, which means he's allowed to take enormous amounts of liquid natural gas, and so forth, that start out in Russia and Turkmenistan and go through pipelines in the Ukraine, and he's essentially able to skim off huge amounts of money off the top. It was around 750 million dollars a year. When I say let's follow the money, that's what I start to look at. And that money needs to be laundered, and it needs political protection in Ukraine, which means let's bring in Paul Manafort. One good way to launder it is through real estate, and it would be great to have a real estate mogul who's got thousands of condos he can sell without asking any questions. And the real estate regulations are incredibly lax. When I when I talk about legal corruption, that's what I'm talking about. It is very, very easy to launder money legally through real estate because they don't ask any questions.
Sarah Kendzior: I have so many questions about all the things you just said. I have wondered about whether we did all get it wrong about the collapse of the Soviet Union, about the end of the Cold War. And I'm somebody, you know, I got a PhD studying Uzbekistan, and all of these scholars would talk about their hubris and about their inability to predict this collapse, how it came about so abruptly in the late 80s and early 90s, that they were just startled by the whole thing. In retrospect, it seems like they were maybe on the ball until that time, and there is an egotistical moment afterwards where they were like, "America is the last remaining superpower. Russia has been thoroughly defeated. All the republics that have become independent, they've become dependent on us. They want to now enter the West." You had the last man and the end of history, blah blah blah. Is this something that you think was a long plan, or just sort of a wonderful array of coincidences and loosening of legal loopholes over time that produced the situation we're in now. Or was this really something the KGB thought to kind of drag out over a couple of decades in order to strengthen its possibilities for them to dominate a new world order? And I know that sounds nuts, but I know that you know this stuff so I want to know your opinion.
Craig Unger: There were different factions fighting for different things, and I think Gorbachev really was who he appeared to be, but General Kryuchkov, who was head of the KGB, really was looking long into the future hoping for this resurrection of the Russians imperial ambitions. And part of the thing with the KGB is you don't just quit and retire. You're always there, so that when I talk to American businessmen who were doing business with people they knew had been part of the KGB, they wrote it off and said, "Oh, well that's in the old days. That's when the Soviet Union. That's over." Well, it wasn't over, and some of them were shocked to find that was the case. But I think these companies and some of the people who were in them did have long term plans, and when you look at one of the key people in that, it's a guy named Boris Birshtein, who had a company called Seabeco, and I write about this at some length in the House of Trump, House of Putin. And this was a company with KGB people in it. Boris Birshtein oversaw a meeting of all the big Russian mobsters in Tel Aviv in 1995, at which point they decided to give Semion Mogilevich control the Ukraine energy trade. That meant he could skim about 750 million dollars a year off the top.
Andrea Chalupa: So what makes Mogilevich "the Brainy Don," as he is called? He's the head of the Russian mafia. Robert Mueller as director of the FBI in 2011 held him up as the prime example of how the mafia works the 21st century. It's no longer a bunch of Italians sitting in some restaurant, as you mentioned, like the Godfather. That scene. It's no longer that. It's the corruption in accounting firms and law firms, in blood money operatives and all types of corrupt oligarchs making their money in these struggling democracies and then look washing it in ritzy real estate in western capitals, and everybody making money in those western capitals and turning a blind eye, including a lot of the big sort of deal makers in London and New York and so forth, including members of government. And in this speech, which he held up as the Iron Triangle Speech, he said that Mogilevich is the face of what the mafia looks like in the 21st century, and that he will remain on the FBI 10 most wanted list until he is caught. So the reason why this show exists, and will forever exist, is because we will not stop until we get an answer to this question: why do you think under James Comey, just a few years later under James Comey in December of 2015, when the Russian mafia-aided Kremlin effort to get Donald Trump elected President of the United States—their longtime buddy, their longtime recipient of all that dirty cash—why do you think James Comey in December 2015, when Manafort is just about to be elected to run the campaign, why would James Comey take the head of the Russian mafia off the 10 most wanted list? Do you have any ideas there?
Craig Unger: Well, these are questions I've been asking, and I don't have all the answers. I mean, one thing that's very clear is when you look who Mogilevich hired as his lawyer, it was William Sessions, who had been head of the FBI before then. And his son Pete Sessions was a congressman, and was one of the very, very few, may have been the only Republican in Congress who voted against sanctions for Russia. So that was interesting. I was delighted to see Pete Sessions was defeated in the last election. But another famous FBI guy Louis Freeh was also representing Prevezon in this. So you have suddenly the big powerful lawmakers who seem to be going very, very easy on the Russian mafia. I mean, another thing that people haven't noticed is, I think it was in 1991, the Russians had, or rather the FBI had 300 agents on the Russian mafia, and the new attorney general shifted them to go after the crack epidemic. These were FBI agents, many of whom spoke Russian, so suddenly they shifted to the crack epidemic.
Sarah Kendzior: What year would this be, about?
Craig Unger: Yes, and so the pop quiz is—
Andrea Chalupa: Which year was this? Which year?
Craig Unger: '91. So who do you think was Attorney General in that year?
Andrea Chalupa: Oh my God. Barr?
Craig Unger: William Barr.
Andrea Chalupa: So what you're describing here is we're talking about decades of revolving door corruption. So just like the S.E.C. has this revolving door where the S.E.C. is tasked with of course the watchdog, the government's watchdog of Wall Street, but what it becomes is a place for people to come and go, leaving Wall Street, working at the S.E.C., coming back. It's just a revolving door of corruption, and that's why Wall Street has become this gambling den of thieves. So what you are describing in your many books is that essentially our own law enforcement that's supposed to be tasked with protecting us has become a sort of S.E.C.-style revolving door of corruption where people work in the FBI, and then they go rake in the money in private practice, and then they come back to the FBI, and they have their network, they have their professional network, and they basically are helping each other out to protect these criminals over time.
Craig Unger: Something like that. And also, I mean, if you go into the world of the big Y2 law firms, I guess I had not followed that world for a while, so when I last looked, big lawyers were making three or four million dollars a year. Now it's 10-12 million dollars a year, and they're making it representing Alpha Bank, Rosneft, Deutsche Bank, or Deripaska. All the big oligarchs. And these are big-time lawyers who are at Jones Day and Kirkland and Ellis, and a lot of them have ended up in the Justice Department, and now they're supposedly prosecuting this?
Sarah Kendzior: I mean one of the things that kind of—.
Andrea Chalupa: We're in the wrong business, Sarah. [laughter]
Sarah Kendzior: Yeah, apparently so. Where was the rest of the FBI on this? Where was the intelligence community on this? How was this not seen as a major sovereignty and national security problem?
Craig Unger: Well, the CIA just said it wasn't their purview, that it was really the FBI's. And I did talk to John Sipher, and they're in Moscow trying to penetrate the Soviet Union or Russian operatives, so they don't want to cozy up and reveal their own identities to the Russian mobsters. The FBI's most aggressive thing they did is they established what was known as the Budapest task force, and some people who've appeared in the Trump-Russia scandal were working there, going after the Russian mafia. Lisa Page and several others. And I've always suspected when I see Trump going after someone like Lisa Page...she's hardly a household name. So far as I know, she's very good at her work, but he keeps going after her, and he's gone after a lot of people who were clearly quite knowledgeable about the Russian mafia. I mean, one thing that I don't want to leave out is I found at least, I believe it's 13 people, who are part of the Russian mafia who either bought into Trump Tower or bought Trump condos in one way or another. So that’s over a 35-year period. It goes back to 1984, and when you think of the Russian mafia and remember always that they’re a state actor. It is part of Russian intelligence, and one of their headquarters on and off for 35 years is 721 Fifth Avenue, Trump Tower, the crown jewel of Donald Trump's empire.
Sarah Kendzior: There was interest from the FBI and the intelligence community in the Russian mafia. This was a period where they were clamping down on it. You also saw efforts in journalism, people like Robert I. Friedman, writing these exposes of Mogilevich and his organized crime network. Then 9/11 happens, and it just seems like they just dropped that ball entirely. Does that sound right to you?
Craig Unger: Well, 9/11 was—I mean, it was legitimate. So that is part of it, but I don't think it's the entire thing. I really don't. I mean, I don't know, and I mean, I'd love to interview Lisa Page, if you're listening. [laughter] I think there are people like that who are much more knowledgeable, but the FBI has not come forward about it, and I mean one of the key questions is, to what extent are they going to follow up on this? I mean, this is not over. It is ongoing. So that we know, and it's also more and more dangerous, I think, the longer Trump is in power, and that he's taking critical agencies like the Justice Department. And I'm sure he'll be moving into the intelligence sector as well. And he's taken them over, and he's wiping out what institutions that really do protect us.
Andrea Chalupa: Well, I would say the answer to how did this operation not get stopped when it was clearly accelerating in recent years and on Obama's watch, I think the answer to that would be of course with people like Lisa Page, and generally women, because as we're seeing it's women, from Reality Winner to Sally Yates and so forth, women who are sticking their necks out and paying the price with their careers their freedom. There's also the whistleblower in the U.S. Treasury who tried to go through all the process of—
Sarah Kendzior: Natalie Mayflower-Edwards.
Andrea Chalupa: She was arrested for just alerting that there was treason in the Treasury. Go look up that BuzzFeed piece by Jason Leopold and Anthony Cormier from the end of December 2018, which is so damning. So to piece this together, you might want to talk to someone like Evelyn Farkas, who left the Obama administration. She was a top official overseeing military relations between Russia and Ukraine, and she resigned because she felt like the Obama administration wasn't treating the threat the way they needed to, sort of this resurgent Russian aggression. So I want to go ask about—I know Sarah and I are both in a candy store right now talking to you, [laughter] and we're basically just jostling trying to get our questions in, and we both have so many—but just to sort of ground people into Mogilevich, because is he really central? Is he more mystique than man at this point, or is he really that dangerous, Brainy Don?
Craig Unger: Well, it's a little of both. I think at times he is. His power has been overstated, and the FBI documents themself called him the boss of bosses, and I don't think that is the case, and I talked to people who were close to him in the Russian mafia, and they said, "No, no, no. He's maybe three or four." But he is the brains. He's the financial genius behind it. And as many people have told me, Russia has no Goldman Sachs. They have Mogilevich, and if you have that kind of financial acumen, you go to work for him. And you could see through Mogilevich the change in character of the Russian mafia from sort of lowlife thuggery, extortion, prostitution, human trafficking, and the real sleazy down low crimes to white collar crimes, to pump and dump stock scams on Wall Street. And he sort of covered both ends, and I mean I think he was crucial in consolidating power of the Russian mafia, in New York, that is. In 1992, they sent Vyacheslav lvankov over here to take charge, and Ivankov was one of the most brutal mobsters ever, and he was famous for his brutality. And when the FBI was looking all over for him in Brooklyn, they finally found that he had a place in Trump Tower, which was just amazing to me.
Andrea Chalupa: In November 2016, when we were busy on the phone talking to anybody we can get on the phone that had any access to any information, we were talking to a lot of high up Republican operatives and people close to McCain and others to try to be like, "Is our sovereignty over? What are you hearing? How do we stop this? Is it too late?" And so one person that came into our orbit through that was an intelligence guy who had several decades working in intelligence, and he said, "Think of it this way: the election of Donald Trump to President of the United States was a marriage between the Russian mafia in the East and the Russian mafia in the West."
Craig Unger: Right. Oh, I think that is the case in many ways. Yes. Yeah. I mean, essentially, we're importing their kleptocracy, and Trump is the guy who's bringing it over, and I think you can see it in almost everyone in the administration.
Sarah Kendzior: Yeah. No, I always refer to it as a transnational crime syndicate, because there are so many different countries involved. It's not quite countries; it's these little oligarch, plutocrat networks within each country that don't have loyalty to their state. They have loyalty to their wallet. They have loyalty to their ability to get away with crimes without facing any repercussions. And on that note, I was curious—to kind of go back into Mogilevich's biography—the way he was able to leave Russia was that Robert Maxwell procured him an Israeli passport, right? And for those listening, Robert Maxwell is a big publisher. We did an episode about him. He he died suddenly in 1991. He fell off a yacht he had purchased from Adnan Khashoggi, who is the uncle or cousin of Jamal Khashoggi, because everyone has to be interrelated. Anyway, he also was an undercover Mossad operative, and so Mogilevich got a passport from him, was able to leave Russia for Israel, and then Israel for Hungary. Can you describe—you know, lately there have been revelations having to do with Israeli actors in this scandal, like Black Cube, Sy Group, or Netanyahu himself, who's very connected to Kushner. What is the role of Israel or these various sorts of mercenary parties that come from Israel in this in this conflict?
Craig Unger: Well, it's definitely one of the legs. Israel is definitely one of the several legs of all this, and I think you can bring in Saudis as well. But this goes back to the 1970s, because there was a congressional act passed called the Jackson Vanek amendment, and that was a law that gave a Russia-favored nation trading status if they would allow Jews to leave the Soviet Union. It was still the Soviet days. And essentially it meant the only way out of the Soviet Union was through Israel. So you see Mogilevich, and so forth, and a lot of people who weren't Jewish pretending they were Jewish. Sergei Mikhailov, who's really the most powerful person in the Russian mafia, got Israeli citizenship as well, and he was not Jewish. So this was very important. You also see a bunch of oligarchs—Alexander Mashkevitch, there's Chodiev. These were allies of Boris Birshtein, and they were essentially given various commodities, sectors that they could rule. There were the aluminum wars with their Deripaska and Chernoy. There were various minerals, and these were sort of given out to various segments of the Russian mafia, and a lot of them were based in Israel for for some time. But what really interested me, where I felt I was getting on to something, was when I realized you go back to the 90s when the new Russian Federation was just arising, and the Soviet Union was a poor country, but they vast natural resources, and even their country as small as Kyrgyzstan, if you get rights, you can be worth a few billion dollars or something. So these were handed out, and various key people who ended up making a billion dollars or more out of this, end up partnering with Donald Trump in Bayrock, which seems to me almost a latter day reincarnation of the KGB companies.
Sarah Kendzior: Actually, I wanted to ask about Bayrock as related to Sater, because this is also part of the enigma.
Craig Unger: Felix Sater is a key part of this, and I guess to some extent this is speculation on my part, but yes, Felix Sater was a co-operator, and if you understand how the FBI works, the idea of having informants and co-operators, those are the most powerful tools they have. And if they make you a co-operator, they have to honor what they promise you, which is some sort of immunity. And most famously, if you go back a few years, there's a story of Whitey Bulger, and I don't know if your listeners are familiar with it, but the movie The Departed with Jack Nicholson, this Scorsese movie, is sort of based on Whitey Bulger. I lived in Boston for a few years, and he was the big-time Irish mobster. And it turns out he was FBI co-operator, and they allowed him to go about his business as long as he was cooperating, but his business meant killing about, I think it was 11 Italian mobsters who were his rivals, and FBI just turned a blind eye to him. Well, now we come to Felix Sater, and I have to wonder, was Felix Whitey Bulger on steroids? And it's a question I don't know the answer to. I don't think it's been confirmed, but it's a very, very interesting question, because Felix was partnering with Donald Trump. He was a managing director of Bayrock. They were overseeing projects like the Trump SoHo, which was laundering money. And so Felix was in deals where Russian mobsters were laundering money through Trump real estate. Didn't the FBI know that? Did they just turn a blind eye to it? They would have known it before the election, and they don't do anything?
Andrea Chalupa: Oh, they had a whole long list of crimes that they could have easily flagged.
Sarah Kendzior: And he also, Sater took Ivanka and Donald Junior to Russia, right? In 2006, to sit in Putin's chair in the Kremlin, was just not a normal Russian tourist activity. I mean, how in the world did our government not take these pieces, which were, you know, this is information in the public domain, like the Trump children have a habit of blurting all of this out. Donald Trump has a habit of blurting this out. You don't need to be in the FBI to figure it out. I guess I'm still stuck on why did they not see it then, and also kind of to go back to what you said about the media not really covering this. You've written this very detailed book with an appendix of criminals at the end. Why is this not dominating the headlines? Why is there not more emphasis on this crime network now as it's threatening us in real time?
Craig Unger: Right. You know, The Washington Post has been pretty generous to me, and MSNBC has as well, but other than that, you're absolutely right. The New York Times won't touch it, and they clearly know about all this. I haven’t asked them, but I think our media is really screwed up right now. I mean, it's desperate. And there are a number of reasons for it. I mean, one is this the Internet has been terrible. I also think social media and Facebook has been a disaster, and has atomized everything. I think in the mainstream media, a lot of people fall prey to what I call access journalism. I mean, I don't really want to attack specific reporters, but—
Sarah Kendzior: Oh, it's okay. This is Gaslit Nation. That's what we do. [laughter]
Craig Unger: I was researching a Russian mobster known as Taiwanchik. Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov, I believe, if I'm pronouncing his name right.
Andrea Chalupa: Alimzhan.
Craig Unger: Yeah, and he was running gambling rings and money laundering operations out of Trump Tower. And as I was researching, I saw a wonderful piece about him in The Washington Post from a few years back. The reporter who wrote that is at the New York Times. Won't touch it now. And you see that kind of thing again and again and again. I think one of the biggest criticisms I've gotten has been that so much of my material is open source, to which I say, "Yeah, so what?"
I mean, there are court documents about all these Russian mobsters. When I call someone a Russian mobster and it gets by the lawyers a Penguin Random House, it's because they were convicted, generally. You know? I'm not just making this stuff up. You have the court records. What I've tried to do is not look at the specific crimes so much as the relationships of the people in all the crimes, and you see when you put them together, "Oh, this is the Russian mafia. This is how they operate. They all know each other." They all report to Mogilevich, and Mogilevich is close to Putin. And they siphon off 750 million dollars from the Ukraine energy trade, and that's just one of many sectors, by the way. I focus on one because I want to keep a coherent narrative thread, but believe me, it's just a small part of what's going on.
Andrea Chalupa: Oh, without question. I hope you'll like move in with us and we can just do this all the time, because I want to get through all these questions. The culture of it as well. If you could speak about sort of birds of a feather flock together, and just how ostentatious this ruling class in Russia is, this materialism, and it’s so on brand with Trump. For instance, you know Trump, like his kindred spirit Berlusconi, they love the bunga-bunga parties with underage girls. You describe the oligarchs, the lifestyle. To me, it sounds like Dante's circles of Hell. None of that sounds fun to me. Where these oligarchs get together in like yacht competitions of who has the biggest yacht in the Mediterranean. They fly in 16-year-old virgins, you know, children have been trafficked for sex from a lot of these poor countries, and they fight over them. They have these sex parties, child prostitution, human trafficking. One oligarch had a collection of killed and stuffed endangered species. Like, I wanted to just burn the world down when I was reading this.
Craig Unger: Right. I believe that was Mashkevitch, and he had the bar stools on his yacht—he had 29 bar stools—and each bar stool was upholstered in the hide of a different endangered species.
Andrea Chalupa: That's so disgusting.
Craig Unger: I wrote that sentence, and then I thought about it and I realized, "Wait a minute. A lot of thought has to go into that." You have to figure out, well, what endangered species haven't I gotten to yet. Also, when you when you mentioned the 16-year-old virgins, I got the wiretap transcripts of those conversations, and there is a discussion among the staff who's negotiating the shipment of these young women. "Is it worth paying a 50 percent premium for a virgin? I don't know. Is that too much? We have to send back the un-pretty. No one wants her." It's just disgusting beyond belief, and in the middle of one of these parties Donald Trump was supposed to arrive and he couldn't make it, but he did a teleconference thing where he—this was a birthday party for Tevfik Arif, who was head of Bayrock, and these are his good friends. That is his life. You're absolutely right.
Andrea Chalupa: Manafort and Stone, the bad boys of the GOP that were servicing a lot of the GOP heavy hitters, including the rise of Reagan. Oh my god, your book is so incredible where it describes how Ronald Reagan becomes President and Donald Trump is so excited about that. So he's like, "This is my opportunity to end the Cold War." Right? He wanted to like, he had a solution on how to end the [war]. And he got really interested in the Soviet Union sort of around that time.
Craig Unger: Right. Well, I think the question is, I think when you get to the Mueller report, I don't think people are always asking the right questions, because to me what is absolutely indisputable is that Donald Trump was compromised by Russia. And when and how did that happen is one good question. I think it's probably not conclusive, but there is an enormous amount of highly suggestive data that suggests he was compromised in the 80s. And look at the sequence of events: 1984, a guy named David Bogatin, who was with the Russian mafia working under Mogilevich's wing, comes to Trump Tower—Trump Tower's just open the year before—he brings six million dollars in cash. That's equivalent to about 15 million a day, and says, "I'll take five condos." That was money laundering, according the state attorney general of New York. Now remember that the Russian mobsters are relaying that information to Russian intelligence, to the KGB. So the KGB knows that Trump is willing to turn a blind eye and do business with criminals. Essentially, they know that. What happens next is a little over a year later Ambassador Dubinin and his daughter go up to Trump Tower without an appointment. This is highly, highly unusual during the Cold War. It's a violation of all protocol. And they tell Trump, "We want to have lunch with you. You've done such a terrific job. We'd like to have a Trump Tower in Moscow. Let's have lunch." Then they fly him over. He's married to Ivana in those days, and it's his first trip to Russia. I interviewed General Oleg Kalugin, who is head of counterintelligence for the KGB back in those days, and according to Kalugin, during that trip Kalugin believed that they did get kompromat of a sexual nature on Trump. Okay? Kalugin didn't see it. I can't guarantee that, but that's what he told me on the record in a taped interview. What happens next is really interesting, because when Trump returns home, he immediately runs for president. People forget this: he ran for president in 1988, and he actually went to New Hampshire and did all those rites of passage that various Republican candidates do at the whatever diner in Portsmouth, New Hampshire or wherever. So he started his campaign, and what was most interesting about it, and it didn't last long, but was most interesting was he took out full page ads in The New York Times, Washington Post, and Boston Globe, and it put forth a foreign policy that could have been written by Leonid Brezhnev. I mean, it was just bizzonkers, saying NATO is terrible, the Western alliance has got to stop, you know. And this was, I don't think I've ever heard of any American making that kind of argument, certainly not at that time, because the Cold War was still going on.
Andrea Chalupa: So how does this fit in with the many attempts, the active interest that Donald Trump engaged in over the decades to run for president of the United States?
Sarah Kendzior: Yeah, because he picked up again. He almost ran in 96. He ran in 2000. He ran in 2012. And then of course 2016. This is a constant obsession with him, and this has been a pretty consistent platform for him, too, this sort of anti-NATO, all the other countries are ripping us off.
Craig Unger: Right.
Andrea Chalupa: He's had his platform for decades.
Craig Unger: Not only that. It's always also with Roger Stone. I interviewed Roger in, I think it was 08. Yeah. And it was just after the Eliot Spitzer thing, and he said, "You watch Donald Trump. He's gonna be President."
Andrea Chalupa: Wow.
Craig Unger: And I thought he was crazy at the time. It seemed absurd to me.
Sarah Kendzior: Yeah. It's very interesting to me the consistency here. People think of Trump as this kind of volatile character, this kind of outsider, this renegade, but he has had consistent ambitions to win the presidency for 30 years, consistent ties to Russia for 30 years, and his most constant foreign policy stance is his deference whether to the USSR or to independent Russia for 30 years. Again, I come back to how in God's name didn't other people see this. I did talk about this in 2016, and I either was mocked or I was threatened. And the combination of the two made me think that I was on the right track, like looking back at all of these archival materials from the 80s and 90s, but it's interesting to me that people didn't spot it when as you mentioned about your own book, a lot of it is lifted from these public domain resources, from all of the reporting that was done at that time. It was all out there. I'm a broken record on this, but if you have more thoughts you want to share. If not, I would love to get your take on on the Mueller Report, because I thought the Mueller Report was going to fill in those gaps on all those questions about this sort of long, decades-back problem, and it really didn't know.
Craig Unger: Right. I mean, to me the most interesting part of the Mueller Report was this one paragraph that drove me crazy, where you realize that there were supposed to be—Robert Mueller had dual mandate, and part of it was criminal prosecution, but the other part was national security, counterintelligence. And he just has one paragraph saying that, "Oh, he's giving all that information to the FBI." Well, what does that mean? Are they going to pursue it with William Barr as Attorney General? Is that going to move forward at all? And shouldn't that stuff be part of the public record? And most disturbingly, as you know, I saw Adam Schiff, head of the House Intelligence Committee, was tweeting the other day, "Whatever happened to that?".
Andrea Chalupa: You're Adam Schiff. You tell us! You have security clearance.
Craig Unger: Exactly. I want to know. I want to know.
Sarah Kendzior: Yeah, that's disturbing to me, and another thing I've been wondering about with Mueller is, as Andrea mentioned, we all know his 2011 Iron Triangle speech. We know he was aware of the problem. We know he knew who Mogilevich was. He was head of the FBI from 2011 to 2013, when a lot of this money laundering and all this other criminal activity was going on right under his nose. Like some of his indictments even are from that period, indictments of Manafort. Why didn't he do anything then?
Craig Unger: Well, this is a big, big question. Again, I can only speculate, but I go back to the Whitey Bulger story, and if if I'm not mistaken, Mueller was head of the FBI during Whitey Bulger as well. Mueller famously is an institutionalist. I mean, I've heard that word a thousand times with regard to him, and he's incredibly loyal to his institution, which unfortunately I think these institutions are corrupt. And what do you do then? And I think we've seen it in his failure to really speak out. I mean, to me, he gave that very brief press conference—was it last week or whenever—but when he did so, I thought there were there were a couple of very, very false notes, and one was, quite simply, he said he believed William Barr's statement had been made in good faith. And he doesn't believe that for a moment. He knows that's not the case, but he's being the good soldier going down with the ship, I think.
Sarah Kendzior: But the ship is sinking. His own former colleagues are being not just fired but persecuted. There are talks of imprisoning them, executing them. People like Lisa Page, people like James Comey and Andrew McCabe. How can he as an institutionalist have such disregard for the people with whom he worked and who he should be protecting along with the American citizenry?
Craig Unger: He's a few years older than me, but not that much. But he enlisted Vietnam. That says a lot about his allegiance to institutions. I mean, I think it was a crazy war, but he took part in it, and he's always done that kind of thing.
Sarah Kendzior: But at this point, when you have someone like Barr, like just for example, misrepresenting his work so much, coming out with this little memo. Even though Mueller apparently did provide him his own memo that was actually accurate, about all the things in the report. Comes out; says this. It takes Mueller a month to counter that, and meanwhile the media narrative is building, and people are saying that Mueller found nothing; Trump is exonerated. That is a serious national security problem for Mueller to stay silent. Do you have any thoughts on why he's behaving this way? Some have thought he's threatened. Some thought he maybe is corrupt. I don't really know myself.
Craig Unger: I have no evidence that he's corrupt. I see him as a good soldier, and I don't know more than that. I mean, he's gonna be torn I would think, but I don't know. I mean, he's played very much within those narrow rules. The other thing that I didn't really buy about in his press conference is the way he referred to the famous OLC memo as saying that it was constitutional. I don't think that's really the case.
Andrea Chalupa: No, not at all.
Craig Unger: It's a very controversial memo in the legal world, and they think its policy is put out by one division, but it's questionable whether or not that should be the case.
Andrea Chalupa: And several, several legal experts including Preet Bharara, have said, "Yes, the President of the United States can be indicted. Yes, our Constitution allows that." And we can't have our justice system held hostage by memos from the DOJ that are just a few decades old, compared to our U.S. Constitution. So I completely agree with you. That was a major gaslighting by Mueller, which I think, to Sarah's point, does raise suspicions about him. Like what game is he playing? Is he doing this to sleep better at night? Are we seeing a man justifying his actions to the world?
Craig Unger: But let's go back to the Whitey Bulger, and say is that the same case with Felix Sater. Because look, if the FBI knew everything about Trump, he doesn't want that to come out. That would destroy the FBI.
Andrea Chalupa: That's what we've said on the show. Yeah.
Craig Unger: And that—you know, this was the very first conversation I had when I started interviewing for the book, and I don't know if you know the lawyer Frederic Overlander, he has sued to try to unseal Felix Sater's agreement, and it has not been unsealed, to my knowledge at least. But he he was saying the single most important tool for the FBI is getting people to flip. Getting them to turn informant or become a cooperator. And if they're to use that tool they have to honor it every single time. They have to honor it even if Whitey Bulger is murdering his rivals. They have to honor it even if Felix Sater is laundering money with Donald Trump. And if that were to all come out, it could threaten the FBI’s ability to use this incredibly important tool. I think anyone who's ever watched Law and Order or any one of 100 cop shows sees people turn state's evidence. If the FBI can't do that anymore, how can it prosecute organized crime? Just as a reporter doing this kind of reporting, your interviewing people who are criminals or spies. They're both professional liars. Everyone lies. So what you have to do is then corroborate or refute what they say. And if Mueller throws that tool out of the window, if it's at risk, then maybe the whole FBI has been dealt a really, really almost mortal blow.
Sarah Kendzior: That's what I'm wondering is what's the utility of the FBI in this environment? I mean, we know Trump and Barr and others are targeting it, but we also saw on the Mueller probe these kind of plea deals that went nowhere, deals with Flynn, for example, or Gates, or the false deal with Manafort, where Manafort basically scream Mueller over, which I saw coming, and I don't know how Mueller didn't. Like what was the point of all of those little deals if there were so few indictments in the end? And if people didn't face any consequences?
Craig Unger: I absolutely don't know, and I have to wonder how things are going to play out, because it feels like there's—actually John McCain had a great line saying, "This centipede has many, many shoes to drop." What's been enormously frustrating I think to all of us is if you follow this on a daily basis, is there's a subpoena, they won't honor the subpoena, back and forth, back and forth. Very few people are getting to the underlying crimes. What really happened? How did this happen? When did it start? I mean, that's what I try to do and House of Trump, and I realize that even that has barely scratched the surface.
Sarah Kendzior: Yeah, but it does though. I mean, yours is I think the most thorough of all the books on this topic in terms of Trump and his relationship to the Russian mafia, which just seems like such a central thing. But when I watch these hearings, I hardly even hear that term. I don't hear the term mafia. I don't hear about Mogilevich. Like it's these sort of renegade shows, like me and Andrea, doing this. When I talk about it on MSNBC, I get a lot of blowback. Has that been your experience, that people just don't want the story told?
Craig Unger: There is a little of that, but there's also [that] it's complicated. They're Russian names. A lot of it has to do with familiarity, and if you go back to 9/11, I mean Osama bin Laden became a household name, but in general a book with 50 Arab names, people say, "Arghh." [laughter] And it's the same with Russian names. And so you have to be committed to it. Also, I think Americans don't read. I mean, there's one reason I wish the Democrats would get their act together after day after day of hearings, one after another. It's the only way we can have a shared national narrative, and it happened with Watergate. It's interesting. Like we know what Don McGann would say, because he says it in the Mueller Report, but it has not penetrated the American psyche one iota, I think. And you have to have him on the stand, on camera saying it, and then it'll be this dramatic moment. And I think there's a lot of that. I mean, this is where Trump is a masterful showman. The Democrats are not.
Sarah Kendzior: Right, and I'm kind of wondering about that, because we did see that kind of cohesive national narrative and that focus of attention on, for example the Comey hearings, the Michael Cohen hearings, and then it stops, and then Pelosi is very adamantly against impeachment hearings, and just hearings in general have have stopped for the most part. What's going on?
Craig Unger: I have no idea, and I'm trying to find out. And I've talked to people on various congressional committees, and the people who should know don't seem to know. And so I can't answer the question. It's driving me crazy. And you know, Felix Sater should be on. They don't need everything.
Sarah Kendzior: He was scheduled and then they canceled it, right?
Craig Unger: He canceled twice. He was supposed to be up there in March, and now we're in June.
Andrea Chalupa: What's really funny is all the Russiagate skeptics, they think that Trump's Russia ties basically began with the FBI launching Crossfire Hurricane in late July 2016. And they think this was all a big Christopher Steele, British FBI plot, a coup against him, because he was going to bash the institutions. But your book is the antidote to that, which shows the decades, several decades of Russiagate.
Craig Unger: I started to read The Nation the other day, and I wanted to shoot myself, because—
Andrea Chalupa: Was it a Stephen Cohen article?
Stephen Cohen said, "Well there's clearly no evidence." I see, I see. Gosh, I guess I've wasted my time. And it's just very depressing. There is a disjunction where people don't realize the magnitude of what's happened, and I sometimes go back to Pearl Harbor, where we were attacked, the entire country knew it, we rose up and fought a war. But today, there are no bombs or bullets or boots on the ground, so no one could see anything. It looks nice outside, and everything lovely and wonderful. But in Pearl Harbor, the Japanese didn't come close to taking over the White House. The Russians did that without firing a shot. And that's why I like your title, Gaslit Nation. I mean, it's like everything seems fine, let's go about, everything's just hunky dory. But he is a Russian asset. There's a Russian asset in the White House. And for John Brennan or Clapper to say things like that, they're not loose-lipped guys. They are very, they're not wild lefties or anything, saying this kind of stuff. And that means it's a very, very serious threat to national security.
Andrea Chalupa: We want to thank you so much for moving in with us and getting your own bunk bed here at Gaslit Nation.
Craig Unger: Well, thank you for having me.
Andrea Chalupa: Our discussion continues and you can get access to that by signing up on our Patreon at the truth teller level or higher.