Donald Trump and his cronies, blustering about the Russian investigation, do not see what is heading their way, Steve Bannon wanted to stress. “They are sitting on a beach trying to stop a Category Five.” The gathering storm is likely to be even fiercer after the US President’s spectacular falling out with his former chief strategist and close ally.
In Michael Wolff’s book, Fire and Fury, about this most extraordinary of presidencies, Bannon has a clear view of the direction special counsel Robert Mueller’s inquiry into Trump’s Moscow connections is taking. “This is about money laundering. Mueller chose Weissmann and he is a money-laundering guy. Their path to f***ing Trump goes right through Paul Manafort, Don Jr and Jared Kushner … It’s as plain as a hair on your face … They’re going to crack Don Jr like an egg on national TV.”
Those who have been following the work by Mueller’s team would agree with that analysis. An increasingly prevalent view is that like Al Capone, Trump will be got on money. The investigators are looking deep into allegations of funds from Russian organised crime being used by the Trump organisation, focusing on individual suspects, and on specific projects.
There is also, of course, the strand of the investigation looking at whether Trump was the “Muscovite Candidate” in the presidential election and the Russians helped him to get to the White House. Three people, including Trump’s former campaign manager, have already been charged and, in Bannon’s view, others are likely to follow including the President’s son and his son-in-law.
The former chief strategist to Trump has described a meeting in Trump Tower, New York, between Donald Jr, Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort and a Russian lawyer, with ties to the Kremlin, as “treasonous and unpatriotic”. Significantly, he made a point of stressing that there was “zero chance” that Donald Jr did not tell his father about the meeting – which directly contradicts the President’s claim that he knew nothing about it.
The scale of collusion between the Trump camp and the Russians and Donald Trump’s own involvement is at the centre of the Mueller investigation and the special counsel would undoubtedly be keen to talk to the former White House chief strategist about what he knows.
The possibility of Bannon being questioned by Mueller has already been raised. He worked in the White House when Trump’s national security advisor, Michael Flynn, left after his links with Moscow were revealed. Flynn subsequently pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and is now cooperating on the Russia probe. Bannon had discussed the firing of FBI Director James Comey with Trump, although he was later to say it was “one of the worst mistakes in modern political history” as it brought in Mueller with the extensive powers of special counsel.
Former Justice Department prosecutor Peter Zeidenberg commented: “Post-election, there’s a story every day about some other bombshell and Bannon would have had a conversation with Trump about it. It doesn’t mean Bannon has violated any law, but there’s no way this investigation gets done without him being interviewed thoroughly, the chance of him not being interviewed is zero per cent.”
It’s not just Mueller’s team who want to talk to Bannon. Congressman Adam Schiff, on the House Intelligence Committee carrying out its own inquiry into Russia and Trump, stated: “It will be very important at an appropriate time to bring him before the committee. There are a whole range of issues we need to talk to him about.”
Bannon appears to have been following the investigation closely. The Weissman he mentions is Andrew Weissmann, who has joined Mueller’s team. Nineteen years ago as a prosecutor he cut a deal with Felix Sater (aka Felix Sheferovsky) a Russian-born criminal being prosecuted for his role in a $40m organised crime scam which targeted the elderly, some of them Holocaust survivors.
Sater became an informer, avoiding a possible prison sentence of 20 years and a $5m fine (he paid $25,000 instead) and went on to provide information on Russian organised crime, American mafia families, al-Qaeda and foreign intelligence services according to recently unsealed Justice Department papers.
Afterwards Sater became a business associate of Trump, working for a real estate firm called Bayrock which had a suite of offices two floors beneath the Trump Organisation’s headquarters in Trump Tower. The two men appeared at ribbon-cutting ceremonies for joint projects and went on business trips together. Sater used Trump Organisation business cards.
Bayrock went into partnership with Trump over a hotel project, the Trump SoHo in New York. Trump SoHo is now part of the Mueller investigation over sources of funding from Russia and Kazakhstan. Sater is back helping Federal authorities into alleged money laundering by Viktor Khrapunov, Kazakhstan’s former energy minister, whose family invested £3.1m in Trump SoHo properties. It is not known if any or how much of the money went to Donald Trump.
Three months ago a joint investigation by the publications ProPublica, WNYC and The New Yorker found that Manhattan District Attorney’s office had, in the past, dropped a criminal case for fraud against Ivanka Trump and Donald Jr after Donald Trump’s long-term personal lawyer, Marc Kasowitz, made a personal contribution to the District Attorney’s campaign. Kasowitz has been representing Donald Trump in the Russia investigation.
Michael Wolff’s book recounts a conversation between Bannon and Roger Ailes in which the former Fox News head asks what Trump had “gotten into with the Russians”. Bannon replied: “Mostly he went to Russia and he thought he was going to meet Putin. But Putin couldn’t give a shit about him. So he’s kept trying.”
Sater told his childhood friend Michael Cohen, Trump’s lawyer and a former vice-president of the Trump Organisation, that Putin would help Trump get to the White House. “Our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it… I will get Putin on this programme and we will get Trump elected.”
Sater could not engineer a meeting between Trump and Putin despite trying. But he was not without influence; he managed to arrange for Ivanka to sit on Putin’s chair when Trump asked him to squire her and Donald Jr on a trip to Moscow. Ivanka recalls a “brief tour around the Kremlin” and that this “may have” involved sitting at Putin’s desk.
Bannon, who has regularly disparaged Donald Jr, Ivanka and Jared Kushner, appears to believe that Donald Jr and Kushner at least will not escape the Russia inquiry unscathed. What secret Bannon himself holds and how much of it emerges is likely to depend on how the feud between Trump and the man who used to be described as the “Shadow President” unfolds in the coming days and weeks.
Almost the entire senior staff at the White House at the start of the Trump presidency, with the exception of Ivanka and Jared Kushner, have now gone. As well as Bannon this includes Michael Flynn, Katie Walsh, Sean Spicer, Reince Priebus, Gary Cohn, Dina Powell, Rick Dearborn and even longtime bodyguard Keith Schiller. Some of these people too may end up talking to Mueller’s team.
Meanwhile, Trump said in a statement, produced after several rewrites by the White House: “Steven Bannon has nothing to do with me or my presidency, when he was fired, he not only lost his job, he lost his mind.” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee called Wolff’s book “a trashy tabloid fiction filled with false and misleading account from individuals”.