Earlier this month I wrote about how Special Counsel Robert Mueller isn’t merely going to destroy Donald Trump, he’s going to reveal his most humiliating secret: Trump is flat broke (link). I got some pushback on it, from people asking how someone with assets in the billions can be broke. The answer is simple: if your debts are larger than your assets, and servicing your debt has left you cash-poor, you’re broke. Now there’s even more anecdotal evidence of just how broke Trump is.
This summer it was revealed that Donald Trump was using funds from his phony “2020 reelection campaign” to pay for his son Don’s legal bills in the Trump-Russia scandal. This in and of itself could have been written off as Trump simply being his scamming self. He sees his campaign fundraising as being his own personal money, so of course he spent it on his own personal interests. He’s also used his own charity as a personal piggy bank, while scamming money from his other son Eric’s charity. This doesn’t mean he’s broke, just that he’s a criminal scumbag. But now it turns out he’s skimming money from a different, and more eye popping, source.
Last night it was revealed that Trump has conned the Republican National Committee into paying his own legal bills (link). This is not easily pulled off. Trump has precious little influence remaining over the Republican Party. But he’s so desperate for yet another minor cash infusion to pay his lawyers, he’s using up that last bit of remaining goodwill with the RNC. As per usual, Trump is doing all of this for a relatively small amount of money. It’s a mere $230,000 – which for a billionaire should be not even be worth the trouble.
What stands out here is the time and trouble which Donald Trump is willing to go to, just so he can pilfer small amounts of cash. He lugged himself to his own resorts every weekend just so he could steal money from the Secret Service to the tune of $60,000 in golf cart rentals and such. That’s a ton of work for what should be the equivalent of a penny lying on the ground for a billionaire. That’s because he’s not a billionaire. His properties are over-mortgaged, he has hidden international debts, and a negative net worth. Donald Trump is flat broke. Eventually it’ll surface that the $1 million he donated to hurricane relief wasn’t actually his money either. He simply doesn’t have that kind of cash available.
The oligarch tied to President Trump’s dealings in Moscow sold a multimillion-dollar apartment in Midtown as his family’s name began to surface in the Russia investigation.
Irina Agalarova, the wife of Kremlin-connected billionaire Aras Agalarov, closed the sale of her pad on W. 52nd Street at the end of June, according to city property records.
The two-bedroom property fetched more than $2.8 million, up only $300,000 from what the Agalarovs paid for it last February.
It was not immediately clear why the wealthy family, whose patriarch rose from his roots in the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan to become one of the biggest real estate developers in Russia, chose to sell its Manhattan digs.
The sale, which had not previously been reported, closed roughly 15 months after the apartment was purchased.
Agalarov’s connections to Trump came under scrutiny as part of the probes into alleged Moscow meddling in the 2016 election.
Property documents list the Midtown apartment contract date as May 11, as investigations into possible Kremlin collusion with the Trump campaign heated up with the firing of FBI Director James Comey.
The family’s connections to Trump go back further, however, to when Emin Agalarov, the pop-star son of Aras, featured Miss Universe in a music video.
That choice that later led to the family bringing Trump and his Miss Universe pageant to Moscow in 2013, with the then-reality TV star trotting out his catchphrase, “you’re fired,” in another of Emin’s Europop videos.
Trump and Agalarov also had discussions about creating a Trump Tower Moscow, which never materialized.
While Aras Agalarov had a passing mention in the unverified “dossier” against Trump published in January, his family was brought back into investigators’ orbit after Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, unveiled his list of foreign contacts in late June.
Those contacts included a June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower with a Russian lawyer promising dirt on the Clinton campaign that Aras Agalarov had obtained from Moscow’s top prosecutor.
Emails show that Rob Goldstone, the British publicist for Emin Agalarov, told Trump Jr. that the information was part of the Russian government’s “support for Mr. Trump.”
Trump Jr. and others have said that nothing came of the meeting, which also included Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort, Kushner, Goldstone, Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, Russian-American lobbyist Rinat Akhmetshin, a translator and Agalarov employee Ike Kaveladze.
News of the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting sparked interest in the oligarch family’s dealings, including that Aras Agalarov had put his posh home in Bergen County, N.J., up for sale in mid-June.
Top officials who have been fired or quit under Trump administration
Real estate website Zillow shows that the listing was removed on July 14, in the aftermath of the Trump Jr. emails.
Scott Balber, a lawyer representing the Agalarovs in the U.S., told the Daily News Wednesday that the timing was not in any way a reaction to swirling investigations in Washington.
“There is absolutely no connection between selling these two properties to anything in the news,” Balber said.
“I can assure you that Mr. Agalarov knows a lot more about real estate investment than you or I do,” he said.
In fact, the Agalarov clan’s properties in New York, which public records show include two other apartments, are just a few tacks on the map of foreign buyers gobbling up Manhattan real estate.
David Reiss, a real estate expert at Brooklyn Law School, told The News the buyers from abroad can have numerous motivations for coming to New York including “getting real estate as an asset class, taking money from their home country and bringing it abroad so it can’t be clawed back by the local government, or to have another home for family members.”
While Balber trumpeted his client’s investment acumen as a reason for the sale, Reiss said that the $300,000 gain may have actually been a loss after other fees are included, raising questions about its use as an investment.
Donald Trump in the White House
“In the context of the Agalarovs’ portfolio this is probably a very small item so it was unlikely that this was considered a significant investment by the family,” he said.
While Reiss said there are no indications of wrongdoing on the Agalarov’s part, money laundering has become a persistent worry as multimillionaires and billionaires stash possibly ill-begotten cash in Manhattan apartments.
The building where the Agalarov family sold their apartment has previously been involved in accusations of wrongdoing over allegedly illicit money from the former Soviet Union.
The government of Kazakhstan filed suit against the building’s developer Chetrit Group in October 2015, saying that former officials Mukhtar Ablyazov and Viktor Khrapunov had used the property to funnel $40 million allegedly stolen from the Central Asian country.
Chetrit reached an unspecified with Kazakhstan shortly after, saying that the “dispute has been amicably resolved.”
More than $3 million of Ablyazov and Khrapunov’s money also into the Trump SOHO project through the future President’s partner Bayrock after the pair were charged with theft, according to a Financial Times investigation last year.
Balber told the News that he was not aware of the allegations that were made against Chetrit.
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They were just three words — not even uttered in real life but in a Hollywood movie — that nevertheless came to define American politics over the last 40-plus years. “Follow the money.” That’s what the fictional portrayal of the whistleblower “Deep Throat” told Bob Woodward in the 1976 movie version of “All the President’s Men” was the key to tracing the real roots of the Watergate scandal — follow the flow of illegal campaign money into Richard Nixon’s 1972 campaign…who it came from and where it was going. It turned out, of course, that the money from favor-seeking millionaires paid for illegal bugging, break-ins and other dirty tricks, and Nixon became the first and only president to resign in disgrace (so far). Despite that, the role of money in propelling political power in America grew only stronger.
Now it’s 2017 and things have changed. Money is still important, and more dark money flows into our politics than ever before. But that’s because money helps campaigns buy the real source of political power: Knowledge. And in the computer era, knowledge means data: Where to find your voters, how to reach them, what to tell them that will guarantee they turn out to vote for your candidate … or how to make the other side stay home.
If there was a Deep Throat in the Trump-Russia scandal, this is what he’d be telling today’s Woodwards and Bernsteins:
Follow the data.
With all the drama over this week’s bombshell disclosures of Donald Trump Jr.’s emails and a previously unknown Trump Tower meeting between top campaign officials and a woman who’d been pitched to them as “a Russian government lawyer,” there was another investigative report that arguably could have equal or greater significance in the ongoing probes of wrongdoing in the 2016 campaign. It said probers are now taking a much closer look at possible cooperation between Russia — which had an operation to churn out “fake news” about Hillary Clinton during the fall campaign — and the Trump campaign’s data operation.
The campaign’s data effort was overseen by President Trump’s son-in-law and arguably his closest adviser, Jared Kushner. Here’s what the McClatchy News Service reported Wednesday:
Investigators at the House and Senate Intelligence committees and the Justice Department are examining whether the Trump campaign’s digital operation – overseen by Jared Kushner – helped guide Russia’s sophisticated voter targeting and fake news attacks on Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Congressional and Justice Department investigators are focusing on whether Trump’s campaign pointed Russian cyber operatives to certain voting jurisdictions in key states – areas where Trump’s digital team and Republican operatives were spotting unexpected weakness in voter support for Hillary Clinton, according to several people familiar with the parallel inquiries.
The Washington Post also took a deep dive into the important of the “fake news” blitz in helping bring out Trump’s surprise victory in November.
In October of last year, Bloomberg News reported that the campaign’s digital arm, run by Brad Parscale, would target possible Hillary Clinton voters for an inverse pitch. The Trump campaign would not show them ads making the case for voting for Trump; instead, they showed videos that they hoped would dampen enthusiasm for Clinton — and get the voters to stay home.
[A] young staffer showed off a South Park-style animation he’d created of Clinton delivering the “super predator” line (using audio from her original 1996 sound bite), as cartoon text popped up around her: “Hillary Thinks African Americans are Super Predators.” The animation will be delivered to certain African American voters through Facebook “dark posts” — nonpublic posts whose viewership the campaign controls so that, as Parscale puts it, “only the people we want to see it, see it.”
Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia back in May questioned how the Russian fake-news-spreaders knew which voters to contact. He said: “When you see some of the explanation and some of the fact that it appears that, for example, women and African Americans were targeted in places like Wisconsin and Michigan, where the Democrats were too brain dead to realize those states were even in play … It was interesting that those states seem to be targeted where the bots — where they could could create a lot of these fake Twitter and Facebook accounts, could in fact overwhelm the targeted search engines that would end up saying on your news feed, you suddenly got stuff that “Hillary Clinton’s sick” or “Hillary Clinton’s stealing money from the State Department.”
It’s fascinating: Most of the media attention has focused on the emails that were hacked — i.e., stolen … a felony — from Democratic sources, allegedly by the Russians, and then leaked to help Trump’s campaign. The key points in the Trump Jr. emails bombshell were that 1) Russia wanted Trump to win the election and 2) Trump’s inner circle seemed eager to cooperate with them. And so if the Trump campaign somehow provided data to Russia’s “fake news” content farms, that would suggest an even closer level of cooperation between the winning presidential campaign and an adversarial foreign power that wanted a new president to lift economic sanctions.
Here’s where it really gets interesting. The Trump campaign, including Kushner (who also took part in the Trump Tower confab with the Russian lawyer) worked closely with a data firm — Cambridge Analytica — connected to Trump’s richest, most secretive and arguably most influential backer, hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer, and his daughter Rebekah. That circle also includes another top Trump adviser, Steve Bannon, who was on the Cambridge Analytica board of directors, and Kellyanne Conway, who did consulting work for the Mercers before she connected with Trump.
Much of this scenario was spelled out in an article that appeared on the website Just Security in May. After the election, Kushner bragged that micro-targeting was Trump’s secret weapon, and he specifically praised the Mercer-run outfit for Forbes:
This wasn’t a completely raw startup. Kushner’s crew was able to tap into the Republican National Committee’s data machine, and it hired targeting partners like Cambridge Analytica to map voter universes and identify which parts of the Trump platform mattered most: trade, immigration or change.
A deeply reported investigative piece in the Guardian, also published in May, made two explosive claims about Cambridge Analytica’s work over the course of 2016 that go well beyond Kushner’s claims. The first was that a key part of the Mercers’ firm’s work was indeed to suppress the Democratic turnout last November. Specifically:
Cambridge Analytica worked on campaigns in several key states for a Republican political action committee. Its key objective, according to a memo the Observer has seen, was “voter disengagement” and “to persuade Democrat voters to stay at home”: a profoundly disquieting tactic. It has previously been claimed that suppression tactics were used in the campaign, but this document provides the first actual evidence.
Second, it claims that Cambridge Analytica also played a critical role in the other 2016 vote that shocked the world: The successful Brexit campaign to take the United Kingdom out of the European Union. Both that result and Trump’s election achieved the key strategic goal of Russia: Destabilizing the Western alliance. That’s no proof of collusion, of course. But you can see why investigators are stepping up their probes. In the case of hacking, we know that the Trump campaign was seeking dirt on Hillary Clinton and the Democrats and that dirt — courtesy, it is alleged, of Russian hackers — appeared just weeks later. In the case of data, we know that Jared Kushner wanted to target specific voters and the Russians set up an operation to create “fake news” content for exactly those readers. Either it’s the world’s greatest coincidence, or something darker was going on. This take by the Guardian’s writer Carole Cadwalladr is as dark as it gets:
There are three strands to this story. How the foundations of an authoritarian surveillance state are being laid in the US. How British democracy was subverted through a covert, far-reaching plan of coordination enabled by a US billionaire. And how we are in the midst of a massive land grab for power by billionaires via our data. Data which is being silently amassed, harvested and stored. Whoever owns this data owns the future.
To say it more simply: Follow the data.
Published: | Updated:
About this series: The U.S. intelligence community has concluded an attempt to interfere in the 2016 presidential election was ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin. A WTOP investigation that began in November 2016 examined how the attack happened, when it started, who was involved and what’s next. Dozens of interviews with current and former U.S. intelligence officials, members of Congress, cyber security and intelligence experts, foreign government officials, Russian nationals and American victims were conducted. Here is what WTOP learned.
WASHINGTON — In the early hours of Feb. 13, 2017, just after returning home from a trip to Africa earlier in the month, David Pollock woke up to the incessant ringing of his mobile phone.
He answered it. On the other end was someone speaking in Russian, who abruptly hung up.
“It started probably about 7 a.m. and continued many hours after that. I was getting robocalls from Russia in Russian,” he said.
Some of the relentless callers “left messages. Sometimes, they hung up, and sometimes, there was just noise after I answered,” said Pollock, the Kaufman fellow at The Washington Institute. He said that for nearly an entire working day, “the calls were coming in so fast; I couldn’t block them or delete them until many hours went by.”
Pollock believes he was targeted after publicly confronting a Russian academic, who denigrated the U.S. military and the U.S. government during a plenary session at a security conference in Morocco a few days before.
But as annoying as it was, what happened to Pollock was tame compared to the scene that unfolded in St. Mary Parish, Louisiana, on the morning of Sept. 11, 2014.
‘A certain mission’
“We started getting phone calls in regards to a message titled ‘toxic fumes, hazard warning,’” said Duval Arthur, director of the office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.
He told WTOP that citizens received a text message alert about 8 a.m. about an explosion at a manufacturing plant. The alert read “‘take shelter, check local media,’” according to Arthur; the dispatch was sent from Columbia Chemical Company and listed its website as <a href=”http://columbiachemical.com” rel=”nofollow”>columbiachemical.com</a>.
Within two hours, social media users from the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Lakes were inundated with posts about the incident.
Twitter and other social media platforms were jammed with images of the explosion and a screenshot of a CNN homepage. Even a YouTube video had been posted showing someone watching a TV broadcast in which ISIS had allegedly claimed responsibility for an attack on the plant.
But not a word of it was true. It was all an elaborately staged hoax.
The organization mentioned in the alert, Columbia Chemical Company, does not exist.
There is a company in the area called Columbian Chemical, owned by Birla.
Arthur told WTOP he called the company, and they said the following in a news release:
“We have been informed by the community that a text message has been received by several individuals indicating a release of toxic gas from the Birla Carbon’s Columbian Chemicals Plant near Centerville, Louisiana. The content as stated by the text message is not true. There has been no release of such toxic gas, explosion or any other incident in our facility. We are not aware of the origin of this text message.”
When WTOP asked who was responsible, Arthur said, “I was told it was the Russians, but I have no information on that — none whatsoever.”
WTOP contacted the Louisiana division of the FBI and asked about the investigation. A spokesman declined to comment on the disposition and nature of the inquiry.
Arthur is uncertain about who was behind the incident, but current and former U.S. intelligence sources are clear that it and other incidents like it are the work of a Russian government-funded network.
Both Pollock and St. Mary Parish, Louisiana, were likely victims of a troll house operation.
“These folks have a certain mission. They go 24 hours a day in 12-hour shifts. In those shifts, they are given a certain number of posts that they have to fulfill,” said former Congressman Michael J. Rogers, R-Mich.
Rogers, who chaired the House Intelligence Committee from 2011-2015, told WTOP hundreds of workers at the troll houses are assigned to target websites, social media accounts and online platforms, “which have some impact on people’s opinion on either a person or some idea or a political candidate,” that is important to the Russian government.
He said each troll, “based on the information I saw, is assigned about 135 online posts (or targets).”
In each post, according to Rogers, the troll is required to include a minimum number of characters — “something like 200,” said Rogers.
Whether it’s robocalling people perceived as hostile to the Russian government or launching intricately scripted hoaxes, it’s all believed to be a part of the Russian military’s new information warfare division — designed specifically to fight the U.S. and the West.
“They took all of their cyber-actors and combined them in this information warfare center. They talked openly about propaganda being a part of what they do. They said they were going to be smart and effective in everything they do to protect the Russian federation,” Rogers said.
Russia’s influence operations
Moscow’s new hybrid warfare machine was on full display last year.
“What we have seen in the 2016 election was an unprecedented attempt by Russia to manipulate our most basic democratic process: our electoral process and the jewel of the crown, the presidential process,” Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in an exclusive interview with WTOP.
The operation was based on an old idea.
“Russia, a long time back in time inside the Soviet Union, was an agent of misinformation. When it was a communist dictatorship, it used propaganda to contain its own people,” Warner said.
Many of the tactics that Russia deployed in 2016 against the U.S., he said, “They’ve been using for the last decade in places like Poland, Hungary, Romania and, of course, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.”
A U.S. intelligence official told WTOP, “Russia relies on tools it uses in its influence campaigns, such as media messaging and funding of parties, to muddy the waters about Russian activities and bolster its preferred candidates.”
Russia “probably is also increasingly using cyber-enabled disclosures to undermine the credibility of Western institutions,” said the official, looking at how Moscow skillfully hacked the Democratic National Committee and John Podesta, former chairman of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.
After both entities were hacked, sources told WTOP, the information was then funneled to organizations such as WikiLeaks and DCleaks.
Warner said, “Russia started by hacking into private individual accounts of both political parties, but decided to only release information that was harmful to the Democratic candidate — Clinton.”
Somewhere mid-spring to summer of 2016, according to Warner, “Moscow changed from saying they just wanted to sow chaos to deciding they’d rather see Trump over Clinton.”
There were two phases of the operation, he said.
The first was the selective hacking of information and then letting that information be released at critical times. The second part, which Warner said “was even more sophisticated, was using modern technology and the internet, and they would pay people to create fake social media accounts and create botnets.”
He said they would use those accounts and bots to flood the internet with fake news. And, according to Warner, they were so skilled at it that they could even target specific areas.
“Data scientists have shown that in certain areas, for example in Wisconsin, Michigan or Pennsylvania, during the last 10 days of the campaign, Twitter or Facebook users wouldn’t find stories about Clinton vs. Trump,” Warner said.
Instead, he said, they would encounter fake stories “about Hillary Clinton being sick or stealing money from the State Department.”
The reason, he said, was because the overwhelming number of bots and fake social media accounts — a part of Russia’s information warfare operation — could determine what the top trending stories would be on social media platforms.
Editor’s note: WTOP’s next article looks at the evolution of Russian influence operations in the U.S.
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Anatomy of a Russian attack: From robocalls to hoaxes, a look at tactics used
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