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Billionaire Wilbur Ross Confirmed Despite Questions over Ties to Russian Oligarchs Close to Putin

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The New York Times reports that the Obama administration scrambled during its final days in office to preserve evidence of Russia’s collusion with the Trump campaign. Citing unnamed former officials, the Times says Obama’s aides left a "trail of evidence" across different government agencies to prevent the incoming Trump administration from covering up or destroying evidence. We speak to James Henry about his latest piece, "Wilbur Ross Comes to D.C. With an Unexamined History of Russian Connections."

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We continue our discussion about the Trump administration facing a new scandal as the Justice Department has acknowledged that Attorney General Jeff Sessions met twice last year with Russia’s ambassador to the United States, contradicting sworn testimony Sessions gave during his confirmation hearing. We are talking to David Cay Johnston, the investigative reporter, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, as well as James Henry, economist, lawyer, who has investigated Trump’s ties to Russia. His most recent report is titled "Another Cabinet Pick with Secret Ties to Putin and Oligarchs." But I want to begin, Jim, with you talking about these revelations that have just come out and what you find most significant.

JAMES HENRY: Well, I think the contradiction in the Sessions speech to the talk to the U.N., to the Senate, and also his, you know, conflict of interest here, I think, in terms of having to preside over the FBI investigation at the same time that he may well have had conversations—you know, this guy Kislyak is a pretty significant player in the Russian orbit. You know, he was the fellow who had the conversations with Flynn that got Flynn into trouble. And the Russians have said themselves that they had all kinds of contacts with the Trump team. So here we find Sessions trying to draw this kind of phony boundary between what he does as a senator and what he does as one of the leading foreign policy advisers to the Trump candidacy. So I think, you know, this just has the—has an odor of impropriety to it. And he ought to recuse himself. I don’t know whether the answer is a special prosecutor or some other approach, but I do think that he has basically discredited himself.

AMY GOODMAN: And you also have The New York Times exposé today, that we just talked about in the headlines, The New York Times reporting the Obama administration scrambled during its final days in office to preserve evidence of Russia’s collusion with the Trump campaign. Citing unnamed former officials, the Times says Obama’s aides left a "trail of evidence" across different government agencies to prevent the incoming Trump administration from covering up or destroying the evidence, the trail including passing sensitive information to Congress, keeping evidence at a relatively low classification level so a number of people could see it, also sharing information with European allies. I mean, you have situations like, you know, the NSA picks up a lot of information, and it’s not culled through, but they started to go through it, gather that information, categorize it and start to disseminate it. The significance of this?

JAMES HENRY: Well, I think we, first of all, have our own intelligence community obviously very concerned about this administration. But the second thing that I picked up from that report, Amy, was that we have the Dutch, the U.K., the German agencies, as well, basically beginning to corroborate some of the elements of the Steele memorandum, which, you know, came out last—originally in summer. This is the MI6 guy who was making all these allegations about Trump—kompromat and the Rosneft deal, a lot of details there. But basically, we’re finding that these other intelligence agencies—the United States is not the only organization—not the only country with intelligence agencies—they are coming out with findings that are basically corroborating some of the elements of that commission, that there were in fact meetings of the Trump team with Russians in Europe during the period that the Steele memorandum claimed. So that’s also very important, and I think we’re going to have to see exactly what that means.

AMY GOODMAN: In Canada yesterday—I mean, you had Trump’s address to the joint session of Congress on Tuesday night. I believe the only or one of the only world leaders he mentioned was Justin Trudeau Tuesday night. Well, yesterday in Canada, in Vancouver, President Trump’s children—Tiffany, as well as Eric and Donald Trump Jr.—who run his empire, joined a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new Trump International Hotel and Tower in Vancouver. I just wanted to play a clip of—this is Don Trump Jr.

DONALD TRUMP JR.: Coming from someone that has some experience with generational family businesses, I know how it’s not always so easy. Not always so easy. I’d like to thank the press. Just kidding. It’s great to see you here. I’m shocked. I’m absolutely shocked. But, no, it is great to be here. This has been an amazing journey.

AMY GOODMAN: So, James Henry, you’re an economist. This is a hotel, the first Trump hotel and apartment building, a tower, that has been opened since, I believe, Trump has become president. Talk about the significance of this Vancouver tower.

JAMES HENRY: Well, I’d contrast it with the Toronto tower, which just went bankrupt and where Donald Trump had some very strange business partners, some of them connected to our favorite folks, the Russians. So, I wrote a long piece about all this in The American Interest in December. You can dig it out.

But, you know, look, I think the Trump family should be encouraged to do business. I mean, it’s great that they’re out making towers around the planet. In fact, the whole family should go back to what they probably do best, which is building tower hotels. But the impact of this tower, I mean, is going to be—you know, I mean, I think it’s unclear how much employment it will create or whether the market that they’re targeting isn’t just the ultra-affluent. That’s typically their style.

But, you know, I think the most important issues that we’ve been trying to understand here is all the incredible affiliations and partners that he’s had, dubious partners, from Russia and the former Soviet Union, a lot of money flowing into his organizations from Russian capital flight. And essentially, what Donald always says is "I don’t have any business in Russia." Well, you know, that’s not the point. The point is he’s done an awful lot of business with Russians, and a lot of those projects basically look a lot like money-laundering projects.

AMY GOODMAN: So—

JAMES HENRY: So I hope that the—

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about this.

JAMES HENRY: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about this, when it comes to Vancouver. And specifically, just having read your piece, talk about Felix Sater and who he is.

JAMES HENRY: Right. Felix Sater is a convicted felon. He also happened to run a company with a partner, called Bayrock, which was a big investor in the project called the Trump SoHo, which basically went belly up. Bayrock no longer exists; it went bankrupt. But Felix and his partner, you know, have been accused of being a conduit to former Soviet Union money that was flowing into these projects. You know, that’s a matter of litigation that’s before the courts now.

But it is the case that the farther you look into Felix and his partners, the more curious the situation becomes. He was convicted and then had a very generous plea deal in 2000 from our former attorney general, Loretta Lynch, despite the fact that he had been convicted of felonies for a huge $40 million financial scam. He never served a day in jail. He then did a kind of very big plea bargain with the Justice Department. And essentially, we think he may have been helping the CIA repurchase Stinger missiles in Afghanistan with the help of his Russian friends. Anyway, that’s another whole smoking gun we need to investigate. But Sater, to this day, has been involved in—his latest thing was to propose a kind of a relaxed sanctions on Russia with respect to the Ukraine, just in January, using Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, as a conduit. So, this guy—the fact that these kinds of people are floating around the Trump Organization, just in and out of the door, is very disturbing. And, you know, my piece goes into a lot of the different networks and the extensive—

AMY GOODMAN: But staying on Felix, you actually show the business card of Felix Sater, which we will show right here—

JAMES HENRY: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: —which says, "Felix H. Sater," and on top it says, "Trump," "The Trump Organization."

JAMES HENRY: That’s right. I mean, he was, at a certain point, an adviser to Trump. He was meeting with him in his office. They were scheming to do projects all over the planet. You know, he was making campaign contributions to the Trump Organization this summer. They have distanced themselves from him. I mean, he has a—you know, this is a fellow who’s been convicted of slashing somebody with a margarita glass.

So, you know, the issue, more broadly, just beyond Felix Sater, is: How do we get to the bottom of all of these allegations? I think that David’s point about needing some kind of independent investigation, maybe a national commission, on this whole issue, just to clear the air, is essentially the way to go.

But the most recent report that I’ve been doing, I wanted to just turn to that, because, you know, the Sater story has been done. We know it’s out there. It still needs work. But, you know, the most interesting thing I’ve come up with lately is about our new secretary of commerce investing in a Russian-owned bank that’s basically, up to the minute, involved in money laundering. And he’s got, you know, three partners in that bank who are wealthy oligarchs, one of whom was a KGB agent, appointed by Putin to the bank. This is the Bank of Cyprus. And at least 50 percent of that bank is Russian-owned. So, Wilbur Ross is the fellow we’re talking about. We presented our report over the weekend. Several U.S. senators took the material there and asked Ross questions about all of his connections with these folks. But he never responded. And on Monday, the U.S. Senate voted 72 to 27 in his favor. I just find this, you know, outrageous, Amy. It’s something that—

AMY GOODMAN: Well—

JAMES HENRY: You know, yet another case.

AMY GOODMAN: But talk more specifically about Wilbur Ross, again, the wealthiest, I believe, of the Cabinet members.

JAMES HENRY: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Your subtitle, "There’s Still Time for Senators"—well, this is before Wilbur Ross was confirmed—"to Examine Wilbur Ross and His Mysterious Russian-Controlled Bank in Cyprus." Talk more specifically about this and the money he made—

JAMES HENRY: Yes, exactly.

AMY GOODMAN: —and why this matters right now.

JAMES HENRY: Well, he invested in this bank, which is the largest bank in Cyprus. It has a long—Cyprus is a big offshore haven, especially for Russians. Most of the direct investments that go into Russia are going through Cyprus. And his first partner in the bank, his co-vice chairman, was a guy who was a KGB agent, appointed to that position by Putin because there were a lot of Russian shareholders in the bank after it went belly up.

A second partner was the potash tsar of Russia, worth about $8 billion, a guy named Rybolovlev. And Dmitry Rybolovlev not only sold Donald Trump his house—bought Donald Trump’s house in 2008 for $95 million in Palm Beach, but he was also tagged as bird-dogging the president on the campaign trail, you know, intersecting with his landings in places like Charlotte, North Carolina, and Concord and Las Vegas, all over the campaign trail, and flying his Airbus 319 on these same routes. So, what was he up to? Why was Rybolovlev, you know, intersecting with the president’s campaign?

And the third partner was a fellow named Vekselberg, who is another big garch, Russian investor. He has four companies in Switzerland, one of which has been implicated in intelligence spying, for, you know, tapping people’s internet connections. So, you know, this is kind of unacceptable.

The final thing is that Wilbur Ross personally nominated as the CEO of this Bank of Cyprus, this Russian haven bank, the former head of Deutsche Bank, which was just, as David said, implicated in something like $10 billion of Russian money laundering. And Josef Ackermann was there for 10 years. All of this happened on his watch. His reward is to become head of the Wilbur Ross-run Bank of Cyprus.

AMY GOODMAN: He was fined $650 million for helping launder Russian money through Deutsche Bank offices in Moscow, New York and Cyprus. Deutsche Bank, as you point out, is Trump’s largest known lender, having extended him more than $300 million of loans that remain outstanding.

JAMES HENRY: That’s right. So, anyway, all this nets out to, you know, a whole lot of smoke, a few fires breaking, more and more contradictions in the administration’s position. And I would say, if you were looking at this statistically, you know, we’re now out—up to maybe the odds of this being happening just by probability is like one in 10,000. You know, there is something going on with this administration. It’s the only way, for example, you could really explain all of the positions that Donald Trump takes that are perfectly aligned with those of Vladimir Putin—on NATO, on the EU, on pipelines, on human rights, on immigration. I mean, it’s like they’re kissing cousins. So, you know—

AMY GOODMAN: I want to—I want to turn to Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren speaking out against Wilbur Ross’s confirmation just this past Monday, before he was confirmed.

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: Mr. Ross is a Wall Street billionaire with a long history of profiting from the suffering of others. He also has shady ties to Vladimir Putin’s Russia. ... This is not normal. And it is shameful if we ignore all of it as we evaluate the president’s nominees to critical foreign policy and national security jobs.

AMY GOODMAN: So that was Senator Elizabeth Warren. With that, he was confirmed. But I want to wrap up with David Cay Johnston. This breaking news has just come in, David. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chair Jason Chaffetz—of course, both Republican—are calling on Attorney General Jeff Sessions to recuse himself from a Justice Department probe into alleged ties between Trump campaign officials and Russia’s government. So some elected officials are calling on him to recuse himself, and others are calling for his resignation. If you can summarize what James Henry has said and where you think this is all headed?

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: Well, I think all of this is headed to serious trouble for Donald Trump. I said during the campaign I didn’t believe Trump could get through one year as president of the United States. If—the question we need to ask is: Why did the Republicans, up until now, not want to know, and what do they not want to know? There is so much smoke coming out of the basement of this building, that if the fire department said, "Oh, there’s no fire, there’s just smoke," and didn’t respond, after the building burned down, we’d all talk about what an incredible scandal it is. And I think you’re now seeing that the really experienced professional politicians, among the Republicans, are beginning to realize that their interests and Donald Trump’s interests are not aligned. You’re going to see them stop defending Donald Trump’s lies, his excuses, his utter incompetence, and protect themselves. And if they’re smart, they will agree to a no-holds-barred investigation. Then, of course, if they get rid of Donald Trump as president, either through impeachment or exercising the 25th Amendment, in which the Cabinet and the vice president can effectively remove the president, and make Mike Pence [president], they then get one of their own, Mike Pence, in the White House.

But this is—this is the beginning of the end, not the beginning. And all that’s required now is a thorough, honest, open, no-holds-barred, bipartisan investigation to get at the connections. And what Jim has shown in his long report for DCReport.org is, by itself, compelling enough to raise questions about what in the world is going on in the Republicans not asking the right questions. And hopefully, these announcements that were just made by Jason Chaffetz and Congressman Brady will signal that we now are in a shift and that the Republicans on Capitol Hill are looking out not for Donald Trump, not for the Republican Party, but for our country, so that we can get to the issue of, to paraphrase Richard Nixon again, people have got to know their president is not a traitor. And if he is, they’ve got to remove him yesterday.

AMY GOODMAN: We’ll leave it there. Again, that breaking news, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chair Jason Chaffetz both calling on Attorney General Jeff Sessions to recuse himself. David Cay Johnston, we’re going to link to your pieces, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter, author of The Making of Donald Trump, former New York Times reporter. And thank you so much to James Henry, economist, lawyer and senior adviser with the Tax Justice Network. We will link to your pieces in The American Interest and DCReport.org.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, an immigrant, fleeing from violence in El Salvador, comes to the United States. She’s in the hospital with a brain tumor. ICE takes her in handcuffs back to jail. Stay with us.

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