Over the weekend, the New York Times published a column by Glenn Simpson, the Fusion GPS founder who commissioned the Steele dossier, and his business partner Peter Fritsch.
Simpson has spent years researching Donald Trump’s conduct in the private sector, first as the client of a Republican organization, later as a client of Democrats, and discovered a web of corruption with global reach. The concrete facts Simpson unearthed create a portrait that’s suggestive of extensive criminality. His hours of testimony to both the Senate Judiciary and House Intelligence Committees last year sketched a roadmap for federal investigators who have compulsory powers private research firms lack.
With that as a backdrop, Simpson asks readers—implicitly readers who are skeptical of or uninterested in the Trump campaign’s role in the Russian government’s subversion of the 2016 election—to consider the implications of Trump’s business practices all on their own. Is it tenable for the president of the United States to have owned and operated—and to continue to own and operate—a clearly corrupt and likely criminal organization, underwritten by foreign actors? Even if those actors didn’t meddle in the American electoral process?
These are profound questions. They’re also questions that Trump’s lackeys in the conservative movement have no answer for. Their response isn’t to show that Simpson has his facts wrong or to explain why the public shouldn’t be alarmed by Trump’s financial entanglements. It is to ring fence Trump from exposure to any criminal or political jeopardy that doesn’t stem entirely from the question of “collusion.” Conservatives are preparing to argue that any crimes Trump committed that weren’t essentially motivated by a desire to cheat during the election, are no business of ours, and can’t be investigated legitimately. Their fealty to Trump now runs so deep that they’d prefer the country remain vulnerable to a potentially enormous and ongoing national security breach than do anything to determine how serious the breach is and whether anything should be done about it.
Simpson’s concerns about Trump’s financial entanglements aren’t new, nor were they particularly hard to find before the Times published his column, and nor are are they unique to him. It was his realization that Republicans had nominated a highly compromised individual for the presidency that convinced him to enlist Cristopher Steele, the former head of MI:6’s Russia desk, to investigate Trump’s financial ties to Kremlin-connected Russians in the first place. Trump’s own former top political adviser, Steve Bannon, told the writer Michael Wolff that Trump’s legal jeopardy “is all about money laundering.”
But in the months since Simpson’s congressional testimony became public and today, we have learned that Special Counsel Robert Mueller has subpoenaed records that could substantiate Simpsons’ suspicions. Conservatives are thus at pains to treat the financial-crimes issue as if it were a non-sequitur—the blue dress of the Russia investigation.
Also, Simpson NYT piece — put aside collusion, put aside obstruction — good example of Trump-Russia investigation moving into 'by any means necessary' phase. https://t.co/J3VtjTIJXe pic.twitter.com/IxYGGoD9AA
— Byron York (@ByronYork) April 22, 2018
This is slimy. Mueller has the duty to investigate collusion, not Trump’s business deals. He will lose legitimacy if he strays from his mission. The author of this piece, Glenn Simpson of Fusion GPS, wants Mueller to go down that road. That’s slimy. https://t.co/TVWaE5N4N4
— Ari Fleischer (@AriFleischer) April 22, 2018
The contempt for rule of law in these statements is implicit. Mueller’s remit includes the authority to investigate crimes uncovered in the course of probing ties between the Trump campaign and Moscow. York and Fleischer would have law enforcement officials create a special rule for Trump that places almost everything he’s ever done in his life off limits to them.
The more explicit notion that the Russia matter is many investigative steps removed from the conduct of the Trump Organization is willfully obtuse, and the clearest indication we have to date that not only do Republicans want to blind themselves to Trump’s corruption, but if that corruption is revealed to threaten the integrity of the American government, Republicans will refuse to do anything about it. This is in some ways more alarming than the indifference conservatives have shown to the existing evidence of collusion, though the two stories are closely related.
In theory, Trump could have run a scrupulous presidential campaign despite having corrupt financial ties to Russia, just as in theory Russia could have meddled in the election on Trump’s behalf, even if Trump’s business endeavors had been completely above board. In practice, what could be two separate storylines is almost certainly one. It’s no coincidence that the raw intelligence in the Steele dossier, which detailed a conspiracy between Russians and the Trump campaign to subvert the 2016 election, grew out of an assignment to investigate Trump’s financial ties to Russia.
Even if the uncorroborated aspect of Steele’s dossier turn out to be false, though, there’s no way for a competent investigator to run the Russia matter to ground without looking at the private conduct of the person the Russians helped elect. Why did Moscow want Trump to win? The answer could in theory be purely abstract. Trump is hostile to democracy and a walking embarrassment to the United States. If there were no Trump Organization, his candidacy would still have had appeal to autocratic forces around the world. But the Trump Organization does exist, as do its undisclosed debts and, perhaps, its uninvestigated crimes. Those are central to the Russia investigation because Russia appears to be a party to them, but they would be of relevance even if Trump’s dubious claim to having no “deals” with Russia were true.
Cards on the table, I’m outraged by the fact that Russia engaged in a criminal conspiracy to help Trump win the presidency, that Trump knew about it, facilitated it, possibly even participated in it, and that this unethical conduct likely proved decisive to his historically narrow margin of victory. I’m glad Mueller is investigating the Trump campaign as well as the Trump Organization in part because the public deserves to know how dark the cloud of illegitimacy over his presidency—and all the substantive consequences of it—should be.
But the investigation is much more important than its power to shape the historical narrative of the 2016 election, or to future politics. Its larger importance is in determining whether our government is being run in our interest. If Trump colluded with Russia, then not only did he commit a political sin, and possibly a number of crimes, but he is also compromised: Though we may not yet know the full extent of the collusion, the Russian government surely does.
Likewise, even if Trump didn’t collude with Russia, the integrity of his business is still of paramount importance. It can’t be brushed to the side as an irrelevance and it can’t be chalked up to the rough and tumble nature of New York real estate, then forgotten. We don’t know who the Trump Organization owes money to, or all the crimes it engaged in. But somebody knows, and whether the universe of people who know includes Vladimir Putin or not is largely beside the point. Is it possible that foreign leaders and oligarchs possess information that could land Donald Trump, Jr. or Ivanka Trump in prison for years? Could these powerful individuals destroy the Trump Organization, and bankrupt the president? The unfortunate answer is yes, it’s possible. Anyone with a passing concern for the public interest will see this information imbalance as unacceptable, and the president’s susceptibility to blackmail, if in fact he is so susceptible, as untenable. The emerging conservative position is that we don’t have a right to know.