'This is about Russia': Trump impeachment inquiry leaves 'roads to Putin' untravelled

Andrew Feinberg
Trump Putin: Getty

Shortly after her Thursday morning announcement that the process of drafting articles of impeachment against president Donald Trump would commence, House speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters Mr Trump’s withholding of military aid to Ukraine was yet another instance of his taking actions that ultimately benefit the interests of Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

“This isn’t about Ukraine. This is about Russia. Who benefited by our withholding that military assistance? Russia,” Ms Pelosi said. “All roads lead to Putin. Understand that.”

It was the same sentiment that the speaker had expressed to Mr Trump’s face on October 16, shortly before she and the rest of Democrats’ congressional leadership team walked out of a meeting to discuss the president’s decision to withdraw American troobrups from positions in northern Syria.

A now-iconic photograph captured the moment when Ms Pelosi stood, pointed directly at Mr Trump, and told him: “All roads with you lead to Putin.”

But Ms Pelosi’s sentiments notwithstanding, the effect of House Democrats’ decision to focus their impeachment efforts on his actions with respect to Ukraine – and the Trump administration’s effort to stymie congressional attempts to mount an examination of any links between the president and his Russian counterpart -- is to leave many potential “roads to Putin” untravelled.

‘We have all the funding we need out of Russia’

In 2014, golf writer James Dodson struck up a conversation with the president’s middle son, Eric, at one of the Trump family’s golf courses in North Carolina.

The US financial sector was still recovering from the 2008 financial crisis, and Mr Dodson asked the younger Mr Trump how his family’s company was getting the funding to build new golf courses when banks weren’t putting up the cash for such projects.

Dodson told Boston’s WBUR that in response the president’s son explained that the Trump Organisation did not need the help of US-based financial institutions.

“He said, ‘Well, we don’t rely on American banks. We have all the funding we need out of Russia.’ I said, ‘Really?’ And he said, ‘Oh, yeah. We’ve got some guys that really, really love golf, and they’re really invested in our programmes. We just go there all the time.’”

Eric Trump later denied making any statement of the sort, but very little is known in terms of facts that could help one determine whether or not the alleged statement is true, his father’s finances being a subject of public speculation since he announced his run for the presidency in 2015.

The reasons for this dearth of information are twofold: While there was a two-year investigation of whether there were ties between the 2016 Trump campaign and Russia, the probe conducted by former FBI director Robert Mueller never turned its attention to Mr Trump’s finances.

Moreover, attempts by congressional investigators and New York prosecutors to take a closer look at the president’s assets and liabilities have hit a wall that has been heretofore as impenetrable as the one Mr Trump promised to build along the US-Mexico border, with more than one subpoena still languishing in myriad court challenges brought by the president and his lawyers.

Compounding Americans’ opaque view into Mr Trump’s finances is the fact that he is the only American president since Richard Nixon to not release his income tax returns.

According to Mimi Rocah, a former federal prosecutor and a distinguished fellow in criminal justice at Pace University law school, investigators’ lack of access to Mr Trump’s financial records means the motives for some of his decisions and policy stances remain unexplored.

“This goes back to...questions of what is motivating all of this,” Ms Rocah told The Independent.

“We know part of it is helping his campaign – which is a crime in and of itself – but all roads also lead to money with Donald Trump, and until we know what his financial entanglements really are we are not going to understand what is really going on here.”

Ms Rocah also said the Trump administration’s refusal to turn the evidence Mr Mueller gathered over to congressional investigators means that the question of whether people in Mr Trump’s orbit coordinated their campaign’s messaging with WikILeaks’ release of emails that Russian military hackers stole from the Democratic National Committee will continue to go unanswered without further investigation.

“There’s still all this stuff that’s sealed, and while I think we’re starting to learn some of these things through FOIA requests, Congress really hasn’t been able to get their hands on any of it because they’re playing the delay game with these court battles over it,” she said.

“We know that he was essentially coordinating the campaign with WikILeaks, and we only learned that in the past couple of weeks, so what else don’t we know that we could discover if Congress had access to it,” she continued.

“We all kind of know it without knowing it - the answer to what is motivating the Helsinki press conference, the favouritism to Putin, and his helping Russia over Ukraine, but what is motivating all of that? Does he just love dictators or is because of some financial interest, or both? We want the facts, and because they’re obstructing...and delaying...by the time it comes out it will be too late.”

Joel Rubin, who served as deputy assistant secretary for house affairs from 2014-2015, concurred with Ms Rocah’s view that there are too many unanswered questions about the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia.

“Of course, there’s the primary question about all the primary engagements between the Trump campaign and the Russian operation that were extensively documented in the Mueller report -- about 100 of them -- and no real explanation...that makes any sense,” Mr Rubin said.

“It’s a clear precursor in terms of their sense of what they can get away with on working with foreigners and foreign governments to help them win elections,” he continued, noting that Congress has not explored why Jared Kushner – Mr Trump’s son-in-law and a key advisor during his 2016 campaign – wanted to set up a secret back-channel with the Russian embassy.

What happened in those private meetings?

While House Ways and Means Committee investigators are still hoping that the courts will allow them access to Mr Trump’s tax returns, another aspect of his relationship with Russia that has not been subject to exploration is his numerous phone calls and meetings with Mr Putin.

“There are also still questions about the direct meetings [between Trump and Putin]... but the big one from a national security perspective is the list of Vladimir Putin’s asks that he had during their two-hour meeting in Helsinki when were was nobody in the room but his translator,” Mr Rubin said.

“There’s Ukraine, Syria, North Korea, and who knows what other things are on it -- undermining NATO, weakening the European front? How much has the president spoken to Putin that we don’t know about? What is in the record?” he asked.

“There’s a lot there in terms of questionable decisions that have baffled people that is an area for exploration.”

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