Back in 2004, three years into the George W. Bush presidency, American investigative journalist and author Craig Unger published what would become a bestselling book entitled “House of Bush, House of Saud,” detailing what his subtitle termed “The Secret Relationship Between the World’s Two Most Powerful Dynasties.”
Unger toured and talked to promote the book, and after one such appearance, a Russian diplomat invited him out to lunch to discuss it further. Only now, all these years later, Unger told The Times of Israel in an interview, has he come to realize the significance of that Russian overture.
“House of Bush, House of Saud,” said Unger, explained “how the Saudis used America’s systems, often legally, to network their way up to the highest levels of power, especially with the Bush family.” Vladimir Putin’s Russia, he believes, has done the same, with US President Donald J. Trump. Except that Russia’s penetration of America’s government, Unger charges, is infinitely more pervasive and dangerous than anything the Saudis ever sought, much less managed, to achieve.
The Russians, Unger said in the telephone interview, “started studying our system of campaign finance, our system of lobbying — we call it the K Street lobby,” whereby “big oil and big pharmaceuticals pay millions of dollars to lawyers, who essentially write the legislation. And when the Russian mobsters heard about K Street, they said, Wow, you guys, it’s legalized bribery! That’s wonderful! And they started doing it themselves.”
Those Russian mobsters, in Unger’s telling, however ruthless, terrifying, and ostensibly independent they may be, are actually “state actors,” ultimately under Moscow’s control. And so, too, he argues, is another hugely powerful and wealthy layer of Russians, the so-called oligarchs.
In his new book, “House of Trump, House of Putin,” which was published last week, Unger sets out to show how, through the decades, first the Russian mafia, and then the Russian oligarchs, built a network of relationships with Trump and with Trump’s business empire, which centrally included buying hundreds upon hundreds of luxury apartments in Trump’s dozens of residential towers. That vast income for Trump — Russian money which, Unger claims, was essentially laundered via Trump companies using the loopholes of America’s “virtually unregulated” real estate industry — played a vital role in the resurgence of his ailing and failing businesses, helping Trump rise from the financial ashes to begin the journey that ultimately took him all the way to the White House.
Unger sets out to show how, through the decades, first the Russian mafia, and then the Russian oligarchs, built a network of relationships with Trump and with Trump’s business empire, which centrally included buying hundreds upon hundreds of luxury apartments in Trump’s dozens of residential towers
En route, Unger charges with incendiary detail in the book, Trump became nothing less than “a Russian asset”: The Russians saved him from financial ruin; Russian mafia bosses made their homes in Trump Tower on 5th Avenue in Manhattan; and an international real estate firm called Bayrock, “staffed, owned and financed by émigrés from Russia and the former Soviet Union, operated out of the building.”
“I HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH RUSSIA,” Trump tweeted in January 2017. “NO DEALS, NO LOANS, NO NOTHING.” In fact, Unger shows, Trump became entangled with dozens of individuals tied to the Russians — some of them notorious criminals, some of them alleged criminals, some of them neither.
Russia has never tried to use leverage over me. I HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH RUSSIA – NO DEALS, NO LOANS, NO NOTHING!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 11, 2017
Unger ends his book with an alphabetized list of these people, which he calls “Trump’s Fifty-Nine Russia Connections” — from Roman Abramovich, the billionaire oligarch who was recently given Israeli citizenship after Britain made difficulties extending his visa, to Viktor Yanukovych, the “Putin puppet” who was elected president of Ukraine “after being completely remade as a candidate by Paul Manafort,” Trump’s newly convicted former campaign chief.
“House of Trump” has become an instant bestseller in the United States, its publication coinciding with the most catastrophic days yet of a relentlessly chaotic presidency, with Manafort found guilty on eight counts of fraud and tax evasion, Trump’s lawyer-fixer Michael Cohen signing a plea bargain and turning on him, and other longtime insiders reportedly reaching immunity deals as the Robert Mueller probe into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential elections moves inexorably forward.
But Unger’s revelations directly impact Israel as well. About half of those 59 named “Russia Connections” are Jewish, and about a dozen of the 59 are Israeli citizens and/or have deep connections to Israel. (Several of those he names, such as Lev Leviev, Alexander Mashkevich and Mikhail Chernoy, are very wealthy and prominent businessmen with direct access to the highest levels of Israel’s elected leadership.)
Those numbers necessarily raise questions about whether Israel too is being compromised by Putin’s Russia — about whether unsavory characters are exploiting Israel’s Law of Return to gain Israeli citizenship and by extension access to the West; about whether Israel, with its own lax financial regulations and inadequate law enforcement, is serving as a conduit for money laundering by Moscow-linked individuals and companies; and about whether Moscow is building strategic relationships with Israeli politicians — as Unger charges it has done to such phenomenal effect with the president of the United States — in order to influence and if necessary subvert Israeli policies in its interest.
Unger does not claim to have the answers to all these questions. But he emphatically raises the alarm.
For a start, he believes Israel needs to be extremely wary of Vladimir Putin, whom he regards as a “terrible threat to democracy.” His book gives ample evidence to reinforce the concern.
Reminding us that, in an address to the Russian nation in 2005, Putin memorably defined the collapse of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century,” Unger sets about describing how Putin is relentlessly engaged in reviving Russian domination. He quotes from a minority staff report by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee earlier this year that accuses Putin of mounting “a relentless asymmetrical assault on democracy in Russia, Europe and the United States” using an “arsenal that includes military invasions, cyberattacks, disinformation, support for fringe political groups, the weaponization of energy resources, organized crime and corruption.” He also quotes the German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Security Democracy stating that “the Russian government has used cyberattacks, disinformation and financial influence campaigns to meddle in the internal affairs of at least 27 European and North American countries since 2004.”
He asserts that Putin’s intervention on behalf of President Bashar Assad in Syria — a strategy with profound direct relevance for Israel — is part of a “diabolical and grandiose plan” to “drive a dagger deep into the heart of the Western Alliance.” What exactly does Unger mean by that? Russia, he notes, hasn’t merely been fighting the Islamic State terror group in Syria; its air attacks have also killed thousands of civilians — in the process exacerbating the massive flow of millions of refugees toward Europe. He quotes NATO’s former European commander, General Philip Breedlove, accusing Putin and Assad together of “deliberately ‘weaponizing’ migration in an attempt to overwhelm European structures and break European resolve.” With the streams of refugees flowing into a hapless Europe, Unger writes, Russia then began “a stealth campaign that aided right-wing, anti-immigrant, populist movements in Great Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, France, Italy, Austria and more.”
At the same time, Unger notes, Putin “also attacked NATO’s Eastern flank,” remaking political realities in such countries as Poland and Hungary. “In Eastern Europe,” Unger writes, “Russia attacked Ukraine, Georgia, Montenegro, Serbia, Bulgaria and Hungary. In the Baltic, it attacked Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia.” The list goes on. The overarching goal: again, “to attack the democracies of Europe and the United States and undermine the transatlantic alliance upon which Europe’s peace and prosperity have depended for over 70 years.”
What exactly has Putin been up to in Israel? Unger readily acknowledges that he has not dug deeply. The very fact of Benjamin Netanyahu’s frequent trips to meet with Putin, he says, however, constitutes a cause for concern. Since he considers Putin to be toxic, “the more contact you have…,” he says, leaving the sentence hanging. And then there are those well-connected Russian-Israelis. Without referring to any specific individuals, Unger says in our interview that “Israel’s Law of Return has allowed a lot of dubious characters to come to the West, and they’ve been using their money in ways that really undermine democracy.”
And what about Donald Trump’s role in Israel — his emergence as a hugely empathetic ally, visiting Israel early in his presidency, praying at the Western Wall, recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, moving the US embassy to the holy city?
Trump’s putative philo-Semitism, frankly, scares me to death. It’s all transactional and completely corrupt… If you rely on him, you fall prey
Unger, who is Jewish, could not be less impressed. Rather, he considers Trump’s support and empathy for Israel and Jews to be entirely self-serving and thoroughly unreliable, despite the Jewish connections of Trump’s own family. (“I have tremendous love for Israel. I happen to have a son-in-law and a daughter that are Jewish, OK? And two grandchildren that are Jewish,” the then-presidential candidate noted in a 2016 speech to AIPAC.)
“Trump’s putative philo-Semitism, frankly, scares me to death,” Unger says. “It’s all transactional and completely corrupt. I don’t think he truly cares for Israel or Jews or anything like that.”
Any Israeli over-reliance on Trump, therefore, argues Unger, is profoundly dangerous. “If you rely on him, you fall prey. The conclusion is kind of obvious. He’s not there to take care of you. He’s not there for Israel’s well-being. He’s there because there’s a transactional benefit for him.”
It’s a spectacularly chilling view, born of Unger’s examination of decades of Trump’s behavior in business. Take it or leave it, but don’t say Craig Unger didn’t issue a warning.
The Times of Israel: I want to ask you a few questions from an Israeli perspective. I know that’s not the key thrust of your book. But I’m an Israeli. I’m Jewish. And from those particular perspectives, as well as generally, I read your book with mounting horror. I also went through your 59 names of Trump-Russia contacts: About half of them are Jewish and about a dozen of them have Israeli citizenship or Israeli connections. So I want to ask you: What should worry Israelis most from what you’ve come across? And what does it mean for democracy, for the rule of law in Israel, for Russian penetration in Israel?
Craig Unger: By way of background, I am Jewish, for what that’s worth, so I was very sensitive to dealing with this issue, because obviously it is clear that a high percentage [of Trump’s “Russia connections”] at least identify as Jews.
I try to explain how this came about, going back to the Jackson-Vanik amendment [which ultimately helped pressure the Soviet Union into allowing mass Jewish emigration some 30 years ago]: How, in a way, the unintentional consequence of that was that Russia opened the doors to the gulag, and many criminals who were not Jewish identified as Jewish as a way of getting out of the Soviet Union. That’s part of it.
I also think the prevalence of Jews in the Russian mafia — some of it is exaggerated; some of them, including Sergei Mikhailov, are not really Jewish. He at times identifies as Jewish to get [an Israeli] passport — this is a matter of history. On some level I think some of them are simply a product of the Russian gulag. And the unintended consequences of the Jackson-Vanik amendment, and the fact that Israel’s Law of Return became a very important way out of the Soviet Union. And I think Putin has cultivated that, in a way, through his relationship with Chabad [the Hasidic movement].
In the wider context of the Russian efforts you describe to subvert democracy, how worried should we be in Israel?
You should be worried. I’ve only been to Israel a handful of times. I have some Israeli friends. I’ve done some reporting there. Obviously I was aware in broad terms… [but]I have not dug deep into the Israeli angle. I think it’s a very, very important one.
One of the big problems with this whole scandal is what’s legal, not what’s illegal. For example we have virtually no regulation of our real estate industry, and that allows massive money laundering through luxury condos, which is a key part of this. Similarly, it seems to me, Israel’s Law of Return has allowed a lot of dubious characters to come to the West, and they’ve been using their money in ways that really undermine democracy.
I want to give you a few names from your book: Roman Abramovich just took Israeli citizenship, and instantly became the richest person in Israel. Lev Leviev is a very big wig here. Netanyahu and his wife had dinner a few weeks ago with Mikhail Chernoy. I worry about whether there is a degree of penetration, similar to what you’ve seen in the States.
I’m not an expert on Israeli politics at all, but absolutely. Netanyahu has visited Putin how many times this year? Immediately after Trump’s election, he had several trips to Moscow.
He goes all the time, because of concerns about Iran and Syria.
The more contact you have…
What is shocking from an American perspective is, essentially, it feels like the entire government is for sale, that Trump is becoming in effect another Russian oligarch. He sees Putin as someone who has as much as $200 billion — that is what [financier] Bill Browder says; I don’t know if that figure is accurate — and is effectively president for life. [And Trump] sort of says, Well, that looks pretty good to me. Whether that will happen with Israel, I don’t know.
You write about a notorious “summit meeting of Russian crime figures” in Tel Aviv in 1995 — all these mobsters get together and it seems to be financial crime that was motivating them. But then there’s a sort of transformation [in the years that follow] — into this process of influence and contact and subversion. Is that correct?
Yes, absolutely. I interviewed General Oleg Kalugin [the former head of KGB counterintelligence]. And when I asked him about the Russian mafia, he said, Oh, it was part of the KGB. It’s just part of the government, and they operate pretty much at the pleasure of Vladimir Putin. And he allows them to do what they do, whether it’s money laundering or whatever.
One of the big big issues here is the amount of flight capital. Since Putin has been president, there’s been about a trillion dollars in flight capital from Russia. That means you have to launder money on a massive level, and that requires real estate. That’s one of the forces that ties up Putin and Trump together.
And the oligarchs are essentially another tool of the Russian government?
Absolutely. In fact when you get to the founding of Chabad in Russia, and the way that Rabbi Berel Lazar became Putin’s rabbi, it seems to me that [building up Lazar and Chabad at the expense of other, established Jewish religious and community hierarchies] was very much a political ploy on the part of Putin, to consolidate power among the oligarchs. And it happened that both Abramovich and Leviev have very close ties to Trump. So it becomes a very powerful channel in a way.
When I read the Steele dossier [alleging misconduct and conspiracy between Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and Moscow], the most perplexing thing in it was that Trump was supposedly funneling intelligence to Putin. I thought that seemed crazy, because Trump is the most undisciplined guy in the world to dabble in espionage. But I later realized, as I did my research, that [the real estate firm] Bayrock was based there. I name all these Russians, and a lot of them are tied up with the Russian mafia, and they were living in Trump Tower — in the home of the man who is now president of the United States!
Basically, on some level, the Russian mafia, their base of operations, was in Trump Tower on and off for many many years. When the FBI came looking for Vyacheslav Ivankov [a notorious Russian mafia boss who died in 2009], they looked all over Brooklyn for him, and, oops, he was at 721 Fifth Avenue, in Trump Tower.
You say that Leviev and Abramovich are close to Chabad, and that Putin was building up Rabbi Lazar. It’s almost as though he needs to curry favor with the Jewish oligarchs. Isn’t it the other way around?
He absolutely does. He needs to consolidate his power among the oligarchs. He wants them to report to him. He wants to know where their money is going. And one way of knowing it is, if you look at Bayrock, just think of what material they have, what intelligence they have. They know that hundreds of millions of dollars in Russian flight capital went to real estate development for various Trump projects. They know that hundreds and hundreds of condos, multi-million dollar condos, are being sold to oligarchs. I never thought of Panama as a country where Russians would go, and yet at the Panama Trump Tower, about a third of the people who bought condos there are Russians.
Trump has roughly 40 Trump Towers all over the world. And that’s a lot of condos to sell.
He’s allegedly the real estate builder of choice for Putin and his oligarchs to launder their money?
Yes. There’s about 1,300 condos in his American properties alone that were sold in a way that sets off alarm bells with people looking into money laundering — that is, they were all cash purchases, through anonymous shell companies, mostly LLCs (limited liability companies).
The claim is made in your book that Russia has meddled in the internal affairs of 27 countries since 2004. Is Israel one of those? Do you think Russia has been meddling in the internal affairs of Israel?
I can’t answer that in a knowledgeable way. It certainly would not surprise me. My basic rule is following the money. I started way back, actually in the 70s.
You have this reference to Putin coming into Syria, this diabolical plan to back Assad. You quote NATO’s former European commander saying there was a deliberate policy to “weaponize” migration — with a massive refugee outflux to destabilize Europe. I could never understand why Russia would be hitting civilians in Syria.
I cannot say that he deliberately hit all of the civilians for that reason. But after the refugee [outflux] began, it was clear that he began emboldening and fueling right-wing anti-immigrant populist movements all over Europe and in the United States.
How would you advise Israel to look at Putin? As a terrible threat to our democracy, as a potential ally, as what?
He’s a terrible threat to democracy. The first chapter I call “(Virtual) World War III.” I think this is a global conflict of sorts, without bombs or bullets or boots on the ground, but with very different weapons. The West has been very slow to recognize it. And I talk in the book about the Gerasimov Doctrine [named for Russia’s chief of staff Valery Gerasimov, and ostensibly providing for the combining of military, intelligence, technological, diplomatic, economic and, cultural work in support of strategic goals]. I can speak mostly to what happened in the United States. And I think part of the scandal is what’s legal here. They studied our systems.
I’ll tell you something I haven’t told. In 2004, I published a book called “House of Bush, House of Saud.” And afterwards I gave a talk and a guy from the Russian consulate in New York asked me to lunch. And it’s taken me years to realize: That book is about how the Saudis used America’s systems, often legally, to network their way up to the highest levels of power, especially with the Bush family. I believe the Russians have done the same.
They started studying our system of campaign finance, our system of lobbying — we call it the K Street lobby, and we see how big oil and big pharmaceuticals pay millions of dollars to lawyers, who essentially write the legislation. And when the Russian mobsters heard about K Street, they said, Wow, you guys, it’s legalized bribery! That’s wonderful! And they started doing it themselves. And they started fueling millions of dollars, mostly to the Republican Party.
The other side of my question: Israel’s current government has a very close relationship with the current American president. What would you be saying to Israel about that? We’ve got a prime minister who is very close to Trump, to the point of potentially alienating other parts of the American political spectrum.
Trump’s putative philo-Semitism, frankly, scares me to death. It’s all transactional and completely corrupt. I don’t think he truly cares for Israel or Jews or anything like that.
And therefore those who rely on him…?
If you rely on him, you fall prey. The conclusion is kind of obvious. He’s not there to take care of you. He’s not there for Israel’s well-being. He’s there because there’s a transactional benefit for him.
Here’s the conclusion that one can draw from your book: There’s a whole world of corruption and evil that is slowly penetrating the world we live in, and we didn’t really internalize, and it’s stronger and better funded than the forces that are supposed to be protecting democracy. Is that your conclusion?
Yes it is. I was shocked. I was stunned by all this.
When you do investigative reporting, normally you hit a few dry holes, now and then. One of the first things I did was, there’s an online database where you can get the ownership of every home in New York State. I went through all of Trump’s properties and I got Russians’ names and I just kept Googling, Googling Googling. What was staggering was, it was like hitting a jackpot every time. There was almost never a dry hole. Virtually every Russian I came across was involved in money laundering, had been gunned down, they were in extortion rackets, or whatever. When the FBI was chasing Russian mobsters, they looked all over Brooklyn, and found, oops, he lives in Trump Tower. And that happened again and again. And I was not prepared for that level of greed.
And the Russians’ intelligence services and dark arts are so much better than America’s defenses and law enforcement.
Donald Trump would never get a security clearance in a million years
What I’m trying to get across is that the Russian mafia is a state actor. When I talked to General Kalugin, he just shrugged his shoulders and said, Of course, it’s part of the KGB. The idea that these people live in Trump Tower! We had allegedly one of the biggest arms dealers to Syria — Boris Kogan, he died last year — but he was in Trump Tower, in the home of the president of the United States. There are so many security breaches. We’ve had this issue recently where John Brennan lost his security clearance. Donald Trump would never get a security clearance in a million years.
I understood the point you make in your book that the Russian mafia and the oligarchs are tools of the Russian state. The FBI is utterly out-resourced, slow on the uptake, or what?
There’s another very good book to do on this. You know I write about this spectacularly successful [Russian] intelligence operation. It’s also, from the American point of view, a catastrophic national security failure.
I talked to both the CIA and the FBI on this, where the CIA was sort of shocked. They told me that the Russian mafia was outside their purview and I was sort of stunned by that. When I look at the FBI, they went after the Russian mafia for a while in the late 90s, when they started a Budapest task force. But soon afterwards 9/11 happened, and FBI resources focused entirely on Islamist terrorism.
Also if you look at the Mueller probe, there was a woman named Lisa Page who was part of his team. She was a Justice Department attorney working with the FBI in Budapest against the Russian mafia. I found it striking that she was one of the first people fired. Mueller fired her. She was having a relationship with another FBI guy and they exchanged text messages that were critical of Trump. Nothing terrible. So she was fired as a result of that and I’m sure Mueller was doing it because he wanted to make sure that you know there they were a pristine team.
But I think it’s potentially a big loss to the probe, because I suspect she was highly knowledgeable about the role of the Russian mafia, having worked on the Budapest task force for the FBI.
But you’re not suggesting that the Mueller probe is compromised.
That’s correct. So far as I can tell, the Mueller probe is completely on the up and up. I think they’ve been incredibly disciplined, especially given the pressures.
The narrative is moving fast, in the last few days. Where do you think it’s headed?
We’ve been on a political track, and Trump, however horrifying he may be, is a great showman in a way. As a result, he’s been able to always distract people and keep things on the political track. We’re switching to a legal track with the Mueller probe. We’ve seen it come to a head in the Manafort trial. We see it coming to a head with Michael Cohen as well.
If you go back to the Nixon impeachment, Nixon went down in part because his lawyer John Dean turned against him and testified against him. Trump now is facing at least a triple John Dean problem. Don McGahn, White House counsel, testified for 30 hours before Mueller.
We have Michael Cohen. A lot of these developments are just pieces of the puzzle, but when you open them up you start to see the big picture. Michael Cohen is going to start talking. He’s at the nexus of Trump and the Mafia for decades. His family owned the headquarters for the Russian mob, the restaurant-social club that’s been headquarters for the Russian mafia in Brooklyn. He’s had plenty of dealings with the Russian mafia over the years. He was working with Trump, trying to develop Trump Tower in Moscow, right up through the election.
Similarly, with Paul Manafort, he’s just one piece of the puzzle. In the trial, you see sort of arcane financial dealings that don’t answer all the questions. Mueller has to do that because he wants a conviction. But the larger issue is that Manafort now, depending upon his sentencing, has to make a decision: facing the rest of his life in jail, or is he going to flip and cooperate? And he knows an awful lot.
I believe his actions in Ukraine, when he put Yanukovych in power [in 2010] — Yanukovych was basically a Putin puppet, who Manafort put in power in Ukraine — it was almost like a dry run for doing the same thing in the United States.
You think Trump is going to be impeached?
Trump is cornered. He’s like a trapped animal who may lash out… I certainly hope he doesn’t start a war, but I think anything is possible with him
Barring huge Russian interference with the elections, it looks probable that the Democrats will take the House of Representatives in November. And if that is the case, I believe impeachment will start right away.
Now I think Trump is cornered. He’s like a trapped animal who may lash out. He’s incredibly mercurial and unpredictable so I don’t know what he would do, but I think he could act out in any number of ways that are highly inappropriate and scary. I certainly hope he doesn’t start a war, but I think anything is possible with him.
The Russian goal essentially is to destroy NATO, to destroy Western democracy.
Yes. If you look at it from Putin’s point of view: He’s said again and again that the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest catastrophe in world history. Since then, a number of East Bloc satellites have joined NATO. At least 13, I believe. He wants to roll it back.
If you look at his actions: He’s interfered in Brexit in England, in Estonia, in Hungary, in Poland, all over Europe. He’s had less success in France with Marine Le Pen. But I see this as a global conflict of sorts.
And it’s not personal? As in, when Putin dies, it’s a Russian ethos, or is Putin really an extraordinary operator?
I can’t predict what will happen post-Putin, but I think Putin is an extraordinary operator. I see the relationship between the KGB/FSB on the one hand, and the Russian mafia, as being crucial to this. I go back to Putin’s teenage years, and you see him in this judo club with mobsters when he’s 15- and 16 years old, and with future oligarchs. I mean if only I’d been a judo sparring partner! The average judo sparring partner of Putin, I believe, is worth six billion dollars.
When you are an oligarch, do you know what Craig Unger has concluded about you? In other words, do you realize that you’ve got all this money, but you’re in fealty forever to Russia and to its president, and you dare not buck the line?
Well look at [Boris] Berezovsky [found dead at his home in the UK five years ago]; look at [Mikhail] Khodorkovsky [jailed for fraud, then pardoned by Putin and now living in exile]. They’d learn from that, I would think.
I dedicate this book to the people who’ve been killed investigating it. It’s not a joke. This is very serious stuff. I would think they would be well aware of that.
What about you yourself? You haven’t had any threats, you’ve not felt similarly threatened?
I’ve had no threats. I just do my work and all that. I’m not going to Moscow anytime soon. (Laughs.)
You say that jokingly, or with a core of truth?
No: I would definitely think twice about going to Moscow.