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MINDHUNTER: The Trump Files
Making sense of Trump's serial election crimes.
I’m often asked how I got interested in the FBI. If I had to trace it back as far as I can remember, it might have started in my fascination with serial killers back in middle and high school. Keep in mind that the 80s were the peak period for horror movies, Stephen King, and books like Silence of the Lambs (which I remember reading on a trip to India in 1991, well before it became a hit movie). So when the book Mindhunter (which is now a Netflix series) was published sometime in college, I devoured it (heh heh) immediately. Mindhunter gets into some of the predictable patters of serial killers, like how they go about planning and refining their crimes and what the crime scene can tell you about the perpetrator. My big takeaway from reading that book was that if you come across a bald guy with a limp who lives with his mom and drives a Volkswagen bug, it would be worth checking out what’s going on in his basement.
Anyway, the book came to mind when I read last week’s reporting that Special Counsel Jack Smith was drilling down into Trump’s fundraising efforts over the Big Lie. To me, Smith’s investigation didn’t seem to be in that different of a universe — at least conceptually if not legally — from the indictment filed by Manhattan D.A. Alvin Bragg a couple of weeks ago. That’s because like all people, Trump behaves in predictable patterns and seeing the big picture helps to illuminate those patterns. In particular, the various investigations spanning New York, Georgia, and DOJ almost all involve some combination of financial fraud and election manipulation. Looking at each of these patterns of behavior in his past and during his presidency can help us understand the common thread running through the various investigations and how they are merging together.
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The first pattern to look at is Trump’s pattern of engaging in financial fraud. We’ve heard the refrain over the last few weeks that Bragg’s indictment against Trump is politically motivated, and that he is making hay out of a mere “bookkeeping error.” Yeah, OK. The Trump family’s “bookkeeping errors” go back for decades. Should we take a trip down memory lane?
Let’s start with the New York Times investigation from October 2018, which details how Trump’s parents, Fred and Mary Trump, passed $50 billion in wealth to their children, including Donald, using dubious tax schemes that allowed them to avoid paying gift taxes. This story got incredibly little coverage given its explosive revelations, mainly because it was eclipsed at the time by Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing. It is a long article, but worth reading every word. The bottom line up front:
President Trump participated in dubious tax schemes during the 1990s, including instances of outright fraud, that greatly increased the fortune he received from his parents, an investigation by The New York Times has found….Much of this money came to Mr. Trump because he helped his parents dodge taxes. He and his siblings set up a sham corporation to disguise millions of dollars in gifts from their parents, records and interviews show. Records indicate that Mr. Trump helped his father take improper tax deductions worth millions more. He also helped formulate a strategy to undervalue his parents’ real estate holdings by hundreds of millions of dollars on tax returns, sharply reducing the tax bill when those properties were transferred to him and his siblings.
In 2019, Trump was ordered to pay $2 million to 8 charities after an investigation by the New York attorney general found that he had misused funds from the Donald J. Trump Foundation that were supposed to be used for charitable purposes to settle debts for his other companies and paying for things like…portraits of himself. The foundation had also given his campaign control over $2.8 million in funds that were raised at an event claiming to be raising money for veterans, which the attorney general found to be “unlawful coordination with a presidential campaign.” (Sound familiar?) As part of the settlement the foundation was dissolved and the Trump three oldest children — who were on the foundation’s board — had to undergo remedial training on how to be proper fiduciaries.
In 2022, the Trump Organization’s CFO, Allen Weisselberg, pleaded guilty to grand larceny, tax fraud, and falsifying business records in a scheme whereby he was paid off the books with perks like private school tuition for his children, luxury cars, and lease payments. These payments — which Weisselberg acknowledged totaled $1.76 million — allowed the Trump Organization to save money by avoiding payroll taxes. The scheme was so detailed that the Organization kept detailed track of Weisselberg’s non-cash benefits, deducting their value from his “official” salary.
Also in 2022, the Manhattan DA’s office prosecuted the Trump Organization for a 13-year tax scheme to compensate other top executives off the books as they had with Weisselberg. This past January, the Trump Organization was fined $1.6 million after a jury found it guilty on 17 counts, including grand larceny, criminal tax fraud, falsifying business records, and conspiracy.
New York Attorney General Leticia James is currently pursuing a $250 million business fraud lawsuit against Trump, alleging that he and his oldest three children manipulated and misrepresented the value of the Trump Organization’s assets for financial gain. Specifically, James alleges that Trump falsely inflated the value of his assets in his company’s financial statements in order to obtain favorable loan and insurance benefits. That case is set to go to trial in October.
And, of course, Trump was indicted earlier this month on 34 felony counts of falsifying business records, something that looks much less like a “bookkeeping error” when you put it in the context of everything that has come before it.
Like with financial fraud, Trump has a clear pattern of engaging in electoral manipulation. A common feature in this line of behavior is Trump distorting the information space in his favor. Trump’s electoral interference doesn’t go back as far as the financial shenanigans, since he ran for office for the first time in 2016. So let’s start there.
2016. Trump secretly reached an agreement with David Pecker of the National Enquirer to have Pecker be his “eyes and ears” for stories that might surface that were damaging to Trump. With the assistance of Trump’s then attorney, Michael Cohen, Pecker would “catch and kill” these negative stories. Pecker followed through with two stories — one from the Trump Towers doorman who claimed that Trump fathered an illegitimate child and another from Karen McDougal, a Playboy playmate with whom Trump had an affair. He passed a third story, from Stormy Daniels, onto Michael Cohen. The Daniels story would have surfaced on the heels of the leaked Access Hollywood tape, so her silence benefited the campaign. The “value” of this benefit, $130,000, was never reported as a campaign expenditure. Cohen pleaded guilty to conspiring to violate campaign finance laws and AMI, the parent company of the National Enquirer, reached a non prosecution agreement with the Southern District of New York.
2016. Various members of the Trump campaign, including George Papadapolous, Jared Kushner, and Donald Trump, Jr. met with individuals connected to Russia who claimed that they could provide “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. All of the individuals were excited about the dirt (“If it’s what you say I love it, especially later in summer”). They also, coincidentally, lied whenever they were asked about their contacts. In July, Trump said at a news conference, “Russia if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.” Coincidentally, the Russian GRU tried to hack into Clinton’s email server later that same day. Meanwhile, Trump campaign advisor Roger Stone had a direct line to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who — coincidentally of course — dumped emails hacked from John Podesta right after the leaked Access Hollywood tape. All of these efforts helped shape news coverage around Hillary Clinton, her emails, and the drama going on in the DNC.
2016. Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, passed polling data to Konstantin Klimnik. The Senate Intelligence Committee (led by Marco Rubio) later found that Klimnik was acting on behalf of Russian intelligence. The polling data would have been helpful for Russia attempts to microtarget its divisive disinformation operations to districts where small margins towards Trump or away from Hillary could make a big impact on electoral results.
2017. Trump fired James Comey in an effort to prevent an investigation into everything in the previous two paragraphs from coming to light. When that didn’t work, he tried to get various government officials to publicly state that he wasn’t under investigation. When that didn’t work, he tried to dangle pardons and intimidate witnesses who were testifying against him. These efforts all obstructed the investigation led by Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller, preventing him from getting to the bottom of all of the contacts between the campaign and Russia (and therefore the public from knowing the full picture).
2019. In a perfect phone call with newly-elected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Trump said that he would release military aid to Ukraine if Zelensky will announce an investigation into Joe and Hunter Biden. As I wrote at the time, the focus on the “announcement” (on CNN, no less) rather than an actual investigation, gave away the game; Trump was trying to run an info op:
A unilateral statement from Zelensky would manipulate the American public into believing that Ukraine had independently reached the conclusion that there was a basis to investigate the Bidens and the origins of the 2016 U.S. election interference. By cloaking his own role and motives behind the statement of a foreign country, Trump could corroborate his own claims and have “proof” that his views were not politically motivated, but instead grounded in real facts.
(Those who are taking my Substack course know that Trump was trying to use Zelensky as “legitimizing propaganda” to bolster the narratives he planned to make during the campaign.)
2021. Trump doubled down on his claims that the 2020 election was rigged with his “stop the steal” disinformation campaign, tried to use his Justice Department to legitimize the claim by announcing fraudulent “investigations” into voter fraud, attempted to strong-arm state legislatures directly and through his lawyers to submit false slates of electors to Congress, and mobilized his lunatic followers, including armed militias, to attack the U.S. Capitol.
Given the laundry list of financial shenanigans and electoral manipulation Trump has engaged in, it’s no surprise that at some point he decided that these were two great tastes that would go great together. The Bragg indictment exposes his first shot at combining the two — I mean hey, as long as you’ve avoided disclosing a hush money payment to the FEC, it would be a shame not to falsely structure the repayment as remittance for legal services and potentially get a tax deduction. The Stormy Daniels scheme was just a gateway crime to his later and more sophisticated electoral manipulation. By the time he got to the Big Lie, he realized he had hit a jackpot and could also fundraise off of it. I mean, what’s a little wire fraud to go along with the light treason, amirite?
In fact, the only thing that Trump is currently being investigated for that doesn’t neatly fall into his typical behavioral pattern is his retention of classified information. It seems like an outlier, at least on the surface. After all, we still don’t know what his motive was in holding on to all that stuff, and to me it’s not entirely out of the question (and in fact highly likely) that he intended to profit from them. (Trump actually had a Colonel Jessup moment in his interview with Hannity two weeks ago admitting as much.) And that’s not mutually exclusive with keeping them in the hopes that there might be a buyer who could “help” him in 2024.
China, are you listening?
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Post Script: It Puts the Lotion in the Basket
As I was writing this I was reminded of an op-ed I wrote several years ago, looking at what Trump’s pardons tell us about his psychology. I was mainly focused on how many of Trump’s pardons were for “process crimes” — things like obstruction of justice, false statements, witness tampering — which demonstrated the contempt he had for the guardrails protecting the integrity of the justice system. I decided to take another look, this time seeing how many pardons he gave for financial or electoral crimes. Hoo boy. I’m not sure I captured everyone below — you can take a look at the full list here — but here’s an attempt (some people were pardoned for more than what’s listed here):
Dinesh D’Souza (illegal campaign contributions)
Patrick James Nolan (racketeering)
Michael Robert Milken (various types of financial fraud)
Paul Harvey Pogue (false tax return)
Bernard Bailey Kerik (obstructing IRS, aiding false tax return)
Christopher Carl Collins (conspiracy to commit securities fraud)
Duncan Hunter (campaign finance violations)
Charles Kushner (tax evasion, illegal campaign contributions)
Paul Manafort (false tax returns, bank fraud)
William Plemons (tax evasion, structuring transactions to avoid reporting req)
James Kassouf (false tax return)
John Frederick Tate (causing false campaign contribution reports)
Jesse R. benton (causing false campaign contribution reports)
James Harutun Batmasian (willful failure to pay tax)
Rebekah Kay Charleston (conspiracy to commit tax evasion)
Randall Harold Cunningham (tax evasion)
Paul Erickson (money laundering)
Stephen Bannon (conspiracy to commit money laundering)
Carl Andrew Bogs III (conspiracy to commit money laundering)
Drew Kallman Brownstein (securities fraud)
Tommaso Buti (various financial fraud/crimes)
Robert William Cawthorn (false statement on a bank loan)
George Gilmore (failure to pay payroll tax, false statements on a bank loan app)
David Eugene Miller (false statement to a bank)
Glen Moss (attempted tax evasion)
Stephen Order (bank fraud)
Benedict Guthrie Olberding (bank fraud)
Richard George Renzi (money laundering, insurance fraud, racketeering)
Gregory Louis Reyes (various securities crimes, falsifying books and records)
Patrick Lee Swisher (fraudulent tax return)
Casey Urlacher (money laundering)
Robert Zangrillo (various financial crimes)
Albert J. Pirro, Jr. (tax evasion, fraud and yes this is Jeanine Pirro’s former husband)
(Folks, this list doesn’t even include pardons for plain old wire and mail fraud.)
The pardons above give us a little window into Trump’s brain, and the crimes for which he has a soft spot. As you can see, financial crimes and electoral offenses do seem to rank highly on the types of crimes that Trump believes are, of all the things people could be unjustly prosecuted for, most worth of leniency.
Given his priorities, one pardon on the list is a little surprising.:
He pardoned Susan B. Anthony…for illegal voting.