The Trump administration is up to its neck in Russians

 In U.S.

Michael Flynn, center, flanked by Kellyanne Conway and Jared Kushner at the White House on Feb. 13. (Jim Lo Scalzo/European Pressphoto Agency)

The number of Russian connections to President Trump’s campaign and to his administration should stun and worry even the most credulous Republicans. We have never seen such a multiplicity of connections to a hostile foreign power and lack of transparency in a presidential campaign or administration — nor have we ever had a campaign in which Russians interfered in such a widespread and deliberate manner.

Newly leaked international documents reveal even more of the Trump team’s Russian ties, according to NBC News: “Through offshore investments, [Commerce Secretary Wilbur] Ross held a stake in Navigator Holdings, which had a close relationship with the Russian firm. Ross did not disclose that connection during his confirmation process on Capitol Hill.” NBC’s report also states:

Top White House adviser Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, is also implicated. The documents reveal that Kremlin-connected interests invested in social media giants Facebook and Twitter through one of Kushner’s business associates. Russian tech leader Yuri Milner, who funneled the money to Facebook and Twitter, has a stake in a company partly owned by Kushner.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) was livid. “Secretary Ross’ financial disclosures are like a Russian nesting doll, with blatant conflicts of interest carefully hidden within seemingly innocuous holding companies,” he said. “The Commerce Department’s Inspector General must open an inquiry immediately. Only after a thorough investigation can the American people be sure that Secretary Ross really has their best interests at heart — and that he hasn’t prioritized his own personal profits or those of Vladimir Putin or his Russian business partners.”

President Trump’s troubles have only just begun with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s charges against former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, his associate Rick Gates and former foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos, says Washington Post editorial writer Quinta Jurecic. (Adriana Usero,Kate Woodsome/The Washington Post)

Detailed reports suggests that while Ross’s ties to Navigator Holdings were known, its connection to Russians was not. According to the group of investigative journalists looking into the documents:

Among Navigator’s largest customers, contributing more than $68 million in revenue since 2014, is the Moscow-based gas and petrochemicals company Sibur. Two of its key owners are Kirill Shamalov, who is married to Putin’s youngest daughter, and Gennady Timchenko, the sanctioned oligarch whose activities in the energy sector, the Treasury Department said, were “directly linked to Putin.”

Another powerful owner is Sibur’s largest shareholder, Leonid Mikhelson, who controls an energy company that was also sanctioned by the Treasury Department for propping up Putin’s rule.

Ross seems to have cloaked his holdings in a web of offshore companies. “The leaked files showed a chain of companies and partnerships in the Cayman Islands through which Ross has retained his financial stake in Navigator,” the report says. “The fact that Ross’ Cayman Islands companies benefit from a firm controlled by Putin proxies raises serious potential conflicts of interest, experts say.” The report continues: “As commerce secretary, Ross has the power to influence U.S. trade, sanctions and other matters that could affect Sibur’s owners. Likewise, Sibur’s owners, and through them, Putin himself, could have the ability to increase or decrease Sibur’s business with Navigator even as Ross helps steer U.S. policy.” It would have been hard if not impossible to divine the Russia connection from Ross’s disclosure forms. (“The complexity of the offshore structures adds legal and reputational distance and obscures the full extent of Ross’s business relationships even as it allows him to profit from them, according to tax and ethics experts.”)

Former State Department official and Russia expert Max Bergmann, now with the progressive Center for American Progress, tells me, “Ross must be investigated and should almost certainly resign. How does the Secretary of Commerce divest in some companies but not divest in a sanctioned Russian energy giant with direct ties to Putin’s family?” Bergmann argues, “He didn’t forget, his lawyers didn’t forget. This is an intentional omission. Given this was a sanctioned company, was Ross going to personally benefit if sanctions were lifted?”

As for Kushner, recall this isn’t the first time his ties with Russia have become an issue. Kushner met during the transition with head of a sanctioned Russian bank and discussed a back channel to Moscow using Russian communication lines. He has had to amend his disclosure forms several times to account for foreign connections. During the campaign, he sat in on a June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Russian officials who were offering dirt on Clinton. He later reportedly urged Trump to fire then-FBI Director James B. Comey, who was investigating campaign ties to Russia. “The additional revelations about Kushner’s ties to Russian financing appears to contradict his public statement in July,” Bergmann says. “If anyone else got caught doing what Kushner did, leaving out essential information on the security clearance form, they would have had their clearance revoked immediately, would be out of a job, and possible criminally investigated.”

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