Money For Nothin’

Did President Donald J. Trump’s advisers negotiate a deal worth $10.2 Bn in exchange for lifting Russian sanctions? 

Remember that great 1980’s song by Dire Straits?  “Now that ain’t workin’ that’s the way you do it / You play the guitar on the MTV / That ain’t workin’ that’s the way you do it / Money for nothin’ and your chicks for free / Money for nothin’ and chicks for free”.

It was the anthem of the greedy heydays of the 1980s. Intoxicating indulgence, cheaply won fame and the worship of money and sex, above all else. It may have well been written about Donald Trump, the businessman, whose Midas touch seems to have given him the power of alchemy.

Again and again, Trump has been able to make money seemingly out of nothing, often trading off nothing more than his name, to make millions of dollars. Take the Trump Resort in Panama, which isn’t owned by Trump but bares his name. He earns $5m a year just for the use of his name. “You know Donald Trump. First it’s we, we, we, we, but after a while it’s me, me, me, me,” says Roger Khafif, who built  the luxury Panamanian resort. “That’s the art of the deal.”

“Money, money, money, I love money,” then candidate Donald J. Trump told a South Carolina rally on Feb 10 last year. Trump has never hidden his love for all things material but he ran for President saying he would employ his money-making skills in the interests of the American people. For better or worse, voters bought into his acumen, hoping some of his golden touch will rub off on all of us.

Over the last few weeks, intelligence agencies in the US and around the world have been working overtime to confirm allegations contained in the “Steele Dossier”, a damaging document about Trump compiled by a former British spy, Christopher Steele. The dossier is best known for detailing blackmail material or “kompromat” the Kremlin may have on President Trump but it also details constant contact between Trump representatives and Russian officials.

Until now, the Steele Dossier has been unverified but now, the author’s credibility is receiving the endorsement of the FBI which is beginning to lend credibility to Steele’s claims. The New York Times reports :

Senior F.B.I. officials believe that the former British intelligence officer who compiled the dossier, Christopher Steele, has a credible track record, and he briefed investigators last year about how he obtained the information. One American law enforcement official said that F.B.I. agents had made contact with some of Mr. Steele’s sources.

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The New York Times story with quotes from FBI sources lending credibility to the Steele Dossier.

In the latest set of confirmed claims, US intelligence officers verified what they call “constant contact” between four key Trump advisers and the Kremlin, as first laid out in Steele Dossier.

Now that some of Steele’s claims have been corroborated and the author credibility endorsed, I went back and looked at the other claims in the dossier which was published by Buzzfeed and is publicly available. There’s this less-noticed paragraph in the Steele Dossier, in which a high-ranking official close to Putin allegedly proposed a bargain to Trump’s adviser Carter Page, in a secret meeting in Moscow in early July. Steele claims:

[Putin] was so keen to lift personal and corporate western sanctions imposed on the company, that he offered Page a 19% (privatized) stake in Rosneft in return. Page had expressed interest and confirmed that were TRUMP elected US president, then sanctions on Russia would be lifted.

Before we get into this allegation, a little background on Rosneft. It’s the world’s largest oil company per output. Until recently, 80% was state-owned but in recent years, with sanctions crippling Russia’s economy, Moscow has been facing a budget deficit. In order to raise money to fill the shortfall, Moscow began exploring the sale of the company. This could not have been easy. Most countries have imposed sanctions against Russia, which explicitly forbid any dealings with Russia or Rosneft. No credible company would have attached their name to such a sale publicly.

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The Reuters headline about Russia’s sale of 19.5% of Rosneft.

It’s notable then, that just one month after the election of President Donald J. Trump, Rosneft sold off a 19.5% stake to QHG Holdings, a company registered in Singapore, jointly owned by Qatar Investments and Swiss group, Glencore.

The deal was so secretive, we don’t know much about it. QHG Holdings ownership is hidden behind shell companies registered in the Caymen Islands, which doesn’t require the disclosure of a company’s ownership.

Off-shore shell companies are common for the world’s rich and powerful, mostly because they shield their owners from tax exposure or illegal activity. Recently, sanctions-hit countries have used shell companies to do deals with entities that would otherwise be illegal under the terms of those sanctions. Syria’s Bashar al-Assad used shell companies to fund his war, and Vladimir Putin appears to have been associated with at least one $2 Bn company, conveniently registered to his close friend.

But there’s another question yet to be answered in the sale of 19.5% of Rosneft. Just how was the $10.2 Bn price funded?  Qatar Investments put up $2.5 Bn, Glencore put up $300 Million. So where did the remaining $7.4 Bn come from?  Italian Bank SanPaulo loaned $5.2 Bn to help fund the deal but it’s not known who they loaned the money  to or if it’s been paid back. Even if it was paid back, that still leaves $2.2 Bn unaccounted for. Even more unusual, Rosneft said the 19.5% stake was a 50-50 split between Glencore and Qatar Investments but Glencore says it only bought .54% of Rosneft.

Donald J. Trump is no stranger to off-shore shell companies but so are many of the richest men in the world. Trump’s name pops up 3,540 times when searched in the Panama Papers database – a treasure trove of all things off-shore which was leaked last year. This on its own is no surprise, for a man of Trump’s wealth.

But if the claim that Carter Page was offered a deal in exchange for the dropping of sanctions is borne out, it would set in motion a chain of events not seen since Richard Nixon but more terrifyingly, it puts all of our lives in danger. If such a deal happened, and sanctions aren’t lifted, what will an empty-handed Vladimir Putin do to exact revenge?

This isn’t business, it’s national security. It’s life or death with nuclear bombs in play.  For some reason on Feb 10, two Russian fighter jets buzzed our warship in the Black Sea and Putin moved a spy ship off the US Coast – farther North than it has ever ventured. It’s not clear why, but one things for sure: ‘Money for nothin’ may work in the business world but it’s not a game you play with your citizens as collateral and with world peace at stake. And it’s not the type of deal Americans would want, or need.

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