In my last post, I wandered into the slippery world of idle speculation — sort of a second cousin to conspiracy theory — and found I quite enjoyed it.
So continuing in that vein, I’ll weigh in on a question being asked a lot these days: Why won’t Trump Organization CFO, Allen Weisselberg, flip on Trump?
It seems a no-brainer. Between the almost certain prison time and the family upheavals he faces, it is inconceivable that loyalty to Trump could extend that far.
But what if it’s not about Trump? What if he’s keeping his mouth shut for more existential reasons? What if the consequences of singing are more dire than we know?
Ever wonder why Paul Manafort didn’t flip on Trump? Why he chose real prison time over spilling secrets? I don’t believe for a minute it was for Trump — trusting Trump for anything, much less a future pardon, would be deluded.
But when you think about the circles Manafort ran in back in 2015 — the people the Mueller investigation was trying to get him to expose legally and financially — other possibilities come to mind.
Consider that Manafort famously owed about $20 million in fishy money to Oleg Deripaska, a mega-billionaire Russian oligarch, one rung down the ladder from Putin. Manafort was so desperate to pay him back, he signed on as Trump’s campaign manager — for free, remember — just so he could work off the debt, using inside information from the campaign as a convenient payment plan.
Manafort had long known Trump to be a lightweight grifter, unlikely to win any kind of election. But he also knew that Deripaska, who was anything but lightweight, would happily torture Manafort’s wife and children just to make a point.
In the Mueller investigation, Manafort effectively kept his mouth shut, mostly by lying so flagrantly he lost his plea deal. Trump ultimately pardoned him, but I don’t think it was Trump — or Mueller — he was afraid of.
And Manafort wasn’t alone. Roger Stone didn’t flip either. Nor did Rudy Giuliani, though he still might have to. Mike Flynn flipped, but Trump curiously never trashed him for it — an exception that might prove some rule that we still don’t know about.
But while there are mitigating circumstances for all these non-flippers, what they all have in common is long, close business ties with powerful oligarchs, most of them in the Putin orbit. They were all doing errands for, and horse-trading with, people rich and lethal. And they’d been doing it for decades.
Trump was a minor player in that circle, but as far back as the eighties, he was working angles in a slew of oligarch-ridden countries. This is well chronicled. But the key fact is that while the Trump organization was notoriously bad at real estate, it was notoriously good at laundering money. Whether this will ever be proved in a court of law remains to be seen, but by now the whole international business community knows that money laundering was the real Trump family business.
And who would’ve been keeping the books — both sets of them — all that time? Who would’ve kept track of every transaction in every currency, with every kickback and illegal deal neatly noted in the ledger? Not Trump. Not with his attention span.
It was, of course, Weisselberg, and it makes you wonder what might be in that second set of books. Was there anything that might embarrass one or more cranky Russian oligarchs with unlimited funds and a long reach?
The Putin oligarchy, of which Deripaska is a charter member, is not for the faint of heart. We don’t hear a lot about these guys — the media is generally uninterested — but they are a major force in the twin fields of global finance and organized crime. Thoroughly intertwined with criminal enterprises of every stripe, it’s hard to know where the Russian state ends and the Russian Mafia begins.
It helps to have some understanding of a widely misunderstood Russian word: kompromat. It’s usually defined, loosely, as compromising information used to control the actions of another — a fancy word for blackmail. But that’s not quite accurate. It’s explained, far better than I could, in a New Yorker piece from two years ago.
As it’s practiced in corrupt regimes, kompromat is a sort of social contract among thieves, in which the people involved, in effect, police themselves.
Members of the enterprise — especially those in a kleptocratic state like Russia — are so thoroughly compromised that they never know who might expose their crimes, or which particular crimes those might be.
So when we were concerned that Putin was running Trump as a Russian agent, this was probably not the case. More likely, Trump was running himself. He knew that his relationships with bent oligarchs left him deeply vulnerable. In Russia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan — and maybe even Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia — he was making shady real estate deals and corrupt financial arrangements with some very dangerous hombres, and this gave them serious leverage over him, long before he became president.
Kompromat works because nobody in the system truly knows what anyone else knows about them. And because everyone knows the consequences of stepping outside the lines.
So Putin doesn’t need to get his own hands dirty. Putin can make his wishes perfectly clear without ever saying “Do it or else.” Trump was well aware of this. And while he knew what he’d done — and you can be sure it was a lot more than a pee tape — he had no way of knowing what Putin, or anyone in that orbit, actually had on him. He just knew it was bad.
That uncertainty is still at the core of their relationship, and it still has Trump scared shitless.
Which brings us back to Weisselberg, as well as to Giuliani, Flynn, Stone, and again, Manafort, all of whom may have significant incentive not to flip. All of these guys have been steeped for some time in the kompromat system. For all of them, flipping on Trump would be easy. But flipping on Putin — or any number of other colorful characters — would be fraught with health risk. People have been thrown off buildings for less.
So in this story, the people who don’t flip will be at least as interesting as the ones who do.