“Follow the money” is a catchphrase popularized by the 1976 drama-documentary motion picture All The President’s Men, which suggested a money trail or corruption scheme within the office of the President of the United States. All The President’s Men was the movie made about Watergate. The most revealing part of the Watergate investigation resulted from tracing the money. The cash that needed following was more than $200,000 paid to Watergate plotters G. Gordon Liddy and Howard Hunt, and the five burglars. The hush money was delivered by Tony Ulasewicz, a rumpled, fedora-wearing former New York police officer who was the “president’s bagman.”
The Mueller investigation into the 2016 Russian meddling in the election of the American President has also focused on the money trail. For a complete summary of the investigation, see this article.
Today there is an additional focus on the money trail. This time Mueller is looking into the money raised for Trump’s inauguration. Obama raised about $53 million for his first inauguration, and $43 million for his second. Trump raised more than double that amount, over $106 million.
The inauguration caught law enforcement’s attention back while it was happening. According to a Washington Post report, counterintelligence officials at the FBI were “concerned” by an unusual presence of politically connected Russians in DC during the event — including some of the exact people who “had surfaced in the agency’s investigation of the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia.”
But in the last few months specifically, much of Mueller’s team’s questioning of witnesses has reportedly focused on matters related to the inauguration and possible foreign money.
- In early April of this year, CNN’s Kara Scannell and Shimon Prokupecz reported that Mueller had recently stopped and questioned at least two Russian oligarchs.
- The following month, ABC News reported that Mueller was questioning witnesses “about millions of dollars in donations to President Donald Trump’s inauguration committee.”
- The Associated Press reported that Mueller’s investigators interviewed inauguration chair Tom Barrack. The AP’s sources, however, gave conflicting accounts on what Barrack was asked about. One said he was asked only about Paul Manafort and Rick Gates. Another claimed the questioning included “financial matters about the campaign, the transition and Trump’s inauguration in January 2017.”
- And in June another ABC News report stated that Mueller’s investigators wanted to know why several billionaires with “deep ties to Russia” got access to “exclusive, invitation-only receptions” during the inauguration.
- It is against the law for foreign nationals to donate to a presidential inaugural committee. No such donations to Trump’s inauguration are currently known. But CNN reported that Mueller is exploring whether wealthy Russians used “straw donors” with American citizenship to steer money into the inauguration.
- Rick Gates’s cooperation: Intriguingly, the recent stories on Mueller’s interest in the inauguration were published after Gates, the inauguration “shadow chair,” struck a plea deal in which he’d cooperate with Mueller.
- Russian collusion with Trump’s team: Finally, there’s the big question looming over all this: did Trump’s allies, in fact, collude with the Russian government to interfere with the 2016 election? The inauguration of course happened after the election was over, but could be important in understanding Russia’s ties to the Trump team and how their relationship progressed once he won. It also happened shortly after several curious contacts between Trump associates and Russians — Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and banker Sergey Gorkov’s visits to Trump Tower in December, Kislyak’s calls with Michael Flynn in late December, and Erik Prince’s Seychelles sitdown with a Russian fund manager (organized by George Nader) in mid-January, nine days before the inauguration.
Vekselberg is the main owner and president of the Renova Group, a massive Russian conglomerate with aluminum and oil interests, and is one of the richest people in Russia. He didn’t directly give any money to Trump’s inauguration. But his cousin, Andrew Intrater, an American citizen who runs a US company tied to Vekselberg’s company, donated $250,000. Intrater had also kicked in $35,000 to the Trump Victory Committee during the campaign, despite having no previous history as a major political donor.
Vekselberg and Intrater attended Trump’s inauguration together, and at the January 19 candlelight dinner, they were seated with Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, according to ABC News. Later that year, that company run by Intrater paid Cohen’s shell company, Essential Consultants LLC, $500,000 — for, they claimed, real estate advice.
Another hefty inaugural donation, of $1 million, came from Leonard Blavatnik, who runs a company called Access Industries. Blavatnik was on the guest list for the January 19 candlelight dinner too, as well as a more exclusive “chairman’s global dinner” with top Trump allies and foreign dignitaries, per ABC.
Alexander Mashkevitch, a Kazakh mining billionaire, was on the guest list for the “candlelight dinner,” per ABC —and happens to have been in the Seychelles around the same time as Erik Prince, Erin Banco has reported for the Intercept.
And Natalia Veselnitskaya and Rinat Akhmetshin, who attended Don Jr’s infamous Trump Tower meeting, were in town too — they attended an inauguration night party thrown by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), who’s widely viewed as the biggest supporter of Putin’s regime in Congress.
Perhaps the bigger question is “What happened to the money raised?”
In Ilya Marritz’s great piece on this topic for WNYC and ProPublica, several people involved in previous inaugurations were quoted expressing puzzlement over how Trump’s team could have possibly spent over $100 million.
Unlike a campaign, the inaugural committee isn’t legally required to disclose very much about its spending. In its nonprofit tax form, the committee is required to break down its expenses in broad categories and to list its five biggest vendors. But it is not required to explain every line item. According to that form roughly half the money — over $50 million — went to just two vendors. $25.8 million went to WIS Media Partners, an event production firm started by a now-former adviser to Melania Trump. Another $25 million went to Hargrove Inc. for “event production.” What these firms did with those massive sums of cash is unknown.
If Cuba Gooding Jr. were conducting the investigation, he’d be saying, “Show me the money!”