What We Talk About When We Talk About the Russian Mob
IN ROBERT MUELLER’S famed “Iron Triangles” speech, given to the Citizens Crime Commission of New York on 27 January 2011, the then-FBI Director explains how 21st century transnational organized crime works. (He also, improbably, cracks a joke about Justin Bieber’s haircut, the only sentence in the speech that feels dated). The so-called “mob” is no longer run by a few families, Mueller says, but rather “flat, fluid networks with global reach,” comprised of groups in countries all around the world, which are “more anonymous and more sophisticated.”
What we call the Russian mob is not even Russian, per se. Most of the key players hail from other former Soviet Socialist Republics—Ukraine in particular. Semion Mogilevich was born in Ukraine. So was Dmytro Firtash. Lev Parnas is Ukrainian, as is Michael Cohen’s wife’s family; Igor Fruman was born in today’s Belarus, but owns a club (Mafia Rave) in Odessa. But none of them live in the Old Country anymore. After escaping the Soviet Union via Israel, Mogilevich operated for many years in Budapest, and now resides in Moscow. Vienna is the base of operations for Firtash. Parnas, Fruman, and Cohen’s wife’s family all live in the U.S.
In Dirty Rubles, I wrote that the Russian mob was “more S.P.E.C.T.R.E. than GoodFellas.” Mueller uses a different, but no less relevant, pop cultural reference: “This is not The Sopranos, with six guys sitting in a diner,” he says, “shaking down a local business owner for $50 dollars a week.” The operation is orders of magnitude greater, he tells us.
In Red Mafiya, still the seminal book on the Russian mob, Robert Friedman outlines numerous mob operations that are basically schemes to rip off Medicare. What that means is that these crooks come to the United States and flat-out steal our money—and make medical costs more expensive in the process. That sort of thing is the tip of the iceberg. Mueller goes on:
These criminal enterprises are making billions of dollars from human trafficking, health care fraud, computer intrusions, and copyright infringement. They are cornering the market on natural gas, oil, and precious metals, and selling to the highest bidder.
These crimes are not easily categorized. Nor can the damage, the dollar loss, or the ripple effects be easily calculated. It is much like a Venn diagram, where one crime intersects with another, in different jurisdictions, and with different groups.
How does this impact you? You may not recognize the source, but you will feel the effects. You might pay more for a gallon of gas. You might pay more for a luxury car from overseas. You will pay more for health care, mortgages, clothes, and food.
Remember in The Godfather, when Vito Corleone resists diversifying into heroin? The Russian mob has no such moral qualms. The crimes they commit are complex, and uniformly, often egregiously, heinous. It is no accident that so many of the players in the larger Trump universe have a penchant for pedophilia.
Basically, a modern mobster has no scruples whatsoever, and will do anything and everything—speed along climate change, supply arms to two opposing sides during warfare, peddle nuclear weapons, manufacture and distribute deadly opioids, deal in blood diamonds, crash the entire world economy, blow up skyscrapers in lower Manhattan, trade in underage sex slaves—to make a few extra rubles. Nothing is sacred. Nothing. It’s only about money and power.
And now we come to the key paragraph of Mueller’s speech:
Yet we are concerned with more than just the financial impact. These groups may infiltrate our businesses. They may provide logistical support to hostile foreign powers. They may try to manipulate those at the highest levels of government. Indeed, these so-called “iron triangles” of organized criminals, corrupt government officials, and business leaders pose a significant national security threat.
Iron triangles. Three sides to the triangle: 1) Mobsters, 2) corrupt government officials, 3) crooked business leaders.
In Russia, this is easy to make out. Mogilevich is the mobster. Vladimir Putin is the corrupt government official, along with Sergei Lavrov, Sergei Kislyak, Konstantin Kosachev, and so on. Dmytro Firtash, Igor Sechin, and the other oligarchs are the crooked business leaders. (Although there is a lot of overlap. Mogilevich is also nominally a businessman, while Firtash and Putin moonlight as mobsters.) The point is that the three sides of the “iron triangle” work together, strengthening the other two sides, to fuck over everyone else.
In the United States, the “iron triangles” also exist—and one of the silver linings in the Age of Trump is that they have become much easier to identify. Let’s break it down:
Donald John Trump is a mobbed-up criminal, like his associates Michael Cohen, Paul Manafort, Lev Parnas, Igor Fruman, and Rudy Giuliani. Don’t believe me about America’s Mayor? Read more about him, and see how he acts exactly like a mobster, without regard for anything but money and power.
On the flip side, if you look back at the individuals Trump most obsessed about during the Mueller investigation—Christopher Steele, Andrew McCabe, Bruce Ohr, Peter Strzok, Lisa Page, and Robert Mueller himself—what they all have in common is that they are experts in the Russian mob. This is not even remotely a coincidence.
Corrupt Government Officials
The traitors are easy to spot.
A sizable percentage of current and former Republican lawmakers are now corrupt to a certain degree—some, like Mitch McConnell, Lindsey Graham, Rand Paul, Kevin McCarthy, Elise Stefanik, Jim Jordan, Matt Gaetz, Paul Ryan, Devin Nunes, and the Fourth of July Traitors, more obviously than others. But all of them, from Mitt Romney to Susan Collins to Ben Sasse, are Team Trump—which means, whatever they may or may not be getting out of it, they are aiding and abetting transnational organized crime.
Bill Barr, the Attorney General, heads the Justice Department, and he is possibly the most corrupt government official this country has ever produced. Mike Pence knew, as he has always known. Mike Pompeo, Mick Mulvaney, and Rick Perry are complicit. John Bolton, mustache-deep in Cambridge Analytica, made sure to pocket his $2 million before maybe, just maybe, going against Trump. Brett Kavanaugh is owned by some dark force that has not yet disclosed itself.
Democrats, as well as objective political pundits and correspondents, would be well advised to call out the ties between these corrupt government officials and the Russian mob. Let Rand Paul explain how he’s not “working for Vladimir Putin,” as the late Senator John McCain accused him of doing. Let Devin Nunes remark on his relationship to Lev Parnas, and why he felt it was copacetic to serve on the House Intelligence Committee while liaising with a known crook. Let Brett Kavanaugh tell us how he bought his manse. Ask Lindsey Graham point-blank if he is being held hostage.
There are plenty of more or less anonymous government workers complicit as well. But—and this is an important point—governmental agencies are NOT monoliths, and there are far more people in government who are patriots. The Marie Yovanovitches and Fiona Hills and George Kents and Bill Taylors far outnumber the traitors. They always will.
Crooked Business Leaders
These guys are harder to ID, because, first of all, business leaders actually produce stuff of value (sometimes, at least), and second, they need only work in concert with the interests of the global criminal enterprise. It’s not just, “Hey, here’s a few billion dirty rubles for your tech start-up,” although that also happens. For the purposes of this piece, what I mean by “crooked” is not necessarily overtly illegal—it’s a willingness to benefit from shady Russian underworld aid, and, worse, to help out the bad guys.
So ask yourself: Who gives succor to the mob?
Mark Zuckerberg is as rich and powerful as he is apathetic about his role in strangling democracy. Whether or not he actually violated any laws, his involvement with Cambridge Analytica, his Trumpian reluctance to tell the truth about Facebook’s dealings, and his refusal to regulate political speech on that platform, even when that speech is known lies, demonstrates that he is in bed with the bad guys. Well, that and all the sweet, sweet investment rubles he took from former Putin associate Yuri Milner.
George Soros spoke about Zuck at Davos, per Vanity Fair:
Soros blasted Facebook again at this year’s gathering, accusing the company of conspiring to help keep Donald Trump in the White House. “Facebook will work together to reelect Trump, and Trump will work to protect Facebook so that this situation cannot be changed,” Soros said in his address Thursday, Bloomberg reported. “It makes me very concerned for 2020.”
Describing Facebook’s modus operandi as maximizing profits “irrespective of what harm it may do to the world,” Soros suggested that it was developing a pact of sorts with the president to keep the grift going. “I think there is a kind of informal mutual assistance operation or agreement developing between Trump and Facebook,” he said. Facebook denied the claim, and Soros didn’t present any proof to support it.
This may not be “proof,” but it certainly supports Soros’s analysis: Facebook has categorically refused to remove political ads that are outright lies, hiding under the banner of free speech. This laissez-faire policy benefits those political ads that consist of lies, which tend to be Trump’s. As AP reports: “The fears go beyond foreign interference. In recent months, Facebook, Twitter and Google refused to remove a misleading video ad from President Donald Trump’s campaign that targeted Biden.”
A Democratic administration and Congress will regulate the fuck out of Facebook; government regulation, despite its bad rap by libertarian ignoramuses, is the only available counterweight to deep-pocked monopolies. Heaven forfend Zuckerberg has to subject his Russian malware to regulations of any kind! He’s the CEO, bitch! This mendacious asshole would rather make a deal with the devil than jeopardize one kopek of his $74 billion fortune.
Mark Burnett’s shitty reality TV enterprise helped blur the already blurred line between fact and fiction, conditioning us to believe Big Lies. He then presented a known mob money launderer, tax cheat, and recidivist business failure as some sort of successful entrepreneur, although Donald John Trump was nothing of the sort—with disastrous results:
In addition to making terrible programs that debase the culture, Burnett is also a Putin stan. Again, I don’t know that Burnett has broken any laws here. But he’s clearly playing for the other team.
Jeff Zucker, now in charge of news at CNN, also had a hand in The Apprentice, when he ran NBC Entertainment. (While there, he championed Fear Factor, elevating Joe Rogan, Ed Snowden enthusiast and endorser of Russia-backed spoiler candidate Bernie Sanders). His fondness for Trump spilled over from his old gig; CNN, despite “fake news” protestations from the president, gave Trump millions of dollars’ worth of free air time during his 2016 campaign. Zucker only cares about ratings, which is why he has turned CNN into an endless episode of Crossfire, but where one of the two sides are active Fascists and liars; why he employs the likes of Corey Lewandowski and Rick Santorum; why he blacklisted Cheri Jacobus. Again: has he broken any laws? Probably not. But his fat thumb is certainly on the scales.
David Pecker, the most appropriately-surnamed man in all the land, is CEO of AMI, which publishes the National Enquirer, Weekly World News, Globe, and Sun, among many other titles. These tabloids are displayed at the check-out aisle of grocery stores across the country, so their covers, especially, have enormous influence. That they are parasitic publications that ruin people’s lives, while icky, is irrelevant here. AMI does something called “catch and kill,” where they will pay big bucks for a juicy story on some or other celebrity…and then “spike” the story, so it never runs. This is not journalism. This is glorified blackmail. And Pecker uses his resources to help Trump.
Fox News has gone from conservative-leaning to straight-up Trumpist propaganda. Rupert Murdoch, the Monty Burns of the operation, in the last year has held clandestine meetings with Mitch McConnell and William Barr. He employs and overpays former Trump minions like Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Jason Chaffetz, and Paul Ryan (who sits on the board now). Sean Hannity, Fox News’s most popular talking head, is Trump’s shadow advisor—and also a Julian Assange apologist, a Michael Cohen client, and a Paul Manafort text-exchanger. I have long predicted that Murdoch will eventually turn on Trump, to keep Fox viable after his collapse. But maybe there’s more money in being state TV? Monopolies, yo.
These are a few examples. There are plenty more, including many none of us have ever heard of. Tom Barrack comes to mind. Gordon Sondland. Sheldon Adelson. Unscrupulous lawyers like Jay Sekulow and John Dowd and Lanny Davis and Alan Dershowitz. The fucking Kochs. Again: they are not necessarily breaking any laws. But they are using their wealth and influence to aid and abet Trump, who is a mobbed-up criminal hell-bent on destroying the republic.
The ne plus ultra of iron triangles is, or rather was, Jeffrey Epstein. He was an entire system of Euclidian geometry in and of himself. Because he was partners with Ghislaine Maxwell, daughter of Robert Maxwell, who among many other things was a business partner of Semion Mogilevich, Epstein is a mobbed-up criminal. Well, that and the fact that he trafficked in underage girls and operated the world’s most successful and notorious kompromat factory. He also had ties to various intelligence agencies, allegedly including Mossad. And he was a businessman of some kind, because wow, look at all that money he got from…someplace…somehow…we still don’t know, and no one seems to care.
Epstein sat in the center of a Venn diagram that includes organized crime, corrupt government officials, and crooked business leaders, as well as: academia (Alan Dershowitz, Harvard, MIT), the British royal family (Randy Andy), Israeli intelligence, the fashion industry, Hollywood, Wall Street, modeling, science, elite prep schools (Donald Barr), and god only knows what else. There are so many suspects surrounding the strange circumstances of his death that it’s like a real-life Clue, but without Tim Curry on hand to butler-splain whodunnit.
This is what we’re up against. It’s formidable, to be sure, but it’s not omnipotent. A functional, reform-minded government—executive and legislative branches working in concert, bolstered by a fair and independent judiciary—can and will drive it back, if not defeat it completely. This is why Donald John Trump has risked everything on a hare-brained scheme to impugn Joe Biden; why Vladimir Putin has redoubled his efforts to aid Trump, Bernie Sanders, and Tulsi Gabbard—anything to keep his puppet at 1600 Pennsylvania; why the Senate Republicans are in lockstep with their overlord. They are all fighting for the very survival of their corrupt system. We must not let them succeed.
Greg Olear is the author of Dirty Rubles: An Introduction to Trump/Russia (2018), as well as two novels. He lives in New York.
Photo credit: President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden meet with senior advisors in the Oval Office to discuss the shootings in Aurora, Colorado, July 20, 2012. Pictured, from left, are: Kathryn Ruemmler, Counsel to the President, and FBI Director Robert Mueller. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)