'Collusion' Book Raises Troubling Questions on Trump and Russia

(Bloomberg View) -- If you are looking for a "case closed" indictment of President Donald Trump's collusion with Moscow, Luke Harding's new book is not it. Important questions are raised, but not answered. A better title than "Collusion" would have been "Maybe."

In a sense, the book is a fleshed-out version of the dossier commissioned by the Democratic National Committee and collected by former British spy Christopher Steele. Harding got some access to Steele, and Steele comes off as a professional reluctant to be the center of the story. An associate says in Harding's book that Steele believes 70 to 90 percent of the dossier is accurate. Steele says that the publication of his research is responsible for blocking Trump's early efforts to roll back sanctions on Russia.

But the Steele/Harding dossier on Trump is also not conclusive. Like most reporting on the murky smoke of Trump-Russia, this book is incomplete. Nonetheless it's important to read Harding's book -- for skeptics of the case against Trump in particular -- and to grapple with the hardest questions he raises.

In this case, the two stand-out chapters deal with Trump's relationship with Deutsche Bank, the German lender implicated in a scandal for allowing Russian traders to launder dirty rubles into clean dollars and euros; and Paul Manafort, Trump's onetime campaign manager who was sacked after the New York Times reported his name appeared on a payout ledger found in Kiev that belonged to the regime of his former client, Viktor Yanukovych.

On Manafort, Harding shines. As a Guardian reporter who covered the former Ukrainian president's campaign, he got to know Manafort during the campaign that revived his political career in 2007, even though his candidate lost.

Harding sets the scene well when he first met the man who would briefly run Trump's campaign nine years later. Manafort had a simple message for the reporter: The West has gotten Yanukovych all wrong. The former president may have been perceived to be on the pro-Russian side of the 2004 Orange revolution, when citizens ousted him as a Russian stooge. But Yanukovych had changed.

Now Manafort was selling the Ukrainian as a pro-Western reformer. He promised Harding at the time that Yanukovych "had made more overtures to the West" than to Russia. Harding neatly sums up these promises as follows: "Over the next few years it turned out that Manafort's version of history was more than wrong. It went beyond spin or political P.R. Everything he told me was a lie."

Manafort's client ended up being a pro-Putin thug. When his party finally took over Ukraine in 2010, Yanukovych consolidated power. He had the leader of his opposition arrested. Nonetheless, Manafort was still representing him in the West as a reformer. Through a lobbying outfit masquerading as a think tank -- the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine -- Manafort and other Washington lobbyists from both parties took money from Yanukovych to make it appear that he was preparing Ukraine to join the European Union.

There was a catch though. In 2013 Yanukovych said he had changed his mind, setting the stage for the 2014 revolution that forced him to escape to Russia in the dead of night, leaving the records of his corrupt regime behind. Manafort will now have to explain this recent history to a grand jury.

He was the first big fish in special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian influence, and he was charged with failing to register as a foreign agent and laundering tens of millions he received from various oligarchs. Manafort, it should be said, has pleaded not guilty. But with all this smoke it's worth asking: Why did a man who allegedly took payment from oligarchs close to Vladimir Putin offer his services free of charge to Trump? Harding doesn't give us the answer, but he reminds us of this key question.

The second important area Harding covers in his book is the most complicated element of the case against Trump: his finances. Here it's worth reading his chapter on Deutsche Bank, as well as my colleague Tim O'Brien's columns on the matter.

As Harding explains, Trump defaulted on a $330 million debt he owed Deutsche Bank's property division. In 2008, the bank sought to collect $40 million plus fees from Trump. Trump then frivolously counter-sued, explaining that he could not pay the debt back because of the world financial crisis that year, a crisis created in part by the predatory practices of Deutsche Bank. Instead, Trump claimed, the bank owed him $3 billion.

The courts threw out Trump's lawsuit, and he ended up settling with Deutsche Bank in 2010. How? He borrowed money from Deutsche Bank's private wealth division. Not only that, this division of the bank opened up a new line of credit for more Trump properties. As Bloomberg has reported, Trump now owes Deutsche Bank around $300 million.

All of this would be strange enough. But it smells sinister when considering that in this same period, Deutsche Bank's Moscow office was conducting an extensive money-laundering operation. According to New York State's Department of Financial Services, more than $10 billion shifted from Russia to the West between 2011 and 2015. Harding says that the Moscow branch of the bank was essentially captured by a Russian bank, known as VTB, believed by Western intelligence to be an arm of Russia's FSB. Harding ends this chapter by asking whether there was a connection between Deutsche Bank's laundering of rubles into dollars and its loaning hundreds of millions of dollars to Trump.

He's not the only person concerned by this connection. Mueller is reported to have seized Deutsche Bank records earlier this month as part of his probe, although Trump's lawyers have denied this. That's not evidence of collusion. But it definitely raises more troubling questions.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.

To contact the author of this story: Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net.

For more columns from Bloomberg View, visit http://www.bloomberg.com/view.

©2017 Bloomberg L.P.