The Blind Eye of the FBI (with Craig Unger)
If Donald John Trump is a crook, why was he never indicted?
“You ask for a miracle? I give you the F.B.I.”
—Hans Gruber, Die Hard
If Donald John Trump is a crook, why was he never indicted?
Occam’s Razor says to reject the premise: the lack of rap sheet means he’s not a criminal. But in this case, William of Ockham’s principle of parsimony does not hold. Trump is absolutely a criminal. He tried to overthrow the government. He used the office of the presidency to enrich his personal fortune. He obstructed justice like it was going out of style. He directed his personal attorney to violate campaign finance law by paying off a porn star. He laundered money for individuals with ties to the Russian mafia. He benefited from a real estate maintenance fraud scheme devised by his father, Fred (who was himself involved with a crime syndicate). He is a serial sexual predator. He raped a well-known journalist in a department store. He sexually harassed women on the set of his reality show. He sent goons to steal his medical records and menace his doctor. He skirted regulations prohibiting cavorting with crime figures when running his casino. He (allegedly) misrepresented his net worth and his income on loan forms. He dodged the draft through bogus disability claims. He socked his teacher when he was in grade school. And that’s just the stuff we know about.
So, yes, he’s a crook.
Why was he never indicted?
In “Tinker, Tailor, Mobster, Trump,” written last March in concert with my friend Lincoln’s Bible, we make the case that Trump was a top echelon Confidential Informant for the FBI. On at least three occasions, when the law was closing in, Trump suddenly found himself in the clear, and one of his business associates in the hoosegow.
Furthermore, I wrote, it is
inconceivable that a mobbed-up real estate developer—a crook whom the government of Australia would not grant a gaming license because of his obvious mob connections; the subject of a 41-page initial investigation by the Department of Gaming Enforcement in the State of New Jersey that, taken together, is positively damning—could have avoided indictment for all these years unless he was covertly helping out law enforcement. Trump is a criminal, yes, but his crimes are not as heinous as Ivankov’s, or Gravano’s, or Scarfo’s. Prosecutors would happily toss a minnow like Trump back into the sea if it helped them catch the big fish.
Secret immunity would certainly explain why the FBI has given Trump a wide berth. But there are other, more human, motives at work as well, as the investigative journalist and author Craig Unger explains on today’s PREVAIL podcast. Why, he wonders, didn’t the FBI pay more attention to all the criminality surrounding Trump, especially during his run for president? Why did they turn a blind eye? “And I say this knowing that they had to know this,” he says, “because a lot of my material came from FBI files! So they certainly knew about it,” it being Trump’s dalliances with the Russian mob. Unger suggests that it was the culture of the Bureau, and the New York field office specifically, that made agents think twice about going down the Trump-Russia rabbit hole:
What American lawyer wound up representing Semion Mogilevich? It was of course William Sessions, who had been Director of the FBI. And you had people like James Kallstrom, who was a very high-ranking FBI official in New York, who was very close to Donald Trump. . . . Think about that. Let’s assume you were a career FBI guy, and you’ve been there 20 years, and you’re in the New York office. How vigorously are you going to pursue someone like Donald Trump? How vigorously are you going to pursue the Russian mafia when your former boss is [Mogilevich’s] lawyer? . . . And Donald Trump has given your immediate bureau director, James Kallstrom of the New York office—has given $1.3 million to his favorite charity. And several other FBI officials, when they retire, they end up doing security for Donald Trump, getting cozy jobs maybe making a couple hundred thousand dollars a year while they’re still collecting their FBI pensions. Are you really going to put everything on the line to go after these guys?
In American Kompromat, Unger describes the relationship between Trump and Kallstrom, whose unlikely friendship began in 1973. The former was pretty clearly cultivating the latter; since when does Trump give $1.3 million to anyone, and not expect something in return? Since when does he give that much money to charity? His M.O. is to promise but not deliver. (Somewhere in Washington, David Fahrenthold is nodding his head while brandishing his Pulitzer). As Unger tactfully put it in his book, “Their relationship was such that Kallstrom said things about Trump that were diametrically opposed to the way most Americans saw him.”
During their decades-long friendship, Kallstrom rose to a position of prominence at the Bureau: assistant director in charge of the New York field office, the FBI’s largest—and the one right in Trump’s backyard. He worked closely with Rudy Giuliani on the Mafia Commission Trial. And while he retired in 1997, he remained an influential figure in New York law enforcement until his death this July. Would Trump have continued to cultivate the friendship if Kallstrom had wound up leaving the FBI in the 80s to work in, say, property management? Would agents in the New York field office have handled differently the Anthony Weiner laptop that ultimately cost Hillary Clinton the election, if their old boss Kallstrom had not been such a vocal supporter of Donald Trump? If Kallstrom had not done interviews claiming that HRC was a criminal?
NPR interviewed Kallstrom in 2016, a week before the election, in the wake of the Comey letter. He said, “I don't say this politically; I just say this is a matter of law. The Democrats nominated someone to run for president that had a long trail of things that could be considered by a grand jury as being criminal.” But he was being political. He had allowed his personal bias—the wool Trump spent 40 years pulling over his eyes—to override his professional objectivity. Maybe it was too painful to admit that his good buddy was a filthy criminal. That he’d been played.
The Bureau is not a monolith, of course. There are plenty of exemplary agents. I’d venture to guess that most FBI are excellent. It was the excellent ones Trump went after when he was president: Andrew McCabe, Bruce Ohr, Lisa Page, Peter Strzok, and the former director, Robert Mueller. Ultimately, I am a big believer in the FBI.
Unfortunately, the leadership of the Bureau has been suspect for most of its history. In a top-down organization, the personality of the guy in charge carries enormous weight. The opportunistic egomaniac J. Edgar Hoover ran the Bureau for almost 37 full years until his death in 1972. William Sessions was in charge from 1987-1993, when he was forced to resign because of ethics complaints; he later worked as a private attorney for Semion Mogilevich. His replacement, Louis Freeh, has been no less shady in his post-FBI dealings. Then came Mueller, and after Mueller, Comey, whose decision to disclose the investigation into Clinton but not the investigation into Trump cost HRC the election—and, oh yeah, almost ended the republic. And now we have the Invisible Man, Christopher Wray, who Trump appointed mostly because he figured the lawyer who hid Chris Christie’s cell phone during Bridgegate, and who worked for years in private practice for Gazprom, Russia’s state energy company, would give him a free pass. I can think of 4,500 reasons not to trust Wray.
The investigation into the January 6 besieging of the Capitol is reportedly the largest in the history of the FBI. So far, the approach seems to be similar to how crime syndicates are prosecuted—from the bottom up. Let’s hope so. In order to survive and properly function, the Bureau needs to burnish its battered reputation, and the republic needs the leaders of the insurrection punished to the fullest extent of the law.
Craig Unger, the journalist and author of “American Kompromat: How the KGB Cultivated Donald Trump, and Related Tales of Sex, Greed, Power, and Treachery” and “House of Trump, House of Putin,” joins Greg Olear for a wide-ranging discussion on the Vietnam War, Reagan’s October Surprise, the failures of the New York Times, Trump’s cultivation by the KGB, Semion Mogilevich, and Craig’s incredible eighth grade year. Plus: a law firm provides a specific service.
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Craig’s Esquire article:
Photo credit: Dave Newman. March 30, 2010.