Tangled Webs
February 8, 2019

The tabloid-like feud between American Media Inc., publisher of the National Enquirer, and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is full of operatically tangled relationships. Most famously and perhaps most consequentially is the long friendship and tabloid-wingman relationship AMI chief David Pecker has with President Trump, a vocal antagonist of Bezos and his companies. Also friendly with Pecker (and Roger Stone) is Michael Sanchez, a pro-Trump Hollywood agent and brother of Lauren Sanchez, whose romantic entanglement with Bezos was exposed by the Enquirer, apparently precipitating the end of Bezos' marriage.

Saudi Arabia — with close ties to Trump and evidently AMI and antipathy toward Bezos' Washington Post — may have played a role in pilfering his text messages and intimate photos to Sanchez, Bezos suggested in Thursday night's post outlining what he describes as AMI's "extortion and blackmail" to get him to drop his investigation into the theft. But there's also a subplot involving Jon Fine, AMI's deputy general counsel, whose emails laying out the terms of AMI's demands were included in Bezos' post. Before he joined AMI last November, Fine spent nearly a decade as an executive at Amazon, working under Bezos from 2006 to 2015, according to his LinkedIn page.

If Bezos' accusations bear out, Fine could now face legal problems, state or federal, or disbarment in New York, Lawrence O'Donnell and legal analyst Joyce Vance said on MSNBC Thursday night. O'Donnell also had on former longtime Enquirer reporter Jerry George and Washington Post reporter Manual Roig-Franzia, who said he hadn't talked to Bezos but had discussed the case with Bezos' security chief, Gavin de Becker. "Gavin de Becker told us that he does not believe that Jeff Bezos' phone was hacked," Roig-Franzia said. "He thinks it's possible that a government entity might have gotten hold of his text messages," and "the Bezos camp" has "begun to believe" that the Enquirer report "might have been politically motivated." Watch below. Peter Weber

May 16, 2018

On Sunday, lawyer Michael Avenatti got the ball rolling on a strange and convoluted story involving Qatari diplomats, President Trump, Michael Cohen, former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, Ice Cube, Stephen Bannon, and the Trump-Russia collusion dossier compiled by ex-spy Christopher Steele. Avenatti, who represents porn star Stormy Daniels, released photos showing Ahmed al-Rumaihi, a top official at Qatar's state investment fund, getting in a Trump Tower elevator on Dec. 12, 2016, with Cohen and Qatar's foreign minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al Thani.

Al-Rumaihi's company, Sport Trinity, confirmed to CNN that he was at the Trump Tower meetings, and Qatar's press attaché told Britain's Daily Mail on Tuesday that al Thani was there, too, to meet with Trump transition officials. Also known: The Qatari wealth fund division al-Rumaihi ran from May 2016 to March 2017 bought a 19.5 percent stake in Russian oil giant Rosneft five days before the December 2016 meeting.

Then things get murky. An unidentified Kuwaiti official told the Daily Mail that in the last week, al-Rumaihi told him that in a December 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Flynn and Cohen, "Cohen told him to send millions to various members of the Trump family." Al-Rumaihi apparently refused, but Jeff Kwatinetz, a former business partner of al-Rumaihi's in a basketball league co-owned with Ice Cube, said in a sworn deposition last week that al-Rumaihi asked him to offer a bribe from Qatar to Bannon, a friend, in January, and when Kwatinetz said no, al-Rumaihi laughed and asked, "Do you think Flynn turned down our money?" (Al-Rumaihi denies saying this.)

Also publicly unsubstantiated is a claim in the Steele dossier that in summer 2016, a Rosneft official offered the Trump campaign, via adviser Carter Page, a stake in Rosneft if future President Trump scrapped Russia sanctions, as Slate explains. Helpfully, MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell tried to tie all these strands together with Slate's Jeremy Stahl on Tuesday night, while The Atlantic's David Frum issued a note of caution. Watch below. Peter Weber

July 21, 2017

On Thursday morning, the U.S. Treasury Department fined ExxonMobil $2 million for allegedly violating U.S. sanctions against Russia in a series of eight business deals in 2014 with Russian state oil giant Rosneft and its CEO, Igor Sechin. At the time of the deals, Rex Tilllerson, now secretary of state, was Exxon's chief executive, with a long relationship with Sechin. The U.S. had sanctions against Sechin but not Rosneft.

The relatively modest fine, levied after a years-long investigation, "gives the message that they're going to do what they have to even though Rex Tillerson is secretary of state," Hal Eren a former official in the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), tells The New York Times. "Perhaps it was a bit of assertion of independence by the staff of OFAC."

Exxon quickly sued the Treasury Department, naming Treasury Secretary Steven Munchin as the lead defendant and calling the fine "unlawful" and "fundamentally unfair" because the agreements were signed with Sechin in his official capacity, not personal. In its complaint, meanwhile, the Treasury Department said top Exxon officials showed "reckless disregard" for the sanctions, that Exxon's "senior-most executives knew of Sechin's status," and that the eight deals signed by Exxon and Sechin "caused significant harm to the Ukraine-related sanctions."

Regardless of the merits of the fine or lawsuit, the strange legal battle now essentially pits two of President Trump's top Cabinet secretaries against each other, The Washington Post points out. "I can't think of another case where that's happened, where you've had a senior government official on both sides of the 'v,' essentially," former OFAC official Adam Smith tells the Post. Peter Weber

June 26, 2017

Jared Kushner, President Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser, secured a $285 million loan from Deutsche Bank, Trump's biggest known lender and at the time under investigation for allegedly allowing Russian money laundering, in October 2016, a month before Trump's election, The Washington Post reports. The Kushner loan was part of a refinancing deal for four retail floors of the former New York Times building off Times Square in Manhattan, and Kushner did not list the loan or his personal guarantee for the debt on his financial disclosure form filed with the Office of Government Ethics; a lawyer for Kushner said he was not obligated to disclose the loan.

Kushner purchased the four retail floors of the building for a reported $296 million in October 2015 from the family of an Uzbek-born Israeli billionaire named Lev Leviev, who is a vocal admirer of Russian President Vladimir Putin and once aspired to work with Trump on real estate deals in Moscow. Kushner filled the largely empty floors with retailers, and the October 2016 deal also included an $85 million loan from SL Green Realty, giving Kushner's business $74 million more than he paid for the retail space.

Kushner and his brother, Joshua, are listed as guarantors on the Deutsche Bank loan under what was termed a "nonrecourse carve-out," commonly known as a "bad boy" clause, the Post explains. "The way to look at this is, so long as you're not a 'bad boy' and don't do anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about," James Schwarz, a real estate lawyer who is an expert in such clauses, tells the Post. "To the extent you would do something fraudulent, then you have things to worry about" — namely personally being on the hook for millions of dollars. Separately, Kushner and his mother have a personal line of credit worth up to $25 million from Deutsche Bank, the Post notes.

In December, Deutsche Bank paid $7.2 billion to settle U.S. charges related to fraud packaging residential mortgages, and in January it paid a $425 million fine to New York State to settle charges that it did not track large money transfers from Russia. The White House told the Post that Kushner "will recuse from any particular matter involving specific parties in which Deutsche Bank is a party." You can read more at The Washington Post. Peter Weber

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