In this week's episode...
- In The Lede, BuzzFeed News Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith talks to investigative reporter Anthony Cormier about the shady money trail left behind the infamous 2016 Trump Tower meeting.
- In Fake News You Can Use, debunker-in-chief Jane Lytvynenko tests host Julia Furlan to see if she's drowning in the sea of fake news.
- The weather is starting to change, and there's nothing we want more than to curl up in bed with a good book or binge-worthy show. Cue Highly Recommended: we're here to give you the best recommendations, straight from the BuzzFeed newsroom, so you can binge the best.
We’re everywhere you want us to be, including right here as well as Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher, or Spotify!
The Lede — 00:00
Ben Smith: So Anthony, there are a lot of different tendrils to this story, took you to a lot of places. One of them was a door in a subdivision in New Jersey. Can we just start there? Tell me about the door to Suite 309?
Anthony Cormier: Sure. Suite 309 is a windowless, rather nondescript office, with a lock that fascinates me to no end. It's a very big silver major lock on a door that dozens of journalists have gone and knocked on over the years because there's a group of businesses that are located there. And these businesses are connected to this Trump Tower meeting, but it's bizarre because it's a, really, sort of fairly run-of-the-mill office Plaza. There are pain management clinics and realtors and the like, and most of them have signs and windows and you know what they do, but Suite 309 is this mystery. It's just a brown door with a silver lock. And when you knock on it and ask for the people inside all you get is this gruff, disembodied voice from behind the door who refuses to talk to you, will not open and doesn't even accept your business card or want to hear from you. And that, that door, that suite, is in a lot of ways the epicenter of this vast network of companies and secret accounts and money that is part of not only the Mueller investigation, but the sort of wider look into the finances of people in Trump's world.
BS: Right and this extraordinary new information you guys got really opened a huge new window onto that world.
AC: As reporters, there are a lot of things that you can choose to cover in the Trump Administration. We made a call a long time ago to look at the money. It's a tried-and-true sort of investigative axiom, right? Follow the money. And so that's what we've been doing. We've been tracking the finances of the individuals who are close to not only the campaign but to those in Russia and beyond.
BS: I think one of the reasons it's so strange to wind up at that office Plaza is that these are not modest local New Jersey business people, right? I mean can you give us just some background on the Agalarov family?
AC: Sure. The Agalarov are a very powerful, wealthy family from Russia. They made their Fortune in development, they have become quite close to the Kremlin. They're, in fact, one of the kremlin's most sophisticated and favored developers. But what's interesting is you can see them in the United States. Aras’ son, Emin, a man who is part-time popstar, actually grew up in across the Hudson River. He went to high school in Tenafly. He he has deep roots there. They, in fact, the family has a couple of mansions in New Jersey. And so it's a really unusual juxtaposition of this megarich family with real roots to Azerbaijan and to Russia, but here they are living and doing business in New Jersey. And that's a... That became a red flag to investigators. It's a mark for them. They want to know how this billionaire and how their funds flowed back into the United States.
BS: And there's a lot in this story that broadly opens this window into how very rich people, particularly in Russia, but all over, move money around in a way that makes it hard for journalists, for investigators, for anybody to know what the hell is going on. But we have some sense, and tell me a little bit about what's interesting about the timing of the transfers that you unearthed.
AC: Right. I think, to your first point, there is this global financial system that regular folks like you and I don't frankly understand. And it's quite opaque and it's opaque on purpose. And so when you begin to examine the timing of the movement of funds, the wiring of money, you know, on the Agalarov side their attorney and others will say ‘Look, this is no big deal. This is how we do business all the time.’ When you talk to investigators, they look at the timing and they are enormously suspicious. So you've got this meeting on June 9. It had been planned for quite a bit of time, you know, they go to Trump Tower, they meet with Trump Jr., and Manafort and Kushner on the 25th floor. And eleven days later Aras Agalarov, the patriarch of this family, does an unusual thing. He uses his account in the British Virgin Islands, belonging to a consulting company. Remember, the British Virgin Islands is sort of known as an offshore haven. Well, Aras directs that company through a Swiss bank. And as we all know Switzerland is a sort of place where bank secrecy is a major part of the life, the culture. He directs, 11 days after the infamous meeting, 19 and a half million dollars from the British Virgin Islands into a US bank account. The same day he takes a much smaller amount, again through a Swiss bank, but $43,000, and moves it out into the US. We could not, for the life of us, get the a Agalarov family or their attorneys to tell us what that money was used for. We are, as always, open to any appropriate context, but investigators found such a large sum, with that particular timing, 11 days after the meeting, long before the meeting had began public, to be quite a suspicious event. And so that that's the beginning of this suspiciously timed transfers of funds.
BS: So the core question now is what was this money for? Is that right?
AC: I think that's, for lack of a better word, the 19 and a half million dollar question, right. It is ‘What did you do with the money?’ There may be a wholly appropriate reason for that transfer. We'd love to know it and we would have reported it. They've refused to tell us, and I think investigators right now are...I don't want to say there are stymied, but they don't have an answer, at least as far as we could tell, they don't know. And they want to know. They want to know whether that money was in any way related to Russia's interference in the campaign or the election. They want to know whether or not it was legitimate. But at this point they don't, and we don't either, and it is a really important point. We just don’t know at the moment what that was for.
BS: And you know, as you said before, the point of using Swiss banks and the British Virgin Islands is for people to not know what you're doing with the money. That is a feature, not a bug here.
AC: So you have this suspicious movement of money shortly after the Trump Tower meeting in June 2016. And then you have Trump winning, surprisingly winning the election in November 2016. Shortly after his victory Aras, the patriarch of the family, uses a Russian bank account to begin funneling money into his son's personal checking account and bankers noticed. This account hadn't been really used before, it was essentially dormant. It was just opened at TD Bank in 2012. There's basically one small deposit in 2016, early 2016. And then all of a sudden you get really large round dollar, like $15,000 even to like $75,000 even. Those funds begin working their way into this personal checking account in New Jersey. The sum of that is about 1.2 million dollars. Bank examiners flagged it, they said this is an unusually large spike of money in a place that we haven't seen before. After this surge they begin to track where the money goes. One of the places they find is... They look at a particular transaction, they see $165,000 go into that account on November 22nd, 2016. Not long after the presidential election. And the very next day they watch another round dollar amount, $107,000, leave the New Jersey account and land in the account of a business called Corsy International. Corsy International is, again, based at Suite 309 and it's controlled by a longtime friend and an individual, Ike Kaveladze, who attended the Trump Tower meeting. To bankers that's enormously suspicious. That's what they consider to be layering, right there. When they see money move from account, to account, to account they want to know why. They want to know why it's not a direct transaction. Why does it make pit stops along the way? We don't know. The individuals including Mr Kaveladze wouldn't tell us. And bankers and financial examiners are sort of hot on the trail of this.
BS: Last question. I think, you know, a lot of people reading this want to know, what does it mean for the midterms? What does it mean for the Mueller investigation? Do you know?
AC: Anybody who tell... And I say this all the time. Anybody who tells you that they know what Robert Mueller is thinking is going to look like a fool. But we, it is our understanding that people working closely with his team, they are actively investigating these transactions and others in a particular vein. They want to know, number one, was this money used in any way to interfere with the 2016 election? And beyond that they've sort of cracked open a much larger world, this this sort of global, you know, financial web, and as we reported yesterday, IRS agents are investigating now. FBI agents are looking at it not just through the prism of election interference, but possible money laundering, or tax evasion. We're not saying that happened, but they FBI is actively looking at that. I don't think anybody knows whether Mueller is going to issue any more indictments or make any more moves before the midterm, but I would be shocked if he was afraid to do so. I would be surprised if the office of the special counsel frankly gave two dams about the midterms. These guys are...This group, these guys and gals are pretty aggressive it seems.
BS: All right. Well, if you do want to sound like somewhat less of an idiot when you speculate about Bob Mueller, you should be reading Anthony Cormier and Jason Leopold's extraordinary series of scoops on the money trail around Donald Trump, around his associates. Thanks for joining us Anthony.
BS: Thanks Ben. I'll see you soon.
Fake News Quiz — 00:00
Julia Furlan: Jane Lytvynenko, sailor on the Seas of Fake News. Hello. How are you?
Jane Lytvynenko: Hi, I'm losing control of the ship. How are you?
JF: I am swimming, dog-paddling through the ocean. So, you're here as always to give me the fake news quiz. What is on the docket?
JL: Oh! On the docket! I get it. That's because you made a ship metaphor before.
JF: That's right. That's right Jane. That's why we're here.
JL: I understand. All right, we're going to set sail to this quiz.
JF: Oh God.
JL: In Japan, a company selling prank finger slicers accidentally sold real retractable knives. Is that real or fake?
JF: Oh my God. Okay, I'm going to say that this is fake because it is not yet Halloween and this seems like that razor blades in the Apple myth of Halloweening.
JL: Yeah, when I moved to this country, that was the first thing that everybody warned me about on Halloween and I'm like, I can't eat the candy?
JF: It's very weird. Or like drugs in the candy. It seems very sort of like in the vein of these like Halloween myths, and it is barely September and I am not ready for Halloween. I am ready for pumpkin stuff. I don't care. I don't want it. So I'm going to say this is fake.
JL: You are incorrect.
JL: It's real. It’s real.
JF: Oh my God.
JL: So Gizmodo reports that a Japanese... It’s essentially a Japanese equivalent of the dollar store, accidentally sold real slicers instead of fake slicers.
JF: Wait, I have to do another follow-up about this, which is that like... How is it possible that the same company sells prank finger slicers and also real finger slicers? Also, why would they have a real version of this, is my question.
JL: Well, I mean, I don't think that the real knife is meant to slice your fingers. I think it's just a knife for utilities, like opening boxes or I don't know, peeling off painters tape. But they appear to be making both, I guess. So awkward mix up there.
JF: Wow. Did anybody get hurt?
JL: Nobody got hurt. It's all okay, but this is not the first time it's happened.
JF: Oh my gosh. Wow, I have been punked officially.
JL: All right, here comes the next one. As you know, Nike announced last week that Colin Kaepernick would be the new face of their ‘Just do it’ campaign. There's been a lot of backlash. So in light of all of that here's the next question. The University of Alabama cut ties with Nike over the Colin Kaepernick deal. Is that real or fake?
JF: I feel like this is fake because the protests that I've seen have mainly been white people buying Nike things and setting them on fire, or whatever, which is funny because they're already paid for and it's kind of a silly way to protest, but I don't think that it is any longer possible for a large organization to protest Nike. I feel like they may have disagreements or whatever, but I think that like organizationally this Nike thing means that the larger machinations of capitalism or standing by anti-racism. So I'm going to say that is fake.
JL: So congratulations, you're correct!
JF: That's a relief.
JL: You siding with capitalism really took the cake here. So this fake is a really interesting one and it's one that I've been seeing more and more. It started out as a Facebook post of a picture that faked a CBS news headline. It was shared over 30,000 times. It was then picked up on Twitter. A lot of people believed it and started arguing about it as if it's real, but of course, this is not true. So my tip for any screenshots that you see of a headline, is to just Google the headline and share the article instead of the screenshot, because those are easily faked.
JF: Which honestly is just good etiquette, internet etiquette in general.
JL: It is good etiquette.
JF: Give people the information, you know?
JL: Yeah, yeah, give people more context great.
JL: All right. My last question for you is an international one. So we'll see how you do.
JF: Oh God.
JL: A feminist blogger in Russia has been charged for inciting hate toward men. Is that real or fake?
JF: God. Is this real? I feel like this has the sort of like strum of truth to it because I think that being a feminist blogger in Russia is probably a difficult thing to be. I don't know.
What is it?
JL: That's it? You give up? You don't know?
JF: No, I'm going to say it's real.
JL: Okay, you're gonna say it's real. You are correct. It is real and it comes actually as there's been a lot of social media crackdowns in Russia on what people post and sort of persecuting them for that. So this woman who describes herself as a radical feminist, her name's Lyubov Kalugina, she has been charged with inciting hatred toward men on social media. And it comes after an anonymous complaint from a man who said that she hurt his feelings essentially. And she's facing five years in jail for incitement of national racial or religious enmity.
JF: Okay, I mean, I feel like I was excited about the world, sort of like changing little by little towards goodness, in our second question. And now it's confirmed, the world is not ready for real change necessarily. It's just little incremental bits.
JL: Look, if there's one thing you can count on is that I'll always end on a down note.
JF: Thank you, Jane. I appreciate you. Sinking podcasts since 2018.
Highly Recommended — 00:00
Anushka Patil: I highly recommend Victoria season 3. It is this period drama with Jenna Coleman and it is so like peaceful to watch because the news is shit and the world is shit and I just want to watch Jenna Coleman and beautiful dresses like, you know, prancing around her castle.
TAPE: I know that I'm young and some would say my sex puts me at a disadvantage, but I know my duty. And I assure you I'm ready for the great responsibility that lies before me.
Anastasia Weeks: I would like to recommend homegoing. It's a novel by Yaa Gyasi about this woman who had two daughters in Ghana in 18th century and you're able to see how slavery affected both the people in Africa and then also how it affected African-Americans.
Marissa Carrol: A Star is Born starring Lady Gaga directed by Bradley Cooper, the movie event of the year!
TAPE: I don't sing my own songs.
I just don't feel comfortable. Almost every single person has told me they like the way I sounded but they didn't like the way I look.
Bim Adewunmi: So this is very self-congratulatory, but I just did a program on Netflix called follow this. I'm episode 2 and I urge you to watch it because it's all about Black survivalists
TAPE: People of color are not prepared for for disaster. They would have no idea what to do: how to purify water, how to preserve food in case they have to leave the city. And I don't know about you but I don't want to be in the city when shit hits the fan.
This episode was produced by the PodSquad! That’s Megan Detrie, Alex Laughlin, Camila Salazar, Ahmed Ali Akbar, and Julia Furlan. Our boss is Cindy Vanegas-Gesuale, and our music is by Chad Crouch.