Robert Mueller and his staff of fifteen lawyers, and counting, are sniffing around the 2016 Trump campaign looking for a Russia connection. Meanwhile, a clear Russia connection has been identified between Russia and the head of the 2016 Clinton campaign team — John Podesta.
In 2011, a small green-energy company, Joule Unlimited, announced Podesta’s appointment to its board. Months later, Rusnano, a Kremlin-backed investment fund founded by Vladimir Putin, pumped $35 million into Joule. Serving alongside Podesta on Joule’s board were senior Russian official Anatoly Chubais and oligarch Ruben Vardanyan, who has been appointed by Putin to a Russian economic modernization council.
Podesta owned 75,000 shares of Joule stock. When he joined the Obama White House, Podesta transferred his Joule shares to an LLC controlled by his adult children.
After leaving the White House and joining the Clinton campaign, Podesta resumed communicating with Joule and its investors. In fact, he received an invoice from his lawyers in April 2015 — a consent request for Dmitry Akhanov of Rusnano USA to join Joule’s board.
In an interview with Fox News, Podesta contended: “I was on the board of an American company that did business here and only here. The Russian company had a small investment in that company.” It’s true that Joule was based in Massachusetts, but its connection with Russia was clear. Schweizer points out:
While thanking Putin’s Rusnano, [Joule’s CEO and president] said the investment would help support “the development of our global presence” and “complements the company’s expansion plans in Europe, the Middle East, and Mexico.” Moreover, Stichting Joule [one of the three entities that made up Joule International] is itself an overseas entity. Indeed, Rusnano’s investment in Joule was in part to develop a manufacturing facility in Russia.
Tellingly, perhaps, Podesta did not disclose his presence on the board of Dutch-registered Stichting Joule when he went to work for the Obama White House, according to Schweizer.
Podesta told Fox News that Putin’s investment fund represented a “small investment” in Joule. But, says Schweizer, in 2012 the company claimed it had raised $110 million to date. Thus, the Kremlin-backed $35 million investment given to Joule after Podesta’s board appointment represented over 30 percent of Joule’s outside financing.
Schweizer also notes that in 2016, Russia’s largest bank, Sberbank, where Joule board member Reuben Vardanyan formerly served as head of its investment banking division, had a $170,000 lobbying contract with the Podesta Group. The Podesta Group is owned by John Podesta’s brother, Tony Podesta.
In short, Clinton’s top campaign chief and a senior counselor to Obama sat on Joule’s board alongside top Russian officials as Putin’s Kremlin-backed investment fund funneled $35 million into Joule. No one looking at the Podesta fact pattern can claim to care about rooting out Russian collusion and not rigorously investigate the tangle of relationships.
As I see it, though, the election collusion issue isn’t about the past business ties of a candidate, staffer, or “satellite” and a Putin-infected enterprise. These days, such ties will often be found.
The election collusion issue is about an exchange of promises (express or understood) — I’ll help you or your candidate in exchange for favors — or about a campaign coordinating with the Russians in harming the opposing campaign.
The Russians (we think) hacked Podesta’s emails to the detriment of the Clinton campaign. It seems clear enough that Podesta wasn’t colluding with the Russians during the campaign. (Would Podesta’s Russia connection have paved the way for Russian influence in a Clinton administration? We can only speculate.)
But there is also no evidence that the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians during the campaign. Elements within our intelligence community, along with anti-Trump media types, have spent a year looking for such evidence. From all that appears, they have come up empty.
The closest thing I’ve seen to evidence of collusion, as I understand the term, with Russia in a presidential election is President Obama’s assurance to Russia in 2012 that he would be more flexible in dealing with the Russkies after he won. This was followed by Obama’s denial in his debate with Mitt Romney that Russia posed a serious geopolitical threat and by his contracting out aspects of our Syria policy to Putin.
But even here, I’ve seen no evidence that Russia did Obama any favors in exchange for his “flexibility.” That’s actually a sad commentary on Obama. It would be more impressive if Obama had received something in return.
The Russia obsession is a sad commentary on America. We’re acting more like a scared neighbor whose democracy is too weak to withstand Russian influence than like a great power whose democracy has long been the envy of the world.
Unless facts have been uncovered that we don’t know about — an unlikely scenario given all of the leaking surrounding the “collusion” issue — I think it’s time to conclude that “collusion” is a non-issue and “interference” is a very minor one.