Is Donald Trump's Dark Russian Secret Hiding in Deutsche Bank's Vaults?

Donald Trump, presumptive Republican presidential nominee, speaks to members of the media at Trump International Golf Links in Aberdeen, Scotland, on Saturday, June 25, 2016. In an earlier interview, Trump had told The Scotsman newspaper he didn’t have any exposure to the stock market, had bought the Scottish land for cash and was now well placed to build “the world’s greatest golf course.” Matthew Lloyd/Bloomberg/Getty

It sounded like an exhausted parent scolding a tantrum-prone toddler with a penchant for tossing toys from his stroller.

In November 2008, Steven Molo, an attorney for Deutsche Bank, wrote a letter to the Supreme Court of New York about one of the company's most troublesome clients. At issue was $640 million that client had borrowed in 2005 to fund construction of a new hotel in Chicago. The client had personally guaranteed the loan, but a few years later, the Great Recession devastated the economy, and he defaulted on his payment, with $330 million outstanding. Deutsche was seeking an immediate $40 million from the client, plus interest, legal fees and costs.

The debtor in question: Donald Trump, the future president of the United States.

Instead of paying up, the New York real estate mogul countersued, claiming the 2008 crash was a force majeure event—one that Deutsche had helped precipitate. Therefore, he argued, he wasn't obliged to pay back the money. Instead, he claimed Deutsche owed him money—about $3 billion in damages.

In response, Molo drew up a withering document, contrasting Trump's frivolous writ with his long career of boasting about how rich he was:

Trump proclaims himself "the archetypal businessman, a deal-maker without peer." Trump has stated in court he is worth billions of dollars. In addition to substantial cash, personal investments and various other tangible assets, he maintains substantial interests in numerous extraordinary properties in New York and around the country.

Those assets included hotel projects in seven U.S. cities, as well as in Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Canada, Panama and Dubai, United Arab Emirates, the lawyer noted. There were also casinos and golf courses scattered all over the world.

The same day Trump argued that the Great Recession meant he didn't need to pay back his debts, he gave an interview to The Scotsman newspaper. After a two-year fight, he had gotten approval from the Scottish government for a new resort near Balmedie in Aberdeenshire—and he was thrilled. "The world has changed financially, and the banks are all in such trouble," he told the paper, "but the good news is that we are doing very well as a company, and we are in a very, very strong cash position." Trump said he didn't have any exposure to the stock market, had bought the Scottish land for cash and was now well placed to build "the world's greatest golf course." Two weeks later, George Sorial, a Trump Organization executive, assured The Scotsman that the tycoon had a billion dollars earmarked for the course.

If those statements weren't damning enough, Molo's affidavit cited the real estate tycoon's literary works, which summarized his insouciant attitude toward paying back other people's money. Trump, the attorney observed, provided extensive advice on how to do business in his half-dozen or so books. In How to Get Rich, Trump advises readers to use the courts to "be strategically dramatic." In Think Big and Kick Ass in Business and in Life, he boasts of how he "love[s] to crush the other side and take the benefits." Trump's strategy—honed during his terrible financial struggles with lenders during the 1990s—"was to turn it back on the banks…. I figured it was the bank's problem, not mine," Molo quoted him as saying, in connection with unpaid debt.

As a result of these maneuvers, by the mid-2000s, U.S. financial institutions had stopped lending to Trump for his building projects. Deutsche was the only one still willing to work with him.

After Trump burned the bank, Deutsche shunned him as well. But Trump soon found a creative way to get off its blacklist—and return to solvency.

'Are You Fucking Kidding Me?'

Two years after Molo wrote his letter to the court, Trump settled his feud with the German bank. How he did it was bizarre: He paid back Deutsche with a massive lifeline—from Deutsche. Only this time he eschewed its real estate team—which wanted nothing to do with him—and got a loan from its private wealth division. This group typically deals with high-net-worth individuals, not real estate transactions, but in 2010 it not only lent him the money he owed its real estate team but also reportedly gave Trump another $25 million to $50 million in credit.

Deutsche employees in New York were surprised by the bank's decision. When asked whether it was normal to give more money to a customer who was a bad credit risk and liked to sue, one former senior staff member at the bank put it succinctly: "Are you fucking kidding me?"

Over the next few years, the money kept rolling in for Trump. He took out two mortgages against a resort in Miami and a $170 million loan to finish his hotel in Washington, D.C. According to Bloomberg, by the time Trump was elected president of the United States in November 2016, he owed Deutsche around $300 million, an unprecedented debt for an incoming president. (His June financial disclosure showed he owes the bank $130 million, which is due in full in 2024.)

The loans to Trump weren't the only abnormal behavior at Deutsche. Around the same time he received his new line of credit, the bank was laundering money, according to the New York State Department of Financial Services (DFS). Russian money. Billions of dollars that flowed from Moscow to London, then from London to New York—part of a scheme for which European and American regulators eventually punished the bank.

FE_Deutsche Bank_02_687193180_ret_V3
Real estate developer and president-elect Donald Trump poses for portrait at his office at Trump Tower, in New York, on November 21, 2016. David Hume Kennerly/Getty

Was the timing of this illicit operation and the loans to Trump coincidental? Or evidence of something more sinister—a critical chapter in the president's long history of suspicious business deals with Russian and post-Soviet oligarchs? In January, Trump claimed the former, tweeting in his usual bombastic style: "I have nothing to do with Russia—no deals, no loans, no nothing." But the president's refusal to accept the assessment of his intelligence agencies—that Moscow meddled in the 2016 election—has, among other things, fueled suspicions about his ties to Russia.

Robert Mueller is now trying to find out the truth about those suspicions. The special counsel is investigating Russian interference—from the hacking of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) to alleged coordination between the Trump campaign and Moscow. So far, his team has charged key Trump campaign officials Paul Manafort and Rick Gates with money laundering, as well as other offenses. He's also gotten two former advisers, Michael Flynn and George Papadopoulos, to plead guilty to lying to the FBI and cooperate with the probe.

Now, however, Mueller appears to be following the money, trying to determine if Trump has a financial connection to Russia—one that might at least partly explain his behavior. In December, the German newspaper Handelsblatt reported that the special counsel's office has subpoenaed Deutsche Bank, demanding data and documents related to people or entities tied to the president and those close to him. The White House says the subpoena doesn't directly pertain to Trump or his family's accounts. But if the president has a dark Russian secret, the German banking giant's money-laundering scandal may be key to finding out what it is.

Friends With Kremlin Benefits

The story of how Deutsche became embroiled in the Trump-Russia probe dates back to 2005, when the German lender bought UFG, a boutique investment bank, to acquire an entry point into Moscow. UFG's co-founder and chairman was Charles Ryan, a charming American banker with libertarian views. Ryan's partner was Boris Fyodorov, a finance minister under former Russian President Boris Yeltsin. The bank straddled West and East, and was international and local.

The man behind Deutsche Bank's aggressive expansion was Anshu Jain, its future co-CEO. He persuaded Ryan to stay on and head up Deutsche's new Moscow office, and he came up with a controversial strategy to tap into potentially huge Russian profits: forge relationships with state partners. He wanted, in effect, to become friends with the Kremlin. One way of doing this was to hire people with connections. Among them: Russia's most powerful banker, Andrey Kostin, who had served as a Soviet diplomat in Sydney and London. (Intelligence sources think he was a KGB spy. Like many others who spoke to me for this story, they did so anonymously because they weren't authorized to talk to the press.) In the 1990s, he became head of Vnesheconombank (VEB), a state development institution described by one former CIA analyst as the "Kremlin's cookie jar." Then Vladimir Putin made Kostin head of Vneshtorgbank (VTB), another state-run bank, after which Kostin expanded it to operate in 19 countries.

VTB worked in many countries with minimal oversight, which meant the Kremlin could use it for espionage. In 2005, VTB absorbed two banks traditionally used in Soviet times for spying and shifting currency to Western communist parties. These were the Moscow Narodny Bank, based in London, and Euro-bank, in Paris.

Meanwhile, Jain and Deutsche Bank recruited Kostin's 20-something son, Andrey. In spring of 2007, the young Kostin moved from a posting in London to Deutsche Bank in Moscow.

Suddenly, Kostin's son got massive flows of business, a high-level banking source told me. And it appeared his father may have helped: Deutsche did a series of lucrative trades with VTB. According to the source, the German bank's Moscow subsidiary began posting profits of $500 million to $1 billion a year, with VTB generating somewhere between 50 and 80 percent of all revenue.

FE_Deutsche Bank_03_610887558_ret_V3
Anshu Jain, the former co-chief executive officer of Deutsche Bank AG, poses for a photograph at the Bloomberg Markets Most Influential Summit in London, on Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2016. Jain came up with a controversial strategy to tap into potentially huge Russian profits: forge relationships with state partners. He wanted, in effect, to become friends with the Kremlin. Jason Alden/Bloomberg/Getty

Other investment banks based in Moscow were chagrined and suspected that Deutsche owed its success to its alliance with Russian state interests. "They were doing some very curious things," says Christopher Barter, the CEO of Goldman Sachs Moscow at the time. "Nobody could make sense of their business. We found the nature and concentration of their business with VTB quite galling. Nobody else could touch VTB."

Everyone in Moscow understood that VTB was more than a bank. It had ties to Russian intelligence. Putin's Federal Security Service (FSB) spy chief, Nikolai Patrushev, and his successor, Alexander Bortnikov, both sent their sons to work at VTB. The bank's deputy chief executive, Vasily Titov, chaired the FSB's public council.

VTB may have also had contacts with Trump associates, according to The New York Times. In November 2015, a few months after Trump announced he was running for president, one of his business partners, Felix Sater, wrote an email to Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, saying VTB had agreed to bankroll a Trump Tower Moscow project. Trump signed a letter of intent for the deal. When the project stalled, Cohen tried reaching out to Putin's spokesperson, Dmitri Peskov, to help jump-start it. But it ultimately failed.

Kostin, the VTB banker, says he doesn't know Sater and never had any role in the real estate deal. "We never, ever heard about this case," he told the Times. "It's absolutely wrong information; it's absolutely fake news."

During those negotiations, Sater—the son of a Russian mafia boss—saw things differently. "Our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it," he wrote to Cohen about the Trump Tower Moscow plans. "I will get all of Putin's team to buy in on this, I will manage this process."

Shady Trades and Endless Vodka Shots

Well before Sater went looking for a deal there, the Russian capital was awash with petrodollars and opportunity. At the start of the new millennium, Moscow was an alluring destination for Western expatriates. Especially for young single males. There were the devushki—long-legged Russian girls, some from Moscow, some newly arrived from the provinces—who were keen to meet foreigners and practice their English. There were the nightclubs, the parties, fueled by toasts and endless vodka shots. And the friendships, always more intense than those at home.

But there was a dark side to this new Russia—as one of those attracted by its offer of riches discovered. Tim Wiswell grew up in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, about 100 miles northeast of New York City. He was more of a repatriate than an expat: His father had worked in oil and gas in Russia. When he was 17, Wiswell spent a year at the Anglo-American School in Moscow and then returned to the United States for college. In his mid-20s, Wiswell went back to Moscow and got a job with Alfa, the private bank owned by the oligarch Mikhail Fridman. From there, he moved to Deutsche Bank. By age 29, he was head of Russian equities. He found a Russian girlfriend—Natalia Makosiy, an art historian whom he met at a Moscow dinner party and later married.

In the wake of the 2007-2008 crash, profits from the bank's Russian business plummeted. Traders were now under pressure to increase revenue. But after Wiswell took over around 2009, business was suddenly improving. And Barter suspects that "something nefarious" was going on at Deutsche during that time period.

After the crash, Barter says, he was approached by "broker types, not very senior," seeking to do large, unexplained volumes of trades with Goldman Sachs. These were on behalf of major Russian clients. The brokers declined to identify their counterparties. Their names were concealed beneath "shell company after shell company," Barter says, making a due diligence impossible. He turned this business down "in five seconds."

The same entities approached Wiswell and company, and got better results. Between 2011 and February 2015, Wiswell presided over a money-laundering scheme run from the equities desk of Deutsche Bank's Moscow office, according to a report from the DFS, and more than $10 billion was shifted from Russia to the West.

The method was simple but effective. In Moscow, a Russian client bought blue-chip Russian stocks from Deutsche Bank Moscow in companies like Gazprom or Sberbank. The payments were in rubles. The size of a typical order was $2 million to $3 million. Shortly afterward, a non-Russian "customer" sold exactly the same number of securities to Deutsche Bank in London, paying in dollars.

Deutsche Bank AG’s regional head office on Wall Street. Deutsche Bank sued Donald Trump in 2008 for defaulting on a $640 million loan. Deutsche later bailed Trump out through its own private wealth division. Ullstein Bild/Getty

There was no economic logic to these "mirror trades," the DFS report found. The buyers and sellers were ostensibly different, but in reality, one in the same. At least 12 entities used the scheme to surreptitiously convert rubles into dollars. The money was interred in offshore accounts. Those involved moved billions out of one Deutsche location in Moscow to another location in New York through offshore territories such as Cyprus and the British Virgin Islands. There were nearly 6,000 of such transactions, and nobody in New York, London, Frankfurt or any other international financial centers seemed to notice.

When outsiders raised concerns—like a European bank, for example—Wiswell swatted them aside. The DFS report said he told the European bank not to worry. Wiswell approved the trades with anonymous Russian clients. He "threatened" and browbeat his colleagues on several occasions, a New York regulator said, according to the report, "when it appeared they had not moved quickly enough to facilitate transactions."

In Moscow, Wiswell's 20-person equities desk was made up of Russians and Americans. One of its duties was to keep clients happy. That might mean extravagant skiing trips and visits to elite nightclubs. One of Wiswell's business (and skiing) partners was Dmitry Perevalov, the owner of a Moscow fund called Lanturno. About seven years ago, for his 40th birthday, Perevalov flew a group of people on a private jet to Mauritius. The jet belonged to the Russian Orthodox Church's most important bishop, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, but Perevalov chartered it for the occasion. His guests stayed at the luxurious Four Seasons hotel in Anahita, on the east coast of the Indian Ocean island. Some invitees scarcely knew their host, a former bartender. Those who were his friends—including Wiswell—called him Dima.

One guest who met Wiswell at the party described him as charismatic and charming, a tall, handsome, all-American guy. This person also said Wiswell came across as a "major lightweight" in terms of banking and finance. "He had nothing special going for him. I remember him speaking pretty poor Russian. We wondered whether he was doing kosher business."

Perevalov flew in a popular performer to crown his birthday celebration—the Russian rapper Timati, who gave a concert. Under a starry sky, guests danced to Timati's hit "Welcome to St. Tropez":

Too much money in the bank account

Hands in the air

Make you scream and shout

Drinks, private villas, waterskiing in the lagoon—everything was taken care of. "I was wondering: Who the fuck is paying for all this?" the guest told me. "It was crazy."

Lightweight or not, Wiswell was getting rich. While the mirror trades were happening, Wiswell's wife became the owner of two offshore companies—one in the British Virgin Islands, one in Cyprus. In 2015, a counterparty paid $250,000 into her account. This was for "financial consulting." Similar payments, totaling $3.8 million, were made through two companies in Belize. These payments were "undisclosed compensation," the DFS found—"a bribe." Which bank cleared them? Deutsche Bank in New York.

Andrey Kostin, chief executive officer of VTB Bank PJSC, poses for a photograph following a Bloomberg Television interview in Davos, Switzerland, on January 20, 2016. Russia’s most powerful banker, Kostin, had served as a Soviet diplomat in Sydney and London. (Intelligence sources think he was a KGB spy.) Vladimir Putin made Kostin head of state-run VTB Bank, after which Kostin expanded it to operate in 19 countries. Simon Dawson/Bloomberg/Getty

According to journalist Ed Caesar, there were further payments made to the Wiswells. The idea of the money was "to hook you, so you are not going to do unexpected things," one Moscow broker told Caesar in an article published in The New Yorker. These payments were always made in cash and always delivered in a bag.

The end of this scheme came in August 2015, when Deutsche Bank suspended Wiswell and then fired him. After that, he disappeared. There were Facebook postings from Southeast Asia and Bali, where the Wiswells went with their two small children. (He is now allegedly back in Moscow.) His lawyer, Ekaterina Dukhina, declined to comment on his case, but in his wrongful-dismissal suit against Deutsche, Wiswell said he was merely the fall guy for the bank's wrongdoing. He also claimed that around 20 colleagues, including two senior managers in London, knew all about the trades.

The scandal was a grievous blow to Deutsche Bank's reputation. And an expensive one. About 10 days before Trump's inauguration, the DFS—which has the power to suspend any bank with a branch in New York—fined the bank $475 million. London's Financial Conduct Authority imposed a £163 million ($218 million) penalty. (The Justice Department and the U.S. Attorney's Office in the Southern District of New York are still investigating the bank's role in the scandal.

The bank carried out an internal review, which didn't identify the Russians behind the scheme. It's still unclear who they were or where the billions went. Or where the money came from in the first place.

What is clear, however, from the DFS report and conversations with sources in Moscow is that a Kremlin bank, VTB, run by proxies of the FSB, had seemingly captured Deutsche Bank's Moscow outpost. The German bank's London and New York divisions were economic beneficiaries of this arrangement, as they facilitated the illegal flight of capital by some well-connected Kremlin insiders.

While this was going on, Deutsche Bank in New York was lending hundreds of millions of dollars to the future American president, a man known to be litigious and a credit risk. My Guardian colleague Nick Hopkins and I wanted to find out if Trump's loans and the money-laundering scandal were connected. But Deutsche Bank stonewalled us; its policy was to say nothing about its clients, including the president.

The Russian Laundromat

In late 2016, that question and others led Hopkins and me to a man now at the center of Mueller's inquiry: Christopher Steele. This was before the world knew he was behind the famous dossier, raw intelligence alleging, among other things, that Russian intelligence had years of compromising information on Trump, some of it sexual in nature. Hopkins knew Steele, but neither of us were aware of what he was sitting on in that dossier.

We met on a Thursday afternoon, weeks before Christmas, when London's streets were crowded with shoppers. Steele had agreed to chat over 4 o'clock tea. We tried a café and wine bar called Balls Brothers—and found a tucked-away table. I went to the bar and came back with drinks: beer for Steele, Coke for Nick, pot of tea for me.

Steele clearly likes being in the shadows, away from publicity or fuss. In the world of corporate intelligence, the fewer people who know what you are doing, the better. "Have you heard of me?" he asked.

I confessed I hadn't. I knew most of the people in London who were focused on Russia, but not Steele.

"Good," he said. "That's how I like it."

For the next 45 minutes or so, we asked Steele about Trump's connections to Moscow. He offered helpful hints about following the money but little more.

In addition to questions about Deutsche Bank, we inquired about another Russian money-laundering operation, one that involved Putin's cousin Igor. Between 2010 and 2014, Moscow bankers were sending cash out of the country through something called the Global Laundromat—a scheme that cleaned at least $20 billion, according to investigators in Moldova and the Balkans, though the true figure may be much greater.

This is how it worked: Shell companies in the United Kingdom "lent" money to one another, at least on paper. Russian businesses underwrote these "loans." Company A would default on paying back Company B. Typically, a Moldovan citizen was involved. The companies would obtain a court judgment in Moldova asking the Russian firms to settle the debt. And voilà! The Russian businesses would legally transfer hundreds of millions of dollars to a bank in Moldova's capital, Chisinau. From Chisinau, the money went to a bank in Latvia, Trasta Komercbanka. From there, the cash went everywhere, to 92 countries, much of it vanishing offshore.

The Latvian bank required a corresponding Western financial institution to process its dollar-denominated transactions. Most U.S. banks, including JPMorgan Chase, refused to offer banking services to Trasta, given the city of Riga's reputation as a European money-laundering hub. Only two Western banks agreed, according to Moldovan and Latvian investigators. Both were German: Deutsche Bank and Commerzbank. Once again, Deutsche was the entry point for criminal Russian money into the global financial system, the investigators found. (The bank severed its relationship with Trasta shortly before Latvian officials shut down the bank in 2016 for money laundering.) According to the DFS, Deutsche was reluctant to classify Russia as a "high-risk" location for money laundering.

Sergei Gorkov, chairman of Vnesheconombank (VEB Bank), which Andrey Kostin had run and whom Putin had promoted. Gorkov met directly with Jared Kushner in New York. Dmitry Astakhov/TASS/Getty

When Hopkins and I asked Deutsche Bank about the scandal, we were rebuffed. So we talked to current and former Deutsche Bank staff. According to one senior ex-employee, who worked in equities in Asia and New York, the bank's problems went way beyond these scams. The 2008 crash hit Deutsche Bank hard, the employee said. In order to cover up holes in the balance sheet, a few members of staff took part in risky, complex and possibly illegitimate forms of finance. These practices were extensive, the person alleged. They might have involved innovative and opaque ways of getting outside parties to underwrite risky loans, the banker added, using structures to disguise who ultimately are the lenders and the beneficiaries.

Such impenetrable structures have led some to wonder whether Deutsche's unusual loans to Trump and its Russian money-laundering schemes were connected.

Adding to the intrigue: the statements of Trump's own children. In May, for instance, golf writer James Dodson said that during an interview more than three years ago, Trump's son Eric boasted that his father's company had access to Russian money. "We don't rely on American banks," Dodson said Trump told him. "We have all the funding we need out of Russia." (Eric Trump later denied he made this claim.) Years earlier, at a real estate conference in 2008, Donald Trump Jr. said, "Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets." He later added, "We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia."

In an interview with Prospect magazine, Richard Dearlove, the former head of British secret intelligence service MI6, summed up the suspicions surrounding the alleged connection between Trump, Russia and Deutsche Bank. "What lingers for Trump may be what deals—on what terms—he did after the financial crisis of 2008 to borrow Russian money when others in the West would not lend to him."

According to our sources inside Deutsche Bank, Trump's bid to become president made him a politically exposed person, or PEP. Banks scrutinize such individuals carefully because they're often targets for illicit financial schemes. Deutsche reviewed its lending to Trump and his relatives. Its goal was to discover if there was a Russian connection to Trump's loans. The DFS also requested information from the bank about its dealings with Russia. The sources were vague about the review, who carried it out and what its precise conclusions were. But they insist that no trail to Moscow was ever discovered.

Other sources suggest the review was cursory, but Deutsche hasn't released any information about it, so there's no way to evaluate either claim. Meanwhile, Trump refuses to release his tax filings, breaking decades of precedent.

Over the past year, U.S. lawmakers such as Maxine Waters, the top Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee, have urged the bank to privately hand over its internal review—along with information about Trump's accounts—but Deutsche declined to do so, citing privacy rules.

Now, nearly a year after BuzzFeed published Steele's dossier, the bank is handing records over to Mueller, as the special counsel tries to figure out if there is a connection between the Russian laundromat and the president of the United States.

They Went to Jared

The special counsel's inquiry could also reach people in Trump's orbit. Many were clients of Deutsche Bank—and also credit risks. Among them is Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law, who is trying to salvage a massive—and reportedly imperiled—investment in 666 Fifth Avenue, a prominent piece of Manhattan real estate. His relationship with Deutsche emerged in 2013, when he apparently ordered a flattering profile of Trump's wealth manager, Rosemary Vrablic, by his newspaper, The New York Observer.

In a letter this spring to Bill Woodley, Deutsche Bank's U.S. CEO, Senator Chris Van Hollen expressed concerns about the bank's lending to Kushner, who had a $25 million line of credit with the German institution. In October 2016, it loaned him $285 million. The cash was used to replace an existing loan on the old New York Times building, which Kushner had bought the previous year from Lev Leviev, a businessman from the former Soviet Union.

The bank made the loan at a time when Kremlin representatives were eager to speak to Trump's son-in-law, according to a timeline laid out in Kushner's testimony to Congress. In April, he first met Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador, when Trump gave his foreign policy speech at D.C.'s Mayflower Hotel—just a handshake and pleasantries, Kushner said. Next came a meeting at Trump Tower with Natalia Veselnitskaya, the Moscow lawyer who sat down with Kushner, Manafort and Trump Jr. They talked about dirt on Hillary Clinton and repealing the Magnitsky Act, an Obama-era law that leveled sanctions against Russians accused of human rights abuses. Then, on November 16, Kislyak got in touch again. By this point, it was clear that Kushner would become senior adviser to the president.

There was another Kushner-Kislyak meeting, on December 1 at Trump Tower. Flynn, Trump's adviser, was present too, as Kushner made an unusual proposal: He asked Kislyak if it would be possible to set up a secret and secure communications channel between the Trump transition team and the Kremlin. The purpose, it seems, was to keep their conversations hidden from the outgoing Obama administration and U.S. intelligence. Could this be done, Kushner wondered, by using Russian diplomatic facilities in the United States? The inquiry was staggeringly naïve. If Kushner or Flynn were to drop by the Russian Embassy, U.S. intelligence would certainly notice.

The FBI hadn't bugged that conversation but learned of it when Kislyak reported to his superiors back in Moscow. According to FBI intercepts of those Russian communications, Kislyak was taken aback by Kushner's request. It was unlikely Moscow would allow any American to use its encrypted networks. The Trump transition team said nothing about these secret negotiations. One person who knew the details was so alarmed he sent The Washington Post an anonymous note about it, explaining what had happened.

Russia, it seemed, didn't need to expend much effort to get close to Trump's aides. Kislyak came up with a suggestion of his own, according to Kushner's testimony. Perhaps Kushner would like to meet with another person from Moscow, someone with "a direct relationship" to Putin?

During a meeting between Kislyak and Kushner's assistant, Avi Berkowitz, on December 12, they agreed on the details of this meeting. Putin's emissary turned out to be a banker, or, more accurately, a banker-spy. His name was Sergey Gorkov, and he was the head of VEB, the state development bank, which Kostin had run, and whose board Putin had chaired during his four years as prime minister. He had trained in the 1990s at the FSB's academy before joining energy company Yukos and state-run Sberbank. Like VTB, Sberbank was allegedly an arm of the Kremlin. It was the official sponsor of the 2013 Miss Universe contest in Moscow, attended by Trump and hosted by Emin Agalarov, the pop-star son of Aras Agalarov, who worked with Trump to bring the pageant to Russia. Eight days after the contest, Sberbank announced it was lending Agalarov $1.3 billion to finance new projects. One of those under consideration was Trump Tower Moscow. In February 2016, Putin promoted Gorkov to VEB chief.

Deutsche Bank loaned Jared Kushner $285 million to replace an existing loan on the old New York Times building, which Kushner had bought from Lev Leviev, a businessman from the former Soviet Union. The bank made the loan at a time when Kremlin representatives were eager to speak to Trump’s son-in-law. Zach Gibson/Pool/Getty

The bank's mission was to support Moscow's political programs. It provided capital to build facilities at the Sochi Olympics and fund secessionist rebels in eastern Ukraine. These top-down ventures lost money. VEB had large debts. The United States had included VEB, VTB and Sberbank in the sanctions it passed in 2014 after Putin annexed Crimea. And Gorkov's job was to restore the bank's fortunes.

Gorkov was well prepared for his meeting with Kushner. He was, after all, a graduate of the Dzerzhinsky Higher School, a KGB training center. He flew in from Moscow bearing gifts. Among them: soil from the town of Novogrudok in northwest Belarus, where Kushner's paternal grandmother grew up. In 1941, the German army arrived, and the town's Jewish inhabitants were rounded up and forced to live and work in an agricultural college. Around half were executed. The survivors dug a tunnel, and in September 1943 they crawled out, fleeing into the forest.

This information and much more would have been included in the FSB's Kushner file. Gorkov's presents were chosen to remind the young Trump adviser of his origins in a part of the world that once belonged to the Soviet Union, and of his spiritual roots. (This subtlety was wasted. In his written testimony to Congress, Kushner said Putin's messenger had given him a "bag of dirt." It came from "Nvgorod," he wrote, spelling his grandmother's birthplace incorrectly.)

This meeting occurred on December 13, and according to Kushner, Gorkov introduced himself and "made some statements about the Russian economy." The banker said he was friendly with Putin, expressed disappointment about the state of U.S.-Russian relations under President Barack Obama and "his hopes for a better relationship" in the future, Kushner told congressional committees.

There was no discussion of lifting sanctions, Kushner said. Nor was he offered any commercial deals. Kushner characterized the encounter as brief, meaningless. But there's no official record of what was said in the meeting, so this is hard to verify. After all, it was difficult to discuss the Russian economy without mentioning its depressed state. Gorkov then flew directly from New York to Japan, where Putin was attending a summit. He would likely have reported the details of the meeting then.

Kushner's official account to Congress on his dealings with Kremlin representatives is 11 pages long. It's a flat, sterile document, clearly reviewed by his lawyers. In his version, there was no wrongdoing, just a series of inconsequential meetings during a hectic campaign. Kushner said in written evidence to Congress that he even forgot Kislyak's name. There was no secret channel. Nor did he rely on "Russian funds" to finance his business. In short, a nothing burger with Russian dressing.

Despite these protestations, it's clear Russian intelligence found it easy to access Trump's inner circle. Ambassadors, lawyers, bankers...all made their way to Trump Tower in 2016. All were welcomed and listened to. Gorkov was part of them, but the cast also included Kislyak, Veselnitskaya and the Agalarovs and other unknown actors working behind the scenes.

Targeting Kushner was logical. He was soon to become a federal employee. His White House portfolio included tax policy, the military and international affairs. In a protean White House—where anyone could be fired—Kushner's status as the president's son-in-law made him unfireable.

During his meetings with Russians, Kushner apparently said nothing about Moscow's attack on American democracy during the presidential campaign, nothing about hacking the Democratic National Committee or circulating fake news on Facebook, Twitter and other platforms. He also kept his meetings with the Russians secret. So did the Trump administration. In his security clearance form, Kushner didn't mention Gorkov or Kislyak. (Kushner said this was an accident, an administrative error by an underling.)

The American public found out about these meetings only because of a steady stream of leaks—leaks that would eventually offer Mueller some important clues.

Ursa Major

Today, the questions Mueller is asking seem to be the same questions that led us to meet with Christopher Steele last year. Namely: Was Trump hiding a connection to Russian money? And if so, was Moscow blackmailing him with that information? And how?

On the campaign trail—and well before he became a candidate—Trump's praise of Putin was effusive and unwavering. He called him a strong leader and claimed they'd spoken and gotten along well. His fidelity to Russia's president has continued in the White House, even as he lambasted other world leaders, turned on aides and allies, fired the head of the FBI and publicly humiliated his attorney general. Shunning Putin would have been the savvy political move, but he has refused to do so.

Robert Mueller, then FBI director, testifies during a hearing of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Subcommittee on Capitol Hill, on May 16, 2013. Mueller appears to be following the money, trying to determine if Trump has a financial connection to Russia. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty

Republicans have criticized Steele's dossier because the DNC and Clinton campaign helped pay for it. But the document offers a compelling explanation for the president's unusual behavior vis-à-vis Russia. First, there was Moscow's alleged kompromat operation against Trump going back three decades. If the president had indulged in compromising behavior, whether sexual or otherwise, Putin likely knew of it. Second, there was the cash from Russian oligarchs that went into Trump's real estate ventures—and the prospect of a lucrative deal to build a hotel and tower in Moscow, a project that was still being negotiated as Trump addressed adoring crowds on the campaign trial. Finally, there were the Deutsche Bank loans that rescued Trump after the crash. They had come from a bank that was simultaneously laundering billions of dollars of Russian money. (Though parts of Steele's dossier remain unverified, some of his claims have been substantiated. The former spy told his friends he believes the document is about 70 to 90 percent accurate.)

And then there are the people in the president's inner circle. Wherever you look, there is a link to Russia. His pick for secretary of state? Rex Tillerson, a figure known and trusted in Moscow, and recipient of the country's Order of Friendship. Former national security adviser? Flynn, a beneficiary of undeclared Russian money. Campaign manager? Manafort, longtime confidant to ex–Soviet oligarchs. Foreign policy adviser? Carter Page, whom Russia tried to recruit as a spy. Commerce secretary? Wilbur Ross, an entrepreneur with Russia-connected investments. Personal lawyer? Cohen, who sent emails to Putin's press secretary. Business partner? Sater, who sent Flynn a plan to lift Russian sanctions. And so on.

It was almost as if Putin had picked Trump's Cabinet. The U.S. president, of course, did the choosing, but the pattern of all these individuals, and their alignment with Russian interests, forms a constellation. Call it Ursa Major. A big Russian bear Robert Mueller is now hunting—at Deutsche Bank and beyond.

This article was adapted from Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money, and How Russia Helped Trump Win by Luke Harding. Copyright © 2017 by Luke Harding. Reprinted by permission of Vintage, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.