On Oct. 21, 2014, Ivanka Trump logged onto Twitter to send a seemingly banal update: "Enjoying a strong coffee and a beautiful view of the sun rising over the Caspian Sea. Good morning from #Baku!"
She was in Azerbaijan that October because, weeks later, the Trump Organization would announce that an apartment tower was about to become the newest addition to the Trump Hotel Collection. There were, however, two problems with the project. The first was that the tower, though nearly completed, never opened. The second is that the building is the focus of serious and credible allegations of money laundering and corruption.
Those allegations are serious and credible because the Trump Organization knowingly partnered with a corrupt family that has likely been entangled in money laundering with a front company that had ties to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. That’s not exactly a string of words you want to use when discussing the president of the United States. But it’s true. The New Yorker’s Adam Davidson has covered Trump Tower Baku extensively — and his reporting has determined that none of these facts are even contested by the Trump Organization. In mid-2015, Trump business officials admitted that they were aware their business partner in Azerbaijan was likely involved in a money-laundering scheme.
Over the weekend, Trump’s money laundering problem got worse. The New York Times reported that anti-money-laundering specialists at Deutsche Bank raised alarm bells about dubious activity in accounts related to Trump and the Kushner family. These specialists recommended notifying federal authorities with suspicious activity reports (or SARs), but no action was taken.
“It’s not a smoking gun,” Oliver Bullough, a reporter with deep expertise in money laundering and the author of “Moneyland,” recently told me. “A crazy number of SARs get sent. ... We’d have to know the contents of the SARs much better before we’d have any sense of what it means.”
However, if the suspicions about the Trump and Kushner accounts are confirmed, it wouldn’t be the first time that Deutsche Bank had seemingly turned a blind eye to dirty cash. The bank is facing serious consequences — including possible prosecution and massive fines — for its alleged role in a multibillion-dollar Russian money-laundering scheme.
None of this really comes as a shock. Trump's company has a long history of dubious behavior, including alleged fraud and cutting corners. And as for money laundering, the journalist Craig Unger wrote an entire book about the Trump Organization's dealings with at least 13 Russians who had known or alleged links to organized crime. Some of them, he notes, "used Trump-branded real estate to launder vast amounts of money by buying multimillion-dollar condos through anonymous shell companies."
And let's not forget that other case that currently haunts the president: the Michael Cohen allegations of hush-money payments the Justice Department said were directed by Individual 1, also known as Donald Trump. Some experts on criminal money laundering prosecutions argue that the Trump Organization could also face criminal prosecution related to those payments for violating the federal money laundering conspiracy statute.
This disturbing pattern doesn't just raise uncomfortable questions for Trump. It should also cause Western democracies to take a long hard look in the mirror. We tend to throw around the word "corruption" in the context of faraway countries, such as Nigeria and Ukraine. But we fail to acknowledge that the scaffolding for corruption, the system that allows it to function, is often headquartered in Europe and the United States.
It's no surprise, for example, that Cohen registered the shady LLC used to pay Stormy Daniels in Delaware, a state that, along with Wyoming and Nevada, has long been notoriously opaque when it comes to allowing the creation of shell companies, which are often used to disguise the origins of dirty money.
And that’s why Bullough says we have a lot of our understanding about corruption backwards, because we mistakenly “define corruption as something that happens in other countries — that it doesn’t happen in the West.” Often, we associate corruption only with the countries where the money is stolen — the Azerbaijans and Equatorial Guineas of the world — while ignoring the places the money ends up. And we do it while turning a blind eye to the businesses and bankers in the West who provide what Bullough calls the “corruption services,” the actual cleaning of the cash.
The allegations against Trump raise seriously disturbing questions about even more potential criminal conduct by the president. But they also shine a light on the culture of malfeasance that plagues our Western societies and leaders. We need to learn an important lesson: Corruption may originate with cookie-cutter villains and cartoonish oligarchs in Moscow, but they're getting away with it with the help of seemingly legitimate banks and seemingly legitimate businesspeople in the Londons and Miamis of the world. And perhaps they have even had a helping hand from a certain real estate tycoon in New York who moved to Washington in January 2017.
Brian Klaas is an assistant professor of global politics at University College London, where he focuses on democracy, authoritarianism, and American politics and foreign policy. He is the co-author of “How to Rig an Election” and the author of “The Despot’s Apprentice” and “The Despot’s Accomplice.”