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The Latest Kushner Scoop Shows Just How Difficult a Job Robert Mueller Has

Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Jared Kushner listens during an event with technology sector CEOs at the White House on June 19, 2017 in Washington, D.C.

The Washington Post kicked off the week with a long look at the latest shady-seeming financial dealings of the Trump clan: a $285-million loan Jared Kushner’s family business, Kushner Companies, received from Deutsche Bank the month before the 2016 election. The story adds more dots to an already crowded canvas of Trump-themed conflicts of interest and loose links with Russia, but doesn’t draw a line between any two of them in permanent marker. A quick rundown:

  • The loan came as the German bank was in the midst of negotiating settlements with the U.S. Justice Department over a mortgage fraud case, and with New York state regulators on charges related to an apparent Russian money-laundering scheme. (The bank agreed to pay a $7.2-billion federal penalty in December to settle the former, and a $425-million state fine the next month tied to the latter. The feds, however, are reportedly not done investigating the money-laundering case.)
  • Kushner did not list the Deutsche corporate loan—or his own personal guarantee of it—on the financial disclosure form he filed with the Office of Government Ethics after joining the Trump administration as a senior adviser.
  • The loan was part of a refinancing package for Kushner-owned retail space in the former New York Times building in Manhattan. Kushner Companies purchased said space in 2015 from a company called Africa-Israel Investments, the chairman of which was/is Lev Leviev, an Uzbek-born Israeli citizen and one of the world’s wealthiest men. (Nickname: King of Diamonds. Reason: His extensive diamond holdings in Africa, Israel, and Russia.)
  • Leviev told the New York Times in 2007, shortly after his company bought the property from its previous owner, that he was a “true friend” of Vladimir Putin. (His company now claims that statement was made in reference to Leviev’s belief that Putin “has been a ‘true friend’ to the Jewish people in Russia,” and that Leviev “does not have a personal relationship” with the Russian president.)
  • Leviev invited Trump in 2008 to a meeting at one of his New York properties, an invitation he says Trump accepted. The Russian press reported at the time that Leviev hoped to work with Trump on real estate deals in Moscow. (Leviev’s company told the Post that no such deals were ever finalized.)
  • So, yeah, there’s a lot going on in this story, and yet at the same it’s not clear what exactly is going on.

    It’s pretty easy to make the case that the Deutsche Bank loan presents a conflict of interest. Kushner, the First Son-in-Law and powerful White House adviser, has an existing financial relationship with one of the world’s largest banks (as does Trump), which is said to be under investigation by Trump’s DOJ and which generally operates in a marketplace where U.S. regulations can dictate its bottom line. That’s a problem even if Kushner recuses himself from any Deutsch-related matters, as the White House is promising he will. (And the White House has a poor record on promise follow-through.) Still, such a conflict of interest can exist without it necessarily proving we have a quid pro quo situation.

    The timing of the Deutsche loan certainly looks sketchy—but it’s not automatically damning. The Post doesn’t say the exact date it happened, only that it occurred “one month before Election Day.” A strict reading of that description dates the deal to Oct. 8, aka one day after the world heard Trump on tape bragging that one of the perks of being famous is that women let him “grab them by the pussy.” And the smart set saw Trump’s odds narrowing considerably even before that bombshell dropped. For example, his chances peaked in FiveThirtyEight’s polls-plus forecast at 45 percent on Sept. 26, the day of the first general election debate, and then fell by more than 10 points a week for the next two. The fact Trump looked like such a long shot when the deal was finalized makes the case that the loan was politically motivated by either party considerably more difficult to prove without further evidence.

    Even Kushner’s failure to disclose the loan on his OGE form comes with an extenuating factor. Kushner’s lawyers told the Post that the agency’s own guidance didn’t technically require their client to disclose a loan like this one. Keeping it off his filing likely violated the spirit of the law, as one former OGE lawyer suggested it did to the Post, but Kushner appears to have an argument that he followed the letter of it. That doesn’t excuse this administration’s anti-transparency ways, of course, but it does provide ammunition to White House defenders, who already have plenty of practice defending Team Trump on technicalities.

    None of this means this deal doesn’t deserve more scrutiny. It does, and I’m glad the Post and, one assumes, FBI special prosecutor Robert Mueller is giving it a closer look. But my larger point is that this story illustrates just how Herculean of a task Mueller has been given. He’s said to be currently looking into Kushner and his financial history as a part of a broader investigation into Russian meddling in the general election. Given all the overlaps in the interconnected worlds of high finance and real estate—and the size of both the Kushner Companies and the Trump Organization’s portfolios—he’ll have nearly endless avenues to go down looking for such links. That may be both a blessing and a curse, particularly when intent will be so difficult to prove in so many of these dealings.

    Ultimately, Mueller reports to Trump’s DOJ, which means that if he does find the goods on Trump or one of his associates, he’ll almost certainly need the backing of Congress to take action. But as long as Republicans control the legislative branch, they won’t feel pressure to break with their president until their constituents turn on him first. That’s no guarantee in a world where Trump’s wrongdoing is obvious, but it becomes even more difficult to imagine in a world of tenuous ties and transactions that can be difficult to weave into an easy-to-understand narrative, if one exists at all.

    Know anything about a potential conflict of interest in the Trump administration? DM Josh Voorhees on Twitter or email him at josh.voorhees@slate.com.