Newly revealed emails show staffers in the financial crimes unit are concerned the Treasury Department is deliberating trying to obstruct the Senate's Russia investigation.
Since the start of the Russia probe, the phrase "follow the money" has taken center stage — and for good reason.
With such a complex investigation involving a large number of individuals and organizations, scattered bits of evidence, and a variety of confirmed and potential crimes, the money trail is the thread that helps weave all of these pieces together.
Thus, having access to the information needed to follow that trail is considered to be a critical part of the ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and potential coordination with the Trump campaign.
But according to a new report, the U.S. Treasury Department is failing to comply with key inquiries from the Senate Intelligence Committee, leaving investigators without the resources they need to carry out the probe — and some Treasury employees from within the department's financial crimes division fear it could be a deliberate attempt to obstruct the investigation.
Buzzfeed reported on Tuesday that the Treasury Department has delayed and in some cases refused to turn over critical financial records requested by Senate investigators. The department has also refused to provide an expert to help senators understand the complicated money trail, which is what the Treasury Department's financial crimes investigators specialize in.
And according to Buzzfeed, some of the department's own employees are questioning whether the Treasury may be intentionally trying to impede the investigation by delaying and refusing to comply with the committee's requests.
A trove of new emails and interviews obtained by Buzzfeed show that the Treasury Department has systematically put up barriers in response to each new request by the Senate panel for bank records that could reveal key information about the flow of Russian money, and particularly whether any of that money made its way to Trump, his inner circle, or related business interests.
As Buzzfeed notes, the Treasury has been reluctant since the early stages of the Senate probe to comply with investigators' requests for assistance, even when those requests are for records pertaining to information that is crucial to the financial side of the Russia investigation.
"Last year, Treasury rejected the committee’s request for help from one of its experts, even as Treasury officials have speculated — behind closed doors — that the Senate committee would not be able to follow the twisting financial trail laid out in the documents they had turned over, a path that often passes through offshore shell companies or untraceable cash transactions," Buzzfeed reported.
In other words, the Treasury thought the Senate panel wouldn't be able to piece together information from the documents on its own, but the department nonetheless refused to authorize its financial crimes investigators to assist the committee.
Furthermore, emails obtained from within the Treasury Department's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network ("FinCEN") revealed concern among some employees that the Treasury Department as a whole may be trying to sabotage the Senate probe.
Interestingly, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-NC) told Buzzfeed that the committee has received "every financial document" requested from the Treasury Department, but sources inside FinCEN said that even to this day, not all records requested had been turned over to Senate investigators.
Those same sources within FinCEN told BuzzFeed that they were initially instructed not to hand over financial documents on certain U.S. individuals.
Most of the requested information pertains to records that track large financial transactions that may raise suspicions of money laundering or other financial crimes. This information, which is passed from banks to the Treasury Department, is where the Senate Intelligence Committee has focused most of its energy.
These financial documents "play a part of a very important roadmap just like every other piece of evidence," Burr told BuzzFeed. "They tell us whether you turn right or you turn left."
But based on the new report, it appears that senior officials within the Treasury Department, which is run by Steve Mnuchin, may be deliberately trying to thwart efforts to track down the financial records of key players and to make it difficult, if not impossible, to "follow the money."
This revelation is particularly alarming given that the Senate probe is widely viewed as the one congressional Russia investigation that has not been tainted by partisanship or shut down by Trump's allies.
The Senate Intelligence Committee made its first request for information from FinCEN in May 2017, just after then-FBI Director James Comey was fired. According to the Wall Street Journal, Senate investigators asked for all records that may shed light on any financial ties between Trump and Russia, including any relevant information about Trump, his family, his businesses, and his associates.
At the time, NBC News reported that the Senate Intelligence Committee was probing potential investments in Trump’s real estate empire by Russian individuals and those close to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The committee was also looking for evidence of possible money laundering.
But according to Buzzfeed, the Senate panel did not actually ask the Treasury for financial records on Trump or his family members. No clear rationale has been given by Republicans as to why they don't want to look into Trump's finances or seek any records such as tax returns, but it reflects a broader move by Republicans to steer clear of Trump and his family's financial history.
The Senate committee did request financial information on at least 45 people or entities from the Treasury Department, including several of the individuals involved in the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting, as well as former Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak and a number of his associates, a slew of Russian businessmen and bankers, and a few individuals who have not yet been named as part of the Russia investigation.
Senate investigators have also obtained so-called "suspicious activity reports" on several individuals linked to the NRA, including Russian banker Alexander Torshin, alleged Russian spy Mariia Butina, and Butina's boyfriend Paul Erickson, a longtime GOP operative.
According to Buzzfeed, the Senate Intelligence Committee has renewed its unfulfilled requests for information in recent weeks but FinCEN has been slow to respond.
Perhaps while they're waiting they could go ahead and start looking into Trump's financial history, given that we know he has financial ties to Russia — and they're not going to disappear just because Republicans don't want to look.
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.