Welcome back to The Long Version, a newsletter by Jonathan Myerson Katz. Sign up for more!
One of the biggest problems in any election is recency bias. For good evolutionary reasons, we tend to base our decisions more on things that happened recently than things that happened longer ago. Every politician knows this. It’s why Trump, and his skeevy bag man Rudy Giuliani, waited until the last month of the campaign to share the extremely questionable results of the Ukrainian dirt farming expedition that got him impeached a few months ago. (Remember that?)
As many have noted, the point of this maneuver—throwing an as-to-yet unknown ratio of vague and indirect accusations and complete bullshit into the public discourse—is not to accuse anyone of anything concrete. Rather, it is to confuse and distract the American voting public from two related facts:
Americans significantly prefer Joe Biden to Donald Trump, in large part because they consider him more likable, honest, and trustworthy.
Donald Trump is corrupt as hell.
For instance, did you know that Donald Trump was personally involved in an apparent money-laundering scheme with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps?
And that this scheme, which involved contractors being paid with literal duffel bags full of millions of dollars in cash, involved a company owned by IRGC officers tasked with acquiring weapons of mass destruction?
And that this scheme was still going on during and after the 2016 election?
And that the Trump Organization has never denied any of it?
It’s true! We know this thanks to the New Yorker’s Adam Davidson:
Here’s his big story about it, in all its gory detail:
And here’s how Adam summarized it later that year:
For the entire Presidential campaign, the Trump Organization knew that it was actively involved with a company that was likely laundering money for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. This is not a wild conspiracy theory; it is an acknowledged fact, confirmed by Alan Garten, the Trump Organization’s general counsel, and not disputed by the White House or any of the people involved. Ivanka Trump directly oversaw the relationship with the Mammadov family, led by Ziya Mammadov, a man whom American diplomats have called “notoriously corrupt even for Azerbaijan.”
That was part of a brief follow-up story, noting that, when Trump’s Treasury Department listing companies the IRGC was using to evade sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program, they notably did not mention Azarpassillo, the IRGC officer-owned construction company implicated in the Trumps’ apparent money laundering scheme.
The nexus of the money laundering scheme was the Trumps’ planned “Trump Tower Baku,” in the capital city of Azerbaijan—a former Soviet republic on the northern border of Iran. As Davidson reported, Ivanka Trump was the most senior Trump Organization official on the planned hotel. An Azerbaijani lawyer told the New Yorker: “Ivanka personally approved everything.”
Here’s Ivanka bragging on Instagram about being in Baku as part of the project:
There are red flags for days. As Davidson reports, the planned Trump Tower was announced at a time when the occupancy rate for hotels in Baku was around thirty-five percent. It was in a neighborhood of the capital where luxury travelers were unlikely to want to stay, far from other hotels (including the one Ivanka stayed in above).
The main Azerbaijanis involved were relatives of Ziya Mammadov, the country’s Transportation Minister and one of the country’s richest men. In one of the U.S. Embassy cables made public by WikiLeaks in 2010, a U.S. diplomat described Mammadov as “notoriously corrupt even for Azerbaijan.” (No word from WikiLeaks about any further discoveries related to the Trumps' in Baku, but I’m sure they’re out there looking!)
Shortly after the 2016 election, Trump abandoned the deal. The planned Trump Tower Baku was gutted by fire two years later.
Why aren’t we talking about this?
There is no good reason Baku isn’t coming up constantly in the campaign—why it isn’t asked about at every debate and in every interview.
It isn’t like Azerbaijan isn’t in the news. That country is now at war with its neighbor and fellow former Soviet republic, Armenia—a conflict which threatens to draw in Turkey and Russia, as well as Iran. Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with foreign ministers of both countries in Washington today. Trump’s compromising links to the Azerbaijani government are a matter of pressing international concern.
And does anyone remember January, when Trump ordered the illegal assassination of Qasem Soleimani, a senior commander in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps—which, in light of the New Yorker revelations from 2017, may have been a hit on someone with intimate knowledge of some of Trump’s illegal dealings, in the middle of his impeachment?
Part of the reason is narrative. In the 2016 election, Trump established himself in the American imagination as “the racist one,” in supposed contrast to Hillary Clinton’s corruption. Despite the facts that Trump’s corruption was far better established than hers even then—that in the years since, the Trump Foundation was revealed to be a giant scam, and his kids to be comically corrupt, and Trump himself revealed to be an epic tax cheat with a secret bank account in China, etc., etc.—we still haven’t quite gotten past that idea. (For a lot of white Americans, being more openly racist reads as being more honest, which is just telling on themselves.)
Another big reason is the asymmetry of partisan messaging: As is often noted, there is just no equivalent to the right-wing noise machine among liberals or on the left—no billionaire-funded “news” sites ensure that fresh Trump/Baku/Iran content is ginned up daily; no left-wing Murdock empire; no influencer videos surfing on the YouTube and Facebook algorithms.
Which brings me back to recency. It isn’t about the recency of the events themselves. The Trump’s Baku money ring is as recent, and more substantial, than whatever is alleged from Hunter Biden’s purported “laptop from hell.” It’s about the recency of the news—of the last time you heard that Donald Trump was a knowing partner in a likely Iranian money-laundering and WMD acquiring scheme.
Thanks for reading. You can sign up to get this newsletter below. Election day is coming up. Vote as soon as you can.
Jonathan Myerson Katz is a journalist and the author of The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster. His next book will trace the life of Gen. Smedley Butler and the making and breaking of America’s empire. Follow him on Twitter @KatzOnEarth.