Trumpageddon may be some way off; a few thoughts on CI and financial crime investigations

A lot of people on my social media streams are getting rather excited about #Trumpageddon and whether we are closing in on an endgame. Are we reaching the point where evidence can build to a point where the political commentary gives way to legal process?

Social and 24/7 media emphasises everything that might be wrong with the Trump Administration (I really want to call it a regime). Global media orgs are busting a gut to proclaim the next exclusive and get as many eyeballs on their variety of portals. It’s becoming something of an arms race; which media org has the hottest of takes?

The story is self nourishing due to the remarkable series of events and the way Trump and his team have attempted to manage the situation. It must be great fun for the journalists covering it, but the way media organisations are jumping on the issue, you’d think that something is going to happen NOW and we have to keep our eyes on their portal to get the news. It’s becoming a commercial driver for them – clicks = $. In my experience $ can effect objectivity.

It’s the same on social media. If you’re of a generally liberal bent, your social media echo chamber is probably full of “this is another nail in the coffin” post. Trump must go. Putin is pulling the strings. etc etc.

However, something that grabs me as a onetime student of intelligence and then spending a career advising post soviet related corporate and financial affairs, is that whilst the dénouement to situations appears to suddenly happen, there’s often a very long gestation period.

This situation could almost be designed as a perfect storm for investigators and prosecutors.

Both CI investigations and international financial corruption are infamous for the time necessary to compile a case that has a good chance meeting the requirements of due process to even get into court, let alone win the case.

It’s worth remembering that we’re not dealing with an average criminal audience. In some of the classic cases (Kim Philby, Aldrich Aymes, BCCI, Enron) the authorities were dealing with an exceptionally sophisticated opposition who were aware of both the minutiae of the relevant law, and how to find loopholes necessary to do what they wanted. They had planned a strategic operation. They considered not only how to make the operation secret and successful, but how to protect themselves in case of hostile penetration (stop sniggering at the back), incompetence or betrayal.

On the financial side, even when investigators / regulators etc are sure that something morally or even legally compromising has happened, it can be very hard to prove in court. International and domestic corporate law allows for multiple layers of entirely legal corporate vehicles and beneficial ownership structures, which consequently make it exceptionally complicated to demonstrate the flow of assets from Mr X to Mr Y. I’ve seen this numerous times in the post soviet space with acquisition of energy or resource assets. Everyone knows that Mr Y is acquiring an asset, but you’d never know from reading the prospectus.

Then there’s the issue of protecting intelligence sources. The WW2 Allies made a conscious decision not to attack certain targets (eg Concentration Camps) to protect the integrity of the crown jewel of Allied Intelligence, “Ultra”; the ability to read German signals traffic in real time. Many CI investigations will get to a point where a decision has to be made about the cost / benefit of going ahead with a case that may risk an intel asset or capability.

So my point is this. Yes, there’s a hell of a lot of circumstantial evidence flying around that makes the Trump Administration look at least incompetent, or a willing fool, or even knowing tool of a hostile foreign actor.

None of this however necessarily means that we are particularly close to a legal / regulatory / political endgame. In a novel or film, corners are cut. People are disappeared in dramatic twists. However, in what appears to be a situation without precedent, the importance of due process cannot be ignored. Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion.

I don’t know whether we’re at the end of the beginning or the start of the middle. Unless things are far more advanced that would appear (and if so, Chapeau to FBI and wider US IC) we are nowhere near the end yet.