Russian Money, Hush-hush Meetings and One Israeli's Attempt to Bring Down Trump

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Supporters hold up their hats during a rally held by President Donald Trump in Nashville, Tennessee on March 15, 2017.
Supporters hold up their hats during a rally held by President Donald Trump in Nashville, Tennessee on March 15, 2017.Credit: Andrea Morales/AFP

Two Israelis are at the center of a scam aimed at damaging U.S. President Donald Trump using fake documents detailed in an investigative report on the Buzzfeed website. The 35 pages of documents were meant to show that Exxon funneled $1.6 billion dollars to the Trump Organization last June, using a Chinese company as a go-between.  

The dossier was purchased in Italy in January by Israeli journalist and political operative Yoni Ariel at the behest of Democratic political activists in the U.S. The implication of the narrative, had the documents been real, would have been that the U.S. president was somehow bribed to choose Exxon’s CEO, Rex Tillerson, as secretary of state, possibly at Russian behest.

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Sheldon Schorer, an attorney and former chair and legal counsel for Democrats Abroad-Israel, is credited in the article for passing on the tip that led to the purchase of the documents in Italy by Ariel. Schorer told Haaretz that it “came as a very big surprise” to him to learn that the documents were forgeries and that the cash transfers they documented never happened.

Ariel said that he, too, believed that the documents were genuine and was angered that the Buzzfeed piece implied he deliberately represented forged documents as being real.

“I would never knowingly try to disseminate something that I knew was fake as true,” he said, charging that Buzzfeed, disappointed when the documents didn’t amount to a scoop that could make a real impact that would damage Trump,  “decided to get creative because they desperately wanted something juicy - and published this piece of shit.”

The long and complicated investigative story, headlined “The 1.6 Billion Dollar Hoax,” was published in Buzzfeed on Thursday, and opens with a scene in early January in which “an Israeli named Yoni Ariel flew from Tel Aviv to Rome carrying $9,000 in cash on a secret mission to bring down Donald Trump.”

The documents, the story related, turned out to have been an example of what has become a “burgeoning market for potentially damaging information about President Trump and his associates.”

It was in Rome, the story says, that Ariel paid an Italian businessman who supplied him with the documents. When Buzzfeed sent the details of the documents and emails to the financial institutions that supposedly transferred the money in the deals - JP Morgan Chase and HSBC - the banks responded that they had no records of such transactions and that some of the details of at least one of the documents revealed it was a forgery. The money transfers in question supposedly happened concurrently with a meeting between Exxon CEO and current Secretary of State Tillerson and Russian president Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg, implying that Exxon and Russia were somehow conspiring to bribe Trump to name Tillerson to his position, reported Buzzfeed.

Ariel, a former South African living in Israel who purchased the documents in Italy, is also known as Jonathan Schwartz. He describes himself  to Haaretz in an interview as a journalist, a start-up entrepreneur and a consultant on cybermedia warfare. He currently works as an editor on the news site Tazpit as well as publishing opinion pieces in Jerusalem Online.

U.S. President Donald Trump delivers remarks at the American Center for Mobility for American Manufactured Vehicles in Ypsilanti Township, Michigan, U.S. March 15, 2017. Credit: JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS

According to the Buzzfeed article, Ariel  “referred repeatedly to what he said was his experience in international espionage,” and said that as a South African anti-apartheid activist he took part in “political subversion” as well as claiming “credit for unearthing a number of political scandals” in Israel when they interviewed him.

Ariel’s name hit the news in Israel as a Labor party activist alleging that then-party leader Shelly Yacimovich violated campaign funding laws by appointing donors to senior party posts, charges that sparked a police investigation in 2013. He also told Haaretz that he was involved in the investigation of the Cyril Kern affair as a journalist in 2003, which led him to being arrested by the Shin Bet, allegedly at the behest of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, but he was later released.  Ariel told Buzzfeed that he learned about the Exxon-Trump documents from Schorer, who told him that in late 2016 he was informed of their existence by a contact in Italy whom Buzzfeed identifies as former Israeli Ambassador to Italy Gideon Meir, who served in the post from 2006 to 2011.

“But the Israeli government had nothing to do with this,” Schorer stressed. “It was a private matter.”

Schorer told Haaretz that he passed along the information after Ariel told him he was on his way to Washington, D.C. to meet with activists whom Ariel describes as “affiliated with the DNC” (Democratic National Committee). Schorer said he gave Ariel the tip about the Italian documents in case Ariel wanted to pursue it with his Democratic contacts while in Washington. His source, he said, told him that there were documents uncovered by Italian police which “purported to show a suspicious transfer of a huge amount of money,” but didn’t specify “where it came from or where it went to.” Deciding that “I shouldn’t be the one to hold onto it and keep it a secret,” Schorer gave Ariel the tip along with the name of the Italian who he was told had the documents.

Schorer had been the face of the U.S. Democratic party in Israel until last summer, making media appearances and speaking for the Democrats at election year debates for nearly three decades, during most of which time the group was small and inactive. When the candidacy of Hillary Clinton and opposition to Donald Trump reenergized many American citizens living in Israel, a new group of political activists contacted the international Democrats Abroad organization and the Clinton campaign. Shortly afterwards, Schorer moved out of his leadership position as the new leaders took charge.

The Buzzfeed journalists identified the Italian men who told Meir about the documents, and subsequently peddled them to Ariel for $9000.

After Ariel learned of the documents and where to obtain them, the article says, he used a “string of contacts, including the chairman of Democrats Abroad-France, and a former Democratic National Committee operative in Washington, D.C.” to find financing for the purchase. According to Buzzfeed, he ultimately got the funding from left-wing activist Brett Kimberlin “who is also notorious as a felon convicted of setting off bombs in the American heartland.” Ariel would confirm to Haaretz only that the financing came from a “liberal activist” who, when told about the documents, agreed to finance his trips to Italy to pursue the matter through the name he received from Schorer, and ultimately provide the money to purchase the documents.

When asked if his reasons for pursuing the mission were his payment as a hired gun, or because he shared a politically-motivated desire to sabotage the Trump presidency, Ariel replied, “Both. Would I have done it at my own expense? No. Would I have been pleased if it had turned out to be true? Yes, I would have been pleased.”

Several major media organizations were reportedly given the documents but none of them found them credible or published stories on them and all refused comment to Buzzfeed. Eventually, according to the article, “presented with mounting evidence that the documents were not real, activists who had played a role in their circulation quickly began back-peddling, conceding they seemed more likely than not forgeries. Ariel, on the other hand, continued to try to convince journalists that they were genuine, Buzzfeed reported.

Ariel disputes that claim, and is critical of the narrative of the Buzzfeed story overall, dismissing it as a “concoction of the possible and the probable.”

“There are two kind of journalists in the world. Those who know how to turn facts into a good story. And those who don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story. The Buzzfeed journalists belong to the second group.”

Still, he admits that until last week he did believe there was a strong likelihood the documents were genuine as “more and more red flags started popping up,” adding, “I am willing to say now that the probability that they are fake are significantly higher than that they are not.”

The strength of his earlier belief that they were genuine was based on his knowledge that the documents were created in June because, he says, their existence was known to Schorer’s Italian sources as early as July and August.

Why, Ariel asked himself, would “scammers” invest so much money in creating documents implicating Trump last summer at a time when his election seemed so unlikely and a Hillary win seemed certain? At that time, he said, “Someone approached the Democrats about them, but at that point the Democrats were so confident of Hillary’s victory that they said thanks, but no thanks.”  

He says he also isn’t certain the documents were purely a “financial scam” and says there is a possibility they were a trap set by Russian intelligence meant to be part of “a disinformation campaign to paralyze and subvert the American political system.” If media outlets had published them presenting them as real, he suggests, proof could quickly emerge showing they were forgeries “and then  Trump would yell fake news, and it would be another nail in the coffin for the ‘fake media.’

In the current climate, he said, “both possibilities are equally plausible.”

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