Two journalists have stood out in their tracking and insightful understanding of this story: Josh Marshall of Talkingpointsmemo.com and Adam Davidson of The New Yorker. Their conversation in the most recent edition of Marshall's podcast is absolutely worth a listen. Marshall and Davidson try to piece together a Grand Unified Theory of the scandal which I will summarize here.
The theory begins with a set of macro-economic conditions that set the table for the relationship between Trump and Russia.
- The fall of the Iron Curtain resulted in a scramble to seize trillions of dollars in assets that had been the property of the communist states. The most successful kleptocrats were those best positioned: former party officials familiar with the assets and the local levers of power (like Vladimir Putin) and local organized crime.
- Seizing these assets was only the first task for these kleptocrats. Second was the necessity of getting the loot out of the country and parking it in western countries where the rule of law and independent judiciary systems would ensure its safety. Otherwise, a bigger, more powerful shark could steal it from the original thief. Tens of trillions of dollars worth of dirty money began to flow west, largely to London and New York.
- A short time later the vigilance and scrutiny of the US Government of possibly shady financial transactions became far more thorough and intense. This was partly due to 9/11 and the resulting effort to detect and interdict terrorist financing and partly due to a similar effort with respect to international drug cartels.
- This resulted in a shrinkage of available ways to park ill-gotten gains. As Davidson explains, a Russian oligarch could not just invest his $300 million in Google or Apple stocks. Regulations and reporting requirements for banks, brokerage houses and other financial actors would set off multiple alarms. Real estate emerged as a potential avenue for such investment.