The Fugees were, according to MTV, the ninth greatest hip-hop band of all time. Who can forget the immortal lyrics to their hit Ready or Not – number one in both the UK and Iceland? ‘I’ll be Nina Simone…defecating on your microphone.’ That song also has a sobering warning about the unpleasantness of prison: ‘Jail bars ain’t golden gates. Those who fake, they break. When they meet their 400-pound mate.’ (Perhaps this is the same ‘400lb person’ that Donald Trump blamed for Russia’s hacking during the US presidential election.) All this might be a bit too close to home for one of the band’s former members, Prakazrel Michel, known as ‘Pras’: He has been charged with making illegal political donations using foreign money.
Prosecutors have outlined a case that reaches into the 2016 election, though the charges against Pras go back to 2012. He is accused of giving $865,000 of overseas money to 20 ‘straw donors’ to hand on to Barack Obama’s presidential fundraising committee. He is also accused of sending more than $1 million to a different, independent campaign committee, a PAC. This money was allegedly part of $21 million illegally laundered into the US that was, in turn, a small slice of $1 billion missing from a Malaysian investment fund called 1MDB. Pras denies the charges, saying outside court in Washington DC: ‘I feel I’m totally innocent.’ The Washington Post said he was going to protest his innocence in a new rap album that will be released next month. Cockburn has his Walkman at the ready.
How does this connect to 2016 – and to China? 1MDB was run by a financier from Singapore known as Jho Low. He had a yacht with a gold plated interior, a Monet, a private jet (natch), and although he looked like a Chinese Billy Bunter – short, pudgy and bespectacled – he was seen with several Hollywood beauties. It’s claimed he gave a $9 million diamond to a model, Miranda Kerr, and tried to win the heart of Paris Hilton, the heiress. This attempt involved what newspaper reports at the time called a ‘champagne duel’ with her ex-boyfriend, a baseball player named Doug Reinhardt. The duel was supposedly fought in a Saint-Tropez nightclub, Les Caves Du Roy. Reinhart ordered four magnums of Cristal for Hilton. Not to be outdone, Low summoned a waiter and ordered the nightclub’s entire remaining stock, eight magnums. Reinhart left, humiliated.
Prosecutors in the US and Malaysia say this parade of bad taste was paid for with stolen money. The total embezzled is said to be $4.5 billion and the DoJ has brought what it says is the biggest ever action under its Kleptocracy Act Recovery Initiative. Enter Elliott Broidy, once a deputy finance chair of the RNC – and best know for having secretly paid a former Playboy model $1.6 million to have an abortion. (This financial arrangement was made by Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, so there was scurrilous gossip about who the father was.) Prosecutors says Broidy was given $8 million by Low to make the DoJ case go away – he was, allegedly, offered another $75 million if he managed to do this. It’s claimed that the middle man for this deal was Pras, the rapper.
Along with Jho Low, the former Malaysian prime minister, Najib Razak, is also accused of stealing the 1MDB money. Broidy reportedly helped Razak when he was Malyasian prime minister and visited Washington in 2017. He provided talking points for a meeting with Trump and even managed to get him a round of golf with the president. Broidy himself seemed to enjoy extraordinary access to Trump in the Oval Office. Cockburn is told that this caused unease to some in the US ‘intelligence community’ – because of the connection to Jho Low. One source now places Low in Beijing, a sign that he had the support of the Chinese state all along. There’s no confirmation that he is being helped by Beijing – and no doubt Low would deny it – though reports in the Asian media say he is in China.
The intelligence types imagine Beijing covertly pulling on strings that pass through Low, to American citizens like Broidy and Pras, and onto the body politic or the media. They would not think it a coincidence, for instance, that quite out of the blue, Pras sent a proposal for a pro-Chinese piece to the US magazine Mother Jones. In what Mother Jones called ‘an unusual pitch’, Pras proposed writing a feature calling for the US to extradite a prominent Chinese dissident living in New York, Guo Wengui. He called him ‘a Chinese illegal immigrant who lied on his US visa application’. The news organization ProPublica says it has obtained details of a sealed search warrant obtained by the FBI to raid Broidy’s office in LA last summer — it says the Feds were looking for ‘records related to China and Guo Wengui’. Broidy has always denied being an unregistered foreign lobbyist. His lawyer told the Washington Post: ‘Elliott Broidy has never agreed to work for, been retained by nor been compensated by any foreign government for any interaction with the United States Government, ever. Any implication to the contrary is a lie.’
Cockburn has written about allegations of Chinese interference in US politics before. There were claims that the Chinese mounted an ‘influence operation’ against the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, by trying to buy up the debt on 666 Fifth Avenue, his family’s disastrous real estate investment. A former aide to Trump told Cockburn that the Chinese official who had attempted to make the deal was jailed by the authorities in Beijing for his failure. The influence operations have continued, with the Chinese owner of a string of massage parlors in Florida selling access to Trump’s home and club there, Mar-a-Lago. Trump himself used to boast on the campaign trail about getting millions of dollars in rent from a Chinese state owned bank – a huge conflict of interest, according to the president’s critics. Beijing’s influence may be more sustained, pervasive and pernicious than Moscow’s. For those looking for another Trump conspiracy, China is the new Russia.