Russia has never tried to use leverage over me. I HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH RUSSIA - NO DEALS, NO LOANS, NO NOTHING!-- Donald J. Trump, 11 January 2017
It's ridiculous that I wouldn't be investing in Russia. Russia is one of the hottest places in the world for investment.--Donald Trump, in a deposition, 2007
Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.--Donald J. Trump, Jr., 2008
Well, we don’t rely on American banks. We have all the funding we need out of Russia.--Eric Trump (reported), 2014
Much of what humans believe is mythology, fantasies that appeal to them because they seem to explain the world in a satisfying and comprehensive way. In the modern world, myths and fantasies are most frequently propagated by an amazingly pervasive media presence that seems to penetrate every corner of human life. Truth is often buried under a mass of visual images and public relations hype. One of the strangest phenomena of my life has been the way in which mythology and fantasy have propelled Donald Trump into public life. His public image, carefully cultivated and facilitated by media enablers cynically looking for ratings or clicks or subscribers, is one of a tremendously successful, self-made billionaire, author of a shrewd book on negotiating, television star showing us how a tough boss operates, quintessential rich guy living life with style. We all know this image.
That image is a fraud. It has been meticulously constructed over many decades. Its manifestations remind one of nothing less than the fearsome, booming-voiced Wizard in the film The Wizard of Oz. What I now propose to do is to pull back the curtain and reveal the real "wizard". I will also examine how Trump, the product of America's depraved celebrity-worship and shocking financial corruption, turned for help to Russian leaders who saw in him a unique opportunity to insinuate themselves into the highest power centers of American life.
A SHORT SUMMARY OF THE LIFE AND CAREER OF DONALD J. TRUMP
Donald John Trump was born in New York City on 14 June 1946. His father, Fred Trump, was a major builder in New York. Fred Trump's views on race relations may have deeply affected his son. (There is a report of Fred being arrested at a Klan rally in New York in 1927, but he may have merely been watching and not participating.)1 What is clearer and not in dispute is that Fred Trump found ways to extract excessive fees and unearned money from his housing developments for veterans, so much so that it came to President Dwight Eisenhower's personal attention. The U.S. government investigated Fred Trump in 1954 "for profiteering off of public contracts, not least by overestimating his Beach Haven building charges to the tune of US$3.7 million." Fred Trump also took care to make sure only whites could move into his housing.2 In 1973 the Nixon Administration's Justice Department sued Fred Trump for discriminatory practices in his rental properties. Trump fought the action vigorously. A final settlement was reached in 1975.3
Donald, from all accounts, was an ill-behaved child. Frustrated with his lack of personal discipline, after Donald's 8th grade year his parents shipped him off to New York Military Academy in the Hudson Valley. Trump appeared to thrive in the school's highly disciplined and structured regimen. It seemed to bring out his competitive nature as well. "I don't think he had a handful of loyalists, you know?" [Ted] Levine, his former roommate, said. "Because he was so competitive that everybody who could come close to him he had to destroy."4
Trump began his higher education in 1964 at Fordham University. In 1966 he transferred to the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Contrary to Trump's claim, he did not graduate first in his class in 1968, nor did he even graduate with honors.5 One of Trump's professors, the late William T. Kelly, remembered him distinctly. Frank DiPrima, an attorney in New Jersey who has worked for numerous large firms, knew Kelly very well. Kelly's opinion? “He said he [Donald Trump] came to Wharton thinking he knew everything. He talked about his arrogance,” DiPrima said. “He said, ‘Donald Trump was the dumbest goddamn student I ever had.’”6
It was during this period that Trump received four draft deferments on the basis of being a college student. After graduating from Wharton, Trump was re-classified as 1A in July 1968. An armed forces physical found him disqualified on the basis of bone spurs in his heels, which got him his fifth deferment. Later Trump got a high number in the draft lottery.7 Curiously, his supposed physical limitation didn't prevent Trump from participating in various sports, including golf, baseball, tennis, and squash.
Trump later joked with radio personality Howard Stern about this time in his life. Here is a transcript of what was said:
STERN: Now getting back to dating, and when you got to say to a woman, you gotta go to my personal doctor and I’m gonna have you checked out, is that a tough thing to say to a woman?
TRUMP: It’s amazing, I can’t even believe it. I’ve been so lucky in terms of that whole world. It is a dangerous world out there. It’s like Vietnam, sort of.
STERN: Hey it’s your personal Vietnam isn’t it?
TRUMP: It is my personal Vietnam. I feel like a great and very brave soldier!
STERN: A lot of guys who went through Vietnam came out unscathed. A lot of guys going through the 80’s having sex with different women came out with AIDS and all kinds of things.
TRUMP: This is better than Vietnam, but it’s uh… it’s more fun.
STERN: A little better, but every v****a is a landmine, haven’t we both said that in private?
TRUMP: [intense laughter] I think it is a potential landmine. There’s some real danger there.
STERN: When you go to a bar, do you ever go with a fleet of doctors and have them check all the women, and then party with the uninfected?
TRUMP: [laughter] The few! You mean the few uninfected! 8
Trump has also acted to prevent disabled veterans from vending outside his building on Fifth Avenue in New York:
“While disabled veterans should be given every opportunity to earn a living, is it fair to do so to the detriment of the city as a whole or its tax paying citizens and businesses?” Trump wrote in a 1991 letter to John Dearie, then-chairman of the state Assembly’s Committee on Cities.
“Do we allow Fifth Ave., one of the world’s finest and most luxurious shopping districts, to be turned into an outdoor flea market, clogging and seriously downgrading the area?” Trump demanded. 9
In 2004, Trump complained again:
"He complained in a letter to then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg that the ambiance of Fifth Ave. — the address of his gleaming Trump Tower headquarters — was being wrecked by peddlers, including some he accused of only posing as vets."10
John McCain was held in captivity in North Vietnam for 5 and one-half years. He was offered a chance to leave early (because his father was an admiral) but he refused. He underwent shockingly brutal treatment, including torture and solitary confinement.11 When asked about McCain, Trump said, in 2015:
"He's not a war hero," Trump said. "He's a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren't captured."
"Perhaps he's a war hero, but right now, he's said bad things about a lot of people,' Trump added. 12
As Trump was learning his father's business, he acquired a mentor: the notorious Roy Cohn, who had made his reputation working for Wisconsin's infamous Republican senator Joseph McCarthy during McCarthy's "anti-Communist" witch hunt in the 1950s. Trump met Cohn in 1973. A writer who has watched Trump for decades did a long profile of Trump's relationship with Cohn:
Cohn was best known as a ruthless prosecutor. During the Red Scare of the 1950s, he and Wisconsin senator Joe McCarthy, the fabulist and virulent nationalist crusader, had hauled dozens of alleged “Communist sympathizers” before a Senate panel. Earlier, the House Un-American Activities Committee had skewered artists and entertainers on similar charges, resulting in a trail of fear, prison sentences, and ruined careers for hundreds, many of whom had found common cause in fighting Fascism. But in the decades since, Cohn had become the premier practitioner of hardball deal-making in New York, having mastered the arcane rules of the city’s Favor Bank (the local cabal of interconnected influence peddlers) and its magical ability to provide inside fixes for its machers and rogues.
“You knew when you were in Cohn’s presence you were in the presence of pure evil,” said lawyer Victor A. Kovner, who had known him for years. Cohn’s power derived largely from his ability to scare potential adversaries with hollow threats and spurious lawsuits. And the fee he demanded for his services? Ironclad loyalty.13
It was Cohn who introduced Donald Trump to the real underworld of New York business. Cohn had contacts with the Genovese crime family in particular. Cohn taught Trump how to use the law courts as a weapon, blasting opponents with lawsuits and threats of lawsuits. He taught Trump the power of publicity, the power of the brazen lie, the power of gossip, and above all, the power of celebrity. Cohn connected Trump with celebrities and political big shots. (Fred Trump, by the way, was only too happy to give money to corrupt Democratic politicians in New York and the Democratic candidate for governor of New York. In 1980 he was only too happy to give $200,000 to Ronald Reagan, skirting the law in order to do so. This is a pattern that Donald Trump himself learned to follow: you give money to whomever can grease the skids for you.
Trump's real estate enterprises led him into many contacts with organized crime. David Cay Johnston, who has investigated Trump for many years, had this to say in 2016:
No other candidate for the White House this year has anything close to Trump’s record of repeated social and business dealings with mobsters, swindlers, and other crooks. Professor Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian, said the closest historical example would be President Warren G. Harding and Teapot Dome, a bribery and bid-rigging scandal in which the interior secretary went to prison. But even that has a key difference: Harding’s associates were corrupt but otherwise legitimate businessmen, not mobsters and drug dealers.
This is part of the Donald Trump story that few know. As [Wayne] Barrett wrote in his book, Trump didn’t just do business with mobbed-up concrete companies: he also probably met personally with [Anthony] Salerno at the townhouse of notorious New York fixer Roy Cohn, in a meeting recounted by a Cohn staffer who told Barrett she was present. This came at a time when other developers in New York were pleading with the FBI to free them of mob control of the concrete business.
From the public record and published accounts like that one, it’s possible to assemble a clear picture of what we do know. The picture shows that Trump’s career has benefited from a decades-long and largely successful effort to limit and deflect law enforcement investigations into his dealings with top mobsters, organized crime associates, labor fixers, corrupt union leaders, con artists and even a one-time drug trafficker whom Trump retained as the head of his personal helicopter service.14
Trump had contacts and business dealings not only with Anthony Salerno, but with Paul Castellano of the Gambino crime family, as well as a Teamsters official controlled by the Gambinos. When Trump began his first big project in 1979, Mob assistance proved invaluable:
... when Trump hired a demolition contractor to take down the Bonwit Teller department store to make way for Trump Tower, he hired as many as 200 non-union men to work alongside about 15 members of the House Wreckers Union Local 95. The non-union workers were mostly illegal Polish immigrants paid $4 to $6 per hour with no benefits, [emphasis added] far below the union contract. At least some of them did not use power tools but sledgehammers, working 12 hours a day or more and often seven days a week. Known as the “Polish brigade,” many didn’t wear hard hats. Many slept on the construction site.
Normally the use of nonunion workers at a union job site would have guaranteed a picket line. Not at this site, however. Work proceeded because the Genovese family principally controlled the union; this was demonstrated by extensive testimony, documents and convictions in federal trials, as well as a later report by the New York State Organized Crime Task Force.
When the Polish workers and a union dissident sued for their pay and benefits, Trump denied any knowledge that illegal workers without hard hats were taking down Bonwit with sledgehammers. The trial, however, demonstrated otherwise: Testimony showed that Trump panicked when the nonunion Polish men threatened a work stoppage because they had not been paid. Trump turned to Daniel Sullivan, a labor fixer and FBI informant, who told him to fire the Polish workers.
Trump knew the Polish brigade was composed of underpaid illegal immigrants and that S&A was a mob-owned firm, according to Sullivan and others. [Emphasis added] "Donald told me that he was having his difficulties and he admitted to me that — seeking my advice — that he had some illegal Polish employees on the job. I reacted by saying to Donald that 'I think you are nuts,'" Sullivan testified at the time. "I told him to fire them promptly if he had any brains." In an interview later, Sullivan told me the same thing.15
Trump was also able to curtail an investigation by New Jersey's gaming authorities into his various unsavory ties as well.
And among the people Trump met in those heady days of casino operating was Felix Sater, son of a Russian mob figure, about whom we will speak much more below and in a later installment. (By the way, the entire Politico article I've referenced here is worth reading.)
Trump used the most bare-knuckled business tactics imaginable. His use of bankruptcy as a way of stiffing creditors was typical of these tactics. First, an overview from The Washington Post in 2016:
Trump’s companies have filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, which means a company can remain in business while wiping away many of its debts. The bankruptcy court ultimately approves a corporate budget and a plan to repay remaining debts; often shareholders lose much of their equity.
Trump’s Taj Mahal opened in April 1990 in Atlantic City, but six months later, “defaulted on interest payments to bondholders as his finances went into a tailspin,” The Washington Post’s Robert O’Harrow found. In July 1991, Trump’s Taj Mahal filed for bankruptcy. He could not keep up with debts on two other Atlantic City casinos, and those two properties declared bankruptcy in 1992. A fourth property, the Plaza Hotel in New York, declared bankruptcy in 1992 after amassing debt.
PolitiFact uncovered two more bankruptcies filed after 1992, totaling six. Trump Hotels and Casinos Resorts filed for bankruptcy again in 2004, after accruing about $1.8 billion in debt. Trump Entertainment Resorts also declared bankruptcy in 2009, after being hit hard during the 2008 recession.
Why the discrepancy? Perhaps this will give us an idea: Trump told Washington Post reporters that he counted the first three bankruptcies as just one.16
There is much more to the story, of course. If we look briefly at the story of Trump and his Atlantic City fiasco, it thoroughly demolishes Trump's claims that he is an astute businessman bringing his business acumen to American government. Because in fact, through a series of utterly risky and inept moves, Trump very nearly destroyed everything he had inherited from his father's business. The New York Times did an exhaustive investigation of this time in Trump's life. Here are some key excerpts from it:
“Atlantic City fueled a lot of growth for me,” Mr. Trump said in an interview in May , summing up his 25-year history here. “The money I took out of there was incredible.”
...a close examination of regulatory reviews, court records and security filings by The New York Times leaves little doubt that Mr. Trump’s casino business was a protracted failure. Though he now says his casinos were overtaken by the same tidal wave that eventually slammed this seaside city’s gambling industry, in reality he was failing in Atlantic City long before Atlantic City itself was failing.
But even as his companies did poorly, Mr. Trump did well. He put up little of his own money, shifted personal debts to the casinos and collected millions of dollars in salary, bonuses and other payments. The burden of his failures fell on investors and others who had bet on his business acumen.
In three interviews with The Times since late April, Mr. Trump acknowledged in general terms that high debt and lagging revenues had plagued his casinos. He did not recall details about some issues, but did not question The Times’s findings. He repeatedly emphasized that what really mattered about his time in Atlantic City was that he had made a lot of money there. [My emphasis.]
Mr. Trump assembled his casino empire by borrowing money at such high interest rates — after telling regulators he would not — that the businesses had almost no chance to succeed.
His casino companies made four trips to bankruptcy court, each time persuading bondholders to accept less money rather than be wiped out. But the companies repeatedly added more expensive debt and returned to the court for protection from lenders.
After narrowly escaping financial ruin in the early 1990s by delaying payments on his debts, Mr. Trump avoided a second potential crisis by taking his casinos public and shifting the risk to stockholders.
And he never was able to draw in enough gamblers to support all of the borrowing. During a decade when other casinos here thrived, Mr. Trump’s lagged, posting huge losses year after year. Stock and bondholders lost more than $1.5 billion. [My emphasis]
All the while, Mr. Trump received copious amounts for himself, with the help of a compliant board. In one instance, The Times found, Mr. Trump pulled more than $1 million from his failing public company, describing the transaction in securities filings in ways that may have been illegal, according to legal experts.
Mr. Trump now says that he left Atlantic City at the perfect time. The record, however, shows that he struggled to hang on to his casinos years after the city had peaked, and failed only because his investors no longer wanted him in a management role.17
At one point, even with the famous Taj Mahal casino $820 million in debt, Trump was extracting money from it for other real estate deals. Trump played complex games with financing in general, and it brought him to financial grief. In the midst of a general slowdown in the casino business in the 1980s, the finances of Trump's casinos could only be called "catastrophic". Trump was losing money on his Manhattan real estate as well. By August 1990 regulators in New Jersey reported that the total debt on Trump's real estate holdings was $3.4 billion. Only a little more than a year after it opened, the Taj Mahal was in bankruptcy court. Fred Trump made an illegal loan to his son in December 1990 to provide some liquidity. Trump himself always took care to extract whatever money he could from what he called his Atlantic City "cash cow".
When the Taj Mahal went bankrupt, Trump severely damaged his bondholders. He also stiffed his contractors. One Pennsylvania company, Triad Building Specialties, almost collapsed. It took three years to get any money out of Trump, and then it was only 30 cents on the dollar. To quote from the article, “Trump crawled his way to the top on the back of little guys, one of them being my father,” said [the daughter of the former owner], who runs Triad today. “He had no regard for thousands of men and women who worked on those projects. He says he’ll make America great again, but his past shows the complete opposite of that.”18
Trump sold junk bonds and moved ownership of the Plaza casino (which was headed for bankruptcy) to a publicly traded company called Trump Hotels and Casino Resorts. There was a major stock issue. After a strong opening, the stock's value declined quickly. Trump's board of directors bowed to his wishes.
Read the whole thing, the story about how Trump pocketed money from failing enterprises. Read about how while other casinos were increasing revenues by 18% between 1997 and 2002, Trump's declined by 1%. Read about his double dealing, his fraudulent business practices, his breath-taking ineptitude, the further bankruptcies, all of it. You will come away with the same conclusion I did: Trump was a horrendously incompetent, thoroughly corrupt, astonishingly dishonest businessman. Of course, Trump says his resorts were the "best", the "highest performing". The record says otherwise. And to quote an angry investor:
“People underestimated Donald Trump’s ability to pillage the company,” said Sebastian Pignatello, a private investor who at one time held stock in the Trump casinos worth more than $500,000. “He drove these companies into bankruptcy by his mismanagement, the debt and his pillaging.” 19
Fortune magazine summed it up this way:
From mid-1995 to early 2009, Trump served as chairman of Trump Hotels and Casino Resorts (renamed Trump Entertainment Resorts in 2004), and held the CEO title for five years (mid-2000 to mid-2005). During Trump’s 13 years as chairman, the casino empire lost a total of $1.1 billion, twice declared bankruptcy, and wrote down or restructured $1.8 billion in debt. Over the same period, the company paid Trump—essentially Trump paying himself—roughly $82 million by Fortune’s estimates, collected from a dizzying variety of sources spelled out in the company’s proxy filings, as varied as payments for use of Trump’s private plane to fees paid directly Trump for access to his name and marketing expertise...
No amount of spin will make Trump’s dozen years at the helm of a Trump Hotels, the only public company Trump has ever run, look like anything but a flop that damaged thousands of shareholders, bondholders, and workers. The sole “winner” now packs arenas across America, mesmerizing tens of thousands of cheering fans with tales of his business triumphs.20
It was in the midst of Trump's financial woes that he posted an astonishing loss on his taxes. On his 1995 return, Trump claimed a loss of $916 million. This was "enough to avoid paying income taxes for nearly two decades, according to experts. That near-billion-dollar loss might have been the single biggest net operating loss in the country that year, another expert told the Times in a follow-up story Monday, amounting to almost 2 percent of the total “net operating losses” reported by all American taxpayers who used the same tax provision as Trump." 21
Trump's legal problems, arising from his persistent refusal to pay contracted fees and charges, have involved him in an amazing number of legal actions, about 3,500. USA Today did an exhaustive survey of Trump's failure to meet his obligations and the lawsuits that have arisen from this failure. A few of the "highlights":
--The Edward J. Friel Company, specialists in cabinetry, cheated out of $83,600. This loss of revenue helped put the company in decline.
-- "Trump’s companies have also been cited for 24 violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act since 2005 for failing to pay overtime or minimum wage, according to U.S. Department of Labor data. That includes 21 citations against the defunct Trump Plaza in Atlantic City and three against the also out-of-business Trump Mortgage LLC in New York. Both cases were resolved by the companies agreeing to pay back wages."
--" In addition to the lawsuits, the review found more than 200 mechanic’s liens — filed by contractors and employees against Trump, his companies or his properties claiming they were owed money for their work — since the 1980s. The liens range from a $75,000 claim by a Plainview, N.Y., air conditioning and heating company to a $1 million claim from the president of a New York City real estate banking firm. On just one project, Trump’s Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City, records released by the New Jersey Casino Control Commission in 1990 show that at least 253 subcontractors weren’t paid in full or on time, including workers who installed walls, chandeliers and plumbing."22
Trump's tactic when being accused of non-payment is to fight savagely, vowing to wage prolonged legal battles against those bringing suit. This is a Roy Cohn tactic: use the courts as a weapon. Trump knew that the workers and small businesses complaining about him didn't have the money to fight him for very long, and generally had to take whatever he decided to give them, often after years of being owed.
There's more from other sources. An Associated Press report citing one contractor who was cheated out of $1.2 million, another cheated out $2 million.23 Or accounts of Trump's phony institution of higher learning, Trump University, from which he gleaned $5 million in profit by taking advantage of people of modest means in a bait-and-switch scheme. The lawsuits surrounding this fraudulent enterprise were settled for $25 million.24 Or Trump Airlines, Trump Vodka, or the Trump Game, all of which failed.25 There were many other failures. One observer has assembled this startling list of failed ventures (some of which, to be sure, were largely projects on which Trump's name was his only involvement):
Trump Villas, Grenadines
Trump Tower, Tampa, FL
Trump Ocean Resort, Baja
Trump at Cap Cana, Dominican Republic
Trump Dubai Tower, United Arab Emirates
Trump on the Ocean
Trump Tower, Batumi, Georgia
Trump Plaza Tower, Israel
GoTrump.com travel booking service
US Pro Golf Tour partnership
Sentient Jet partnership
Running Horse golf, Fresno
Trump animated series
"Trump Tycoon" mobile app
Trump Steaks by Sharper Image
Trump Office for Staples chairs
Brand licensing in Brazil
Trump Tower, Tampa, FL
Trump Ocean Resort, Baja
Trump at Cap Cana, Dominican Republic
Trump Dubai Tower, United Arab Emirates
Trump on the Ocean
Trump Tower, Batumi, Georgia
Trump Plaza Tower, Israel
GoTrump.com travel booking service
US Pro Golf Tour partnership
Sentient Jet partnership
Running Horse golf, Fresno
Trump animated series
"Trump Tycoon" mobile app
Trump Steaks by Sharper Image
Trump Office for Staples chairs
Brand licensing in Brazil
By the way, the book for which he is best known, The Art of the Deal, wasn't written by Trump at all. It was authored by Tony Schwartz, who gave the following assessment of Trump to CNN:
The ghostwriter of President Donald Trump’s best-selling book The Art of the Deal has suggested that the president may suffer from a personality disorder and said he is “deeply disturbed and utterly untrustworthy.”
Tony Schwartz, who spent 18 months shadowing the businessman in the 1980s, offered his opinion on Trump’s fitness for office ahead of the publication of a collection of essays by 27 psychiatrists and mental health experts assessing the president’s psychological condition.
“The question that this book raises in a number of its essays by psychiatrists is: Is Trump crazy like a fox or is he just crazy?” said Schwartz, appearing on CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360° on Thursday.
“And I think the overwhelming weight of evidence suggests that he’s just crazy, and not crazy, casual crazy. I’m talking about crazy—I’m not a psychiatrist, so I actually can get away with saying this—but crazy as a personality disorder.”26
So how did Trump pull out of his financial dive? While it is not strictly speaking true that no American bank would loan him money in the 1990s, none of the major ones would. There were lesser banks willing to do so, however. And Deutsche Bank became Trump's major lender, which we will examine in closer detail later. Trump has sought out financial support from China (where much of his clothing line is made) and other unusual sources. Trump licensed his name to numerous properties, and renegotiated his debt with the banks to which it was owed. (Several of these lenders vowed to never work with Trump again.) He is an executive for more than 500 companies. Since most of these companies are privately held, we don't know Trump's exact stake in them. He has had his successes in real estate, such as golf courses, although since Trump was the first presidential candidate in 40 years to not reveal his income taxes, we don't know the extent to which he's leveraged.
What we do know is that the figure he claims to represent his personal wealth, $10 billion, is a preposterous exaggeration. Forbes did a thorough examination in September 2017 and concluded the figure is $3.1 billion.27 Bloomberg estimates a lower figure. And then there's this assessment:
Citing an independent evaluation, Business Week put Trump's net worth at $100 million in 1978. Had Trump gotten out of real estate entirely, put his money in an index fund based on the S&P 500 and reinvested the dividends, he'd be worth twice as much -- $6 billion -- today, according to the calculator maintained by the blog Don't Quit Your Day Job.28
The message is clear. Trump is not some magical wizard at business or negotiation. He makes a huge number of mistakes and cuts ethical and moral corners constantly. He has consorted with organized crime figures, used illegal immigrants, saddled his various enterprises with unconscionable debt while draining money from them, and in all probability violated casino regulations of every kind. He suffered disastrous losses, and came very close to being wiped out.
But ultimately, he was saved by one thing above all: celebrity. A tiresome "reality show" on television called The Apprentice gave Trump a patina of glamour and success, and put him in the public eye regularly. He has been on People magazine's cover numerous times, as well as other publications. The National Enquirer, run by a Trump friend, has fluffed Trump frequently. His book kept him in the eye of many. It was Trump's style, his gall, and his attitude that made him seem like something he wasn't: The Great American Success Story.
A MUTUALLY BENEFICIAL PARTNERSHIP: TRUMP AND THE RUSSIANS
Donald Trump has always looked for new avenues for real estate investment. He has long been interested in Russia as a venue for his shady deals and ethically-bankrupt business practices. He began doing business (or seeking to do business) with Russians even before the Soviet Union collapsed. And happily for him, the fall of the USSR—an event which was a catastrophe in the eyes of Vladimir Putin—allowed an already deeply corrupt Russia to become a full-blown kleptocracy. The chief gangster in this kleptocracy is the Russian president himself, thought by many observers to be the richest person in the world.29
Trump's associations with Russians began in the 1980s. Even before the USSR collapsed, Russian organized crime figures were involved in large-scale money laundering schemes, which we will examine in great detail in another installment. The easiest way to hide ill-gotten money is, naturally, real estate. The first instance of this involving Trump occurred in 1984. A Russian émigré named David Bogatin bought five luxury condos in Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue, at a cost of $6 million. Interestingly, Bogatin had come to America in 1977 with only $3 on him. Trump was so impressed he personally attended the closing on the property. Three years later Bogatin pleaded guilty to a gasoline-bootlegging scheme. Bogatin fled the country and the Federal government seized the condos. As it turns out Bogatin was a New York Russian mob figure. And he was connected to no less than Semion Mogilevich, the top boss of the Russian mafia. Mogilevich was feared by other mob figures, and was expanding his criminal organization in the United States.30
Soon after mob figure Bogatin bought condos in Trump Tower, Trump began looking to Russia itself:
Donald Trump’s attempts to bring his business to Russia date back to at least 1986, when he was seated next to Soviet Ambassador Yuri Dubinin at a luncheon. “One thing led to another,” Trump wrote in his [sic] 1987 book The Art of the Deal, “and now I’m talking about building a large luxury hotel across the street from the Kremlin in partnership with the Soviet government.”
Trump and then-wife Ivana, who speaks Russian, traveled to Moscow to scout out potential sites and “met with a lot of the economic and financial advisers in the Politburo,” according to Trump’s spokesman.31
Trump's interest in a hotel in Moscow had waned near the end of 1988. His attention was being taken by the accelerating disaster he was undergoing in Atlantic City. But there was much, much more to come from the Russians.
In the late 1990s, as Trump was struggling to rebuild his fortune, events in Russia began to send serious money in Donald Trump's direction. For example, in 1997, Aleksandr Ivanovich Lebed. a retired Russian general and a significant figure in Russian politics, came to New York to solicit Trump's investment in Russia. Observers of their meeting have left us with this record of part of their exchange:
Trump introduced Lebed to Howard Lorber, who had accompanied him a few months earlier on his journey to Moscow, where they looked at properties to which the Trump moniker might be appended. “Howard has major investments in Russia,” he told Lebed, but when Lorber itemized various ventures none seemed to ring a bell.
“See, they don’t know you,” Trump told Lorber. “With all that investment, they don’t know you. Trump they know.”
Some “poisonous people” at the Times, Lebed informed Trump, were “spreading some funny rumors that you are going to cram Moscow with casinos.”
Laughing, Trump said, “Is that right?”
“I told them that I know you build skyscrapers in New York. High-quality skyscrapers.”
“We are actually looking at something in Moscow right now, and it would be skyscrapers and hotels, not casinos. Only quality stuff. But thank you for defending me. I’ll soon be going again to Moscow. We’re looking at the Moskva Hotel. We’re also looking at the Rossiya. That’s a very big project; I think it’s the largest hotel in the world. And we’re working with the local government, the mayor of Moscow and the mayor’s people. So far, they’ve been very responsive.”
Lebed: “You must be a very confident person. You are building straight into the center.”
Trump: “I always go into the center.”
Lebed: “I hope I’m not offending by saying this, but I think you are a litmus testing paper. You are at the end of the edge. If Trump goes to Moscow, I think America will follow. So I consider these projects of yours to be very important. And I’d like to help you as best I can in putting your projects into life. I want to create a canal or riverbed for capital flow. I want to minimize the risks and get rid of situations where the entrepreneur has to try to hide his head between his shoulders. I told the New York Times I was talking to you because you are a professional—a high-level professional—and if you invest, you invest in real stuff. Serious, high-quality projects. And you deal with serious people. And I deem you to be a very serious person. That’s why I’m meeting you.”32
Although the Trump hotels in Moscow never materialized, it is obvious that Trump's name was well-known among Russia's political and economic elite. This name recognition was to pay big dividends to Trump when the Russian stock market collapsed in 1998.33 Wealthy Russians began to seek safe haven in real estate investments. And a generous amount of that investment went toward Donald Trump's properties.
An impressive number of Russian oligarchs ended up living in Trump World Tower, near the United Nations building, which opened in 2001. As Bloomberg Business describes it:
When Trump World Tower at 845 United Nations Plaza began construction two decades ago as the tallest residential building in the country (90 stories), its most expensive floors attracted wealthy people getting their money out of what had been the Soviet Union. Trump needed the big spenders. He was renegotiating $1.8 billion in junk bonds for his Atlantic City resorts, and the tower was built on a mountain of debt owed to German banks. As Trump wrote in The Art of the Comeback, “It crushed my ego, my pride, to go hat in hand to the bankers.”
Trump’s soft spot for Russia is an ongoing mystery, and the large number of condominium sales he made to people with ties to former Soviet republics may offer clues. “We had big buyers from Russia and Ukraine and Kazakhstan,” says Debra Stotts, a sales agent who filled up the tower. The very top floors went unsold for years, but a third of units sold on floors 76 through 83 by 2004 involved people or limited liability companies connected to Russia and neighboring states, a Bloomberg investigation shows. The reporting involved more than two dozen interviews and a review of hundreds of public records filed in New York...
Eduard Nektalov, an Uzbekistan-born diamond dealer, purchased a 79th-floor unit directly below Conway’s for $1.6 million in July 2003. He was being investigated by federal agents for a money-laundering scheme, which involved smelting gold to make it appear like everyday objects that were then hauled to drug cartels in Colombia. Nektalov sold his unit a month after he bought it for a $500,000 profit. Less than a year later, Nektalov, rumored to have been cooperating with authorities, was gunned down on Manhattan’s Sixth Avenue.
Simultaneous with when the tower was going up, developer Gil Dezer and his father, Michael, were building a Trump-backed condo project in Sunny Isles Beach, Fla. “Russians love the Trump brand,” he says, adding that Russians and Russian Americans bought some 200 of 2,000 units in Trump buildings he built. They flooded into Trump projects from 2001 to 2007, helping Trump weather the real estate collapse, he says.34
If we look more carefully at the clientele that was attracted to Trump's real estate, certain facts stand out. Let's look more carefully at some of the more prominent investors:
Vadim Trincher, Russian mafia big shot, specialist in illegal gambling operations, who lived in a $5 million apartment in Trump Tower directly below Donald Trump's own residence.35
Anatoly Golubchik, Trincher's partner. The two of them were operating an illegal gambling operation out of Trump Tower itself. Both Trincher and Golubchik were eventually charged, convicted, and sentenced. To quote the New York DA's office:
Preet Bharara, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, announced that ANATOLY GOLUBCHIK was sentenced yesterday in Manhattan federal court to five years in prison, and VADIM TRINCHER was also sentenced today to five years in prison for participating in a racketeering conspiracy in connection with their roles as members of a Russian-American organized crime enterprise. GOLUBCHIK and TRINCHER were also each ordered to forfeit more than $20 million in cash, investments, and real property. They were charged in April 2013 along with 32 other alleged members and associates of two Russian-American organized crime enterprises in an indictment that included racketeering, money laundering, extortion, and various gambling offenses. [Emphasis added] GOLUBCHIK and TRINCHER were sentenced by U.S. District Judge Jesse M. Furman.36
(Interestingly, Preet Bharara was fired by Donald Trump three months after Trump became president.)
According to an 84 (!) page Federal indictment, the gambling operation run by Trincher and Golubchik was protected by Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov, a Ukrainian-born Mafia Don who was a VIP guest at the 2013 Miss Universe pageant Trump hosted in Moscow.37
Hillel (Helly) Nahmad, paid more than $21 million for the 51st floor of Trump Tower, where he ran a high stakes poker game that catered to millionaire and billionaire clients. Later sentenced to a year in prison.38
Vyacheslav Kirillovich Ivankov: top Russian mob boss in New York beginning in 1992. Owner of a luxury apartment in Trump Tower, where the FBI tracked him down. "Ivankov disappeared and then turned up again in Trump’s New Jersey casino, the Taj Mahal. Ivankov’s phone book included a working number for the Trump Organization’s Trump Tower residence, and a Trump Organization fax machine...Ivankov was arrested in 1995 and sent to prison for conspiring to extort $3.5 million from two Russian emigres who ran an investment advice company in lower Manhattan. After his release he returned to Russia where he was assassinated." 39
Felix Henry Sater, occupant of the 24th floor of Trump Tower beginning in 2002. Fortune magazine did a profile of him in October 2016:
Felix Sater is not a name that has come up much during the presidential campaign. That he has a colorful past is an understatement: The Russian-born Sater served a year in prison for stabbing a man in the face with a margarita glass during a bar fight, pleaded guilty to racketeering as part of a mafia-driven "pump-and-dump" stock fraud and then escaped jail time by becoming a highly valued government informant.
He was also an important figure at Bayrock, a development company and key Trump real estate partner during the 2000s, notably with the Trump SoHo hotel-condominium in New York City, and has said under oath that he represented Trump in Russia and subsequently billed himself as a senior Trump advisor, with an office in Trump Tower...
Sater has been profiled in the Washington Post, on ABC News and in several other outlets. But few have taken much note of him, presumably because Trump has said, under oath, [my emphasis] that he barely knew him. "If he were sitting in the room right now, I really wouldn't know what he looked like," he said in a deposition in November 2013. Asked how many times he had ever conversed with Sater, he said, "Not many." And asked about a previous BBC interview, in which he was questioned about Sater's mafia connections, Trump said he didn't recall the interview.
This past December Trump went further: "Felix Sater, boy, I have to even think about it," Trump told AP, referring questions about Sater to his staff. "I'm not that familiar with him."
End of story? Not quite. Looking into Trump's deals, FORBES has uncovered numerous e-mails and sworn statements that indicate Sater was closer to Trump, his organization and his children than previously revealed. Additionally, FORBES has connected three billionaire oligarchs from Kazakhstan to potential deals involving Trump and Sater.
Why does this matter? The story of Sater and the one involving billionaires quietly backing the Trump-Bayrock deals speaks to a key virtue of any good businessman--due diligence--that seems especially relevant for a candidate running on private-sector acumen and the need to do "extreme vetting" of those seeking to get into the country.40
The Fortune profile goes on to directly contradict Trump's assertion that he hardly knew Sater. Sater and Trump worked together extremely closely. Trump's statements about Sater are among his more breath-taking lies.
An important point: All of the above listed figures have ties to the top Russian mob boss Semion Mogilevich. All. Some more detail about Mogilevich:
The FBI has credited the “brainy don,” who holds a degree in economics from Lviv University, with a staggering range of crimes. He ran drug trafficking and prostitution rings on an international scale; in one characteristic deal, he bought a bankrupt airline to ship heroin from Southeast Asia into Europe. He used a jewelry business in Moscow and Budapest as a front for art that Russian gangsters stole from museums, churches, and synagogues all over Europe. He has also been accused of selling some $20 million in stolen weapons, including ground-to-air missiles and armored troop carriers, to Iran. “He uses this wealth and power to not only further his criminal enterprises,” the FBI says, “but to influence governments and their economies.”
In Russia, Mogilevich’s influence reportedly reaches all the way to the top. In 2005, Alexander Litvinenko, a Russian intelligence agent who defected to London, recorded an interview with investigators detailing his inside knowledge of the Kremlin’s ties to organized crime. “Mogilevich,” he said in broken English, “have good relationship with Putin since 1994 or 1993.” A year later Litvinenko was dead, apparently poisoned by agents of the Kremlin.41
Trump's Florida properties have also proven to be magnets for Russian investors. An investigation by Reuters turned up 63 Russians who had purchased luxury housing in Trump property, at a value of $98.4 million. To be fair, Reuters said it did not see evidence of any criminal wrongdoing on Trump's part. Still, the number is rather striking. Reuters also found: "The tally of investors from Russia may be conservative. The analysis found that at least 703 – or about one-third – of the owners of the 2044 units in the seven Trump buildings are limited liability companies, or LLCs, which have the ability to hide the identity of a property’s true owner. And the nationality of many buyers could not be determined. Russian-Americans who did not use a Russian address or passport in their purchases were not included in the tally."42
Intriguingly, one of the residents of Trump's Florida properties, Pavel Uglanov, is close friends with a notorious figure, Alexander Zaldostanov. To quote Reuters: (He is) leader of the “Night Wolves” biker gang. The Wolves, and Zaldostanov personally, were made subject to U.S. financial and travel restrictions. The U.S. government said gang members stormed a Ukrainian government naval base and a gas facility during Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
An aide to Zaldostanov did not respond to questions from Reuters. The group, in interviews in Russian media, has denied storming the base and the gas facility.
Zaldostanov has had multiple meetings with Putin, according to the Kremlin’s website. The Russian president awarded Zaldostanov the country’s “medal of honor” in 2013."43
And back in New York, Trump's sales to Russians were going swimmingly. USA Today did a survey of court cases, legal documents, and government documents and found the following:
The president and his companies have been linked to at least 10 wealthy former Soviet businessmen with alleged ties to criminal organizations or money laundering.
• A member of the firm that developed the Trump SoHo Hotel in New York is a twice-convicted felon who spent a year in prison for stabbing a man and later scouted for Trump investments in Russia.[Sater, see above]
• An investor in the SoHo project was accused by Belgian authorities in 2011 in a $55 million money-laundering scheme.
• Three owners of Trump condos in Florida and Manhattan were accused in federal indictments of belonging to a Russian-American organized crime group and working for a major international crime boss based in Russia.
• A former mayor from Kazakhstan was accused in a federal lawsuit filed in Los Angeles in 2014 of hiding millions of dollars looted from his city, some of which was spent on three Trump SoHo units.
• A Ukrainian owner of two Trump condos in Florida was indicted in a money-laundering scheme involving a former prime minister of Ukraine.
Trump's Russian connections are of heightened interest because of an FBI investigation into possible collusion between Trump's presidential campaign and Russian operatives to interfere in last fall's election. What’s more, Trump and his companies have had business dealings with Russians that go back decades, raising questions about whether his policies would be influenced by business considerations.
Trump told reporters in February: "I have no dealings with Russia. I have no deals that could happen in Russia, because we’ve stayed away. And I have no loans with Russia. I have no loans with Russia at all."
Yet in 2013, after Trump addressed potential investors in Moscow, he bragged to Real Estate Weekly about his access to Russia's rich and powerful. “I have a great relationship with many Russians, and almost all of the oligarchs were in the room,” Trump said, referring to Russians who made fortunes when former Soviet state enterprises were sold to private investors. [My emphasis] 44
And I want to make a special note of this: Paul Manafort, Putin ally, whom we met briefly in the first installment of this series, has a residence on the 43rd floor of Trump Tower. We will have much more to say about him later.
And lest we forget: Trump sold his gaudy Palm Beach, Florida residence, acquired for $41.3 million, to a Russian businessman named Dmitry Rybolovlev. Rybolovlev paid $95 million in 2008, giving Trump a handsome profit on a property he had owned just a few years.45 And who is this Russian? One of the richest people in Russia, one with a past that is largely shrouded in mystery. The timing of his purchase was interesting, 2008 being the year the world economy hit a huge setback. Astonishingly, Rybolovlev had his new house torn down. And in 2013, Business Insider reported that Rybolovlev was the biggest shareholder in the Bank of Cyprus, owning 9.9% of the company. The Bank had an...interesting relationship with Russia.46 We will come across this bank several times in the coming segments.
We have already encountered the name of a company associated with Trump and Russia: The Bayrock Group. This organization also has a very interesting history, to say the least. The Bayrock Group operated two floors beneath Trump's office in Trump Tower. As Bloomberg reports,
Bayrock partnered with the future president and his two eldest children, Donald Jr. and Ivanka, on a series of real-estate deals between 2002 and about 2011, the most prominent being the troubled Trump Soho hotel and condominium in Manhattan.
During the years that Bayrock and Trump did deals together, the company was also a bridge between murky European funding and a number of projects in the U.S. to which the president once lent his name in exchange for handsome fees. Icelandic banks that dealt with Bayrock, for example, were easy marks for money launderers and foreign influence, according to interviews with government investigators, legislators, and others in Reykjavik, Brussels, Paris and London. Trump testified under oath in a 2007 deposition that Bayrock brought Russian investors to his Trump Tower office to discuss deals in Moscow, and said he was pondering investing there.47
Bayrock was founded by Tevfik Arif, a Soviet-born Turkish businessman. According to multiple sources, Arif spent 17 years working for the USSR's Ministry of Commerce and Trade. Felix Sater was Arif's right-hand man. (There are pictures, by the way, of Trump, Sater, and Arif together, celebrating a business deal in 2007.) The Financial Times had this to say about Trump's relationship to Arif:
The Republican presidential nominee and Bayrock were both based in Trump Tower and they joined forces to pursue deals around the world — from New York, Florida, Arizona and Colorado in the US to Turkey, Poland, Russia and Ukraine. Their best-known collaboration — Trump SoHo, a 46-storey hotel-condominium completed in 2010 — was featured in Mr Trump’s NBC television show The Apprentice.
Yet when Mr Trump testified under oath in 2011 about his relationship with Mr Arif’s company, he confessed that he found his partners puzzling. Mr Trump said he knew what they did. But he said he was unsure of exactly who they were.
“I don’t know who owns Bayrock,” Mr Trump said. “I never really understood who owned Bayrock. I know they’re a developer that’s done quite a bit of work. But I don’t know how they have their ownership broken down.”
Mr Trump’s Bayrock blind spot gains significance in the context of this year’s presidential race. Mr Trump has taken a stance on Russia that is at odds with US political orthodoxy — praising President Vladimir Putin’s leadership skills and saying he would consider lifting sanctions imposed on Russia after its 2014 annexation of the Crimean peninsula in Ukraine. Critics have asked whether Mr Trump’s business interests might be colouring his policies.
Mr Trump has responded by saying he has “zero investments in Russia”. But that is not the whole story. In recent years, Mr Trump has worked diligently to forge alliances with Russia-connected businessmen that would position him to profit from capital pouring out of the former states of the Soviet Union, and to seek opportunities in those locales. If no deals followed, as was often the case, it was not for a lack of trying.
Mr Trump’s Bayrock connection reveals the risks he took along the way. By his own admission, he agreed to serve as the public face of a murky business. Court records in cases involving Bayrock only underscore the company’s complexity. When Winston Churchill called Russia “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma,” he might as well have been talking about Mr Arif’s operation.
Bayrock’s founder boasts a résumé reflecting the topsy-turvy business world that took shape following the fall of communism. Born in Kazakhstan, Mr Arif, 63, worked in the food and hospitality unit of the Soviet commerce and trade ministry before operating an export-import business, building hotels in Turkey and heading to New York as the century began to develop property in the borough of Brooklyn.
There were bumps along the way. In 2010, Mr Arif was arrested in Turkey on charges he helped arrange an orgy on a yacht that had once belonged to the country’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. In 2012, the charges were dropped, a company spokeswoman says. Today, Mr Arif is believed to be living in Turkey. His spokeswoman said he was the “sole owner” of Bayrock during the time it did business with Mr Trump. She declined to provide details, citing litigation and confidentiality agreements.48
Should we mention Donald Trump Jr's six visits to Russia in the span of 18 months in 2007 and 2008, hoping to secure properties in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Sochi? Should we mention Trump bringing the Miss Universe pageant to Moscow, with partial financing from a Russian billionaire? Trump's statement to David Letterman that, "“I’ve done a lot of business with the Russians.” ?49 Or Trump's relationship to Aras Agalarov, Russian billionaire who may have given direct aid to Trump's campaign (an issue we will pursue elsewhere)?50 Or Trump's tax lawyers, who are strongly tied to Russian business interests?51 Or the Trump business partner who got hundreds of millions of dollars in financing from a state-run Russian bank?52
Finally, let's look at Trump's statements regarding his personal relationship with Vladimir Putin. Politifact gathered up a number of direct Trump quotes about this relationship:
• When Thomas Roberts of MSNBC asked Trump, "Do you have a relationship with Vladimir Putin? A conversational relationship or anything that you feel you have sway or influence over his government?" Trump responded, "I do have a relationship, and I can tell you that he's very interested in what we're doing here today. He's probably very interested in what you and I am saying today, and I'm sure he's going to be seeing it in some form." -- interview, November, 2013
• "You know, I was in Moscow a couple of months ago. I own the Miss Universe Pageant and they treated me so great. Putin even sent me a present, a beautiful present." -- address at the CPAC conference, March 2014
• "Russia does not respect our country any longer. They see we've been greatly weakened, both militarily and otherwise, and he certainly does not respect President Obama. So what I would do—as an example, I own Miss Universe, I was in Russia, I was in Moscow recently and I spoke, indirectly and directly, with President Putin, who could not have been nicer, and we had a tremendous success. The show was live from Moscow, and we had tremendous success there and it was amazing, but to do well, you have to get the other side to respect you, and he does not respect our president, which is very sad." -- address at the National Press Club, May 2014
• "As far as the Ukraine is concerned … if Putin wants to go in -- and I got to know him very well because we were both on 60 Minutes. We were stablemates, and we did very well that night." -- portion of an answer at the Fox Business News debate, Nov. 2015. (The notion that the two men appeared together on 60 Minutes has been debunked. As Time magazine put it succinctly, "In fact, they weren’t even on the same continent.")
The Stephanopoulos interview
Recently, though, Trump has changed his tune.
Here are excerpts from the Trump-Stephanopoulos interview, which aired on ABC’s This Week on July 31 
Stephanopoulos: "Let's talk about Russia. You made a lot of headlines with Russia this week. What exactly is your relationship with Vladimir Putin?"
Trump: "I have no relationship to -- with him. I have no relationship with him."
Stephanopoulos: "But if you have no relationship with Putin, then why did you say in 2013, I do have a relationship. In 2014, I spoke…"
Trump: "Because he has said nice things about me over the years. I remember years ago, he said something -- many years ago, he said something very nice about me. I said something good about him when Larry King was on. This was a long time ago. And I said he is a tough cookie or something to that effect. He said something nice about me. This has been going on. We did 60 Minutes together. By the way, not together-together, meaning he was probably shot in Moscow…."
Stephanopoulos: "Well, he was in Moscow…."
Trump: "And I was shot in New York."
Stephanopoulos: "You were in New York. But that's the thing."
Trump: "No, just so you understand, he said very nice things about me, but I have no relationship with him. I don't -- I've never met him. … I have no relationship with Putin. I don't think I've ever met him. I never met him. … I mean if he's in the same room or something. But I don't think so. ..."
Stephanopoulos: "You've never spoken to him on the phone?"
Trump: "I have never spoken to him on the phone, no. … Well, I don't know what it means by having a relationship. I mean he was saying very good things about me, but I don't have a relationship with him. I didn't meet him. I haven't spent time with him. I didn't have dinner with him. I didn't go hiking with him. I don't know -- and I wouldn't know him from Adam except I see his picture and I would know what he looks like."
Also, on July 27, Trump said at a press conference in Florida, "I never met Putin -- I don't know who Putin is. He said one nice thing about me. He said I'm a genius. I said thank you very much to the newspaper and that was the end of it. I never met Putin."53
Donald Trump's assertions that he has (or has had) very little to do with Russia are flat out lies. Trump's properties have been a magnet for Russian, Ukrainian, and other Eastern European organized crime figures. More critically, Russian money, flooding into Trump's properties, was crucial to his financial recovery. Just as Trump has had close relationships to American mob figures, so he has been linked to Russian Mafia members as well. Trump has also lied about his relationship with Vladimir Putin, directly contradicting his own statements. In upcoming segments, we will give closer scrutiny to the ties between Trump, his team, and Russian officials and businessmen. We will look at the disturbing evidence that Trump has served as a money launderer for the Russian mob as well. There is MUCH more to come, on all topics.
Here is Part One: https://jmillersexcerpts.blogspot.com/2017/12/the-strange-election-of-2016-part-one.html