The Spy Games

EXCLUSIVE: The Moscow Tower had everything to do with Donald Trump’s presidential run and was negotiated with Vladimir Putin’s closest advisors. Why then did Robert Mueller find no evidence of a conspiracy? The answer could lie in the spies.

Fred C. Trump, the real estate developer and father to a future president, presided over the demolition with food, drink and “no less than six – count ’em – six bikinied beauties,” the New York Times reported. It was a September morning in 1966, and Trump came to Coney Island to cheer on the wrecking crew as they demolished the last vestiges of the iconic Steeplechase Park before city officials could declare it an historic landmark.

Trump partied as they tore down the ‘Pavilion of Fun’, and promised to build yet another bleak, brown, stark apartment building in a neighbourhood already reeling from population growth, increased crime and poverty from the blight Trump and other developers had brought to the area.

By the time nine-year-old Felix Sater arrived in America with his parents as part of a wave of immigrants from the Soviet Union in 1974, only the Cyclone stood as a reminder of the Coney Island’s happier days, and even that was slated for demolition.

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The Soviet immigrants that came to Coney Island in the 70’s brought with them much more than recipes for pirozhki and borscht. They had a very different way of doing business. Felix’s father, Mikhail Sheferovsky set up shop as a crime boss, earning a living by extorting grocery stores, restaurants and medical clinics, according to the FBI.

The easy flow of dirty Russian mob money that flowed in with the immigrants was music to Fred Trump’s ears. He sucked up the dirty cash and washed it through his apartment projects – many with name like Trump Village – giving life to a Russian underworld in Brooklyn which has since swamped the world.

Felix was not all that unique. His friends’ parents were also involved in activities of varying shades of legality. His friend Laura Shusterman’s father owned a taxi company that allegedly helped Russian immigrants launder their money through taxi medallions and also through Trump properties.

Laura introduced Felix to her boyfriend Michael, the son of a wealthy doctor from a far more affluent neighbourhood up Long Island. Michael would also visit his Uncle Morty who owned the “El Caribe Country Club” a dining hall popular among Brooklyn’s Russian mob.

In those days, the term “mafia” was used almost exclusively to describe Italian crime families, but that changed when the Russians arrived. What began with laundering money through taxi medallions expanded into racketeering and protection rackets. Eventually, the Russians “rolled up” the Italians, first in New York and then down the Eastern seaboard to Florida.

A yearbook photo of Michael Cohen
A yearbook photo of Michael Cohen (right).

Two boys from Brooklyn

On Felix and Michael’s home turf, the screech from nearby amusement rides had long been replaced by the shrill of well-fed and inebriated Russians. The boardwalk was now lined with eateries like Tatiana’s, whose tables still overflow today with impossible amounts of seafood and vodka 365-days a year while buskers and barely clothed dancers work the crowd for tips.

It’s at Tatiana’s where one of Putin’s henchmen was spotted during an American visit to tour the new Russian mob outpost. Viktor Zolotov commands Putin’s 20,000-strong elite guard and once contemplated mass murdering all of Putin’s enemies but when he saw the list, even he was forced to concede “there are too many, it’s too many to kills – even for us,” according to an account in a book by author Boris Volodarsky. Zolotov is a billionaire – not bad for a bodyguard.

It’s against this background of criminality, that Felix became a stock-trader, although that was short-lived when he lost his license after a bar brawl. Michael became a lawyer eventually becoming Trump’s fixer. Sater was indicted for a $40 million stock trading scheme “involving 19 stockbrokers and organized crime figures from four Mafia families,” according to the New York Times. Cohen got into business with Tatiana running casino cruises in Florida that were ultimately shut down by cops.

Neither Cohen or Sater could have imagined how their paths would intersect with Fred Trump’s son decades later. Sater put it this way, “Two boys from Brooklyn getting the U.S.A. president elected.”

Felix Sater
Felix Sater, Trump’s business associate was indicted for a $40m stock scheme and didn’t serve time because he cooperated with the FBI.

Double crossed

Sater never served time for that $40 million tax scheme. That’s because for over two decades, Sater has been a valuable asset to the FBI and American intelligence including helping convict twenty members of La Cosa Nostra.

Sater cooperated with the FBI when he first met Donald Trump in 2002, he cooperated when he first went to work at Bayrock two floors below Donald Trump in 2003 and he was cooperating when he and Trump built Trump Soho together in 2006 – the same year he escorted Ivanka and Don, Jr. to Moscow.

Sater’s cover was publicly blown by the New York Times in 2007. Trump was undeterred and continued to work with Sater, while Sater kept working with the FBI.

Being exposed by the New York Times would ordinarily dull the effectiveness of someone cooperating with the Feds. But not Sater, who spent the years after that Times article building monuments to money laundering for Trump while delivering Osama Bin Laden’s cell phone number and almost proving the Trump Russia conspiracy.

Preet Bharara calls it the most unholy alliance in justice. “Cooperators assist cops and as a result may literally get away with murder,” the former SDNY prosecutor writes in “Doing Justice”. “They operate as double agents against the people closest to them.”

The FBI never paid Sater for his work but they did allow him to walk away with the proceeds of his criminality, which may explain why Trump would still trust Sater.

Who’s trapping whom?

Republicans and the GOP are committed to framing the Mueller Report as a trap set by dirty cops. They will most certainly question Sater’s FBI cooperation for the entire decade he worked alongside Trump and even his work with the FBI beforehand.

Republicans will no doubt point to Mueller himself and his key prosecutor Andrew Weissmann. Weissmann signed Sater’s 1998 FBI cooperation agreement for the Department of Justice. He was then an assistant US attorney. The agreement was authorized by Loretta Lynch. Mueller himself was the FBI director for most of the time Sater served as a source.

Sater also worked with other staff at the Special Counsel’s Office: FBI Special Agent William McCausland and crossed paths with Zainab Ahmad and Greg Andres.

These “entrapment” claims are of course unfounded. The FBI always starts organized crime investigations proactively. It’s possible they placed an inside man at Trump Organization a decade before Trump had even announced his candidacy because they had good reason to suspect he was committing crimes. Narativ has learned that the Southern District of New York and New York DA’s office had already initiated criminal investigations into the Trump Organization prior to 2015.

Donald Trump
Donald Trump debates other Republican candidates the day he signed the Moscow Tower letter of intention.

“I never forgive.”

Trump had even more swagger than usual when he took to the stage on October 28 2015 for the third Republican debate.

“I think maybe my greatest weakness is that I trust people too much. I’m too trusting,” Trump told the audience. “And when they let me down, if they let me down, I never forgive. I find it very, very hard to forgive people that deceived me,” Trump said. So I don’t know if you would call that a weakness, but my wife said: “let up.”

This vindictiveness was at odds with what should have been a celebratory day. Earlier that day, Trump had signed the letter of Intent to build a Trump Tower in Moscow.

On its surface, the Moscow project appeared to have been a straightforward barter: Putin would wield his influence to help Trump get elected. Once elected, Trump would drop sanctions and the Moscow Tower would be green lit.

Just three weeks after inking the Letter or Intent, Putin publicly praised Trump “He is a bright and talented person without any doubt,” Putin said, adding that Trump is “an outstanding and talented personality.”

On the campaign trail, Trump ramped up the chants at his rallies “No Russia, no Russian contacts, no Russian deals…” he would say – and then minutes later would turn to Cohen to ask: “What’s going on in Russia with the Tower Project?”

Inside the Trump Organization, the “Moscow Project” was Cohen’s file. Ivanka and Don Jr. were involved but only from behind Cohen’s firewall. Sater was the go-between.

In email after email, Sater described the quid pro quo. “Putin gets on stage for a ribbon cutting for Trump Moscow, and Donald owns the Republican nomination,” Sater wrote in one. “Buddy our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it,” Sater wrote in another. “I will get all of Putin’s team to buy in on this, I will manage this process.”

All told, negotiations on the Trump Tower Moscow began in mid 2015 and were “going on from the day I announced to the day I won,” Trump told Rudy Giuliani according to the New York Times. Think about that, negotiations for the Tower lasted for over a year, all predicated on Trump winning the election, running on a parallel track to the campaign yet just as they reached its stated goal, negotiations ground to a halt.

Sater enlisted Evgeny Shmykov, a former Russian Intelligence General, whom he knew for years.

Spy v. Spy

Between 2007 and 2015 Sater travelled to Russia regularly where he repeatedly tried to set up partnerships to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. News of Sater’s cooperation with the feds had reached Moscow but he kept going back with no apparent problem. Sater is fond of reminding anyone who will listen that he is something of a “Jewish James Bond” and while the events of his life appear to be true he may not be telling the whole story.

Weeks after the letter of Intent was signed, Sater enlisted an old friend Evgeny Shmykov, a former Russian military intelligence General, to help him with the logistics of a proposed Trump trip to Moscow. It seems like overkill to hire a GRU General for something a travel agent could do.

But Sater knew Shmykov from espionage exploits that yielded valuable information about Al Qaida and North Korea for U.S. intelligence.

In 2004, Sater persuaded Shmykov to hand over the name and photographs of a North Korean military operative who was buying nuclear equipment for his country’s arsenal. Shmykov also gave Sater classified information about al-Qaida.

Shmykov would not have been able to hand over such sensitive material if he wasn’t authorized to by Putin. “If he had done it without permission, he would be in jail for a very long time,” says Yuri Felshtinsky the Russian-American author who co-wrote a book with Alexander Litvinenko.

So that leads us to ask is Sater a double agent?

Shmykov is no longer with military intelligence but remains a close advisor to Putin which suggests Putin would have had to bless Sater’s missions.

It’s not the first time Trump’s Moscow Tower aspirations have been linked to the GRU. A subsidiary of Oleg Deripaska’s company hosted the Trump family on a visit to Moscow in 2009. Deripaska has been an FSB spy since the 1990s, according Felshtinsky.

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Cashing in?

There’s an important footnote to what we know about this deal. The proposed Moscow Tower’s Russian developer Andrei Rozov has been Sater’s friend for almost two decades before they both worked at Russia’s Mirax. Sater contends that he works for himself but according to Rolling Stone, Sater was employed by Rozov.

One month after the Letter of Intent was signed Sater and Rozov unloaded a New York office building, making $8 million after only owning the building for a year. Sater won’t say why he was listed as the owner or why the office building was sold at that time, but the timing and people involved does raise questions.

Donald Trump and Putin

Catch 22

Despite all this abundant evidence, why did Robert Mueller not find sufficient evidence to conclude a conspiracy was committed beyond reasonable doubt?

“We have seen [the conspiracy] with our own eyes, we know it happened” Felshtinsky said, before adding: “It’s not surprising Mueller couldn’t find anything conclusive. A good secret service never leaves any tracks.”

Mueller’s scope of investigation was limited to coordination between the Trump Campaign and the Russian Government. Sater didn’t work for the campaign, and his Russian contacts did not officially work for the Russian government. They were cut-outs or third-party actors designed to hide the identity of the principals – but that alone does not rule out an indictment or collusion.

Sater believes he was doing noble work for his country and seems truly invested in it for personal reasons. The FBI was keenly interested in his work for Trump as they were investigating Trump for various crimes prior to the campaign. Sater has immunity from prosecution.

At the same time, it’s possible Russian intelligence could have been receiving their own information from Sater and they too would have known Sater had immunity from prosecution.

Sater, the only person who would have had that stated immunity, was also the only person to explicitly detail the attempted collusion in e-mails to Michael Cohen.

“You and I will get Donald and Vladimir on a stage together very shortly,” Sater wrote. “That is the game changer. America’s most difficult adversary agreeing that Trump is a good guy to negotiate,” Sater wrote.

Could Sater’s immunity hinder Mueller’s ability to prosecute conspiracy surrounding the Trump Tower?

While Republicans and Trump have sought to paint the entire Mueller Report as a “trap” set by “dirty cops”, it may have also been a trap set by the GRU designed to backfire on the FBI, setting the stage for a bloodletting at the bureau. Remember some of the mobs biggest enemies have already been fired Comey, Strzok, Page, and McCabe. The rest were in Mueller’s team like Mueller himself and Weissmann.

Could this be the ultimate revenge? Setting up a Saturday night massacre like no-one could have imagined.

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