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BOOK REVIEW: ‘House of Trump, House of Putin,’ the plot to put a Russian operative in the White House

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By Saturday, Nov 17, 2018 Arts & Entertainment 2

House of Trump, House of Putin
Penguin Random House LLC
375 Hudson St.
New York, New York 10014
Copyright © 2018 by Craig Unger  $30

Craig Unger wastes no time telling “the story of one of the greatest intelligence operations in history, an undertaking decades in the making, through which the Russian Mafia and Russian intelligence operatives successfully targeted, compromised, and implanted either a willfully ignorant or an inexplicably unaware Russian asset in the White House as the most powerful man on earth. In doing so, without firing a shot, the Russians helped put in power a man who would immediately begin to undermine the Western Alliance … start massive trade wars with America’s longtime allies; fuel right-wing anti-immigrant populism; and assault the rule of law in the United States.” (Emphasis added.)

Unger, a long-time contributor to Vanity Fair and a New York Times bestselling author, asks the critical questions. Why is it so many in America seem unconcerned that Russia has influenced the 2016 election, that it might wield significant influence on President Trump? Unger’s answer: “One reason they went largely unnoticed for so long may be that aspects of them are so unsettling, so transgressive, that Americans are loath to acknowledge the dark realities staring them in the face.”

Unger makes several startling claims: Trump was but one of dozens of U.S. politicians and businesspeople targeted over more than 20 years who became indebted to Russia. Unger writes: “Millions of dollars have been flowing from individuals and companies from, or with ties to, Russia to GOP politicians, including Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell … for decades, Russian operatives, including key figures in the Russian Mafia, studiously examined the weak spots in America’s pay-for-play political culture—from gasoline distribution to Wall Street, from campaign finance to how the K Street lobbyists of Washington ply their trade.” Then they “hired powerful white-shoe lawyers, lobbyists, accountants, and real estate developers by the score, in an effort to compromise America’s electoral system, legal process, and financial institutions.”

This claim surprised the heck out of me: “The most powerful figures in America’s national security—including two FBI directors, William Sessions and Louis Freeh … ended up working with Russians who had been deemed serious threats to the United States.”

Donald Trump, Tevfik Arif and Felix Sater at Trump Soho in September 2007

Donald Trump “was $4 billion in debt when Russian money came to his rescue and bailed him out, and, as a result, he was and remains deeply indebted to them for reviving his business career and launching his new life in politics.” Unger describes Trump’s business relationship with Felix Sater and Bayrock real estate development company and claims Sater allowed the Russian mafia to launder enormous amounts of money, perhaps as much as billions of dollars, through Trump-branded real estate.

This has been a long-term effort: “President Trump has been a person of interest to Soviet and Russian intelligence for more than forty years and was likely the subject of one or more operations that produced kompromat (compromising materials) on him regarding sexual activities.”

How bad is this? Unger reminds us that former director of national intelligence James Clapper suggested that, in effect, Trump is an intelligence asset’ serving Russian president Vladimir Putin, or, even worse, as Glenn Carle, a former CIA national intelligence officer, told Newsweek, ‘My assessment is that Trump is actually working directly for the Russians.’”

There is much in “House of Trump, House of Putin” that is new to me, including the fascinating story of the extraordinary impact of the Russian mobsters who immigrated to America in the 1970s and ‘80s, learning from the Italian mafia that there was a considerable lag between the time New York City gas stations collected the various taxes on every gallon of gas they sold—at that time 27 cents per gallon; now about 64 cents—and about the year it took for the authorities to collect these taxes.

The mafia made sure that the listed owners of these gas stations were dummy corporations registered in Panama. Then they’d close down the stations just before the tax collector came by. Then they’d re-open with a new name, owned by a new company, and start the scam all over again.

Unger writes it was “one of the most lucrative government rip-offs in American history,” and so successful the Russians jumped in. In 1984, Sonny Franzese and his son Michael of the Colombo crime family reached an agreement with “three alleged Russian gangsters, David Bogatin, Michael Markowitz, and Lev Persits,” part of a generation of Russians quick to identify cracks in a system they quickly realized was vulnerable to extortion and crime. The tax scam was a gold mine and the Russians quickly had 200 people working on it.

“Soon, the tax money came pouring in—$5 million to more than $8 million a week. As the operation expanded, profits soared to $100 million a month, more than a billion a year … and Markowitz and Bogatin were well on their way to lucrative criminal careers.”

By the mid-1980s, the now-entrenched Russian mafia was positioned “to play a vital role in Donald Trump’s rise to power, such a vital role that it is fair to say that without the Russian Mafia’s move into New York, Donald Trump would not have become president of the United States.”

Trump Village in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. Photo courtesy trumpvillagerealty.com

What happened? Take David Bogatin. Suddenly these Russians had more money than they knew what to do with. “For roughly a decade, thousands of Russian Jews like him had been pouring into Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. But Bogatin had his eyes on something more prestigious. Bogatin became fixated on a garish fifty-eight-story edifice in midtown Manhattan with mirrors and brass and gold-plated fixtures everywhere. A monument to conspicuous consumption, it had an atrium covered with pink, white-veined marble near the entrance and a sixty-foot waterfall overlooking a suspended walkway, luxury shops, and cafés.

That’s 721 Fifth Ave.—Trump Tower. Unger tells us: “Donald Trump himself took the unusual step of personally meeting with David Bogatin when the transaction took place. Apparently, Trump found nothing untoward in the fact that Bogatin was buying not one but five luxury condos in Trump Tower for a total of $6 million (the equivalent of approximately $14.5 million in 2018).”

Turns out that Trump Tower was only one of two buildings willing to accept payment channeled through LLC shell companies that shielded the identities of the purchasers. And “thanks to these lax regulations, Trump began to sell condos in Trump Tower as an ideal vehicle through which criminals could put their dirty money into luxury condominiums …” [and] “whether he knew it or not, he had just helped launder money for the Russian Mafia.”

Some historical perspective: The Soviet Union’s intervention in Afghanistan was a disaster. Many in the Russian secret service, the KGB, saw the looming economic and political crises about to overtake them. Unger writes: “All of which created a gigantic power vacuum for the Russian Mafia to fill at a time when it had grown to roughly nine thousand criminal gangs with thirty-five thousand members, many of whom, likely including Bogatin, were looking to transfer illicit funds into safe havens in the West.

On the one hand, the disintegration of the Soviet Union had opened a fire-hose-like torrent of hundreds of billions of dollars in flight capital that began to pour forth from oligarchs, wealthy apparatchiks, and mobsters in Russia and its satellites. On the other hand, Donald Trump’s zeal to sell condos, no questions asked, to shell companies meant that Russians could launder vast amounts of money while hiding their personal identities.

It’s estimated Russian oligarchs including Vladimir Putin moved approximately $300 billion a year into the United States purchasing luxury real estate. Buzzfeed’s Thomas Frank found that “more than 1,300 condos, one-fifth of all Trump-branded condos sold in the US since the eighties, were sold ‘in secretive, all-cash transactions that enable buyers to avoid legal scrutiny by shielding their finances and identities.’ These sales totaled ‘about $1.5 billion, a figure that actually may understate the amount of dirty money in play. The article did not include Trump’s many buildings outside the United States, such as Trump-branded high-rises in Canada, the Philippines, Panama, Uruguay, Turkey, India, South Korea, and other countries where President Trump often licenses his name and collects royalties.” (Emphasis added)

Unger notes that Bogatin’s purchase of the five apartments “did nothing less than link the future president of the United States to murderous Russian mafiosi and their subculture of drugs, money laundering, extortion rackets, prostitution, and more. Even more important, the transaction may have represented an initial contact from Soviet intelligence to see if Trump was a potential Soviet ‘asset,’ or agent of influence.”

Oleg Kalugin

Unger explains: “When he was asked about the Bogatin-Trump transaction, Oleg Kalugin, the former head of counterintelligence for the KGB, said he was ‘not surprised. That’s typical. Normally, the procedures of major intelligence and secret police organizations are intended to collect sufficient information to see if the guy will collaborate,’ he added. ‘If he is willing to collaborate, he may be useful.’

This kind of outreach marked a renewed Russian effort to expand its influence: “In Trump, the Soviets had discovered a man who was so intoxicated by a huge new clientele with boatloads of cash that he engaged in dubious transactions without asking questions. Doing business with Trump allowed the Russian Mafia to secure a significant new foothold in the United States and begin an offensive that continues to assault America’s most essential democratic institutions to this day. Moreover, as early as 1984, the Russians had discovered that as long as they had money, Donald Trump was listening.”

Here’s a part of the “House of Trump” story I didn’t know. Unger notes that the Trump family always had a predilection for the criminal impulse: “It began at the tail end of the nineteenth century when a rogue entrepreneur who happened to become Donald Trump’s grandfather headed out for Canada’s Yukon Territory during the Klondike Gold Rush and sought to make his fortune not by panning for gold, but by providing essential services for gold miners. According to author Gwenda Blair, among the various enterprises owned by Frederick, né Friedrich, Trump, was a restaurant sometimes called the Dairy Restaurant and sometimes called the Poodle Dog, which advertised ‘Private Rooms for Ladies’—a polite euphemism for prostitution.

Donald Trump and Fred Trump. Photo courtesy Daily Mail

“A generation later, Fred Trump, the son of Frederick, and Donald’s father, started out building single-family houses in Queens and then became wealthy thanks to windfall profits from building government-backed housing in Brooklyn and Queens.” His Brooklyn developments in Brighton Beach and Coney Island helped spur a decline in those neighborhoods: “Much of this decline came from Fred Trump’s projects in the area, which were tainted by scandal, misappropriation of funds, and cronyism in one form or another. New developments often led to federal hearings and investigations into Trump’s business practices, allegations that Trump defrauded veterans in rental agreements, and allegations of racism.”

Brad Zackson, Fred Trump and Irving Eskenazi. Photo courtesy Dynamic Worldwide Group

Unger continues: “Fred’s projects often involved people tied to the mob, and he dealt with them with the help of Brad Zackson, a convicted felon who had spent nearly five years in jail after taking a plea to dodge an attempted murder charge, and who served as Fred’s consigliere and the exclusive broker for all his properties. (Zackson later worked with Donald Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort as Manafort’s ‘real estate fixer,’ as the Real Deal put it, ‘a Fred Trump protégé with a checkered past and an appetite for fanciful deals.’)”

Donald followed in Fred’s footsteps, determined to expand from the outer boroughs of Queens and Brooklyn into Manhattan. “For Donald Trump, the fact that the entire city was on the verge of bankruptcy was good news indeed, because prices could not go much lower. For his option to buy the dilapidated, rat-infested Commodore Hotel on East Forty-Second Street, Trump paid exactly $1.19. Decrepit though it was, the Commodore had two things going for it: First, it was adjacent to Grand Central Terminal, a spectacular location—if the city came back to life. And second, because the property was so big, the upside was potentially colossal in a city valued by the square foot. It was the opportunity of a lifetime.

“Helping Trump navigate the perilous waters necessary to get the political support and legal tax abatements to consummate the deal was none other than Roy Cohn, Trump’s mentor and role model, the ruthless, heavy-lidded attorney who served as a brutal and pitiless fixer for establishment fixtures (Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Rupert Murdoch, among others) and mobsters alike (Anthony ‘Fat Tony’ Salerno, Carmine Galante, and John Gotti).

Donald Trump and Roy Cohn in October 1994. Photo: Bettmann/Getty

Cohn became indispensable, and a mentor: “Cohn helped the Trumps battle a 1973 lawsuit by the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department alleging that Trump rental properties refused to rent to minority applicants. Cohn advised Donald to tell the government ‘to go to hell and fight the thing in court.’ … In effect, Donald had adopted Roy Cohn’s credo as his own: Always attack. Never apologize. Attack, attack, attack.

“… Cohn, as consigliere for the two biggest crime families in New York, the Genoveses and the Gambinos, was invaluable in helping Trump traverse otherwise choppy waters with concrete contractors, demolition companies, and the like that were often controlled by the mob … In the end, Roy Cohn helped Trump save $120 million through tax abatements from the city …In 1996, twenty years after he optioned it for $1, Trump sold his share for $140 million.”

What about the Russians? “In 1974, … two Democrats who were concerned about Soviet anti-Semitism, had passed a bill that allowed the Soviet Union to enjoy normal trade relations with the US, but only if it let Jewish refugees immigrate to America [and] … more than six hundred thousand Soviet Jews emigrated from the USSR, but the KGB made certain that emigration was not limited to innocent victims of anti-Semitism. Instead, the Soviets … released thousands of hard-core criminals, among them convicted murderers, psychopaths, thieves, and the like, many of whom settled in Brighton Beach.”

Add the Russian spies to their psychopaths: “According to Oleg Kalugin … The KGB’s goal was to place them in sensitive positions in the American government or the military-industrial complex … Once these agents were installed, many of them, including Kalugin himself, began to recruit more spies for the Soviets. ‘Brighton Beach was one of the places I would look for potential sources of information,’ Kalugin told me …

Tamir Sapir. Photo courtesy Forbes

Donald Trump “began developing his own contacts among the new Russian émigrés, including a man named Semyon Kislin … For Trump, it was the beginning of a long association, and the first of many relationships to people who were allegedly tied to Russian mafiosi. Kislin and his partner, Temur Sepiashvili, aka Tamir Sapir …started an electronics store that was well-known among Soviet citizens in the United States and, according to the New York Times, became a wholesale outlet from which Soviet diplomats, KGB agents, and Politburo members bought their electronic equipment.

“Another émigré of note was Michael Sheferovsky (aka Michael Sheferofsky and Mikhail Sater), who had been a major player in the black market with the mob in Moscow … Sheferovsky’s specialty was extortion: his targets included restaurants, food stores, and a medical clinic in Brighton Beach. Sheferovsky had a son, Felix (who changed his last name to Sater), who went into the family business but had grand dreams for the future that led to a working relationship more than two decades later with Fred’s son Donald…”

There’s a reason why Unger relies so much on Kalugin’s testimony. From his early days at 24 as a spy at the Columbia School of Journalism to bureau chief in New York for Radio Moscow to his return to Russia to KGB headquarters to head the K branch of the First Chief Directorate, which was responsible for foreign operations and intelligence collection, Kalugin’s “experience as head of counterintelligence for the KGB makes him a master of the tradecraft that was used to ensnare Trump. The operation began during a 1978 trip to Czechoslovakia not long after Trump’s marriage to Ivana, in which the newlyweds piqued the interest of the Czech Ministry of State Security (also known as the StB) enough that a secret police collaborator began observing Ivana and met several times with her in later years.”

Americans have a limited understanding of the extraordinary reach and power of the Russian secret police. While the U.S. has about 35,000 FBI agents, Unger notes that the KGB is: “The most effective and most feared intelligence-gathering organization in the world with more than four hundred thousand officers inside the Soviet Union and another two hundred thousand border guards, not to mention an enormous network of informers. And that didn’t even include the First Chief Directorate (FCD), the relatively small but prestigious division in charge of gathering foreign intelligence. It had about twelve thousand officers and was headed by General Vladimir Kryuchkov …”(Emphasis added.)

Unger continues: “Thanks to a compendium of his memos  … we know that by 1984 he was deeply concerned that the KGB had failed to recruit enough American agents. To Kryuchkov, absolutely nothing was more important, and he ordered his officers to cultivate as assets not just the usual leftist suspects, who might have ideological sympathies with the Soviets, but also various influential people such as prominent businessmen.

“And so … the political education of Donald Trump began in March 1986, when he met the Soviet ambassador to the United Nations, Yuri Dubinin and his daughter Natalia Dubinina. … As she told the Russian daily Moskovsky Komsomolets, when her father arrived in New York City for his very first visit, she took him on a tour… Natalia said her father ‘never saw anything like [Trump Tower], that he was so impressed that he decided he had to meet the building’s owner at once.’… and paid him a visit.

“… a few months later … Trump happened to be seated next to Yuri Dubinin, who proceeded to flatter the young real estate mogul shamelessly … Trump later rhapsodized about the conversation in ‘The Art of the Deal.’ … [O]ne thing led to another,’ he wrote, ‘and now I’m talking about building a large luxury hotel across the street from the Kremlin, in partnership with the Soviet government.’

“For the KGB, Kalugin told me, recruiting a new asset ‘always starts with innocent conversation’ like this. As Natalia Dubinina explained … ‘Trump melted at once,’ she said. ‘He is an emotional person, somewhat impulsive. He needs recognition. And, of course, when he gets it he likes it. My father’s visit worked on him [Trump] like honey on a bee.’

Unger writes: “The more Trump expanded his business and saw the spotlight, the more he sought a bigger stage. In January 1987, Trump received a letter from Ambassador Dubinin that began, ‘It is a pleasure for me to relay some good news from Moscow.’ The letter added that Intourist, the leading Soviet tourist agency, ‘had expressed interest in pursuing a joint venture to construct and manage a hotel in Moscow.’”

On July 4, Trump flew to Moscow with Ivana and two assistants … “According to Viktor Suvorov, an agent for the GRU, Soviet military intelligence, ‘Everything is free. There are good parties with nice girls. It could be a sauna and girls and who knows what else.’ All of which sounded great, except for one thing: Everything was subject to twenty-four-hour surveillance by the KGB.”… And the KGB would routinely hire young women and deploy them as prostitutes to entrap visiting politicians and businessmen.

Unger quotes Kalugin’s explanation about kompromat, obtaining compromising material: “In your world, many times, you ask your young men to stand up and proudly serve their country … In Russia, sometimes we ask our women just to lie down.” Unger notes that: “To be clear, Kalugin did not claim to have seen such material [but said] ‘I would not be surprised if the Russians have, and Trump knows about them, files on him during his trip to Russia and his involvement with meeting young ladies that were controlled [by Soviet intelligence],’ he said.”

Paul Manafort and Roger Stone

Upon his return from Russia, the cast of Trump characters expanded to include Roger Stone and Paul Manafort: “On July 24, 1987 … an article appeared in a highly unlikely venue, the ‘Executive Intelligence Review,’ that strongly suggested something mysterious was going on between him and the Kremlin. ‘The Soviets are reportedly looking a lot more kindly on a possible presidential bid by Donald Trump, the New York builder who has amassed a fortune through real-estate speculation and owns a controlling interest in the notorious, organized-crime linked Resorts International,’ the article said. ‘Trump took an all-expenses-paid jaunt to the Soviet Union in July to discuss building the Russians some luxury hotels.’

Under Stone’s tutelage, on September 1, 1987 … Trump suddenly went full steam ahead promoting his newly acquired foreign policy expertise …The ads, which ran under the headline ‘There’s nothing wrong with America’s Foreign Defense Policy that a little backbone can’t cure,’ marked Trump’s first foray into a foreign policy that was overtly pro-Russian in the sense that it called for the dismantling of the postwar Western Alliance and was very much a precursor of the ‘America First’ policies Trump promoted during his 2016 campaign.”

Unger adds this fascinating observation: “Trump’s White House ambitions did not make an especially deep impression on American voters in the 1980s, but foreign agencies took notice. Several months after Trump’s visit to New Hampshire, Ivana returned to her homeland, where the Czech StB continued to keep a close eye on her … [filing] a classified report dated October 22, 1988, saying that ‘as a wife of D. TRUMP she receives constant attention … and any mistake she would make could have immense consequences for him … Even though it [his presidential prospects] looks like a utopia,’ the awkwardly translated report said, ‘D. TRUMP is confident he will succeed.’ Only 42, the report added, Trump planned to run as an independent candidate in 1996, eight years hence.

“Finally, the StB file made one more curious observation about Trump’s political future: It said he was being pressured to run for president. And exactly where was the pressure coming from? Could it have been kompromat from the honey trap in Moscow? Unfortunately, the answer was unclear.”

Semion Mogilevich

One of the most interesting things about “House of Trump, House of Putin” is its in-depth coverage of the Russian mafia. Unger offers us a fascinating portrait of Semion Mogilevich, the boss of the bosses: “‘Mogilevich typifies the new global criminal,’ said Jeffrey Robinson, an author who specializes in international financial crime. ‘These men don’t rob banks. They buy them’… The Semion Mogilevich Organization … has allegedly sold weapons to al-Qaeda, financed the sale of enriched uranium to terrorists, laundered money through companies on the New York Stock Exchange, and is said to have assembled a private army of brutal killers …

“To get a sense of the magnitude of his power, one has only to name two people with whom he has had long-term business relationships: Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump … [and that] in the end, it was Mogilevich’s expertise at laundering money that made him so invaluable to other mobsters … He took dirty money and made it clean … Massive industries that had been held by the state were now up for sale—all for mere kopeks on the ruble. Russia had become a gangster’s paradise. It was the birth of a new age of unimaginable greed, in which organized crime was about to become a powerful geopolitical force.”

While the House of Putin now had a seemingly endless stream of stolen cash, the House of Trump was having massive money problems. “As early as 1990, Trump’s casinos were in so much trouble that, far from being a multibillionaire, as he claimed, Trump actually had a negative net worth. Indeed, at a time when payments on more than $1 billion worth of bonds on his casinos came due every ninety days, he was down to his last $1.6 million.

“Then, in 1991, the Trump Taj Mahal, the $1.2 billion casino … became the first of six Trump bankruptcies … Thanks to personal liabilities exceeding $900 million, one after another, Trump’s three Atlantic City casinos and the Plaza Hotel slipped out of his grasp. Other assets, such as the Trump Shuttle and his 282-foot yacht, the Trump Princess, were casualties as well.

Unger writes: “Whether the Russians had been using Trump casinos to launder money was never established in court, but there was more than enough reason to be suspicious … two other Trump casinos, the Trump Castle Hotel and Casino, and the Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino, agreed to pay fines for ‘willfully failing to report’ currency transactions over $10,000 and failing to comply with laws designed to prevent money laundering.”

Next Unger tells the fascinating story of how Putin became rich: “From his relatively unimpressive perch as deputy mayor of St. Petersburg and chair of the External Affairs Committee (KVS) … Putin had acquired the power to determine who could become wealthy … Putin made a killing by signing export licenses, despite lacking the proper authority to do so, for various dubious companies … He also was able to control the movement of money across international borders. All of which put an enormous amount of power in Putin’s hands …

“The former publicly-owned enterprises and utilities, the wealth and treasure of the Russian people were looted and sold off for a fraction of its value … Natural resources such as oil, iron and steel, and aluminum; high-tech arms; airline industries; diamond mines; and most of Russia’s banking system went for next to nothing. In all, Russia privatized 150 state-owned companies for just $12 billion … It was as if a virus had been injected into the system, spreading and institutionalizing corruption throughout a Mafia state run by a kleptocrat who ruled over a web of crooked patronage networks.”

Putin’s power extended throughout the KGB, the state bureaucracy and Russian crime syndicates. But Putin sought even greater influence: “But if Putin was truly to achieve his grandest ambitions, he would need something more—namely, an ally who had the power and reach to recruit assets and agents among people of influence deep inside the United States.” (Emphasis added.)

Vladimir Putin and Rabbi Berel Lazar at the Jewish Museum in Moscow in June 2013. Photo courtesy Baltimore Jewish Life

Unger shares an amazing story about Putin’s shrewd efforts to win the support of Russian Jews and Jewish oligarchs who might threaten his position and the position of his most important Jewish oligarch supporters, Roman Abramovich and Lev Leviev. It’s a story that links the House of Trump to the House of Putin: “in 1999, Putin got Abramovich and Leviev to create the Federation of Jewish Communities in Russia, under the leadership of Rabbi Berel Lazar, a leader in the Hasidic movement called Chabad-Lubavitch.

This unlikely effort created a link to some to some of the biggest supporters of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement in Brooklyn, including “Charles Kushner, an American real estate developer who was later jailed for illegal campaign contributions, tax evasion, and witness tampering. Kushner is also the father of Jared Kushner, who married Donald Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, and later became a senior adviser to President Trump.”

In many ways Putin supported their program because it “is antiabortion, views homosexuality as a perversion, and often aligns itself politically with other fundamentalist groups on the right.”

Ex-CIA agent John Sipher told Unger: “It’s very hard for us in the West to distill the idea that you also have a cloudy group of people with ties to the Kremlin, who have intelligence training, and who have made a bunch of money that can support intelligence operations …”

Unger points to Trump’s connection to real estate development firm Bayrock and Felix Sater and their Trump Soho project. Sater is the living embodiment of the combination of a shrewd wheeler-dealer and a practiced criminal. “Jody Kriss, Bayrock’s former finance director, who eventually claimed the company defrauded him, declared: ‘Felix knew how to be charming and he knew how to be brutally nasty,’ said Kriss. ‘He has charm and charisma. But that’s what con men do.’ … A former colleague of Sater’s told Politico, ‘Trump called Felix like every other day to his office. They were definitely in contact always. They spoke on the phone all the time.’”

Ivanka Trump, Donald Trump, Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump at Trump Soho in September 2007. Photo: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

“Trump entrusted Felix with accompanying his children to Moscow to work on Trump projects in the Russian capital … The Trumps began spending more and more time in Russia. Starting in 2006, Donald Jr., executive vice president of development and acquisitions for the Trump Organization, made about half a dozen trips to Russia over the course of a year and a half. ‘[I]n terms of high-end product influx into the US, Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets,’ he later told a Manhattan real estate conference. ‘ … We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.’” (Emphasis added.)

“Sater remained managing director of Bayrock through 2008. Trump also continued to participate in the venture and enjoy its profits. ‘Inducing a bank to lend money based on a fraudulent loan application—i.e., concealing Sater’s criminal past—is bank fraud,’ said Fred Oberlander. ‘If you know that the loans were procured by fraud yet stay involved, it’s a conspiracy to violate money laundering and racketeering statutes.’ … ‘It’s certainly a question for [special counsel Robert] Mueller to look into,’ said Jonathan Winer.

Regarding Trump Soho: “The building’s no-man’s-land neighborhood—not really SoHo—with its grand entrance beside Varick Street and the chaotic approach to the Holland Tunnel, made it a difficult sell … In 2010, 15 condo buyers filed suit, charging the Trumps and Bayrock with ‘an ongoing pattern of fraudulent misrepresentations and deceptive sales practices.’ … The suit was eventually settled, and the plaintiffs received 90 percent of their deposits back … [and] more charges about Bayrock came forth, among them allegations that the condos themselves were being used as vehicles for money laundering. According to the Financial Times, lawyers for Almaty, the biggest city in Kazakhstan, charged that Viktor Khrapunov, a former Kazakh energy minister and the city’s ex-mayor, and his family ‘conspired to systematically loot hundreds of millions of dollars of public assets . . . and to launder their ill-gotten gains through a complex web of bank accounts and shell companies . . . particularly in the United States.’

“ … With regard to Trump SoHo, the lawyers charged that Khrapunov’s network used dozens of shell companies, among them three limited liability companies—whose ownership could be easily concealed—called Soho 3310, Soho 3311, and Soho 3203, which corresponded to apartments of the same name in Trump SoHo. The vendor of the apartments was Bayrock/Sapir LLC, which was named after the developers of the building, Bayrock and Tamir Sapir’s Sapir Organization. The Financial Times also reported that, according to regulatory filings, Bayrock/Sapir had a third co-owner—Donald J. Trump …”

Unger reminds us Bayrock had additional ties to Russian money: “Another significant Bayrock partner, the Sapir Organization, had, through its principal, Tamir Sapir, a long business relationship with Semyon Kislin, the commodities trader who was tied to the Chernoy brothers and, according to the FBI, to Vyacheslav Ivankov’s gang in Brighton Beach …”

Which also brings us back to Chabad and yet another connection between Trump and Putin: “In addition to being wired into the Kremlin, Sapir’s son-in-law, Rotem Rosen, was a supporter of Chabad along with Sater, Sapir, and others at Bayrock, and, as a result, was part of an extraordinarily powerful channel between Trump and Putin.”

What made the Chabad connection so significant? “First and foremost, the biggest contributor to Chabad in the world was Leviev, the billionaire ‘King of Diamonds’ who had a direct line to Rabbi Berel Lazar, aka ‘Putin’s rabbi,’ to Donald Trump, and to Putin himself dating back to the Russian leader’s early days in St. Petersburg. Leviev would make major real estate transactions with Jared Kushner, including selling the retail space in the former New York Times Building to Kushner for $295 million. As an undergraduate at Harvard, Jared had been active at the campus Chabad House at Harvard …

“Another major contributor was Jared’s father, Charles Kushner … But that is just the beginning of Chabad’s ties to Trump. Indeed, one of the biggest contributors to Chabad of Port Washington, Long Island, was Bayrock founder Tevfik Arif, a Kazakh-born Turk with a Muslim name who was not Jewish, but nonetheless won entry into its Chai Circle as a top donor …

And so, all the strands had started to come together: There was a booming real estate market. There was Vladimir Putin’s festering bitterness about his country’s humiliating Cold War defeat. There were Putin’s dreams of reviving Russia’s imperial glory. There was the newly globalized post–Cold War version of the Russian Mafia, still very much a state actor in league with Russian intelligence. There were untold billions of dollars in flight capital in anonymous shell companies in Cyprus, the Channel Islands, Panama, and other havens for dark money. There were sumptuous chateaux, villas, dachas, and estates, one bigger than the next; gigantic yachts; private jets; and all the rest, all part of a new culture of unimaginable greed.

“And finally there was Donald Trump, emerging from a decade of litigation, multiple bankruptcies, and $4 billion in debt, to rise from the near-dead with the help of Bayrock and its alleged ties to Russian intelligence and the Russian Mafia. ‘They saved his bacon,’ said Kenneth McCallion, a former federal prosecutor who filed suit against Mogilevich, Paul Manafort, Ukrainian oligarch Dmitry Firtash, and others on behalf of former Ukrainian prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko …

“Thanks to Bayrock, McCallion suggests, the future president was indirectly providing Putin with a regular flow of intelligence on what the oligarchs were doing with their money in the US. ‘I believe that Christopher Steele was right,’ says McCallion. ‘Initially, Trump wasn’t that important to Putin. But now that Trump was getting investments from the Russians, Putin could keep track of where their money went because Bayrock kept a ledger that Moscow likely had access to. It was not just about buying condos, which was the tail wagging the dog. It was direct capital investment into various Trump projects.’”

Craig Unger’s “House of Trump, House of Putin” is a wide-ranging and impressive work of investigative journalism. But like other recent works on the Trump/Putin relationship and Russian interference in the 2016 election, “House of Trump, House of Putin” relies on open sources. But the principal players here, especially on the Russian side, are skilled intelligence operatives. And, of course, we’ve never seen Donald Trump’s tax returns. I suspect, if we are ever to learn the truth of what, if any, explicit deals the Trump campaign and Trump administration made with Vladimir Putin, we’ll have to rely on the subpoena power of a Democratic-controlled House of Representatives and the work of Special Counsel Robert Mueller and grand juries in Washington, D.C., Virginia and the Southern District of New York.

In the meantime, and as we wait, pick up a copy of “House of Trump, House of Putin.” Thanks to Craig Unger, you’ll learn some incredible things about Putin’s Russia, the Russian mob’s infiltration into America, and the extraordinary and unusual links between their worlds and the world of Donald Trump. To make it easy, Unger provides a list and description of 59 individuals with ties to both the House of Trump and the House of Putin.

Donald Trump; Agas Agalarov; Olivia Culpo, Miss Universe 2012; and Emin Agalarov. Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

I’ll leave you with this from Unger: “All the various threads were coming together. The Russians had, in effect, activated a channel from the Trumps through the Agalarovs to the Kremlin, from Don Jr. to Emin to Emin’s father to Putin, with Rob Goldstone forwarding messages as necessary. Manafort was still in touch with Kilimnik and was offering private briefings to Deripaska. Even though Bayrock was no longer operational, its presence had opened ongoing relations to the Kremlin through Chabad and through Felix Sater, who had continued to develop Russian contacts and go to Moscow on behalf of Trump. Moreover, according to a report in Christopher Steele’s dossier, ‘a Kremlin insider with direct access to the leadership confirmed that a key role in the secret TRUMP campaign/Kremlin relationship was being played by the Republican candidate’s personal lawyer Michael COHEN’ …

“In some ways, it seemed that everything had come together better than Putin could possibly have dreamed: three decades earlier, Mogilevich and the Russian Mafia’s compromising of Trump had begun by possibly using Trump real estate to launder their money. They had bailed out Trump when he was bankrupt. They had ensnared him with some form of kompromat, most likely, though in exactly what form is unclear. They had ensured that he was beholden to Russia’s money, and its power.

“Meanwhile, the Gerasimov Doctrine had been implemented, and with it a new kind of asymmetric warfare using hackers and cyberattacks, disinformation and media manipulation. All done at Putin’s behest, often by thinly disguised state actors, working hand in hand with the FSB. All largely unseen. All done with deniability. Accompanied by an almost Surkovian attempt to destroy the entire notion of truth via cries of ‘Fake news!,’ pathological lies, and right-wing propaganda, fueled with the gasoline of social media, real and robotic.

“As to the impact of all the ‘active measures’ undertaken by Russia leading up to the 2016 election, it is difficult to quantify exactly how much they changed the outcome of the presidential race. However, according to the study by the University of California at Berkeley and Swansea University in Wales, automated tweeting alone by thousands of bots added 3.23 percentage points to Trump’s vote in the US presidential race.”

“House of Trump, House of Putin” is well worth reading.


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