Donald Trump said in a recent interview with NBC’s Lester Holt, "I have had dealings over the years where I sold a house to a very wealthy Russian many years ago. I had the Miss Universe pageant — which I owned for quite a while — I had it in Moscow a long time ago. But other than that, I have nothing to do with Russia."
The reality, however, is that Trump couldn’t be more wrong. The President has deep Russian connections that far exceed what he admitted to Holt.
In a 2007 deposition that Trump gave as part of his unsuccessful defamation lawsuit against reporter Timothy O’Brien, he describes efforts to launch real estate ventures in Russia through Bayrock Associates, a shady Russian-connected outfit. Bayrock had partnered with Trump on at least four major but failed American projects: the Fort Lauderdale Trump Tower, the Trump Ocean Club in Fort Lauderdale, the SoHo condominium-hotel in New York, and a resort in Phoenix.
Bayrock had its office on the 24th floor of Trump Tower, and its 2007 glossy brochure featured a photo of Trump and Tevfik Arif, a principal Bayrock partner, who served for 17 years in the Soviet government before emigrating to the United States. It called the Trump Organization a “strategic partner,” and listed Trump as their primary reference.
Felix Sater, a Russian-born managing director at Bayrock, was convicted of assault in 1991. Then, in 1998, federal prosecutors convicted Sater of fraud, for running a $40 million penny stock fraud in collaboration with the New York and Russian Mafia. In return for a guilty plea, Sater reportedly agreed to work as a government informant.
Trump testified in his 2007 deposition that Bayrock was working their international contacts to complete Trump/Bayrock deals in Russia, Ukraine, and Poland. He testified that “Bayrock knew the investors” and that “this was going to be the Trump International Hotel and Tower in Moscow, Kiev, Istanbul, et cetera, and Warsaw, Poland.”
Trump said in the deposition that Bayrock’s Tevfik Arif “brought the people up from Moscow to meet with me,” and that he was teaming with Bayrock on other planned ventures in Moscow. The only Russians who likely had the resources and political connections to sponsor such ambitious international deals were the corrupt “oligarchs.” Although Trump claimed that negative publicity about him from O’Brien killed the deals, he still insisted that “we are actually going to be [in Russia] fairly soon.” When asked if he had “concerns about investing in Russia,” Trump answered “No.”
The plaintiffs in a 2015 racketeering case against Bayrock, Sater, and Arif, among others, alleged in the civil lawsuit that: “for most of its existence it [Bayrock] was substantially and covertly mob-owned and operated,” engaging “in a pattern of continuous, related crimes, including mail, wire, and bank fraud; tax evasion; money laundering; conspiracy; bribery; extortion; and embezzlement.” Although the lawsuit does not allege complicity by Trump, it claims that Bayrock exploited its joint ventures with Trump as a conduit for laundering money and evading taxes. The lawsuit cites as a “Concrete example of their crime, Trump SoHo, [which] stands 454 feet tall at Spring and Varick, where it also stands monument to spectacularly corrupt money-laundering and tax evasion.”
In September 2008, Donald Trump Jr. gave the following statement to the “Bridging U.S. and Emerging Markets Real Estate” conference in Manhattan: “[I]n terms of high-end product influx into the United States, Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets; say in Dubai, and certainly with our project in SoHo and anywhere in New York. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.” Trump’s many deals with Bayrock unravels Donald Jr’s comments. He refers specifically to the Soho venture in which Trump partnered with the Russian-connected Bayrock group.
Trump’s 2013 sojourn in Russia for the Miss Universe pageant was far less innocent that he would have us believe. According to the Washington Post, the deal to bring the pageant to Russia was “financed in part by the development company of a Russian billionaire Aras Agalarov.… a Putin ally who is sometimes called the ‘Trump of Russia’ because of his tendency to put his own name on his buildings.”
While in Moscow, Trump met with Russian oligarchs who were closely aligned with President Vladimir Putin, including Herman Gref, the chief executive officer of the state-controlled Sberbank, Russia’s largest bank. In 2014, the United States and the European Union sanctioned Sberbank in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “The Russian market is attracted to me,” Trump said. “Almost all of the oligarchs were in the room,” he bragged. He tweeted, “TRUMP TOWER-MOSCOW is next.”
The Bayrock Group’s Felix Sater emerges again during the Trump campaign and presidency. Sater contributed the maximum $5,400 to Donald Trump’s campaign. Then on February 19, 2017, the New York Times reported that “A week before Trump fired Michael Flynn resigned as national security advisor, a sealed proposal was hand-delivered to his office, outlining a way for President Trump to lift sanctions against Russia.”
The Times said that three men were responsible for developing and delivering the plan: Andrew Cohen, Trump’s personal lawyer, and Andrii V. Artemenko, a pro-Russian member of the Ukrainian parliament.
The third man was none other than Trump’s former business partner and convicted fraudster, Felix Sater. How and why Sater became involved with a key member of the Trump administration in the most sensitive of diplomatic transactions between the United States and Russia remains one of the many mysteries to be resolved by congressional and FBI investigators.
Allan J. Lichtman is a professor of history at American University in Washington, DC. He is also author of The Case for Impeachment (Dey Street Books, 2017).
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated that the New York Attorney General joined in a 2015 racketeering civil case against Bayrock, Felix Stater, and Tevfik Arif, among others. The New York Attorney General did not intervene. Also, the article incorrectly stated that Stater was a shareholder of Bayrock. He was not. The article has been updated.