Donald Trump keeps saying that he has nothing to do with the Russians. Most recently, he made this claim in his White House press conference last week: “I can tell you, speaking for myself, I own nothing in Russia. I have no loans in Russia. I don’t have any deals in Russia.” He said it at a press conference in early January, too.
He also made the denial in one of the debates with Hillary Clinton.
Given that Trump is pretty consistent in how he words these denials, it could be that he’s carefully parsing. After all, if he has business interests in Azerbaijan, which he does, that’s a former Soviet Socialist Republic that is no longer part of the same nation-state as “Russia.”
Whether Trump is being too clever by half or simply lying is something that reporters, the Intelligence Community, Congress, and maybe the Treasury Department need to figure out. What’s clear for now, though, is that Trump has plenty of connections to Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union.
Hopefully, you’ve already seen the New York Times piece from this weekend detailing how Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen took a dossier to Michael Flynn that had been provided to him by a pro-Russian Ukrainian politician named Andrii V. Artemenko and a Russian mob-connected former employee of the Trump Organization named Felix Sater.
The dossier reportedly contained damaging information about the anti-Russian Ukrainian president, Petro O. Poroshenko, that the Trump administration could conceivably use to oust him. It also contained some kind of Russian-Ukrainian “peace plan” that would facilitate the lifting of sanctions on Russia.
What people are focusing on, quite justifiably, is the involvement of this Felix Sater character. I could write a whole, very long piece dedicated to nothing more than how obviously crazy it is for a personal lawyer to Donald Trump to meet with Sater, let alone carry his information personally to Trump’s national security adviser. Hopefully, however, you can find that argument made elsewhere.
I want to focus on two other characters. One is the man who hired Felix Sater despite his record of violence that landed him in prison and his felony conviction for a pump and dump stock scheme he ran in the 1990’s in league with Sammy ‘the Bull’ Gravano’s brother-in-law.
Tevfik Arif is originally from the former Soviet Socialist Republic of Kazakhstan. During the Soviet Era, he worked for seventeen years in Moscow for the Ministry of Commerce and Trade. He quit that job in 1991 as the USSR was dissolving and caught quite a break. Somehow he was able to parlay his experience (which focused mainly on hotel management) at the Commerce and Trade Ministry into ownership of the Speciality Chemicals Trading Company, “an export-import business trading in rare metals, chrome, and raw materials.” Shortly thereafter, once Kazakhstan gained it’s independence from Russia, he took over ACCP, a chromium plant in Aktobe.
From there, he took his riches and built a hotel in Antalya, Turkey which was completed in 1999. This was obviously more in line with his career experience than handling rare metals. Then, in 2001, he came to America and created the Bayrock Group, a real-estate development company based in Brooklyn.
It was then that he hired Felix Sater and made him a part-owner and partner, and these two then got involved with Donald Trump.
Mr. Sater, a Russian immigrant, had recently joined Bayrock at the behest of its founder, Tevfik Arif, a former Soviet-era commerce official originally from Kazakhstan. Bayrock, which was developing commercial properties in Brooklyn, proposed that Mr. Trump license his name to hotel projects in Florida, Arizona and New York, including Trump SoHo.
If you know anything about the Yeltsin Era of the 1990s or the rise of Vladimir Putin, you know that that the Russian state was sold off to KGB-connected or approved businessmen and intelligence officers who quickly formed into a ruling oligarchy. Mr. Arif’s rise from a hotel management functionary in the Commerce and Trade Ministry into a rare metals trader is highly, highly suspicious and ought to be looked at very carefully.
The second person I want to focus on is Tamir Sapir (nee Temur Sepiashvili), who died in 2014. An Ashkenazi Jew who was born in Tbilisi, Georgia, in the former Soviet Union, he emigrated to Israel just prior to the outbreak of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. From there, he quickly re-emigrated to Kentucky where he worked as a laborer.
There was a war between Arabs and Israeli in 1973, so Temur decided to leave Israel and head to a small town in Kentucky. “I was ready to accept any job, so I ended up caring for elderly women. Every day I took them to a special facility where they entertained themselves by knitting, singing and other things. They were the ones who taught me English. Right next to me lived a rich man who owned several shops. He had a business selling tools and offered me to work for him.” – remembers the billionaire. He worked as a driver, janitor and a loader, while dedicating his free time to studying English and saving up money.
Before long, he relocated to New York City, becoming a cabbie.
In 10 months, his family came to live in New York and Temur Sepiashvili became a cabbie. “I worked day and night, because I wanted to buy out the car. I slept at the airport, waiting for the first flight to arrive. In six months, the taxi became mine. I made 300-400$ per day and had time to go with my family to the park, to the movies, to the restaurant”, – says Sapir.
What happened next was either the work of Russian intelligence or one of the most surprising and unlikely success stories in history. According to the legend, Mr. Sapir and a fellow USSR emigrant named Sam Kislin pooled their savings and bought an electronics store on Broadway in Manhattan. They hoped to attract business from the Russian emigre community, but they had a different kind of luck.
Former President of Georgia Eduard Shevardnadze played an important role in his success. “Once USSR’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Eduard Shevardnadze, visited my shop. One of his bodyguards, Murad Kazishvili, turned out to be my childhood friend. Back in the day, an organization existed called “Council for American-Soviet Trade”, in which over a hundred large American companies participated, among them “Occidental Petroleum Hammer” and “Pepsi-Cola”, which also had business ties with the USSR. With Murad’s help, I also joined this organization and went to Moscow with Vice-President Bush, who headed the Council,” Tamir says. According to him, during his stay in Moscow, one of his friends advised him to start exporting carbamide to America. This substance is necessary for oil production and during Soviet times it cost 5 times less than in the US. The Carbamide trade gave Tamir his first million and as he says, whet his appetite.
He exported American clothing, footwear and tech to USSR while importing oil and oil products from there, investing profits into real estate in New York. Prices on real estate were low in 1995-1996: for example, a skyscraper that is now estimated to be worth approximately 1.5 billion dollars cost just 17 million back then. Sapir got incredibly lucky; according to his own words, it was nothing less than divine intervention. In 1997, real estate prices grew and property that Sapir bought for miniscule prices was sold for colossal amounts of money. This is how Sapir got his first billion.
So, supposedly this guy went from sleeping in his cab to being a billionaire because he quickly made enough money selling VCR’s and Walkmans to make major investments in Russian carbamide which he then used to buy a skyscraper for 17 million dollars. In the process, he was invited to join the Council for American-Soviet Trade and meet with then-Vice President George H.W. Bush.
You won’t find it in his official biography, but I found the following in write-up on Sapir in a local Georgia news outfit that was profiling native Georgians who had emigrated and made a fortune (emphasis mine):
In order for Tamir Sapir’s biography to be complete, recollections of his classmate, Sergo Davlianidze, must be also mentioned. “We managed to be friends and also fight in the 60’s. My classmate from Tbilisi State School #45 was a boxing enthusiast, just like me. Who could imagine that he would become a businessman? He lived in a communal apartment near an Ashkenazi synagogue in Old Tbilisi, where all neighbors had to use the same water closet. Last time I saw Temur was in 1984 in Moscow, when he studied at Soviet Ministry of Internal Affairs’ academy. He already had his own business then and offered to provide me with foreign electronics and tech if I wanted to.
The article goes on to laconically state that “It is noteworthy that the fact of [the] émigré billionaire’s study at Soviet Ministry of Internal Affairs isn’t featured in any of his biographies and neither does Sapir himself talk about this in his recollections.”
Now, here is where I tie all these individuals together with Donald Trump. They all were business partners on the Trump SoHo project. The project was a collaboration between the Trump Organization, the Bayrock Group (of Arif and Sater), and the (Tamir) Sapir Organization.
The potential Russian intelligence connections of Arif and Sapir should be obvious considering their unlikely rises to great wealth. Sater is already known for his well-established connections to the Russian mafia, and he was also turned back against the Russian mob and probably Russian intelligence, too, by our FBI.
Recently unsealed federal court records show that Mr. Sater helped the government disrupt an organized crime ring on Wall Street and deal with an unexplained national security matter involving his foreign connections.
[Sater] was not the only F.B.I. informant in Bayrock’s offices. Another was Salvatore Lauria, an associate of Mr. Sater, who sometimes showed up to work wearing a court-ordered ankle monitor.
Mr. Lauria brokered a $50 million investment in Trump SoHo and three other Bayrock projects by an Icelandic firm preferred by wealthy Russians “in favor with” President Vladimir V. Putin, according to a lawsuit against Bayrock by one of its former executives. The Icelandic company, FL Group, was identified in a Bayrock investor presentation as a “strategic partner,” along with Alexander Mashkevich, a billionaire once charged in a corruption case involving fees paid by a Belgian company seeking business in Kazakhstan; that case was settled with no admission of guilt.
Things got hairy at Bayrock when one of their lawyers accidentally let it slip to a major investor that Mr. Sater was in fact a part-owner. Forbes did a deep-dive on that story and devoted a lot of money to investigating Sater. I recommend their piece to you if you want to know more. But, basically, Sater’s ownership was supposed to remain obscured because of his felony record. The Trump SoHo project ran into its own problems as they were sued for fraud and had to return over $3 million in deposits. Those records remain sealed as part of the settlement.
I don’t know what else to do with this information than just throw it out there for you. It’s all highly sketchy, but I do agree with Josh Marshall that it provides the likeliest entry point for getting to the bottom of why Donald Trump acts like Vladimir Putin is holding his children hostage. In fact, it was Donald Jr. and Ivanka who were the contact people for Sater and the Bayrock Group throughout the SoHo project, and the fact that the deal went south may be directly related to every confusing thing we’re seeing from the president. After all, you don’t get in business with the mafia and have it go badly and just walk away.