For more than a year, the media have been abuzz with facts, rumors, and speculation regarding President Trump’s ties to the Russian government – his own personal ties, and those of advisers like Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort. On a separate track, investigative journalists like David Cay Johnston have dredged up decades of connections between Trump and organized crime, including his mentoring by the venomous, mobbed-up Roy Cohn.
Thanks to Martin Longman, who weaves these complex threads into a single tapestry, a pattern is beginning to emerge. His Washington Monthly piece on Trump’s erstwhile business partners Felix Sater, Tevfik Arif, and Tamir Sapir is not quite a smoking gun. The accumulation of circumstances and associations is enough to raise the gravest doubts as to his fitness to occupy the office of the presidency and merits a nonpartisan, independent investigation.
One way of thinking about the problem of Trump’s Russian connections is to picture a series of three concentric circles: the Russian state at the center, surrounded by oligarchs of varying degrees of legal legitimacy, and on the periphery, organized criminal gangs. There is no sharp demarcation line as they shade one into the other.
We know the unfortunate tendency of intelligence services using mafias as informers, go-betweens, and for conducting “wet work,” as the sad history of the CIA’s efforts to overthrow Fidel Castro illustrate. In Russia, where the KGB and now the FSB recognize no law and no practical constraint, the practice is even more pronounced.
Tamir Sapir is an interesting case in point. He was one of Trump’s shady business partners in the latter’s failed SoHo real estate project. He somehow emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1973, then generally considered a closed, totalitarian system. Beginning in New York as a cab driver, he forged a textbook rags-to-riches career, eventually ending up a billionaire before he died in 2014.
The key element is this: citizens leaving the Soviet Union in those days were widely thought in the West to be political dissidents, persecuted Jews or other religious minorities, or others labeled “refuseniks,” who only were allowed to leave because of Western diplomatic pressure or outright purchase of their freedom. This stereotype became conventional wisdom thanks to the Jackson-Vanik Amendment and periodic publicity campaigns on the refuseniks’ behalf.
Yet how many were KGB plants and how many were simply criminal riff-raff the Russian state wanted to offload, who might be useful later in their adopted lands? Already by the late 1970s the Russian mob was establishing itself in New York and looking for places to launder its money, even as Donald Trump was looking for “investors” in his shaky real estate deals. We know that as early as 1979, Trump arranged with a Genovese Mob-controlled union to supply illegal Polish construction workers at far below union pay. As the Russian mobs (who have the reputation of a colony of scorpions) gradually muscled out the Italian gangs, it is not difficult to see young Donald going with the flow.
Given the circumstances of Sapir’s 1973 departure from the USSR, what are we to make of the unusual fact cited by Longman that he was seen in 1984 in Moscow studying at the Soviet Ministry of Internal Affairs’ academy? This, if true, is startling, to say the least. Sapir’s later coincidental bumping into Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze at his New York electronics shop is even more tantalizing.
The same odd circumstances apply to another Trump business partner, Tevfik Arif. Until the Soviet Union went belly-up, Arif he worked for 17 years in Moscow for the Ministry of Commerce and Trade. Longman explains that, like Sapir, Arif parlayed his talents and connections into remarkable riches, as well as influential connections to the Russian metals industry, then in the process of being asset-stripped by oligarchs.
Likewise, Felix Sater, Trump’s third business buddy. Like Sapir, he was a mid-1970s émigré from the USSR to the United States. Like the other two, he also had a remarkably lucrative career, and all the more noteworthy because, unlike Arif and Sapir, he did not even possess a thin veneer of respectability. He was basically a garden-variety thug, cutting someone’s face and threatening to burn the testicles of a recalcitrant client. Yet he also managed to become an investor in Trump’s SoHo scheme. He even became a “senior advisor” to Trump in January 2010 for approximately a year.
And now, unbelievably, Sater shows up at the door of Michael D. Cohen, the president’s personal lawyer, delivering a back-channel “peace plan” for Ukraine in exchange for ending sanctions. In truth, it is less a conventional diplomatic plan than a blackmail scheme involving threats to reveal corruption among Ukrainian politicians. This is possibly the slimiest so-called peace deal since the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact of 1939. Cohen has since changed his story, but the New York Times stands by it.
The tale gets even more complicated because of Sater’s activity as a mob informant for the FBI and supposed CIA source for information about weapons smuggling out of the Former Soviet Union. These activities explain his remarkably light sentences for serious crimes.
The dilemma for the FBI has always been this: if there is any likely channel for federal law enforcement to become corrupted, it is through the informant program. (Since time out of mind, snitches were known as “informers,” but the FBI, in keeping with the government preference for euphemism, chastely calls them “informants”). We have seen, most infamously in the case of Boston mobster Whitey Bulger, how this practice has blown back on the FBI whenever the Bureau preferred to keep its snitches talking rather than prevent serious crimes, including murder.
Others have suggested that Sater, whatever his Russian intelligence connections, appears to have been “doubled” by U.S. intelligence to provide useful information on organized crime and weapons smuggling. But could it be that the FSB “tripled” Sater, using him in a much higher-level political operation dwarfing in importance the information the U.S. agencies were getting from him? It would explain why he appeared out of nowhere with a devil’s diplomatic bargain.
I have previously concluded that FBI director James Comey’s behavior regarding Hillary Clinton’s emails as well as Trump’s Russian connections was suspicious. We may now have another reason beyond personal or institutional bias: has the Bureau been “Whitey Bulgerized” by Sater and its other informants, even as grim accusations swirl around the Oval Office? Only an independent investigation can be trusted to get to the facts.