Walter Soriano: The Security Consultant for Russian Oligarchs, the CIA … and Diego Maradona?

Walter Soriano

Updated with additional details on USG, specifics of Soriano’s work for Deripaska and Abramovich, and links to the CIA.

Natasha Bertrand at Politico was out with a big story earlier this week about Walter Soriano, a mysterious Orthodox Jew who runs a security firm in London.

Bertrand reported that the Senate Intelligence Committee issued a subpoena to Soriano seeking his communications with Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn.

The subpoena, sent April 5, also seeks records of Soriano’s contacts with three Israeli private intelligence firms as well as any communications he may have had with Orbis Business Intelligence, a firm co-founded by the former British spy Christopher Steele.

The 51-year-old Soriano is unknown in the United States, but he’s a figure of intense speculation in Israel where his name surfaced more than a year ago in connection with a bribery investigation of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israeli Kan TV news reported that Soriano was hired to dig up dirt on the investigators investigating Netanyahu. This work was given to subcontractors, some of whom worked for Israeli military intelligence:

This prompted Netanyahu to write a Facebook post insisting that he had not spoken to Soriano in eight years.

What intrigued me about Soriano was that Bertrand’s story linked him to Oleg Deripaska, whose connections to Paul Manafort were at the heart of Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

What hasn’t been reported in the United States is that Deripaska was a client of Soriano’s consultancy, USG Security Limited, according to a court filing by Israeli investigative journalist Raviv Drucker. (Soriano is suing Drucker in Israel for libel.) Drucker wrote that Soriano worked for Deripaska during his long-running legal feud in London with Michael Cherney, who has long faced allegations—which he has denied—that he and his brother, Lev, are connected to Russian organized crime.

Another oligarch, Roman Abramovich, also was a USG client, according to Drucker. USG helped Abramovich in his legal dispute in London with Boris Berezovsky, Drucker’s court filing states.

Drucker claims that USG’s subcontractors carried out “sophisticated surveillance, information gathering and data acquisition by various technological means, such as eavesdropping, hacking, and so on.”

On its website, USG says that its consultants are “all former members of the world’s elite intelligence units, military forces and security organizations, with vast knowledge and practical experience.”

This sounds very much like the work of the three private Israeli security firms who are mentioned in the subpoena: Psy Group, Wikistrat, and Black Cube. Founded by former Israeli military intelligence officers, Black Cube has used operatives with false identities to investigate journalists, victims of Harvey Weinstein, and former Obama staffer Ben Rhodes. Published reports claim Trump aides hired Black Cube for a “dirty ops” campaign to discredit Rhodes and other supporters of the Iran nuclear deal. (Black Cube denied working for Trump.)

Another Soriano client is Dmitry Rybolovlev, another Russian billionaire who purchased a Florida mansion from Trump in 2008 for $95 million. Trump had purchased the mansion for $41 million four years earlier.

Rybolovlev hired Soriano to spy on art dealer Yves Bouvier, according to Drucker and an investigation by Le Point, a French newsweekly. Le Point also obtained correspondence from Soriano to Rybolovlev suggesting he was also hired to deal with problems at the football club the oligarch owns, AS Monaco. (See “L’étrange M. Soriano,” Le Point, February 7 2019.)

The football connection is an interesting thread in this strange world because someone named Walter Soriano emerged in 2010 — the same year that USG Security Limited went into business — as the UK representative of former Argentinian superstar Diego Maradona.

Diego Maradona

“I think Diego would be very open to the idea of coming to England and managing Aston Villa,” a reporter for the Sunday Mercury quoted “Walter Soriano” as saying.

The real Walter Soriano was at one time a partner in a now defunct UK firm called Football Universe Limited. And like Maradona, Soriano is a native Argentinian, the tireless blogger Richard Silverstein reported. (An Israeli judge threw out Soriano’s lawsuit against Silverstein.)

An earlier version of USG’s website names Soriano as director of operations and Simon Bird simply as “UK operations.” The equally mysterious Mr. Bird, who is 76 and not to be confused with an English actor of the same name, gave an address of Ware House in Lyme Regis, a manor immortalized in the film The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Bird is described as a historian and a longtime partner of Winston Churchill’s granddaugher-in-law.

Both Bird and Soriano were directors of a now-defunct UK firm, Universe Security Group, whose board included Nahum Admoni, a former head of Mossad; Uri Sagi, former head of IDF intelligence; and Albert Raes, formerly Belgium’s top spy. (Issac Molho, a trusted advisor to Netanyahu caught up in the prime minister’s scandals, received about $200,000 in “finder’s fees” from the company.)

Update: A reader who asked not to be named pointed out that Molho did not just receive finder’s fees. He owned 10 percent of the company, according to a letter of intent he signed in 2003. Soriano was the majority shareholder.

In 2003, the Panama Maritime Authority, which manages the world’s largest ship register, selected Universe Security Group as one of three “recognized security organizations” to approve ship security plans. Soriano told Lloyd’s List that company operatives come mainly from the UK, Belgium, Israel, Central and South America, North Africa and the US.

A sharp-eyed Twitter user, @brazencapital, pointed out something I had read many years ago and since forgotten. One of Universe Security Group’s contacts was Kyle “Dusty” Foggo, formerly the No. 3 at the CIA who went to prison in the scandal surrounding Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham. (Foggo was one of the subjects in my first book, Feasting on the Spoils.)

Buried in Foggo’s sentencing memorandum from 2008 is a statement from a CIA contractor named Joel Combs:

Sentencing memo, US v Foggo

Universe Security’s reputation suffered a fatal blow in 2009 when one of its customers was robbed, according to an administrator’s report. (The client was not identified in the report but Israeli media reports named Graff diamonds in London.) Admoni, Sagi and Raes all resigned from the company en masse. The company went into liquidation; its assets were acquired by Soriano and Bird’s newly-formed USG Security.

There’s more. Soriano’s USG Security also surfaced in a dispute between wealthy London property developers the Candy brothers and British businessman Mark Holyoake.

“I have reliable information that USG Security has been hired by [Ed Candy] for (sic) investigate and monitor my family, my colleagues and myself,” Holyoake told a London court. He described USG as a “military-based ‘security consultancy and security services provider.'” (See Holyoake v Candy, Queen’s Bench Division)

Holyoake declined to reveal who passed him this information saying it related to security arrangements for his family and “could have consequences for the safety of my source if revealed.” Candy’s representative denied hiring USG.

During trial, Holyoake’s wife testified that among the men in the Candys’ “extended circle who have died mysteriously” is Boris Berezovsky, the exiled Russian oligarch in London who became a fierce critic of Vladimir Putin.

Berezovsky lost his high stakes London court battle with Roman Abramovich in 2012 over control over a major Russian oil company. Seven months later, Berezovsky was found dead in his shower with a scarf around his neck. A coroner could not reach a verdict on the death.

The mysterious Mr. Soriano is much than he seems. Connected to the prime minister, deeply tied to the Israeli security establishment, he adds to the intrigue surrounding Trump and Russia.

A Russian Oligarch is Investing in U.S. Companies. Should We Be Worried?

Vladimir Potanin

Compared to his fellow Russian oligarchs, Vladimir Potanin is radically transparent when it comes to his investments in the United States.

But then again, how many people realized that a Russian oligarch was a major investor in a firm that hosted Maryland’s voting data? Even fewer know that Potanin has been linked in court documents to one of the world’s largest private equity funds.

Potanin, at 58, is one of the world’s richest men. The bulk of his $18.7 billion fortune derives from his large stake in Nornickel, the world’s largest refined nickel and palladium producer, which he has held since the 1990s. Potanin and his fellow metals tycoon, Oleg Deripaska, waged a bitter, multiyear battle for control of Nornickel.

Unlike Deripaska, Potanin has not been sanctioned the U.S. government although he appeared on the Kremlin list of billionaires and officials with ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Potanin is well known in Russia. Less well known, is his role as the major investor in Altpoint Capital Partners LLC, a venture capital fund based in Greenwich, Connecticut with offices in New York and Los Angeles. AltPoint has more than $287 million in assets under management, according to its lastest SEC disclosure.

Potanin does disclose his interests in Altpoint, but there’s a bigger problem: private equity provides a convenient means of obscuring how he and other foreign billionaires invest in U.S. businesses.

“Washington knows shockingly little about foreign money flowing through the financial system, especially via private fund structures like hedge funds, venture capital and private equity, allowing foreign actors to make opaque investments that pose national security risks,” Joshua Kirschenbaum and David Murray observed in Bloomberg.

Altpoint, it turns out, was an early investor in Lyft, the ride-hailing app that recently had its initial public offering. It owns Ford Models, which repped Brooke Shields and Elle Macpherson. And Altpoint has backed a host of startup firms like Factual, a location data company. Altpoint also has founded a hedge fund dealing in cybercurrencies like Bitcoin.

“We are excited about the consumer internet, a new eCommerce approach, media, virtual and augmented reality, mobile solutions or the internet of things,” reads Altpoint’s profile on Cruchbase.

One company in Altpoint’s portfolio is ByteGrid, which set off alarms when in Maryland in July.

During “fact finding activities using open source methods,” the FBI found out that Bytegrid, which hosted the computer servers used to register Maryland voters and and provide unofficial election night results, was being financed by Potanin.

State officials swiftly called a press conference. “We felt it imperative that our constituents know that a Russian oligarch has purchased our election machinery,” said Maryland State Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.

Three years had passed before anybody noticed that the Russian oligarch had “purchased” Maryland’s “election machinery.” And nobody seems too bothered by the fact that the same company managed computer facilities for the U.S. Department of Defense.

This matters because Potanin is an oligarch. In fact, he’s one of Russia’s original oligarchs.

Born into the nomenklatura, the Soviet elite, Potanin used to connections to create a successful bank after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. It was Potanin who masterminded the “loans-for-shares” program and he positioned himself to acquire the government’s position in Nornickel for a fraction of its value.

“Yes, it made me incredibly rich,” he told The Financial Times “Everybody knows I won control of 38 per cent of [Nornickel] in loans for shares, cheap.”

Out of the seven original oligarchs, Potanin is one of the only ones still welcome in Moscow. “Why did we survive, [Mikhail] Fridman and myself? Maybe because we never tried to dictate to the government, to the Kremlin,” he told the FT.

Potanin began quietly investing in the U.S. businesses in 2006 via Stone Tower Equity Partners LLC, a New York private equity fund.

Stone Tower acquired Ford Models in 2007, but it took three years before anyone noticed Potanin’s role. “A Russian oligarch has seized control of a coveted American asset: beautiful models,” The New York Post wrote.

It’s interesting to note that Stone Tower’s chairman and CEO, Michael Levitt, was nominated by Interros, Potanin’s holding company in 2008 to serve as an “independent” director at Nornickel. Levitt was elected, even after his connections to Potanin were revealed.

Guerman Aliev aka Gerald Banks

After the 2008 financial crisis, Guerman Aliev, a Russian who worked for Interros was dispatched in the United States to take over his boss’ investments in Stone Tower.

Aliev brought on a new team and renamed Stone Tower as Altpoint Capital. (He then renamed himself as Gerald T. Banks.)

“We buy and sell controlling and non-controlling positions in companies,” Aliev explained in a 2015 deposition. “Being a U.S. manager in the United States, we have investments in Texas, we have investments in just about every single state in the United States. We buy and sell these companies as we see fit.”

Peering deeply into Altpoint is a difficult task. Just ask Potanin’s ex-wife, Natalia, who tried to identify her husband’s far-flung assets after he filed for divorce in 2013. Mrs. Potanina hired the law firm of Alston & Bird (ring a bell?), and used U.S. courts in several states to force her husband’s U.S. companies to answer questions:

Altpoint is Potanin’s captive private equity fund, and he uses it to keep a significant portion of his wealth in the United States. Petitioner requested discovery from Altpoint and several of its employees to show Potanin’s ties to Altpoint in order to assist her in identifying it as one of Potanin’s assets. Debevoise & Plimpton (which represents Potanin’s interests in Russia) appeared on behalf of Altpoint and several other Potanin-affiliated respondents in multiple other U.S. judicial districts, and moved to quash this discovery. …

Letter to Judge November 18, 2015.

In one filing, attorneys for Natalia Potanina identified the following as Potanin’s U.S. companies:

  • Altpoint Capital Partners LLC
  • Amquip Crane Rental
  • ANARAQ
  • Bytegrid Holdings LLC
  • Everquest Financial Ltd.
  • Ford Models
  • Globe Energy Services LLC
  • IVESCO Holdings
  • Pyote Water Solutions
  • Resources Acquisition
  • Sanchez Resources LLC
  • SCA Sanchez Resources Holdings LLC
  • TowerCo
  • VAZATA
  • Stone Tower Capital LLC
  • Apollo Global Management LLC
  • Norilsk Nickel USA
  • Stillwater Mining Company

The most interesting company on this list is Apollo Global Management LLC, one of the world’s biggest private equity firms with connections to both Russia and the Trump administration.

Apollo loaned $187 million to Jared Kushner’s family real estate firm and one of its founders, Joshua Harris, advised the incoming Trump administration on infrastructure. Earlier, Apollo signed on to finance Trump’s aborted effort to build a tower in Moscow in 1996.

A spokesman for Apollo did not answer my questions about the company’s relationship with Russia.

In 2011, Apollo acquired Stone Tower Capital LLC and with it, Potanin’s old fund, Stone Tower Equity Ventures, for an undisclosed sum. Stone Tower Equity Ventures is now known as Apollo ST Capital LLC.

Another Apollo co-founder, Leon Black, also has links to Trump and Russia. He was named to the advisory board of the $10 billion Russian Direct Investment Fund in 2011. The RDIF was added to the sanctions list in 2015 by the U.S. Treasury Department. Presumably Black has resigned from the RDIF, although his spokesman didn’t respond to my questions.

As for links to Trump, here is Black (wearing sunglasses) seated next to Jared Kushner at the 2016 US Open in New York:

Leon Black, wearing sunglasses, watches the 2016 U.S. Open tennis tournament with Jared Kushner

Altpoint began investing in ByteGrid, which is based in McLean, Virginia, in 2011. According to court documents, Altpoint purchased 3,925 of the total 4,000 Class A Units of ByteGrid and was granted the right to appoint four of the six members of the Board of ByteGrid.

Between 2011 and 2016, Altpoint financed Bytegrid’s acquisition of a half dozen data centers in Silver Spring, Maryland; Alpharetta, Georgia; Chicago, Illinois; Cleveland, Ohio; Lynnwood, Washington; and Annapolis, Maryland. Bytegrid’s investment decisions were controlled by Aliev and two others at Altpoint. (See Decision in Lynwood Tech Holdings LLC v NR Int. LLC, Circuit Court of Fairfax County, Virginia.)

Bytegrid acquired the Sidus Group, an Annapolis-based firm, in 2015. Sidus had an existing contract with the state Board of Elections for the MDVOTERS system.

In May 2016, the MDVOTERS system came under a “denial of service” computer attack and Sidus took the site down to stop the attack. According to the Maryland State Board of Elections, no users were impacted and the system was not compromised. It’s not clear where the attack originated, but in 2017, Maryland learned that it was one of 21 states targeted by Russian government operatives before the 2016 presidential election

After Potanin’s name was linked to the state’s election system, DHS conducted another investigation and found no evidence that Maryland’s systems had been compromised (The report’s detailed findings, however, were redacted). At the end of 2018, ByteGrid transferred ownership of its Annapolis data center to Intelishift, a privately owned, Virginia-based data center.

There’s nothing wrong with a Russian oligarch investing in U.S. business, but the problem, as Maryland learned the hard way, is one of transparency.

If we’ve learned anything about modern Russia, it’s that no oligarch survives in power as long as Potanin has in Russia without answering the Kremlin’s request for help when the call comes. This, I suspect, is what alarmed the FBI about ByteGrid.

Had Putin asked Potanin to throw a wrench into Maryland’s elections, he would not have been able to refuse.

The pee tape

Someday, we may find ourselves staring in amazement at our computer screens as a man who resembles the 45th president performs unspeakable acts with prostitutes in a Moscow hotel room.

But Michael Cohen, the president’s former lawyer and fixer, thinks that day will never come. And he’s in a good position to know one way or another.

The public first learned of the possible existence of what came to be known as the pee tape from the Steele dossier. Former British MI6 officer Christopher Steele reported that prostitutes had performed a “golden shower” urination show for Trump in the Moscow Ritz where he was staying during the 2013 Miss Universe pageant. This had been recorded by Russian intelligence for purposes of blackmailing Trump.

But this claim about a pee tape wasn’t news to Cohen. Thanks to a newly released transcript from the House intelligence committee, we now know that Cohen first heard about the pee tape shortly after Trump returned from Russia.

Trump denied it, but he asked Cohen to find out where the rumors were coming from.

Testifying under oath, Cohen says he spoke to many people about the tape, including one unnamed caller who demanded $20 million.

Another person who called Cohen about the tape was Harvey Levin of the gossip site TMZ, who also had heard about the existence of the tape. (TMZ did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)

In the end, Cohen concluded that the pee tape didn’t exist for a very practical reason. If prostitutes had urinated on the bed in the Moscow Ritz, where did Trump sleep that night?

The tape had acquired a life of its own, Cohen said, much like the claim that he had attended secret meetings with Russians in Prague, which also appeared in the dossier. Cohen said under oath that all the allegations concerning him in the dossier are false.

But, Cohen also relates an interesting anecdote about the dossier. After it was published January 10, 2017 by Buzzfeed, Trump called Cohen at home.

In other words, Trump seemed very concerned. He appeared unsure whether the allegations in the dossier regarding Cohen were true or not.

So let me make sure I got this right. This is the same dossier with the golden showers allegations that Trump scoffs at. If those claims, which appear in the very front of the dossier, were false, would he really need to see Cohen’s passport in the middle of the night?

In other words, if there’s a huge lie on page one of the dossier, you don’t need to scrutinize pages two, three, four, and five, especially not in the middle of the night. It can wait until morning.

Perhaps Trump was just panicking, but it seems quite possible that something in the dossier hit the mark to cause such panic for Cohen to go rushing back to Trump Tower waving his passport. Whether that’s the pee tape or not, we don’t know.

Steele, unlike Cohen and Levin, Steele, was passing along more than a rumor about the pee tape. He claimed to have confirmed the incident with three separate sources:

  • “Source D,” described as having “been present.”
  • “Source E,” a “senior/western member of the staff at the hotel,” who was aware of the golden showers incident at the time it occurred in 2013.
  • “Source F,” a female staffer at the hotel who confirmed the story.

I remain unconvinced. It could be Steele was the victim of a Russian disinformation effort. As I wrote in Trump/Russia, this kind of tawdry material in reports compiled by former spooks was not out of the ordinary:

What people failed to realize was that sordid allegations like the one in Steele’s report were a dirty secret of the world of private investigations. Several people familiar with this world told me that reports by companies like Kroll, K2, Mintz Group, IGI, and others were often littered with tawdry allegations. “Yes, sex stuff comes up a lot and it’s often nonsense,” a DC attorney who often hires private investigators told me. One veteran opposition researcher told me he has seen the same thing so often that he has detected a pattern: when the subject of the investigation was connected to Latin America, drugs were involved; when the connection was Russia or Eastern Europe, then it was usually sex. “Every single one of their reports has something like that,” the opposition researcher said. “That’s what they pitch the client to keep them on the hook. They then spend months trying to confirm it.”

Then again, maybe Steele got it right and one day we may find ourselves staring in amazement at our computer screens as a man who resembles the 45th president performs unspeakable acts with prostitutes in a Moscow hotel room.

The definition that’s letting Trump off the hook

The new round of reporting with insight from members of Robert Mueller’s notoriously tightlipped team offers very strong support to the view that the special counsel’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election was more damaging to President Trump — perhaps far more damaging — than the initial impression shaped by Attorney General William Barr.

Mueller may have made the mistake of assuming good faith on the part of an administration where that’s in extremely short supply. Barr’s letter purportedly laying out the special counsel’s principal conclusions now risks looking more like a political whitewash than a genuine effort to inform the people charged with protecting our country and the American people.

It’s been three weeks since Mueller submitted his final report, and all we have seen of it are the roughly 100 words t quoted in Barr’s letter, the most important are actually in a footnote, which defines the terms of Mueller’s criminal “coordination” inquiry. He defined that term as an “agreement — tacit or express — between the Trump Campaign and the Russian government on election interference.”

A definition like that has extraordinary power. It draws a bright line between an abuse of power in pursuit of higher office that would almost certainly set the stage for impeachment and what the president has called a “complete and total exoneration.” Furthermore, in Barr’s legal view, if there was no underlying criminal act, then there can be no obstruction of justice, no matter how damning the evidence may be.

But legal conclusions aren’t the only issue at stake — they might not even be the most important. What we may learn is that even if the Trump campaign didn’t meet a strict, legal definition of coordination, it still presented a national security threat. What’s more, it still might be doing so.

The “coordination” part of Mueller’s investigation assessed evidence through a most narrow frame. The shortcoming with this approach is that the interference effort in the 2016 campaign was deliberately designed to hide the Russian government’s role in the affair. If the line Mueller drew was an agreement of some kind with the “Russian government,” then the chance that anyone connected with the Trump campaign would face criminal conspiracy charges over election interference was exceedingly low. Looking for the Russian government’s unseen hand in the murky contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia is bit a like chasing smoke.

Russia’s vaunted intelligence directorate was never going to send its spies to meet Trump campaign officials on a foggy bridge in Berlin. Russia did, however, send use all manner of cutouts and access agents to deliver messages to the Trump campaign to ensure maximum ambiguity and plausible deniability.

One example is the case of Roger Stone. Even if, say, Stone did coordinate the release of Democratic Party emails with Wikileaks, as he proudly hinted during the campaign, that would still fall outside the narrow scope of Mueller’s definition. Wikileaks wasn’t part of the Russian government, although Russia used it, unwittingly or not, as a cutout to publish Democratic Party emails. And Stone wasn’t officially a member of the Trump campaign.

In their prepared statements to Congress, both Donald Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner issued nearly identical, carefully worded denials that they “did not collude with any foreign government” and know of no one who did. But that doesn’t cover the June 2016 meeting both men attended in Trump Tower with Natalia Veselnitskaya, the lawyer who wasn’t part of the Russian government although an email to the president’s son telling him she was bringing dirt on Hillary Clinton as part of the Russian government’s effort to help his father.

Did Paul Manafort know that the man who ran his Ukraine office, Konstantin Klimnik, had ties to Russian intelligence, as the F.B.I. suspsects? “It’s not like these people wear badges that say, ‘I’m a Russian intelligence officer,’” Manafort once said.

And what about the Trump Tower Moscow deal about which Michael Cohen admitted he lied to Congress? That wasn’t related to election interference. Neither were Kushner’s discussions with Russian officials during the campaign about forming a secret back channel. Mike Flynn pleaded guilty to lying about discussing sanctions, not election interference, with the Russian ambassador.

It’s hard enough to figure out what’s really going on in this through-the-looking-glass world famously likened to a “wilderness of mirrors.” The recently released transcript of George Papadopoulos, the young Trump campaign foreign policy aide convicted of lying to the F.B.I., reveals that he was still confused by Joseph Mifsud, the shadowy professor who told him in April 2016 that he had returned from Moscow and that the Russians had thousands of Clinton’s emails.  “Why was he lying, or why would he be masquerading as something he’s not?” Papadopoulos asked during his House testimony.

It was Papadopoulos’s conversation with an Australian diplomat that in July 2016 set in motion the FBI counterintelligence investigation into Russian election interference. The job of FBI counterintelligence officials is primarily to neutralize a threat to national security, which may or not end up in criminal court. Mueller inherited the much-maligned investigation into whether the Trump campaign was a threat to national security. It will likely form part of his nearly 400-page report, along with an explanation of why such a tradition-bound prosecutor decided not to make a traditional prosecutorial judgment about whether President Trump obstructed justice.

We do know that the Trump campaign not only didn’t say a word about that interference to any American charged with protecting our democracy but actually ennabled it — albeit without making a tacit, express agreement — and subsequently lied about it. That may not be criminal, but it is not exculpatory.

Alarming conduct continues: The blooming congressional investigation into White House security clearances revealed that such threats to national security are routinely disregarded by the Trump White House. More than two dozen individuals were granted access to the nation’s deepest secrets over the objections of security professionals for reasons that include foreign influence. Kushner was granted a security clearance reportedly on the personal order of the president.

All we know, based on the definition quoted in the attorney general’s letter, is that Mueller looked at certain events of the 2016 election through a very narrow lens — surely more narrow than the “links and/or coordination” between the Russian government and “individuals associated with campaign of President Donald Trump” he was charged with investigating. 

We still have a lot to learn from the report about what happened to the “links” Mueller was charged with investigating, but there’s little doubt there were plenty of them.

This isn’t the first time a definition has determined the fate of a presidency. The definition of “sexual relations” was critical to whether President Clinton could be accused of perjury and impeached by the House. No one accepted Clinton’s definition of sexual relations, which didn’t apply to his actions with Monica Lewinsky.  We shouldn’t be so quick to accept a hastily-written letter that may be using a narrow definition to provide political cover and exonerate the president.

Who is Fima Shusterman?

“Due to ongoing threats against his family,” Michael Cohen announced yesterday that he was postponing his highly-anticipated congressional testimony.

The threats are coming from the White House where President Trump won’t stop talking about Michael Cohen’s father-in-law, a guy by the name of Fima Shusterman.

On a phone call January 12th with Fox News host Jeanine Pirro, the president of the United States launched into an extraordinary attack on Cohen’s father-in-law, a private citizen:

TRUMP: He should give information maybe on his father-in-law. Because that’s the one that people want to look. Because where does that money? That’s the money in the family. And I guess he didn’t want to talk about his father-in-law. Trying to get his sentence reduced. So it’s pretty sad. He is weak. And is very sad to watch a thing like that. I couldn’t care less.

PIRRO: What is his father-in-law’s name? 

TRUMP: I don’t know but you’ll find out and you’ll look into it. Because nobody knows what’s going on other there. 

The implication here is that Shusterman, a Ukrainian emigre, is some sort of Russian organized crime figure, although in typical Trump fashion he provides no evidence.

As readers of my book know, Trump knows that Shusterman is “the money” in the Cohen family because his business benefited from it.

Even with the spotlight the president has put on him, we still know very little about Michael Cohen’s father-in-law, Fima Shusterman. The only bit of insight comes from his 1993 testimony in federal court. So here goes.

Shusterman had pleaded guilty to the charge of conspiracy to defraud the United States. In exchange for leniency, he agreed to testify at the trial of Harold Wapnick, his accountant. Shusterman was sentenced to probation and fined $5,000.

On May 13, 1993, Shusterman took the witness stand in the court of Judge Carol Amon. Although he spoke some English, he had a translator present at his own request “because I do not understand English 100 percent.”

Q. Good morning, Mr. Shusterman.
A. Good morning.
Q. How old are you, sir?
A. 48.
Q. Are you married, Mr. Shusterman?
A. Yes, I am.
Q. And do you have any children, sir?
A. Yes, I have a daughter.
Q. Where were you born, Mr. Shusterman?
A. In the Soviet Union.
Q. When did you come to the United States, sir?
A. In May '75.
Q. And are you a citizen, Mr. Shusterman?
A. Yes, I am.
Q. Are you employed?
A. Yes.
Q. Where are you employed?
A. I'm employed as a manager with Future Knits.
Q. And are you a co-owner of of Future Knits, sir?
A. Yes, I am. 
Q. Who are your partners?
A. My partners are Shalva Botier and Edward Zubok.
Q. What business is Future Knits in?
A. This is a knitting factory.
Q. When was Future Knits established, sir?
A. I'm not sure. I think it was established in '81.
Q. Future Knits, sir, when was Future Knits established?
A. In 1988.
Q. And prior to Future Knits, sir, how were you employed?
A. I was employed with S&Z Fashions and LVA Corp.
Q. Were you a co-owner of those corporations?
A. Yes, I was. 
Q. And were your partners the same individuals as your partners
in Future Knits?
A. Yes, correct. 
Q. Were S&Z Fashions and LVA also in the knitting business?
A. Yes. 
Q. When did you join S&Z Fashions and LVA?
A. In July of '84. 
Q. Between years 1985 to 1988, were you involved with any other corporations
other than S&Z and LVA and Future Knits?
A. No. 
Q. Did you have an ownership or office position with any other corporation, sir?
A. Yes. I was secretary with Martha Cab Corporation, and Bar Trans Corporation.
Q. And, sir, is Barn Transportation with an "N" end, B-A-R-N?
A. Barn, B-A-R-N.
Q. Who is shareholder of Martha and Barn, sir?
A. My wife was.
Q. Are you an officer of those corporations?
A. Yes, I am.

Shusterman was also secretary of N.Y. Funky Taxi Corp. and New York Fulton Taxi Corp.

Today, the chief executive of N.Y. Funky Taxi, Martha Cab and Barn Trans is Michael Cohen, who married Mr. Shusterman’s daughter, Laura, a year following her father’s guilty plea and court appearance. Cohen owns and operates a fleet of cabs in New York and Chicago.

Note to my readers: This work costs me both time and money (in the case of this transcript quite a bit of money). I do this work for free in the hope that people will find it valuable. If you agree, the best way you can support this work is by purchasing my book, Trump/Russia, which has much more information on the president’s decades-long connection to Russian criminal money.

Click here to purchase Trump/Russia.

Q. Mr. Shusterman, have you been convicted of a crime?
A. Yes. 
Q. What crime were you convicted of, sir?
A. Conspiracy. 
Q. When were you convicted?
A. In March of this year, '93.
Q. How were you convicted, sir?
A. I pleaded guilty. 
Q. And, Mr. Shusterman, in connection with your guilty plea,
did you enter into an agreement with the government?
A. Yes.
Q. Would you tell the ladies and gentlemen of the jury, Mr. Shusterman,
what your understanding is of that agreement?
A. My understanding is that I obligated myself to fully, 100 percent, 
cooperate with the government. 
Q. And did the government agree to do anything in return, sir?
A. Yes, they did. 
Q. What did they agree to do, sir?
A. They would advise the judge about my full cooperation and 
about my help rendered in their investigations. 
Q. Mr. Shusterman, have you been sentenced yet?
A. No, not yet.
Q. Do you know what sentence you are facing, sir?
A. Yes.
Q. What is that, sir?
A. Five years in prison, and up to $250,000 in fines. 
Q. Sir, have any promises been made to you regarding your sentence?
A. No. 
Q. Do you know who will be sentencing you, Mr. Shusterman?
A. Yes, I do. 
Q. And who is that, sir?
A. Judge Amon. 
Q. Mr. Shusterman, you've testified that you pled guilty to 
the crime of conspiracy. Could you tell the ladies and gentlemen 
of the jury what is it that you did?
A. I concealed income from the state, and I cashed checks in the amounts 
that exceeded $10,000.
Q. Mr. Shusterman, what did you need this cash for, sir?
A. To operate our business. 

Shusterman goes on to say that from 1984 to 1988 he would regularly bring checks from his customers made out to S&Z Fashions, LVA, and Future Knits and leave them in Wapnick’s office.

A few days later, Shusterman would return and collect cash, always in amounts more than $10,000, in a paper bag or envelope. Wapnick would keep 3 percent for his services.

The total amount cashed with the Wapnicks was “somewhere between five and five and a half million dollars,” Shusterman testified.

Shusterman is then cross-examined by Harold Wapnick, who does a terrible job of representing himself with convoluted lines of questions.

However, he does stumble into a couple of things that are interesting in light of Trump’s claims that Shusterman is “the money in the family.”

Wapnick: Sir, you own a -- you own 40 percent of a 
40-machine factory, sir?
A. No. 
Q. What percentage do you own of a 40-machine factory, sir?
A. 15 percent as of today. 
Q. 15 percent. Would you say that the 15 percent value is in excess 
of a million dollars, sir?
A. If you pay me half a million I'll sell it to you gladly.
Q. Thank you. How about the -- do you own five -- 9 taxicab medallions? 
And are they worth about two million dollars?
The Court: Wait a minute. I don't think he gave an answer. 
Q. Are they worth about two million dollars, sir?
A. Did you say two million?
Q. Let's say $170,000 apiece, and we multiply it by nine, so, okay -- 
what's a half a million dollars among friends. Is it worth ---
The court: I take it you're withdrawing your last question. 
Wapnick: No I'm asking him is it worth a million and a half dollars, sir. 
Shusterman: Only on paper. 

A decade later, beginning in 2003, Shusterman made the first of three apartment purchases at Trump World Tower across from the United Nations building in Manhattan. By 2005, Shusterman had spent $7.6 million on Trump’s properties.

So where did this money come from and what did Trump know about it?