Category: Donald Trump

Who Is Sam Clovis?

In September 2016, a longtime GOP operative launched a campaign to obtain Hillary Clinton’s emails from hackers.

The operative’s name was Peter W. Smith. According to a pair of blockbuster articles (here and here) by The Wall Street Journal, Smith “implied” that he had a connection to retired Gen. Michael Flynn, who served briefly as Trump’s national security advisor until he was ousted for lying about his contacts with Russian officials.

Flynn’s name is mentioned in a recruitment document Smith passed around last year:

Officials identified in the document include Steve Bannon, now chief strategist for President Donald Trump; Kellyanne Conway, former campaign manager and now White House counselor; Sam Clovis, a policy adviser to the Trump campaign and now a senior adviser at the Agriculture Department; and retired Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, who was a campaign adviser and briefly was national security adviser in the Trump administration.

A name people might not recognize on this list is that of Sam Clovis, a porcine former college professor from Iowa better known as host of the radio talk show “Impact with Sam Clovis.” We don’t know how Clovis’ name wound up on the list but I have a feeling we may hearing more about Clovis in coming weeks or months.

Clovis was an early backer of Trump in Iowa, where Clovis is something of a conservative power broker. It earned him a spot in the campaign as senior policy adviser and co-chairman.

Trump finished second in Iowa, but he soon ran the table in ensuing primaries, and, as the Trump train gathered momentum, Clovis took leave from his position as a professor at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa to devote himself to the campaign. FEC records show he was paid more than $198,000 during the 16 months he worked on the Trump campaign.

The FEC filings say Clovis was paid for “communications consulting.” He described his role on the campaign to his hometown newspaper, the Sioux City Journal, as a “utility infielder.” His job was to appear on TV as a Trump surrogate, write talking points for speeches and “help find key people who can inform Trump’s developing policies on economics, immigration and foreign affairs”

Clovis told Bloomberg he led a two-person policy team that worked with campaign manager Corey Lewandowski to connect Trump to experts and former officials constantly.

In other words, Clovis was something of a gatekeeper for Trump.  If you wanted to work on the campaign in a policy role or as a subject matter expert you went through Clovis.

“This whole notion that he is devoid of advisers is wrong. We have a lot of smart guys around us and a lot of smart people helping us,” Clovis said in January 2016.

One of the “smart people” whose name crossed Clovis’ desk was Carter Page, the head of an energy investment firm and a former banker with Merrill Lynch in Moscow. Clovis employed what The Washington Post described as the campaign’s “go-to vetting process” — a quick Google search — to check him out. Clovis gave Page his OK.

Page, we know now, was a disastrous choice. During his time as a Trump advisor, Page was the subject of a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant, meaning that a US judge found probable cause to suspect that Page was acting as an agent of a foreign power. He reportedly was one of the Trump advisors Russian intelligence tried to use to infiltrate the Trump campaign.

Foreign diplomats trying to figure out Trump also realized that Clovis was the man to see. He was one of the few Trump campaign officials authorized to speak on behalf of his boss.

Joe Hockey, Australia’s ambassador to the United States, was one who called on Clovis. Hockey hosted Clovis and Stephen Miller, in March 2016 at his private residence. (See “Deep ties to keep relations on track,” The Australian, 11 Nov. 2016) It was the first of several meetings on defense, trade and immigration.

In April, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who described Trump as a “hate preacher,” sent his state secretary, Markus Ederer, to meet with Clovis. The two men met discreetly at a cafe in Washington where Ederer struggled to understand what a Trump victory would mean for German-American relations. According to a report in Der Spiegel, “The Iowa Republican sought to ease the German’s concern about a possible Trump victory. But whenever Ederer probed deeper, Clovis was unable to provide satisfactory answers.” (See “Merkel Anticipates Frosty Relations with U.S.,” Spiegel, 4 January 2017) Clovis also met with Germany’s US ambassador, Peter Wittig, as did Jared Kushner.

It remains to be seen what meetings, if any, Clovis had with Russian diplomats.

Meanwhile, Clovis’ formerly hardline views on Russia were evolving. During his long career in the U.S. Air Force, Clovis had trained and planned for combat with the Soviet Union.  In 2014, when Clovis ran unsuccessfully for the US Senate in Iowa, he advocated a “containment” policy against Russia. “I think we need to also make it very clear to Russia … that any incursions outside of Crimea, the Ukraine, would be met with great vigor,” Clovis told Radio Iowa.

Two years later during the Republican convention in Cleveland, however, Clovis angrily defended the  campaign’s decision to remove language from the GOP platform that called for providing lethal defensive weaponry to Ukraine. It was too expensive, Clovis felt.

“It’s okay to go out here and load your mouth up and say stuff and say, ‘Yeah we are going to come to your aid, we’re going to provide you arms, we’re going to come out and do all these things. But nobody has taken the time to think this through to its logical conclusion,’” Clovis said. “What are the costs going to be to the United States, not just in Ukraine but also in NATO and also around the world?”

Although he doesn’t look the part, Samuel H. Clovis Jr. is a former fighter pilot. He grew up in rural Kansas and attended the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado. Clovis spent 25 years with the U.S. Air Force from 1971 to 1996.

His career included command of the 70th Fighter Squadron, at Moody Air Force Base in Valdosta, Georgia. In the mid 1980s, he served on the staff of  the Pentagon’s Project CHECKMATE, where he assessed the performance of the Air Force in a hypothetical war with the Soviet Union. Clovis also served as chief of the office of military cooperation at the embassy in Bahrain. (He considers himself an expert on the Middle East.) He retired as the Inspector General of NORAD and the United States Space Command with the rank of colonel.

After leaving the military, Clovis worked at Logicon, an Alabama-based subsidiary of Northrop Grumman Corp. Then, he entered academia, which led him to Iowa and eventually to his position at Morningside College.

Today, Clovis is Trump’s nominee to be the US Department of Agriculture’s chief scientist.  Clovis is not a scientist. What he is is a hardcore Trump loyalist. He once described Trump as “one of the greatest men to ever walk the face of this earth.”

But his feelings for Trump weren’t always so favorable. Before he joined forces with Trump in August 2015, Clovis had signed on as Iowa state chairman for former Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Emails leaked by the Perry campaign revealed Clovis as an opportunist who was scornful of Trump before switching sides. Trump’s remarks disparaging Sen. John McCain’s status as a war hero  particularly galled Clovis, who served 25 years in the U.S. Air Force.

“I was offended by a man who sought and gained four student deferments to avoid the draft and who has never served this nation a day — not a day — in any fashion or way,” he wrote.

What Was Michael Cohen’s Role at the Trump Organization?

Michael Cohen

Michael D. Cohen

The New York Times is out with a front-page story today on Michael Cohen, Trump’s consigliere and personal attorney.

The article makes the point that Cohen has been sidelined because he’s been caught up in the Russia inquiry. He apparently was expecting to land a senior administration post in the White House, but nothing ever came of it.

But the article raises another point: What did Michael Cohen do at the Trump Organization?

He has declined to discuss the details of what he did at the company, and the Trump Organization did not respond to requests for comment. Some people who worked with him also declined to describe Mr. Cohen’s tenure, with several of them saying they feared being sued.

Whatever Cohen did, he wasn’t just reviewing contracts and documents. If you fear being sued for discussing Cohen’s job at the Trump Organization, something else was going on.

From May 2007 to the present, Cohen served as an executive vice president and special counsel to the Trump Organization, according to his LinkedIn profile.  He was and is unquestioningly loyal to his boss. Despite the attention he attracts from the Russia inquiry, Cohen remains Trump’s personal attorney.

Cohen is slated to appear before the House intelligence committee in its investigation of Trump’s ties to Russia. Cohen’s name appeared in a dossier prepared by former British MI6 officer Christopher Steele. The dossier stated that Cohen served as an intermediary between Trump and Russian operatives and Kremlin officials. Cohen has denied these links.

While the dossier may have gotten the details of Cohen’s meetings in Prague wrong, it may have struck upon a deeper truth: namely, that Cohen did serve as an intermediary between Trump and the unsavory characters the Donald encountered in his business.

Before joining forces with Trump, Cohen was involved in the New York City taxi business, set up businesses in the Ukraine, invested in a gambling cruise with a pair of Ukrainians, and he once deposited a $350,000 check from a Russian hockey player that he can’t explain and doesn’t remember receiving.

These ventures, reported by Buzzfeed’s Anthony Cormier who has been doggedly investigating Cohen, all have an unsavory element. When asked about them, Cohen  offers blanket denials, which he walks back when confronted with documents. But the unsavory elements in Cohen’s past obviously did not prevent him from getting a job with Trump; instead they may have helped him land it.

Every Mafia family has a consigliere. He (and it’s always a he) is a counselor to the boss, advising him on political relationships. He is traditionally not a member of the family and his role as an outsider is seen as allowing him to provide objective advice. Cohen may have played a similar role in the Trump Organization.

A search of news archives shows that Cohen appears mostly in the press as a Trump spokesman. In the 2012 campaign, Cohen launched a “Should Donald Run?” campaign. He later defended Trump in the press  from charges that he had fraudulently bilked students out of thousands of dollars in the scam known as Trump University. He is known for threatening reporters with lawsuits.

A few instances, however, offer a clue as to what Cohen’s job involved.

After he joined up with Trump, Cohen’s name first surfaced in a batch of articles about EnCap, a plan to build a golf course on New Jersey landfill. One article about an EnCap contractor arrested on money laundering charges references Cohen trying to get an attorney removed from the project.  (See “EnCap contractor hauled away; Arrested in unrelated money-laundering case,” The Record, 26 January 2008)

Nothing ever came of EnCap. The state pulled the plug on the project and EnCap filed for bankruptcy the next day. Trump kept a hand in the project, nevertheless.

The U.S. Attorney’s office, then led by future New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, subpoenaed EnCap’s records. Cohen told a reporter the Trump Organization had not received a subpoena but he seemed to have insight into what exactly what interested investigators. (See “Feds Subpoena EnCap; Billing Records Sought,” The Record, 19 June 2008)

Cohen said those investigators appear to be focusing, in part, on the critical time frame from 2000 to 2005, when he said many key decisions were being negotiated.

“That’s when all the deals were cut,” he said, referring in part to the favorable loans from the Department of Environmental Protection and the Environmental Infrastructure Trust.

Another set of articles involve Cohen’s 2010 visit to Adjara in the former Soviet republic of Georgia. “Cohen has come to Adjara as he is interested in the investment climate in the region,” an article in the Black Sea Press. “Namely, Michael Cohen paid his attention to the ‘Project of Future’ which envisaged construction of comfortable hotels, entertaining complexes, modern buildings in Batumi.”

Trump signed up for a $250 million deal to build a 47-story residential tower in the Georgian Black Sea resort of Batumi, Work halted when Georgia’s then President Mikheil Saakashvili was ousted and fled in exile. His successor, Bidzina Ivanishvili, told reporters, “Trump did not invest in Georgia. It was kind of like a trick. They gave him money and they both played along, Saakashvili and Trump.” Construction eventually resumed, but Trump formally pulled out of the project shortly after his election to avoid what the Trump Organization said were conflicts of interest.

Trump pursued these kinds of deals with shady characters, whether in New Jersey or further away in places like Georgia or Azerbaijan. The potential rewards were huge. So were the risks.  He needed a tough, loyal outsider like Cohen to figure out who the players were, what were the risks, and how exposed Trump would be if the whole thing went sideways.

That’s a consigliere.

 

 

Jared Kushner’s Shady Real Estate Deal?

Readers of this site will recall that in 2008 Donald Trump sold a Palm Beach mansion to a Russian billionaire named Dmitry Rybolovlev for $95 million. As we now know, Rybolovlev grossly overpaid.

This sale is remarkably similar to a real estate deal at the heart of a bribery scandal involving Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham of California, who sold his home to a defense contractor for much more than it was worth. Cunningham pleaded guilty to accepting at least $2.4 million in bribes and in 2006 was sentenced to prison.

Well, there are two ways this bribery-scam-disguised-as-a-real-estate-transaction can work. You can overpay for an asset. Or you can sell an asset for much less than it’s worth.

Buried in The Washington Post’s recent story about Jared Kushner’s loans from Deutsche Bank, Trump’s favorite bank are interesting details about a real estate transaction that should invite scrutiny from Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller, who is said to be investigating Kushner’s finances.

Kushner, it turns out, purchased four floors of a New York City office building for $296 million in October 2015. Fast forward 12 months and — presto! — Kushner’s office space was appraised at $470 million.

That’s a 59 percent increase in a year.  Not quite as impressive as Trump’s 231 percent markup on the Palm Beach mansion he sold to the Russian billionaire, but still. Not bad.

What was Kushner’s secret?

An executive at Kushner Cos. told The Washington Post that the company had a “vision for the property when we purchased it that no one else had, and are proud to say that we executed on it.”

Translation: Kushner Cos. leased the space. When the four floors in the former New York Times building near Times Square were purchased, the offices were only been 25 percent occupied.

A great business move. Or …

Is there another explanation?  Indeed, there may be.

The firm that sold Kushner Cos. the space in The New York Times building was Africa Israel USA, part of the conglomerate owned by Israeli billionaire Lev Leviev.

Born in the former Soviet Union, Leviev keeps a framed photo of Vladimir Putin on a shelf in his office.  In a 2007 profile in The New York Times, Leviev described Putin as a “true friend.”

Did Leviev give Kushner a — wink, wink — good deal as a favor from friends overseas?

Kushner isn’t Leviev’s only connection to Trump’s inner circle. He has tried to do business in Moscow with the man himself.

25882-1jbllqzm021k0vr06_rvikw

Trump and Leviev

AFI Development, another subsidiary of Leviev’s Israeli conglomerate, develops real estate in Russia. In May 2008, he invited Trump to his Madison Avenue store.

Leviev wanted to work with the Trump Organization on developing two hotels in Russia, according to Kommersant, the respected Russian business daily.

Astute readers of this site will recall that back in the 1990s, a corrupt Moscow city official named Vladimir Resin (aka The Russian with the Million-Dollar Watch) offered Trump the opportunity to develop a pair of decrepit hotels in Moscow, the Hotel Rossiya, just off Red Square, and the rundown Hotel Moskva.

During Trump’s meeting with Leviev, the Israeli billionaire offered Trump the chance to develop the very same hotels, the Rossiya and the Moskva, according to Kommersant.

hotelrossia

The Rossiya

The Moskva was a small, venerable Moscow hotel that is now run by the Four Seasons. The Rossiya was a 3,000 room concrete box that was plagued with vermin and organized crime. The hotel’s general director was shot dead in a December 1997 contract killing. The hotel has been demolished.

(I’m beginning to wonder whether the Rossiya and Moskva are some sort of code words, given how often they come up in Trump’s life.)

Nothing came of this meeting with Leviev. In a statement, Leviev said that he and Trump “never had any business dealings with one another, contrary to speculation.” [Trump sold his Palm Beach mansion to the Russian billionaire in July, a few months later after meting Leviev.]

Another coincidence overlooked by reporters:  Kasowitz Benson Torres LLP represented Leviev’s firm Africa-Israel USA in the sale of the former New York Times building. The lawyer representing Trump in the Russia probe is Marc E. Kasowitz, a name partner at the firm.

Rotem Rosen, described as Leviev’s “right-hand man” in this press release for a circumcision ceremony or bris is a former chief executive of Africa-Israel USA and CEO of the Sapir Organization. The Sapir Organization jointly developed the troubled Trump SoHo, a 46-story Manhattan luxury hotel-condominium completed in 2010.

Trump hosted Rosen’s wedding to Sapir’s daughter, Zina, at Mar-a-Lago in December 2007. Both Trump and Kushner attended the aforementioned 2008 bris.

It’s these interlocking links that must be driving Mueller’s office nuts. What is coincidence and what isn’t?

Maybe Kushner’s big gain on the old New York Times building is just savvy business. After all, when Leviev’s Africa-Israel Investments purchased the building in June 2007 for $530 million. Just three years earlier, the newspaper had sold the property for $175 million, prompting this observation from the Donald:

More on Robert Mueller and Mogilevich…

Mueller Hungary 2005

Special Counsel Robert Mueller, speaking in Budapest in 2005

Special Counsel Robert Mueller isn’t playing.

As I mentioned in my previous post, Mueller has brought on board attorney Lisa Caroline Page who worked on the FBI Task Force in Budapest that investigated Russian Mob kingpin Semion Mogilevich.

By adding Page, Mueller may be sending a signal that he’s going after links between Trump and Russian organized crime, and perhaps zeroing in on Mogilevich ties.

Catching Mogilevich was an important part of Mueller’s 12-year tenure as head of the bureau and big reason why the FBI put the Mob boss on its 10 Most Wanted List in 2009.

Here’s what Mueller himself had to say in 2005 during a visit to Budapest for the 10th anniversary of the International Law Enforcement Academy:

And the FBI/­Hungarian National Police Organized Crime Task Force has been up and running for five years, working to dismantle organized crime groups. Just last month, we obtained approval to have FBI agents permanently stationed here in Budapest to work on the Task Force.

The Task Force has had a number of successes. Right here in Budapest , Ukranian-­born Semion Mogilevich established the headquarters of his powerful organized crime enterprise. The group engaged in drug and weapons trafficking, prostitution, and money laundering, and organized stock fraud in the United States and Canada in which investors lost over $150 million.

As soon as the Task Force began investigating his activities, Mogilevich realized he could no longer use Budapest as his base of operations. He immediately fled the country, and is now hiding in Moscow. Working closely with Hungarian authorities, United States prosecutors obtained a 45-­count indictment against Mogilevich and three other criminals, charging them with money laundering, securities fraud, and racketeering.

Mueller’s biographer, Garrett Graff, called the Budapest task force “perhaps the most unique FBI force in the world.” Hungary was the only country outside Afghanistan and Iraq where agents were permanently stationed.

The Budapest task force assembled a global picture of Mogilevich’s operation. According to a Dec. 22, 2006 report in The Wall Street Journal, FBI agents in Budapest got help from authorities in Israel, another of Mr. Mogilevich’s suspected bases of operations, and Cyprus, an offshore banking center used by many Russians.

So elusive was Mogilevich, however, that agents in Budapest were chasing smoke, sometimes even in their own backyard. Graff’s book, The Threat Matrix: Inside Robert Mueller’s FBI and the War on Global Terror, contains this tantalizing piece of information:

The full extent of Mogilevich’s US ties are still unknown. Although banned from entering the country because of his alleged criminal ties, Mogilevich has visited Boston, Philadelphia, and Miami under aliases to meet with U.S. associates, and the FBI photographed at least one of his aides attending a Republican Party fundraiser in Texas.

Mogilevich was arrested in Moscow in 2008 and then subsequently released him the following year. He lives more or less openly in Russia today. While US eventually caught up with Osama bin Laden, Mogilevich was the one who got away.

Mueller’s role as special counsel for Trump’s Russia links may be a second chance of sorts. By probing Trump’s links to Mogilevich, Mueller may be able to snare an even bigger fish.

No wonder he’s driving Trump crazy.

Is Robert Mueller Examining Trump’s Links to Mogilevich?

800x-1

Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych (left) and Dmitry Firtash (right)

As we noted earlier here and here, among the many dictators, despots, and shady foreigners who called Trump Tower home were members of the Russian Mafia with connections to Semion Mogilevich, said to be the most dangerous Mobster in the world.

Robert Mueller, the special counsel appointed to investigate Trump’s links to Russia, may also be taking an interest in Trump’s ties to Mogilevich, a man the FBI says is involved in weapons trafficking, contract murders, extortion, drug trafficking, and prostitution on an international scale.

As described in Wired, among the prosecutors and investigators hired by Mueller, is one Lisa Page:

Also, while the Special Counsel’s office has yet to make any formal announcements about Mueller’s team, it appears he has recruited an experienced Justice Department trial attorney, Lisa Page, a little-known figure outside the halls of Main Justice but one whose résumé boasts intriguing hints about where Mueller’s Russia investigation might lead. Page has deep experience with money laundering and organized crime cases, including investigations where she’s partnered with an FBI task force in Budapest, Hungary, that focuses on eastern European organized crime. That Budapest task force helped put together the still-unfolding money laundering case against Ukrainian oligarch Dmitry Firtash…

The hiring of Page, which was confirmed by a Mueller spokesman in The New York Times, gives the special counsel a team member with knowledge of not only Dmitry Firtash, but of the man who is believed to stand behind him: Semion Mogilevich.

Full disclosure: Firtash hired the Washington law firm Akin Gump to clear him of links to Mogilevich. I profiled Akin Gump partner Mark MacDougall in this 2008 piece.

Firtash, pictured above, made his fortune in the 2000s in the natural gas sector. In 2004, Firtash and a minority partner emerged with 50 percent ownership of a murky Swiss company called RosUkrEnergo (RUE). RUE extracts gas from Central Asia and acts an intermediary between Russia and Ukraine for the delivery of gas.  The other half of RUE is held by Gazprom, the gas giant controlled by the Russian government, which shows that Firtash has close ties with the Kremlin.

Billions of dollars flowed through RUE and some of that money was allegedly siphoned off by Semion Mogilevich, who U.S. government officials say (see here) is the man behind the curtain at the gas company. One of the few willing to say this publicly was Ukraine’s former prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, a political enemy of Firtash, who got thrown in jail for her troubles. Notably, Firtash’s stake in RUE remained a secret for two years.

Intelligence Online, a Paris-based news organization with deep sources in the spy world, published this handy chart of the Firtash/Mogilevich connections, under the headline “The Tip of the Mogilevich Iceberg:”

Mog:RUE

Firtash admitted to William Taylor, the US ambassador to the Ukraine, that he has had dealings with Mogilevich, according to a 2008 State Department cable leaked by Wikileaks:

(S) The Ambassador asked Firtash to address his alleged ties to Russian organized crime bosses like Semyon Mogilievich. Firtash answered that many Westerners do not understand what Ukraine was like after the break up of the Soviet Union, adding that when a government cannot rule effectively, the country is ruled by “the laws of the streets.” He noted that it was impossible to approach a government official for any reason without also meeting with an organized crime member at the same time. Firtash acknowledged that he needed, and received, permission from Mogilievich when he established various businesses, but he denied any close relationship to him.

And in this October 2009 press release, the FBI took note of Mogilevich’s control of natural gas supplies. “Through his extensive international criminal network, Mogilevich controls extensive natural gas pipelines in Eastern Europe,” the bureau wrote in a veiled reference to RUE.

The question is what is the nature of the relationship between Firtash and Mogilevich. Is it a thing of the past, as Firtash insists? Or is Firtash a front man for Mogilevich?

Presumably, the FBI — and, by extension, Lisa Page — knows the answer. The bureau has been investigating Firtash since 2006, according to The New York Times. A year before that, the FBI passed their counterparts in the Austrian police a confidential report naming Firtash as a “senior member” of the Semion Mogilevich Organization, according to a  2008 report by Roman Kupchinsky, an analyst with Radio Free Europe.

Page’s work in Budapest involved her deeply in the Firtash/Mogilevich world. The Wired article suggests she worked on the case that led to Firtash’s arrest in Vienna in 2014. Firtash was indicted by a federal grand jury in Chicago on charges of plotting a bribery scheme to set up a $500 million titanium business in India. He remains free after a Russian billionaire friend posted bail of $174 million but cannot leave Austria.

And Budapest is also a home of sorts for Mogilevich. He resided in Budapest when he ran a pump-and-dump scheme through a publicly traded front company called YBM Magnex Inc. Mogilevich was indicted in 2003 on charges of fraud, racketeering and money laundering in YBM Magnex.

So, what does this have to do with President Trump?

Firtash was a business partner of Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, who was deeply involved in Ukrainian politics. Manafort advised Viktor Yanukovych on his successful 2010 campaign for the presidency of Ukraine. He resigned from the Trump campaign after The New York Times found a handwritten ledger showing that Yanukovych paid Manfort $12.7 million in cash.

While he was assisting Yanukovych, Manafort became business partners with Firtash. The two men explored developing a 65-floor tower on the site of the Drake Hotel in Midtown Manhattan.

A 2011 lawsuit filed in New York by Tymoshenko, the former Ukrainian prime minister, called this partnership between Firtash and Manafort a means of laundering the proceeds of gas deals between the Ukraine and Russia. Firtash says that the lawsuit was full of lies, but he confirmed to Bloomberg Businessweek that he did put $25 million in an escrow account for the developers of the Drake project that Manafort helped him set up. The deal collapsed and the tower was never built.

It’s a good bet to say that we only know a little of this story, which is buried in the files of the FBI and the US intelligence community. But Trump Tower’s role as a home away from home for Russian mobsters with Mogilevich and his unhinged, self-destructive reactions to anyone probing into Russia suggests that there is more, much more to come. Stay tuned.

Carter Page Mystery Solved?

Ed Cox

The Washington Post is reporting that Carter Page was introduced to the Trump campaign by Nixon’s son-in-law, NY GOP Chair Ed Cox.

This may be the answer to one of the ongoing mysteries of the Trump-Russia affair: How did Page wind up working for Trump?

Edward Finch Cox is a retired partner formerly with the firm of Patterson Belnkap Webb & Tyler, LLP.  He is chairman of the New York Republican State Committee. Cox is married to Nixon’s daughter Trish. The two were married in a White House ceremony in 1971.

How did Cox meet Page?

Their paths may have intersected in a couple of ays: Cox’s has served as a director of Noble Energy, Inc. for more than two decades. Page, you’ll recall, was an energy industry analyst. In addition Cox has been a member of the Council on Foreign Relations since 1993. Page served a fellowship at the CFR.

One person tweeting about this is Roger Stone, a former Nixon aide and GOP political operative, who is himself under investigation for his links to Russia:

This is interesting. Cox and Stone both worked together in the Nixon administration (where Stone was involved in the dirty tricks operation), and it seems there’s no love lost between them:

Then again, as someone on Twitter pointed out, here’s Carter Page attending one of Stone’s speeches:

Stone Pence

The Russian Mobster Who Hid out in Trump Tower and the Taj Mahal

Vyacheslav Ivankov

Vyacheslav Ivankov was a top Russian mob boss, wanted in Russia and in America.

He was a Vory v Zakone, a member of the “thieves-in-law,” the highest criminal echelon in the Soviet Union before the Communist government collapsed.

An infamous 1995 FBI affidavit describes Semion Mogilevich, considered by the bureau as the most dangerous Russian mobster in the world, as “one of IVANKOV’s closest associates.”

It was Mogilevich, according to Alan Block’s All Is Clouded by Desire, who paid a Russian judge to arrange for Ivankov’s early release in 1991 from a tough Siberian prison where he was being held for ‘robbery and torture.

After his release from prison, Ivankov was accused of murdering two Turkish nationals in a Moscow restaurant in January 1992.  Later that year, he fled Russia for New York.

Journalist Robert I. Friedman tells the story of where the FBI found him in his book Red Mafiya (which you can read for free at this link).

Despite Ivankov’s flagrant, multinational criminal activities, during his first years in America, the FBI had a hard time even locating him. “At first all we had was a name,” says the FBI’s James Moody. “We were looking around, looking around, looking around, and had to go out and really beat the bushes. And then we found out that he was in a luxury condo in Trump Towers” in Manhattan.

[A copy of Ivankov’s personal phone book, which was obtained by the author, included a working number for the Trump Organization’s Trump Tower Residence, and a Trump Organization office fax machine.]

But almost as soon as they found him, he disappeared again leaving nothing but vapor trails for the FBI to follow. “Ivankov,” explained an FBI agent, “didn’t come from a walk-and-talk culture,” like Italian gangsters who take walks to discuss family business so they can’t be bugged or overheard by the bureau. “As soon as he’d sniff out the feds, he’d go into hiding for days at a time,” a trait that made him harder to keep tabs on than Italian mobsters. “He was like a ghost to the FBI,” says Gregory Stasiuk, the New York State Organized Crime Task Force special investigator.

Stasiuk picked up Ivankov’s trail at the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, the Trump-owned casino that the real estate magnate boasted was the “eighth wonder of the world.” The Taj Mahal had become the Russian mob’s favorite East Coast destination. As with other high rollers, scores of Russian hoodlums received “comps” for up to $100,000 a visit for free food, rooms, champagne, cartons of cigarettes, entertainment, and transportation in stretch limos and helicopters. “As long as these guys attract a lot of money or spend a lot of money, the casinos don’t care,” a federal agent asserted. Russian mobsters like Ivankov proved a windfall for the casinos, since they often lost hundreds of thousands of dollars a night in the “High-Roller Pit,” sometimes betting more than $5,000 on a single hand of blackjack. “They’re degenerate gamblers,” says Stasiuk. Although the FBI still couldn’t find Ivankov, Stasiuk managed to tail him from the Taj Mahal to shipping mogul Leonard Lev’s sprawling home on a dead-end street in Far Rockaway, Queens, and on another occasion, from the Taj to the Paradise Club, a notorious Russian mob haunt in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, then managed by godfather Marat Balagula’s youngest daughter, Aksana, the onetime aspiring optometrist.

The implication here is that Trump or his organization was welcoming these Russian mobsters because they were laundering huge sums through his casino. “The casinos don’t care” means Trump didn’t care either.

Friedman’s reporting is backed up in a report by the Tri-State Joint Soviet-Emigre Organized Crime Project, an effort by New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania to come to grips with Russian mob influence:

Russian emigres have also been conducting various types of money laundering schemes in hotels and casinos in Atlantic City, N.J. Casino operators indicate that a significant number of Russian emigres frequent casinos. Many of them are “high- rollers” recognized as favored customers and, as such, have received such perks as limousine service, plush hotel suites, meal and alcohol allowances, and seating for prime events. One of the schemes observed by various law enforcement agencies, including the United States Secret Service and the New Jersey State Police, involves the use or attempted use of counterfeit currency and traveler’s checks. Russian-emigre criminals use the bogus currency, in amounts below the federal Currency Transaction Report threshold, to obtain cash and/or playing chips.

The Taj Mahal repeatedly failed to properly report gamblers who cashed out $10,000 or more in a single day, according to a 1998 IRS settlement unearthed by CNN. The casino violated anti-money laundering rules 106 times in its first year and a half of operation in the early 1990s.

Ivanov’s stay at the Taj Mahal came to an end in April 1993 when Ivankov’s presence in the United States was reported by The Associated Press’ Charles Hanley.
Ivankov was arrested in 1995 and sent to prison  for conspiring to extort $3.5 million from two Russian emigres who ran an investment advice company in lower Manhattan. He served nine years.

After his release he returned to Russia where he was assassinated.

Did Trump Really Have A £1 Billion Cash Stockpile During the Financial Crisis?

image

Trump on his golf course in northeast Scotland

NBC reported recently that a focus of the House intelligence committee’s investigation into Trump and Russia involves the president’s finances:

Among the House lines of inquiry, one official familiar with the investigation told NBC News, is to what extent Russian money bailed out Trump’s real estate empire after the 2008 real estate crash.

Richard Dearlove, the former head of Britain’s MI6 made the same point in an interview with Prospect magazine:

As for the president’s personal position, he said, “What lingers for Trump may be what deals—on what terms—he did after the financial crisis of 2008 to borrow Russian money when others in the west apparently would not lend to him.”

I’m wondering: Was Dearlove speaking from insider knowledge?

The Trump Organization did lay claim to having a substantial amount of cash ready to deploy in the 2008 financial crisis.  And it planned to invest that money in Great Britain.

Was MI6 tracking the source of this funding?

In the fall of 2008, the Scottish government was considering whether to grant approval for Trump’s golf resort on the coast of northeast Scotland. Questions were mounting over whether the future US president had the £1 billion he had promised to spend to build “the greatest golf course in the world.” Lehman Brothers’ spectacular collapse had triggered a global financial crisis and lending on projects like Trump’s golf course had ground to a halt.

Throughout that fall, George Sorial, managing director of international development and assistant general counsel at the Trump Organization, insisted that Trump had a huge sum of cash at his disposal earmarked for what became Trump International Golf Links near Aberdeen, Scotland.

In November 2008, Sorial told The Scotsman of Edinburgh that Trump had the cash on hand to fund the Aberdeenshire course.

Mr Sorial said: “The money is there, ready to be wired at any time. I am not discussing where it is, whether it is in a Scottish bank or what, but it is earmarked for this project. If we needed to put the development up tomorrow, we have the cash to do that. It is sitting there in the bank and is ready to go.”

He added: “As we have said all along, Aberdeen is a project we have chosen to fund with cash. Mr Trump has recently increased his cash position and we have no need for a bank loan in respect of the Aberdeenshire project.”

This is most likely Trumpian bluster. Trump was claiming he would spend £1 billion on the project and never came close to that sum. He promised vacation homes that were never built, jobs that never materialized and a huge hotel that was never built.

While Sorial was boasting about money in the bank, his boss was suing a group of lenders led by Deutsche Bank to extend payment on a $640 million construction loan for a tower in Chicago. Deutsche Bank would use Sorial’s comments in court filing to argue that Trump had the funds to pay up.

It wasn’t Trump’s bluster, per se, it was Sorial speaking. And his refusal to discuss the source of the money — “whether it is in a Scottish bank or what” — and his assertion that Trump had “recently increased his cash position” is interesting, given the interest in Trump’s funding sources during the 2008 financial crisis.

Trump’s International Golf Links opened in 2012.  The course is owned through Trump International Golf Club Scotland Ltd. (TIGCS), a British company registered in 2005. The company is controlled by Donald Trump, with Sorial serving as corporate secretary.

This Russian funding source, if it ever existed, flowed through Donald Trump. The 1,400-acre grounds were purchased with what Sorial described to Scottish Parliament in 2008 as “Mr Trump’s personal money, with no financing, and we have carried all the associated costs, again out of Mr Trump’s personal expenses.” In its latest corporate filing available here, TIGCS reported that Trump had loaned the company more than £39 million.

After Trump’s election, Sorial, a British citizen, was named chief compliance officer of the Trump Organization. He manages potential conflicts of interest that may emerge between the presidency and private business.

Before joining the Trump Organization in 2007, Sorial was a partner at Day Pitney and New Jersey’s DeCotiis, FitzPatrick, Cole & Wisler. His name turns up as co-owner of Interlink Sun Homes, which sold vacation homes in Bulgaria to UK citizens.

In September 2007, Sorial was named a “Global Scot,” a network of executives with strong ties to Scotland. Trump’s inclusion on that list was revoked after his harsh comments about Muslims during the 2016 election campaign.

James Dodson, author of several books on golfing, recounts an interesting exchange he had a few years back at one of Donald Trump’s golf courses with the president’s son, Eric. According to Eric, Trump had several Russian investors who were big on golf.

“So when I got in the cart with Eric,” Dodson says, “as we were setting off, I said, ‘Eric, who’s funding? I know no banks — because of the recession, the Great Recession — have touched a golf course. You know, no one’s funding any kind of golf construction. It’s dead in the water the last four or five years.’ And this is what he said. He said, ‘Well, we don’t rely on American banks. We have all the funding we need out of Russia.’ I said, ‘Really?’ And he said, ‘Oh, yeah. We’ve got some guys that really, really love golf, and they’re really invested in our programs. We just go there all the time.’ Now that was three years ago, so it was pretty interesting.”

The whole article posted on WBUR’s website is well worth reading, but the little snippet above is the one getting some attention on Twitter. This conversation allegedly took place in 2014 at the Trump National Golf Club Charlotte. The club is actually located in Mooresville, North Carolina about 30 miles outside Charlotte.

Eric Trump on Twitter called Dodson’s story made up.

Trump and the Sculptor: A Tale of Corruption, Organized Crime and Murder

774f93b51fa4be3f22e4d70bbdcc829d

Trump and the sculptor, Zurab Tsereteli

Not long after his 1996 visit to Moscow, Donald Trump was working the phones.

In a conversation captured by The New Yorker’s Mark Singer, Trump took a call from Michael Gordon, a reporter from The New York Times in Moscow.  Gordon had just interviewed a Russian sculptor named Zurab Tsereteli. Was it true that Trump and Tsereteli had discussed erecting a 306-foot-tall statue of Christopher Columbus on the Hudson River?

“Yes, it’s already been made, from what I understand,” said Trump, who had met Tsereteli a couple of months earlier, in Moscow. “It’s got forty million dollars’ worth of bronze in it, and Zurab would like it to be at my West Side Yards development”—a seventy-five-acre tract called Riverside South—“and we are working toward that end.”

According to Trump, the head had arrived in America, the rest of the body was still in Moscow, and the whole thing was being donated by the Russian government. “The mayor of Moscow has written a letter to Rudy Giuliani stating that they would like to make a gift of this great work by Zurab. It would be my honor if we could work it out with the City of New York. I am absolutely favorably disposed toward it. Zurab is a very unusual guy. This man is major and legit.”

Trump hung up and said to me, “See what I do? All this bullshit. Know what? After shaking five thousand hands, I think I’ll go wash mine.”

Tsereteli had been trying to find a home in America for his unwanted, unloved statue. The Miami Herald art critic Helen Kohen called the 311-foot-tall statue “graceless as a herd of brontosaurs … [and] configured in the shape of an exploded hydra.” Miami, along with Baltimore, Columbus, Ohio, Cleveland Ft. Lauderdale, and Boston had all said nyet.

While President Trump is not known for his taste (gold-plated sinks, anyone?), it seems curious that Trump would go out of his way to help Tsereteli. Why do this in front of a reporter? Why help Tsereteli?

luzhkov_yury

Yuri Luzhkov

The answer, I believe, has little to do with the sculptor or his work and more to do with his patron: Yuri Luzhkov, the powerful and notoriously corrupt mayor of Moscow from 1992 to 2010.

It was Luzhkov who gave Tesereteli important commissions such as reconstruction of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Under Luzhkov, Tesereteli’s statues popped up all over Moscow, including his much-reviled statue of Peter the Great that many see as a tasteless monument to Russia’s corruption. And thanks to his friend Luzhkov, Tsereteli lived in a Moscow mansion that once housed the German Embassy.

In 1996 and 1997, Trump was exploring the possibilities of developing a property in Moscow for his first overseas venture. And nothing happened in Moscow without approval from the all-powerful Mayor Luzhkov.  President Yeltsin had given Luzhkov exclusive control over privatization of property and businesses within the city limits. So, by doing a favor for Tesereteli, Trump may have been trying to do a favor for Moscow’s infamous mayor.

Luzhkov, his family, friends, and his staff had made themselves into a wealthy man by skimming from development projects like Trump’s in one of Europe’s most lucrative real estate markets. It’s no coincidence that Luzhkov’s wife, Yelena Baturina, became Russia’s richest woman running a Russian construction company. (She has since fled the country.) His deputy wore a million-dollar watch.

A 2010 State Department cable released by Wikileaks quoted an investigative journalist who told an American diplomat that “Luzhkov used criminal money to support his rise to power and has been involved with bribes and deals regarding lucrative construction contracts throughout Moscow.”  Corruption pervaded Moscow, the State Department concluded, “with Mayor Luzhkov at the top of the pyramid.”

Tsereteli may have been running his own schemes. In 1993, customs officers in St. Petersburg opened shipping crates carrying another (smaller) Tsereteli statue of Columbus as a gift to the city of Seville, Spain. Inside were thousands of copper ingots, too soft for use in sculpture but normally used for electronic circuitry. Investigators later revealed that Tsereteli’s holding company, Kolumb, had contracted privately to ship 85,000 tons of copper (ten percent of Russia’s then annual copper exports) out of the country. Tesereteli was never charged.  (See New Moscow Monuments, or, States of Innocence, Bruce Grant, American Ethnologist, May, 2001.)

vyacheslav-ivankov

Vyacheslav Ivankov

According to sources quoted in the State Department cable, Luzhkov and his wife had links to organized crime in Moscow. One of Luzhkov’s friends was crime boss Vyacheslav Ivankov.

This is interesting because Ivankov became one of the most powerful Russian Mafia bosses in America, and, when the FBI went it went looking for Ivankov, agents tracked him down in a luxury apartment in Trump Tower, according to journalist Robert I. Friedman’s expose Red Mafiya. Invakov disappeared and then turned up again in Trump’s New Jersey casino, the Taj Mahal.

Organized crime also pervaded Moscow’s hotels, and Moscow city officials had offered Trump the chance to invest in a pair of hotels, which Luzhkov and his cronies controlled through the Moscow City Property Committee. In The New Yorker profile, Trump seemed excited about the prospect:

“We are actually looking at something in Moscow right now, and it would be skyscrapers and hotels, not casinos. Only quality stuff. But thank you for defending me. I’ll soon be going again to Moscow. We’re looking at the Moskva Hotel. We’re also looking at the Rossiya. That’s a very big project; I think it’s the largest hotel in the world. And we’re working with the local government, the mayor of Moscow and the mayor’s people. So far, they’ve been very responsive.”

The Rossiya, a 3,000 room concrete box, was Europe’s biggest hotel, and it was infested with rats and criminals. The hotel’s general director, Yevgeny Tsimbalistov, was shot dead in a December 1997 contract killing apparently, according to The Economist magazine, for trying to reorganize things in a way that upset the balance of power between the gangs. The Economist had called it “Russia’s hotel from hell.” Fortunately for Trump, nothing came of the Rossiya deal and the hotel was razed in 2006.

hotelrossia

The Rossiya

And Tsimbalistov’s murder was one in a string of four murders of Moscow hotel executives in an 18-month period bracketing Trump’s visit to the city. An American hotelier, Paul Tatum, had been gunned down on Nov. 3, 1996 the center of Moscow. (Trump arrived in Moscow a little more than a week after Tatum’s murder.)

Tatum had been in a bitter fight with the city for control of his hotel, the Radisson. Just a few days before his death, Tatum had placed newspaper ads accusing Mr. Luzhkov of corruption. After Tatum’s death, Luzhkov’s office took over control of the Radisson.

Back to our sculptor. Before Trump made his calls about the statue, Tsereteli had been trying for years to bring his sculpture to America. One of his first attempts was Miami, where one of Trump’s friends, Bennett S. LeBow, had been trying trying to help Tsereteli bring his 500-ton Columbus sculpture to America — and perhaps to curry favor with Luzhkov at the same time.

LeBow took Tsereteli and his friend Luzhkov to Miami’s City Hall to offer the statue to the city, and in August of 1992, he set up the New World Foundation Inc. to raise the estimated $20 million it would cost to erect the sculpture in the sea off Miami Beach.  The short-lived company was staffed his executives from his various companies.

LeBow had many business interests in Russia. His Brooke Group made and sold cigarettes in Russia through Liggett-Ducat, a Russian joint stock company. More importantly to this story, LeBow’s conglomerate, Brooke Group Ltd., owned real estate in downtown Moscow.

A Brooke Group subsidiary owned Ducat Place, which was prime office space in the middle of downtown Moscow. In late 1996, one office building had been completed in Ducat Place, construction on a second building was underway, and a third building was in the planning stages. Doing a favor for Luzkhov certainly was good for business.

LeBow had helped bring Trump to Moscow in 1996 and partnered with him on a deal to build or at least put his name another Trump Tower in Ducat Place. That deal went nowhere.

It seems possible that LeBow might have advised Trump to be nice to Tsereteli if he wanted to do a real estate deal in Moscow.  We know what Trump wanted: a real estate deal in Russia. What we don’t know is what else, if anything, Trump was asked to give up in return.

Update: In 2008, Trump was still sucking up to Tsereteli, and, by extension, Luzhkov, while promoting his Trump-Soho project to Russians in Chayka magazine:

I’m always looking for good partners. In the Trump-Soho project, our partner is Alex Sapir, the son of my friend Timur Sapir. Now we are discussing construction projects in Moscow and St. Petersburg. We conduct negotiations there with potential partners. Apparently, we’ll order a few sculptures from Zurab Tsereteli, the closest to me in spirit, the best sculptor of Russia, the author of a grandiose creation – the statue of Peter the Great.

A final note: In 2016, Tsereteli’s unwanted, unloved Columbus statue was unveiled in its new home in Puerto Rico.

Before He Bought Trump’s Mansion, This Russian Billionaire Was Jailed for Murder

640px-dmitryrybolovlev1

Dmitry Rybolovlev

It’s a bit suspect, to say the least, that Dmitry Rybolovlev, the Russian fertilizer king, bought the future president’s Palm Beach mansion for $50 million more than Trump paid for it just a few years earlier.

The mansion, called Maison de l’Aimitie was in such bad shape that Rybolovlev got permission to tear it down and sell off the land beneath it. I’ve written how this transaction has the marks of a bribery case I followed here in San Diego.

I decided to take a deeper look at Rybolovlev. Turns out, he’s got an interesting past: He spent nearly a year in jail on murder charges. Depending on whom you ask, Rybolovlev is a man who rubbed out a competitor or an innocent man framed for murder by corrupt Russian officials.

The evidence points to the latter. Rybolovlev, born in 1966, came from a family of doctors in Perm, an industrial city in the Ural Moutains. After graduating from the Perm Medical Institute in Russia in 1990 he joined the cardiology department of a local emergency room.

It was the dramatic upheaval after the fall of the Soviet Union that changed his life and the lives of his patients, who could not afford to pay him. Rybolovlev moved to Moscow and became one of the first licensed brokers in the country.

It was the right place at the right time. The Russian government, desperate to raise cash and stave off collapse, and being totally unacquainted with capitalism, began selling off its companies for mere fractions of their value. It was perhaps the single greatest investment opportunity in history.

In 1995, Rybolovlev started buying up shares of Uralkali, a fertilizer maker that was located back in his home region of Perm, the center of the country’s potash industry. He quickly amassed a controlling interest in the company and was named chairman of the board.

In 1996, Rybolovlev was arrested on a murder conpiracy charge. He would spend his 30th birthday and the next 11 months in jail.

[The definitive account of Rybolovlev’s time in jail comes from an interview he gave to the Russian edition of Forbes magazine about a decade ago.]

Rybolovlev was accused of ordering the 1995 murder of Evgeny Panteleymonov, the general director of Netfchimik, which produced industrial alcohol.  Rybolovlev was chairman of Netfchimik and owned 40 percent of the company, according to Forbes.

Netfchimik generated high cash flows — and attracted attention from criminals. In the summer of 1995, Panteleymonov met with Rybolovlev and told him the criminals had to go. Rybolovlev had offered him bodyguards for his protection. Panteleymonov had refused.

Rybolovlev was not so cavalier. He had grown so worried for his family’s safety that he moved them to Florida and then to Switzerland. He hired bodyguards to protect his family, his parents and his business partners. “From time to time, I had to wear a bulletproof vest,” he told the Russian edition of Forbes.

Unprotected, Panteleymonov was gunned down by a mob-linked businessman named Oleg Lomakin (aka Prokop). Lomakin was arrested for Panteleymonov’s shooting, and, oin exchange for leniency, he accused Rybolovlev of ordering the murder.

It was enough to get Rybolovlev thrown in jail, where he languished. Authorities moved from from cell to cell in an effort, he suspects, to break him. Weeks dragged into months. Offered freedom if he sold his shares in Ukrakali, he refused. He told Forbes he was prepared to serve 10 years, if necessary.

Finally, the case against him began to fall apart. No other evidence linked Rybolovlev to the shooting, and eventually Prokop admitted that he had perjured himself. After nearly a year of incarceration, Rybolovlev was allowed to post bail of one billion rubles (about $200,000). In late 1997, he was acquitted of murder charges.

It turned out that Rybolovlev’s arrest was tied to the politics of the fertilizer industry. There was a familiar Soviet problem of overproduction, and to smooth things out the Rybolovlev’s company Uralkali and other fertilizer producers decided to collude. In 1993, they formed the International Potash Company to channel their exports.

Things were uneventful until 1996. On May 20th, Uralkali shareholders voted to end its relationship with the International Potash Company and export the company’s products through an American company, Transammonia.  The next day, Rybolovlev was arrested.

“I definitely came out a different person,” Rybolovlev told Forbes. “I got an understanding of how the world actually works. ” In prison, the businessman realized that the state can ruin his business at any time. Political risks were too significant and could never be neglected.

Freed from jail, Rybolovlev resumed command of his business. In 2007, he listed Uralkali on the London stock exchange and overnight became one of Russia’s richest men. He sold most of his stake in the company in 2010 to three Russian tycoons. Forbes estimates his fortune today at $7.4 billion.