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

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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?

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

Another Useful Idiot

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The Washington Post is out with a story about the American right’s ties to Russia and the article centers on the tale of accused Russian Mob boss and Russian Duma member Alexander Torshin and his red-headed friend, Maria Butina, which I’ve written about here. 

In that post, I wrote that David Keene — opinion editor of The Washington Times editorial page and past NRA president — was a useful idiot who allowed a suspected Russian mobster to get close to the president.

Torshin is a member of the Russian Duma and, simultaneously, (while the Post story doesn’t mention it), he was accused by Spanish police of being a ranking member of the Moscow-based Taganskaya crime syndicate. He was slated to meet with President Trump at the National Prayer Breakfast until a White House national security aide noticed Torshin’s name and flagged him as a figure who had “baggage.”

The Post adds an important new detail: How Torshin met Keene.

At least one connection came about thanks to a conservative Nashville lawyer named G. Kline Preston IV, who had done business in Russia for years.

Preston said that in 2011 he introduced then-NRA President David Keene to a Russian senator, Alexander Torshin, a member of Putin’s party who later became a top official at the Russian central bank. Keene had been a stalwart on the right, a past chairman of the American Conservative Union who was NRA’s president from 2011 to 2013.

I never realized that Vladimir Putin had such open and effusive admirers in the United States like George Kline Preston.

Preston, born in 1966, is an expert on Russian law who displays a white porcelain bust of Putin in his office, according to the Post.

He believes that we have it backwards: Putin is the good guy in this story. He has told friends for years not to believe reports that Putin murdered journalists or political opponents. Here he is effusively praising Putin to his friend Torshin on Twitter.

Translation: “@torshin_ru Tomorrow is Presidents’ Day in the USA. I want to say that you are fortunate to have President Vladimir Putin.”

Preston’s relationship with Torshin goes back to at least 2009 when Preston briefed Russian legislators on the implementation of immunity agreements in Russia:

Mr. Torshin asked me to briefly describe the concept of a “deal with the investigation,” or, more precisely, the “plea bargaining”, as we used to call this term in the West. (source: archived web page of prestonkline.com)

Preston was an international observer during the 2011 Russian duma elections that led to mass street protests about election fraud. Preston said he concluded the Russian election system was “impressive” and “very well-organized,” but the Western view was overwhelmingly negative. The reason why, he said, lay in the fact the West does not like Vladimir Putin. Asked why, he speculated that “maybe because he’s a strong leader, maybe he’s done a pretty effective job:”

Interestingly, this video was posted to YouTube (and possibly made by) Johan Backman, a controversial Finnish academic. Backman is a Putin cheerleader and Kremlin propagandist (which is detailed in this lengthy expose).  Preston was apparently didn’t know or didn’t mind that he was being used for propaganda purposes.

In 2012, Preston returned the favor and  invited Torshin to be an election observer in Nashville. Both men appear in the picture below (Preston on the left, and Torshin in the middle). Torshin’s tweet below reads: “Standing in line at the polling place. As an ordinary American. 6:45 a.m.”

In contrast to his experience observing voting Russia, Preston said he saw violations of U.S. law during the presidential election: pro-Obama signs posted too close to a polling place.

Preston earned his bachelors degree in Russian language and literature at the University of Tennessee in 1989, the same year he  studied in Leningrad via an Indiana University program at Leningrad State. He and earned his law degree at Nashville School of Law in 1994.  For a time, Preston was involved in trading Russian/Ukrainian securities and importing Kievskaya Rus ultra premium vodka.

Preston’s law practice appears heavily focused on Russia. A version of his website archived in 2011 appears in both English and Cyrillic. On his office web page of is what appears to be a double-headed eagle, the symbol on the coat of arms of the Russian Federation.

A portion of the Preston’s practice involved assisting Americans in adopting children born in the Ukraine and the former Soviet Union. (Putin in 2012 signed into law a ban on adoptions of Russian children by Americans.) Preston also represented Bering Strait, a classically-trained Russian bluegrass and Russian scholar Mikhail Anikin, who claimed that author Dan Brown stole his idea for the “Da Vinci Code.”

On his Twitter feed, @gittinpaid, Preston often retweets Russian propaganda from RT, Pravda and other news outlets:

I’m not sure what happened to G. Kline Preston, but it’s hard to look at him and see a man who has turned himself, quite happily it seems, into another of Putin’s useful idiots.

Donald Trump and the Russian with the Million-Dollar Watch

Vladimir Resin and his million-dollar watch

Eight years ago, I came across an interesting item in the Russian publication Vedemosti. A reporter decided to take a close look at the ridiculously expensive watches worn by Russian government officials.

Vedomosti found the most expensive watch on the wrist of Vladimir Resin, the former deputy mayor of Moscow.

He was photographed wearing an extremely rare Swiss watch made of platinum called the La Pressy Grande Complication model, which retails for more than $1 million. (The original story is gone, but you see another version here.)

It was interesting to learn that Resin met with Donald Trump during early business forays into Russia in the 1990s. This was an interesting moment for two larger-than-life characters: The Russian city official with the million-dollar watch and the future American president looking to do his first overseas deal in Moscow.

Trump has insisted that he has no loans, no deals, and no business, but it’s not for want of trying. In the mid 1990s, Trump was trying to put his name something in Moscow. But no matter what he wanted to build, renovate or brand, Trump had to go through Resin, who for two decades oversaw construction in Russia’s capital city as deputy mayor.

Resin listed his work as his only hobby in his official biography, but it was a different kind of labor that earned him a $1 million watch. Moscow government officials welcomed foreign partners into their hotels — and demanded their own pound of flesh in return. “Corruption is a very, very big problem,” an anonymous Western hotel executive told Businessweek in a story about the Russian hotel wars during Resin’s time in office.

Trump had reportedly grown interested in the Moscow luxury apartment market after noticing how many Russians were buying space in Trump Palace, Trump Parc and Trump Plaza towers in New York.

In November 1996, Trump traveled to Russia to explore the possibility of replicating the success of Trump Tower in Moscow. In a news conference at Moscow’s Baltschug Hotel, Trump announced he planned to invest $250 million to build two “super-luxury” residential towers to be called Trump International and — surprise — Trump Tower, both of which he said “Moscow desperately wants and needs.”

“Moscow is going to be huge, take it from the Trumpster!” he told Playboy magazine.

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Donald Trump in Moscow Nov. 5, 1996

It’s not clear whether Trump had the money to do deals in Moscow because 1996 was a difficult time for the future president. Although Trump claimed to be worth $2 billion, partial tax returns published by The New York Times revealed that Trump declared a loss of $916 million for the previous year. During his Moscow trip with then-wife Marla Maples, Trump had to suffer the indignity of flying commercial airlines. “We had to wait about an hour in London for a flight, right out there with all the other passengers,” Marla told Playboy. “Well, you can imagine how that went over with Donald.”

Trump met with Resin during his 1996 visit to Moscow. The Moscow Times quoted one of Trump’s partners in the deal, David Geovanis, as describing Resin as “one of the key people in charge of attracting foreign invest to the Moscow real estate market.” Geovanis added that the city was “very receptive” to Trump’s developments in Moscow.

Except they weren’t. Maybe the whole build-a-tower-in-Russia was just another in a long series of self-promotion. Or maybe Resin put his foot down. Resin said he wasn’t interested in having a glass-and-steel tower in the middle of Moscow. “We are not building any towers in the old part of the city,” he told the ITAR-Tass news agency. “We are not going to turn the ancient city into a Manhattan.”

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Hotel Rossiya

Resin had other ideas for Trump. In December 1996, Resin offered him the chance to invest in a pair of decrepit Moscow hotels, the Hotel Rossiya, just off Red Square, and the rundown Hotel Moskva. The city controlled the hotels through a joint-stock company.

Back in New York, Trump seemed excited about the prospects of putting his imprint on the Moskva or the Rossiya when he met in with Alexsandr Lebed, who at the time was viewed as a potential successor to Russian president Boris Yeltsin. A profile in The New Yorker quoted Trump telling Lebed:

“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 Moskva was a small, venerable Moscow hotel that is now run by the Four Seasons. The Rossiya was another matter.

The Rossiya, a 3,000 room concrete box and Europe’s biggest hotel, intrigued Trump, but it was a nightmare. The Economist magazine called it “Russia’s hotel from hell.”  The city had tried without success to close it in 1994 because it was overrun by rats and cockroaches. Renovating it would cost a small fortune.

The Rossiya was also plagued by an even more dangerous problem: Organized crime. The hotel’s general director, Yevgeny Tsimbalistov, was shot dead in a December 1997 contract killing apparently, according to The Economist, for trying to reorganize things in a way that upset the balance of power between the gangs. And Tsimbalistov’s murder was one in a string of four murders of Moscow hotel executives in an 18-month period from 1996 to 1998.

Then there were the all-powerful city officials to deal with, like Resin.

Trump wisely passed on the fortresslike Rossiya, and the hotel was eventually razed in 2006 to make way for a new development.

Trump, however, did show some interest in the other Moscow hotel Resin offered him, the Moskva. Trump submitted a proposal for a $175 million renovation of the crumbling Moskva with the top floor converted into luxury apartments. Trump promised to turn the hotel around in 18 months.

In January of 1997, Resin told Interfax that an agreement with Trump’s representatives was “practically reached”.  In the end, the Moskva deal fizzled out, too.

I should note that two of Trump’s friends longtime friends brought him to Moscow, Howard Lorber and Bennnett S. LeBow. Lorber’s New Valley LLC partnered with Trump on Moskva deal and LeBow’s Liggett-Ducat Ltd. subsidiary helped out on the would-be tower in Moscow. Today,  Lorber is president and CEO and Bennett is chairman of the Vector Group, the parent company of both the Liggett tobacco firm and New York real estate giant Douglas Elliman.  Both men are close friends and supporters of Trump.

By 2004, Resin had changed his mind about skyscrapers in Moscow. A $5 billion development plan called for 60 skyscrapers to be built, with the tallest reaching 116 floors. Resin flew to New York to to discuss the project with Trump’s representatives. As far we know, nothing came of that meeting.

Today, Resin serves in the lower house of Russia’s parliament, the Duma, as a member of Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party. In 2010, he was named acting mayor of Moscow when President Dimtry Medvedev fired his boss, Mayor Yuri Luzhkov.  Resin resigned the following year.

The fact that nothing came of Trump’s meeting of the man with the million-dollar watch is somewhat reassuring, given the president’s questionable judgment as president in foreign affairs and his rumored ties to Moscow.  No doubt Trump could have done a deal in Moscow had he wished. And he probably wanted to — “Moscow’s going to be huge” — and putting his name on one of the world’s biggest hotels might have been tempting. In the end, we hope, he found the cost or the risk of dealing with men like Resin, or both, too high.

 

How Did Carter Page Join the Trump Train?

How did Carter Page get his ticket to board the Trump train?

Page, reportedly the subject of a secret intelligence court warrant, was one of the Trump advisors Russian intelligence tried to use to infiltrate the campaign, CNN is reporting.

Did he ever meet Trump? Who introduced him to the campaign?  Like most things with the whole saga of Donald Trump and Russia the answers are not so clear.

On March 21, 2016, Trump met with the editorial board of The Washington Post. Frederick Ryan, the Post’s publisher, asked Trump whether he could share any names of his foreign policy team. Among the names that Trump reeled out was “Carter Page, PhD.”

A former investment banker with Merrill Lynch, Page opened the firm’s Moscow office, and then left to found Global Energy Capital LLC of New York, an investment company specializing in the oil and gas sector in Russia. He had partnered on some deals with Sergey Yatsenko, a former deputy chief financial officer at Gazprom, the Russian gas giant with close ties to the Kremlin.

Page was unknown in Washington’s foreign policy circles and no one paid him much attention until he made a trip to Moscow in July and gave a speech critical of U.S. policy at Moscow’s New Economic School.  Washington had a “hypocritical focus on ideas such as democratization, inequality, corruption and regime change” in its dealings with Russia, Page said.

What else did Page do in Moscow? Once again, it’s not clear. Page has never said whom he met with in Moscow. When he was asked by Reuters whether he was planning to meet anyone from the Kremlin, the Russian government or Foreign Ministry during his visit, Page declined to comment. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich also spoke at the graduation. Page has given conflicting stories on whether he met him. On March 2, Page told Christopher Hayes of MSNBC that he only met with “scholars and professors and some students there.”

Page’s Moscow visit got the FBI’s attention. Something that happened during his Moscow trip — exactly what isn’t clear — led the FBI to seek  a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court warrant for Page after his departure from the campaign, according to a front-page story in The New York Times. To obtain the warrant, which reportedly has been renewed, the FBI convinced a judge that there was evidence showing Page was an agent of a foreign power. Page has strongly denied this.

[For the background on Page’s contacts with Russian officials, see the Carter Page Timeline.]

By August, the Trump campaign was already distancing itself from Page and on September 26, he announced he was leaving the campaign, saying his continued presence had become a distraction. Looking back, Page viewed his time on the Trump campaign as one of his greatest experiences. “The half year I spent on the Trump campaign meant more to me than the five years I spent in the Navy,” he told The Times.

Page is full of strange comments like that. He has often changed his stories. He has refused repeatedly to say what he did for the Trump campaign. He also has not been well-served by his habit of reflexively refusing to comment every time he gets in front of a microphone.

From the get-go, Page has been cryptic about how he came to join the Trump campaign. In a Bloomberg story published nine days after Trump announced him as a member of his foreign policy team, Page declined to say how he and Trump connected.

Much later, it emerged that Sam Clovis, a GOP activist and economics professor on leave from Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa, produced a list of foreign policy advisers that included Page’s name.  Julia Ioffe quoted a Trump advisor naming Clovis as the intermediary in this exhaustive Page story in Politico back in September:

According to the Trump policy adviser, this winter, Clovis began to draw up a list of people who could serve as policy advisers to the campaign and give it some intellectual and policy heft. At a time when established Republican foreign policy specialists were tripping over each other to get away from Trump, “a lot of people came to Sam Clovis in February, March, and said, ‘I want to be part of the team,’” says the Trump adviser. And that’s how it happened. “He’s just a guy on a list. Trump looked at the list and said, ‘He’s an adviser.’ And now he’s milking it for all it’s worth.”

[Editor’s note: an earlier version of this post incorrectly named The Daily Caller as the first to report the Clovis connection.]

But it seemed unlikely that an Iowa politico would come up with Page’s name on his own. And, on April 12, Page was interviewed on CNN by Jake Tapper, and Page once again muddied the waters about how he came to join the campaign.

TAPPER: Was it Sam Clovis? Was it Sam Clovis?

PAGE: I have no comment. I have no comment.

TAPPER: Well, I mean, I know you want to get out all this information, but then you refuse to answer questions.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: There’s nothing wrong with somebody bring you into the campaign. I’m just trying to find out who it was.

PAGE: It’s an irrelevant point. He was not the first person that brought me in. I can assure you of that.

A day later, on April 13, The Daily Caller, citing multiple sources, reported that the mystery man who had introduced Page to Clovis was Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s former campaign manager. Lewandowski introduced Page to Clovis sometime in late 2015 or early 2016, according to The Daily Caller.

To date, no other news outlet has verified this. Lewandowski insisted (a bit too strongly, perhaps?) that he didn’t know Page in a March 5 Fox News interview.

“I was on the campaign for 18 months. I never met the guy and for anybody to say otherwise is factually inaccurate,” Lewandowski said. “I don’t know who Carter Page is. I never had a conversation with Carter Page. I never met Carter Page and anybody who says otherwise is not being truthful. And let me tell you this: A lot of people now want to claim that they were on the Trump campaign because he’s now president of the United States who had nothing to do with the campaign and Carter Page is one of those guys.”

Despite his denials, the Lewandowski connection, if true, backs up an earlier report in Politico about Page’s Moscow Trip.  Lewandowski had approved Page’s Moscow trip over the objections of J.D. Gordon, another Trump advisor.

Lewandowski overruled Gordon and told Page he could go, but not as a representative of the Trump campaign. But that was not how Page’s visit was received in Moscow.

At Moscow’s New Economic School, a newsletter announcing Page’s visit read: “You are invited to a lecture by Carter Page, foreign policy adviser for Donald Trump’s election campaign.”  Katehon, an influential, conservative Russian think tank, warmly welcomed Page’s visit, published excerpts of his speech and described his visit in glowing terms in a post headlined, “Trump’s Advisor in Moscow: An Alternative for the US.”

The Politico story also contained a quote that I found hard to forget. When asked what Page did while in Moscow, an unnamed campaign advisor said this: “I have no idea. I didn’t want to know.”

 

 

RT — The Foreign Agent in Your TV Set

The motto of RT, the Kremlin-backed propaganda network, is “question more.”  RT loves to pose questions about all manner of conspiracy theories, such as the Sept. 11 attacks were an inside job. However, one subject which RT dares not question is the nature of its own organization.

  • What is RT America?
  • Does the Kremlin pay its bills?
  • Is RT a foreign agent?

What is RT America?

RT describes itself as a “publicly-funded, non-profit organization.” It is a brand of ANO TV-Novosti, an “autonomous non-profit organization”, established in Moscow 2005 by the now-defunct Russian news agency, RIA Novosti. In the United States, it operates through a US corporation that is RT in all but name.

When it first launched in 2005 the network called itself “Russia Today” but it rebranded itself in 2009 as the more ambiguous RT.  “We removed ‘Russia Today’ from the logo after many colleagues, also from foreign media, told us that it was diminishing our potential audience,” said Margarita Simonyan, RT’s editor in chief told The Moscow Times. “Who is interested in watching news from Russia all day long?”

Fans of “alternative facts” love to tune in to RT, which bombards viewers in Europe, the UK (where RT’s bank accounts have been frozen) and America with all sorts of outlandish stories in English, Arabic, Spanish, and, of course, Russian.

The US intelligence community devoted a good deal of its report on Russia’s interference in the US elections to RT, saying it was part of “a Kremlin-directed campaign to undermine faith in the US Government and fuel political protest” and noting that RT’s editor in chief Margarita Simonyan was close to the Kremlin. Not to be outdone,  Simonyan cleverly mocked the report in an open letter titled, “Dear CIA.”

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RT editor Margarita Simonyan and Vladimir Putin

Does the Kremlin pays its bills?

RT’s budget of more than $300 million comes from the Federal Agency for Press and Mass Communications of the Russian Federation. (By comparison, the budget of the BBC, which is funded by the British government, is $375 million). In other words, yes, the Kremlin pays the bills.

Is RT a foreign agent?

The funny thing about RT is that the only place you will find it in the United States is on your TV set. RT has been very careful not to have any legal or physical presence in the United States.

The only legal paperwork I could find for RT was a 2009 US trademark application:

As you can see, RT’s own trademark states that it produces “ongoing news shows pertaining to current events in Russia.”

The trademark was obtained by RTTV America Inc., the commercial entity through which RT America operates in the United States.

RT’s editor Margarita Simonyan says that RT does not need to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. RT “simply transfers funds” to RTTV America.

However, this is a fig leaf. RT’s own trademark application, shows that RTTV America assigned its entire interest in the trademark to ANO TV-Novosti in Moscow.

The entire value of the RT brand in the United States belongs to a Russian corporation.

The Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1933 is designed to “insure that the US government and the people of the United States are informed of the source of information (propaganda) and the identity of persons attempting to influence US public opinion, policy, and laws.”

As the Atlantic noted, two Asian television networks and the distributors for two Chinese daily newspapers have registered under FARA. NHK, which rebroadcasts Japanese programming in the United States, is registered as a foreign agent.

The FARA statute exempts news organizations unless they are “owned, directed, supervised, controlled, subsidized or financed” by any organization registered outside the United States. It’s clear that RT is funded by the Russian government. So, yes, RT is a foreign agent.

Ilya Ponomarev, a leftist former member of the Russian Duma who now lives in exile in the United States, told Buzzfeed that RT is not a media outlet, and should register as a foreign agent.

“It’s a great mistake that the west is doing, that it’s acknowledging it as a media tool,” he said. “I think it’s a lobbying tool and it should be regulated as a lobbyist rather than media.”

“Russia Today is way more dangerous than ISIS. Way more dangerous,” he said. “Because ISIS may create physical danger with certain western individuals who are coming into direct contact with ISIS, but RT is very focused and committed in disputing the very core values of western society.”

The most difficult question to answer is whether RT deserves First Amendment protections. I’ll try to tackle that in a future post.

 

Why Did a Russian NHL Player Sue Trump’s Lawyer, Michael Cohen?

Vladimir Malakhov is a Russian-born retired professional hockey player. He was active in the NHL 1992 to 2006, playing for the New York Islanders, the Montreal Canadiens, and the New Jersey Devils.

In January of 1999, Malakhov wrote a check for $350,000 to Michael D. Cohen, Trump’s personal lawyer. The check was deposited — and then the money disappeared.

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What happened to the money and how this check came to be written to Michael Cohen was the subject of years of litigation in Circuit Court in Miami, Florida. (See Fomina v. Netscheret, 2006-001330-CA-01.)

Malakhov sued Cohen (/a/k/a “Michael D. Hacking”) in 2010 in Miami Circuit Court. (Malakov v. Cohen, 2010-14576-CA-03). I’ve embedded the lawsuit at the bottom of this post.

The story begins in late 1998 or early 1999, when Malakhov was living in Florida, and earning millions as a professional hockey player playing with the Montreal Canadiens.

One day, an acquaintance asked him for a large loan. The acquaintance was a woman named Julia Fomina. According to an affidavit filed by Malakhov’s agent, the money was intended not for Fomina but rather her boyfriend in Russia, Vitaly Buslaev. (For more on Buslaev’s background, see Yuri Felstinsky’s original article at the website Gordonua.com. There’s also a story out in Buzzfeed.)

Malakhov loaned $350,000 to Fomina and, on the advice of his attorney, secured the loan by having Fomina sign over a mortgage for her apartment on the 24th floor of Miami Beach condo tower.

For reasons that aren’t clear, Fomina instructed Malakhov’s wife to send the $350,000 loan to Michael Cohen. The check was issued in January 1999 to Cohen personally, not his law firm or many businesses, and deposited in Cohen’s Citibank trust account.

Sometime later, Fomina defaulted on her loan.  When Malakhov moved to foreclose on the condominium, Fomina swore under oath that she never received the $350,000 that had been sent to Cohen.

It took years before Cohen was finally deposed and asked what happened to the money. Cohen’s response: “I don’t recall.”  He insisted he didn’t know Malakhov, had no idea why the hockey player would write him such a huge check, had no records relating to the check, and had no clue what happened to the money.

A Miami judge accepted Cohen’s story and dismissed the case.

In deposition, Cohen speculated that one of the reasons why Malakhov might have sent him the check were his ties to Russians, including his business partner, the Ukrainian-born “Taxi King” Simon Garber. I’ve written previously about Cohen’s family ethanol business in Ukraine.

The Malakhov story connects to Trump in another roundabout way.

A few years before he wrote the check to Cohen, Malakhov was shaken down by a Russian mobster, according to testimony at a U.S. Senate hearing on Russian organized crime.

Malakhov, who at the time was playing for the New York Islanders, was approached in the National Restaurant in New York City’s Brighton Beach neighborhood. The man who demanded money from the hockey player worked for Vyacheslav Kirillovich Ivankov, one of the most powerful Russian Mafia bosses in America.

As I noted in an earlier post, Ivankov is one of several Mobsters who turned up in Trump Tower. Invakov also showed up Trump’s New Jersey casino, the Taj Mahal. Ivankov’s phone book included a working number for the Trump Organization’s Trump Tower residence, and a Trump Organization fax machine.

Ivankov was arrested in 1995 and sent to prison for extortion. After his release he returned to Russia where he was assassinated.

As for Malakhov, after he was shaken down, he spent the next months in fear, looking over his shoulder. His worries ended when he was traded to the Canadiens.