The port of Yalta on the Black Sea has long been a source of controversy.
Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin met there in 1945 to discuss what to do with Germany when World War II ended. The Big Three agreed to demand Germany’s unconventional surrender. They also left with a promise form Stalin to allow free elections in Poland and to grant Eastern Europe the right of political self-determination. Stalin, however, wasn’t a man of the word and the result was a divided Europe and decades of Cold War.
On the 50th anniversary of the Yalta Conference, Donald Trump was considering whether to put his mark on the the Black Sea port.
In September of 2005, a Ukrainian cabinet minister announced that Trump was considering a major investment in his country.
Evhen Chervonenko, Ukraine’s minister of transport, announced on Sept. 12th that Trump planned to put $500 million into construction of an exclusive yacht and hotel complex in the Black Sea resort of Yalta. In order to boost tourism, the Yalta yacht club would replace the unsightly Yalta freight port.
The plan called for what Chervonenko called for a “huge condominium” with restaurants and a hotel.
The Yalta deal never happened, but it’s a chapter of the Trump-Russia story that has not gotten the attention it deserves for it weaves together two critical parts of the saga: Felix Sater and Deutsche Bank.
For Chervonenko had not met with Trump, but rather with one of his representatives, Felix Sater.
Sater was a violent twice-convicted felon who had gone to prison for stabbing a commodities trader in an ugly bar fight. Born in Russia and raised in the Russian enclave of Brighton Beach, Sater was the son of a Russian mobster convicted of extorting businesses in Brooklyn.
Despite his past, or perhaps because of it, Sater had gotten a job at Bayrock Group LLC, a New York development firm run by Tevfik Arif, a Kazah-born businessman. Bayrock joined forces with Trump to develop Trump SoHo, in lower Manhattan.
Construction on Trump SoHo had not yet begun when Trump granted Sater and Bayrock exclusive rights for one year to develop a Trump International Hotel and Tower in Kiev and Yalta and the rest of the Commonwealth of Independent States, which included Russia, and the former satellite republics in the Soviet Union. So this career criminal journeyed to Ukraine to negotiate a deal for Trump.
Yalta, although rich in history, is not the first place one thinks of for international tourism. Its location in the Russian-speaking Crimean Peninsula made it part of the ongoing tension between Russia and Ukraine that would culminate in Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014.
But Sater was obviously deeply connected in Crimea and the Ukraine. He arrived in the Ukraine in September 2005 bearing a letter from Trump that declared that Ukraine was developing rapidly, and was an ideal location for the signature development of Donald J. Trump. Somehow, Sater got Bayrock Group in a 2005 meeting of the executive council of investors of Crimea chaired by the Prime Minister of Crimea, Anatoliy Matviyenko, according to a Sept. 1 press government release.
Much later, Sater would use his Ukrainian connections to help a Ukrainian lawmaker Andrii V. Artemenko deliver a peace proposal for Russian and Ukraine to the White House in February 2017. Michael Cohen, Trump’s consigliere, had met with the two men in New York and delivered the proposal to the office of Michael Flynn, the National Security Adviser. (Interestingly, Cohen had his own business dealings in Ukraine around the time that Sater was pitching developments in Yalta.)
Several other multinational firms were considering massive investments in Ukraine along with the Trump Organization in 2005. These included the National Container Company of Russia, the Ofer Group of Israel, and the Toepfer Group of Germany. The Toepfer Group would later be caught paying millions of dollars in bribes to Ukrainian officials. Russia’s Sberbank and Vneshtorgbank (now VTB) were considering an additional $2 billion in Ukraine for “re-equipment of railways and ports.” Both of these banks were sanctioned by the United States in 2014 following Russia’s invasion of Crimea.
Trump, who called himself a billionaire and regularly inflated his estimates of his net worth (see TrumpNation by Timothy O’Brien), did not have $500 million to invest in Ukraine or anywhere else for that matter.
On Sept. 9th, three days before the announcement of Trump’s “investment” in Yalta, Ukrainian Transport Minister Chervonenko announced that Trump’s favorite lender, Deutsche Bank, had agreed to loan $2 billion to finance improvements to the country’s railways, postal service, and seaports.
Deutsche Bank’s London office is an attractive target for investigators looking into Trump ties to Russia because of the bank’s own sordid ties to Russia.
From 2011 to 2015, Deutsche Bank laundered rubles into dollars (without any reporting requirements) through a practice known as “mirror trades.” The bank allowed its Russian customers to buy Russian blue-chip stocks in Moscow and then quickly execute a sale of the same stocks in London. Deutsche Bank helped Russians transfer an estimated $10 billion out of the country via these mirror trades. US and UK regulators fined the bank a combined $629 million.
Trump’s business in the Ukraine was not yet finished. In February 2006, Donald Trump Jr. and Ivanka Trump paid a visit to the Ukraine. The Trump children met with Viktor Tkachuk, an adviser to the newly elected, West-leaning president of Ukraine, Viktor Yushchenko. They also met with Andrey Zaika head of a newly-formed Ukrainian construction consortium. The meeting with the Trump children, held in Kiev, was not reported in the Ukrainian press until after the Trumps had left the country.
The Yalta deal fizzled, but it’s a remarkable moment in the Trump-Russia story.
Bloomberg reports that Special Counsel Robert Mueller has decided that Trump’s sale of his Palm Beach mansion to a Russian billionaire is worth a deeper look.
As readers of this site know, Dmitry Rybolovlev, the Russian fertilizer king, bought the future president’s Palm Beach mansion in 2008 for $50 million more than Trump paid for it just a few years earlier. The mansion, called Maison de l’Aimitie (House of Friendship), 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.
Not long after the mansion sold, Trump was approaching default on loan from Deutsche Bank. And the $50 million Trump pocketed on the mansion sale was enough to cover the $40 million he had personally guaranteed to the German lender.
Here’s a bit more detail: The Palm Beach mansion sold in July 2008. That fall, Trump was desperately trying to get Deutsche Bank to extend a senior construction loan for the 92-story Trump International Hotel and Tower in Chicago. The Chicago project was already facing weak sales before the 2008 financial meltdown hit.
Unlike many other Trump Organization projects, the Donald was personally on the hook in Chicago. He hadn’t licensed his name. He had no partners. He arranged all the financing himself: He put $77 million of his own equity into the tower and had given Deutsche Bank a $40 million personal guarantee. (See “In Chicago, Trump Hits Headwinds,” The Wall Street Journal, 29 Oct. 2008.)
Trump’s Deutsche Bank loan came due Nov. 7, 2008 with an outstanding principal balance of $334 million, plus $251 million in interest. Not only did Trump not pay, but with his usual bombast, he sued Deutsche Bank to force them to extend the loan. Deutsche Bank countersued, and demanded Trump cough up his $40 million guarantee. Deutsche Bank ultimately extended the loan for five years and eventually Trump paid it.
There are a lot of dogs sniffing around this tree. The personal guarantees Trump made for his Deutsche Bank loans are also of interest to New York State regulators looking at the president’s relationship with the German lender’s wealth management division: according to The New York Times:
Additionally, the New York regulators recently requested information related to the hundreds of millions in loans Deutsche Bank’s private wealth management division provided Mr. Trump, one of the people said, paying particular attention to personal guarantees he made to obtain the loans. Those guarantees have declined as the loans were paid down and the property values increased, but it remains a source of interest to the regulators.
For those who want even more detail, I’ve embedded Trump’s Deutsche Bank personal guarantee at the end of this post. If anyone with some expertise in these matters finds anything interesting in there, please let me know.
Mueller’s team are also said to be interested in dealings involving the Bank of Cyprus. Rybolovlev, the Russian oligarch who bought Trump’s Palm Beach mansion, became the bank’s largest shareholder in 2010 when he purchased a 9.7 percent stake through his British Virgin Islands holding firm, Odella Resources. (Wilbur Ross, Trump’s commerce secretary, invested in the bank in 2014.)
The shady mansion sale is just one of the things FBI investigators and others are examining:
- Russian purchases of apartments in Trump buildings
- Trump’s involvement in a controversial SoHo development in New York with Russian associates
- The 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow
- Jared Kushner’s efforts to secure financing for some of his family’s real-estate properties.
It seems that Mueller’s team is looking for evidence of a payment disguised as a real estate transaction, fee or gift that would give Russians what the intelligence community likes to call “levers of pressure” that could be used against the US president.