In 2017, while I was writing my book Trump/Russia, I put in a Freedom of Information request for the FBI file of a deceased Russian mobster. I foolishly thought I might be able to get a response in time to include it in my book.
Instead, it turned out to be the start of a four-year odyssey that drew to a close recently.
My FOIA request, which became a FOIA lawsuit, boiled down to a simple question: What was Donald Trump’s name doing in the file of a Russian gangster?
A few weeks ago, a federal judge declined my request to force the FBI to release 150 pages that might have shed some light on that.
The end result will do little to clarify the ongoing debate over Trump and Russia. The Russiagate deniers can continue to claim, correctly, there was no proof of any conspiracy, while those who believe that Trump successfully covered up his ties to Russia remain equally correct when they say we still don’t have all the answers.
Some of those answers may have been in the FBI file I was seeking. It belonged to Vyacheslav Kirillovich Ivankov, a top Russian mobster or vor y zakone (“thief who follows the code”), who arrived in America in 1992. He was arrested three years later and was sentenced to prison for conspiring to extort $3.5 million from two Russian emigres who ran an investment advisory in Manhattan. Ivankov served nine years. Upon release, he was deported to Russia where he was later assassinated.
While researching my book, I learned that during his time in New York, Ivankov kept popping up in Trump’s properties. First, sources told me that agents tracked him to Trump Tower. Next, he turned up at Trump’s new casino, the Taj Mahal.
Upon his arrest, FBI agents seized Ivankov’s phone book. According to author Robert I Friedman, who obtained a copy of Ivankov’s phone book, it included a working number for the Trump Organization’s Trump Tower Residence, and a Trump Organization office fax machine.
In response to my initial 2017 FOIA request, the FBI sent me 875 previously-released pages that confirmed that agents had tracked Ivankov to the Taj Mahal.
I wondered what other secrets might be buried in the file.
The FBI’s file on Ivankov ran to nearly 38,000 pages. Processing that large a file for public release would take years and cost more than $1,000 in duplication fees, so I agreed to reduce the scope of my request.
All I was interested in, I told the FBI, were the portions of the file that dealt with Donald Trump.
In January 2018, an FBI FOIA specialist told me over the phone that what I wanted could be found in a 528-page section of the file. There would be some privacy hurdles to clear first, she told me.
This was progress and it amounted to a confirmation of sorts that Trump’s name was in the file. How many other future U.S. presidents have appeared in the FBI file of a gangster?
But this bit of information, tantalizing as it was, meant little and only raised fresh questions.
Was Trump merely an innocent third-party mentioned in passing? Did Ivankov’s gambling at the Taj Mahal result in scrutiny of Trump? Or, as some have speculated, was Trump providing information to the FBI as a confidential source?
To answer those questions, I filed a FOIA lawsuit in federal court in Washington, DC. Mark Zaid and Bradley Moss, two well-known FOIA and whistleblower attorneys, took on my case pro bono.
The case was assigned to Judge Amy Berman Jackson, who was intimately familiar with Trump and Russia. Judge Jackson had presided over the trials of Paul Manafort and Roger Stone.
This was my first time filing a FOIA lawsuit and I was surprised to see the FBI, after months of no activity, switfly handed over 378 pages. But Trump’s name was not mentioned once anywhere on those pages.
That left the 150 pages the FBI wouldn’t let me see. The Freedom of Information Act allows the government to exempt information from disclosure on a variety of grounds. Some of these exemptions, such as the names of FBI agents involved in the case, were irrelevant.
There were a few exemptions, however, that could potentially be hiding Trump’s name. The most commonly cited exemption on about 90 of the pages withheld in full was one protecting confidential FBI sources. That was followed by names of people of “investigative interest” to the FBI, an exemption cited on 76 of the pages withheld.
Even though Trump was president, he hadn’t surrendered his privacy rights. To force the FBI to disclose any of that information, we needed to show that this information was already in the public domain.
There was a precedent for disclosing this information. An FBI memo released more than 20 years ago under a FOIA request by The Smoking Gun revealed that in 1981, Trump had offered to “fully cooperate” with the bureau over a casino he was trying to build in Atlantic City, New Jersey. “Trump stated in order to show that he was willing to fully cooperate with the FBI, he suggested that they use undercover Agents in the casino,” the memo states.
With that 1981 memo, we argued, the government had already revealed that Trump was willing to cooperate with the FBI to provide information on organized crime at his casino in Atlantic City, so there was no reason to hold back when Vyacheslav Ivankov showed up at the Taj Mahal 12 years later.
The FBI responded with what’s known as a “Glomar response.” What this means is the FBI was telling us it couldn’t confirm or deny whether Trump was a confidential FBI informant but, hypothetically, if he was, the FBI still couldn’t confirm it because “doing otherwise jeopardizes the FBI’s confidential source program.” The FBI couldn’t even tell us if Trump wasn’t a CI because that could potentially reveal who the real informant was.
Furthermore, the government claimed that we couldn’t show that the 1981 FBI memo had been officially released by the bureau’s Record/Information Dissemination Section (RIDS).
RIDS was unable to confirm whether the record was officially placed in the public domain via an authorized FBI records release. The FBI does not routinely release third party informant records to the public. Therefore, RIDS did not consider this record as an authorized official disclosure by the agency that would trigger a FOIA waiver. Second, even if the FBI were to consider the record submitted by plaintiff, which it is not, the record failed to impart informant status to Mr. Trump.
Franz Kafka would have smiled at that one.
And that, pretty much, was that. Judge Jackson was left with no issue of dispute to rule on. On August 20, the case was dismissed.
While the FBI was telling us how carefully it protects the private information of future U.S. presidents, Trump’s former deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein admitted that he had made the decision to release the intimate personal texts between FBI agent Peter Strzok and FBI attorney Lisa Page because it would not violate their rights to privacy. Trump used these texts to mock and deride Strzok and “his lover” Page, complete with fake orgasms.
It’s an old story: Where there’s an executive will, there’s a legal way. What the president wants to keep secret stays secret.