Of all the characters in the Trump/Russia saga, few are more fascinating than Felix Sater.
Sater is many things: a Russian emigre, the son of a gangster, an ex-con, and the guy who scouted real estate deals in Moscow for Donald Trump.
He was also a very valuable informant to the U.S. government for many years, as you can see from some photos I recently came across regarding Evgeny Shmykov, an ex-spy who was Sater’s long-time contact in Russia:
The guy that Shmykov stands shoulder-to-shoulder with? That’s Ahmad Shah Massoud, the anti-Taliban leader assassinated right before the 9/11 attacks.
These photos got some attention on Twitter, but as always, whenever Sater’s name comes up, people inevitably connect him to a powerful Russian Mafia boss named Semion Mogilevich, known as “the most dangerous mobster in the world.”
It’s time to put this bullshit to rest.
There is no, I repeat, no credible evidence linking Sater to a Russian Mob boss who was on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted List.
In writing my book, Trump/Russia, I spent quite a bit of time looking for evidence of the Sater-Mogilevich connection. In the end, I concluded that it just wasn’t there. To paraphrase Robert Mueller, if I had found evidence that Sater was connected to Mogilevich, I would so state.
There’s no doubt Sater did have ties to Russian organized crime. Sater’s father, Michael Sheferfofsky, was a Russian gangster who pleaded guilty in 2000 to two counts of extortion for shaking down businesses in Brooklyn.
But there’s no mention of Mogilevich in Sherorfksy’s criminal file.
So where does this claim come from?
The Sater-Mogilevich link is found in a Supreme Court petition for a writ of certiorari in Palmer v John Doe. 14-676.
This sounds like credible evidence. It’s convinced many people, including me, as my 2017 blog post shows.
The thing is it’s bullshit. Yes, I know. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.
While reporting my book, Trump/Russia, I tried to get to the bottom of this. I asked Richard Lerner, the attorney who wrote the Supreme Court petition, how he learned about the Sater-Mogilevich connection.
He somewhat sheepishly admitted that it comes from a website called Deep Capture.
This is where things get weird.
Deep Capture was written by Mark Mitchell, a former editor at Columbia Journalism Review, to “expose the ‘deep capture’ of American institutions by powerful and corrupt financial interests.”
Bankrolling Deep Capture was Patrick Byrne, the CEO of Overstock.com, a publicly-traded online retailer.
Byrne is famous for, among other things, a 2005 conference call with investors that touched on subjects ranging from:
“Miscreants, an unnamed Sith Lord he hopes the feds will bury under a prison, gay bath houses, whether he is gay, does cocaine, both or neither, and an obligatory, not that there is anything wrong with that, phone taps, phone lines misdirected to Mexico, arrested reporters, payoffs, conspiracies, crooks, egomaniacs, fools, paranoia, which newspapers are shills and for who, payoffs, money laundering, his Irish temper, false identities, threats, intimidation, and private investigators,” wrote Mark Cuban, the basketball team owner, investor, and host of Shark Tank.
That’s just a sampling. You can read the full thing here.
Byrne has also accused reporter Bethany McLean of giving Goldman Sachs traders blowjobs and said on live TV that he knew for a fact of a fax machine in the offices of CNBC where every morning hedge funds send in “instructions” for journalists. Authorities at Salt Lake City’s airport arrested him in 2013 when they found a loaded handgun in his carry-on luggage.
Sater is one of Byrne’s “miscreants” who appears as a recurring character in Deep Capture, where he is described to this day as a “Mafia boss” and “a Russian mobster and a member of the Mogilevich organization (controlled by Semion Mogilevich).”
To give you a taste of Deep Capture, check out this now-deleted post that describes … well, just read it for yourself:
A month or so after that, an offshore businessman who had provided some information to our investigation received in the mail a beautiful, lacquered, Russian matryoshka doll. And inside this doll, there was a slip of paper.
On the paper was the letter “F” — with a cross on it. The businessman knew right away that the letter “F” stood for “Felix” – Felix Sater.
The businessman said he had called Felix Sater to see what the deal was with the doll. And after talking to Felix, the businessman invited Patrick Byrne to a greasy spoon diner in Long Island. It was urgent, aid the businessman — so Patrick made haste.
And when Patrick arrived at the diner (along with two other people, who can testify to this) the offshore businessman, discarding with formalities, said, “This meeting can be very short. I have a message for you from Russia.”
The message, said the businessman, was this: “‘We are about to kill you. We are about to kill you.’ Patrick, they are going to kill you – if you do not stop this crusade [the investigation into destructive market manipulation], they will kill you. Normally they’d have already hurt you as a warning, but you’re so weird, they don’t know how you’d react. So their first step is, they’re just going to kill you.”
According to the businessman, this threat had come straight from the mouth of Felix Sater.
Maybe this did happen. Then again, maybe the moon landing was faked. Maybe the Illuminati controls the world. Maybe 9/11 was an inside job. I’m pretty sure it didn’t happen.
Editor’s note: I am striking my snarky comments because I was wrong. Patrick Byrne has shown me evidence that this conversation did take place. In a recorded 2007 phone call, a transcript of which is in my possession, Byrne’s associate was told: “And there’s a beautiful box and inside is a matryoshka and I opened up the last matryoshka and inside is an F with a cross on it, which is for Felix.” I was also played the recording of this call. A clear threat was relayed to Mr. Byrne, who did not make this story up. I owe him an apology.
Patrick Byrne emailed me August 4 to say:
“For the record, your email reminded me that Felix wrote me once (while I was very ill) and denied being the source of the Russian death threat against me. He was quite gentlemanly, and I think I said I would post it. However, I think I was in a cardiac unit at the time, come to think of it, and it never got done.”
Byrne didn’t answer my questions about what evidence he has for the Sater-Mogilevich connection, which can still be found on his website.
In 2016, a Canadian judge ordered Byrne and Mitchell to pay $1.2 million (Canadian) over published claims that Altaf Nazerali, a Vancouver businessman, was a gangster, an arms dealer, a drug trafficker, a financier of al-Qaida and member of the Russian and Italian Mafias.
Nazerali is mentioned in the deleted post quoted above about Sater and the matryoshka doll. Nazerali is described as a friend of Sater’s, although I’d wager that they never met.
The judge wrote that Mitchell and Byrne “engaged in a calculated and ruthless campaign to inflict as much damage on Mr. Nazerali’s reputation as they could achieve. It is clear on the evidence that their intention was to conduct a vendetta in which the truth about Mr. Nazerali himself was of no consequence.” Read the decision here.
A month before the ruling was issued, Byrne announced he was taking an indefinite personal leave of absence from Overstock.com to battle stage 4 Hepatitis C. He returned to his duties a few months later.
The Supreme Court of Canada dismissed Mitchell and Byrne’s appeal in August 2018 and affirmed a seven-figure award.
Maybe you think Sater a bad guy. Maybe you think he made amends for his criminal past. Either way, a man whose life is far more fascinating than most of ours will ever be doesn’t need to be embellished with fiction.
Andrew Sullivan has written a nice review of Trump/Russia: A Definitive History in the Times Literary Supplement of London, “the world’s leading journal for literature and ideas.”
Unless, that is, you see all of this as some grand plan hatched in the halls of the Kremlin to unsettle the post-Cold War order, break up the EU and NATO, and legitimize the authoritarian pseudo-democracy in Russia. Seth Hettena, an investigative journalist with the Associated Press, lays out the entire labyrinth of ties Trump has long had with the Russian mafia in New York, and with the Russian government itself. His essential insight is that there is no clear distinction between the two. Putin’s Russia is a mafia state; its oligarchs deep in financial crime and close to mobsters. And Trump was ensnared early on, as his Trump Tower and Taj Mahal casino in New Jersey attracted all manner of Russian hoodlums, tycoons and hit men. But it deepened as Trump became bankrupt, saved only by bankers who were acting to protect themselves, and sought new financing when America’s banks refused to loan to this shiftiest of failed businessmen. His son, Eric, blurted out the truth to a friend: “We have all the funding we need out of Russia. We go there all the time”.
Hettena writes that Trump Tower was one of only two buildings in Manhattan to allow buyers to conceal their true identities. Money-launderers flocked to it. Trump’s Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City was found to have “willfully violated” anti-money laundering rules of the Bank Secrecy Act, was subject to four separate investigations by the Internal Revenue Service for “repeated and significant” deviations from money-laundering laws, and was forced to pay what was then the largest ever money-laundering fine filed against a casino. The Trump World Tower, by the UN headquarters in New York, had a large number of investors connected to Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan. Trump’s consigliere, Michael Cohen, was found by a Congressional Committee to have “had a lot of connections to the former Soviet Union and . . . seemed to have associations with Russian organized crime figures in New York and Florida”. His campaign manager for a while – Paul Manafort – made a fortune channelling Kremlin propaganda in Ukraine. Trump’s new towers in Southern Florida were also humming with Russian buyers. Over a third of all the apartments in the seven Trump towers were connected either directly to Russian passports or to companies designed to conceal the owners. Hettena finds a prosecutor who spelled it out: “his towers were built specifically for the Russian middle class criminal”.
Trump’s unique refusal as a modern candidate to release his tax returns suddenly doesn’t seem so strange. And it is no surprise whatsoever that when the Trump campaign was told that the Kremlin had hacked Hillary Clinton’s emails and offered them to the campaign – as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr Trump” – they took the bait instantly. “If it’s what you say, I love it”, Donald Trump Jr emailed back to the Russian intermediary, “especially later in the summer”, clear proof of a conspiracy with a foreign power to corrupt the US elections. This led to the infamous Trump Tower meeting between Trump campaign officials and an emissary from Putin. In the autumn, the Clinton emails were duly unleashed, via WikiLeaks, and constantly touted by Trump himself. At one point, he even went on national television and directly asked the Kremlin to release more of them. Trump, in other words, was openly asking a hostile foreign government to help take down his opponent. But by then, his hourly outrages had lost the power to shock. As strong evidence emerged of a Russian campaign to influence the election in the summer and autumn of 2016, Obama proposed that a bipartisan group of senators release the information to warn the public. The Senate Majority leader, the Republican Mitch McConnell, refused. Much of the Republican Party would rather have the election rigged by Russians than see a Democrat win.
The quid pro quo appears to have been a promise to undo sanctions when Trump came to power – something his first National Security Counsel head, Mike Flynn, immediately started work on after the election victory….
Former FBI Director James B. Comey Jr. has been making the rounds with the stunning observation that President Donald J. Trump behaved much liked the mob bosses he put on trial in his days as a federal prosecutor in Manhattan.
During his time in the White House, Comey says he felt the president repeatedly trying to make him a member of his corrupted inner circle when he famously asked the FBI director for loyalty.
In his last conversation with Comey on April 11, Trump told him: “I have been very loyal to you, very loyal, we had that thing, you know.” We had that thing. That thing of ours. It’s literally a translation of La Cosa Nostra, which is how members of the American Mafia describe their organization.
Comey tells us a fundamental truth about the man we have elected to the most powerful office in the world: Donald Trump was a mob-friendly businessman.
Well, it took a couple of days, but I finally managed to read through Fusion GPS co-founder Glenn Simpson’s 312-page testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Thank you to Sen. Dianne Feinstein for releasing this information last week over the objections of Republicans. Sen. Feinstein said the American public deserve to make up their own minds. Couldn’t agree more. You can find the testimony here.
So I thought I would pick things that jumped out at me from Simpson’s testimony:
1. An internal source in the Trump Organization was providing the FBI with information about Russian collusion.
Simpson learned this from Christopher Steele, the former British spy he had hired to investigate Trump’s links to Russia. Steele’s findings, including the scandalous scene in the Moscow Ritz, were so alarming that he took his findings to the FBI. The FBI told Steele, yes, we’ve heard something similar from our internal Trump source. Simpson refused to answer questions about who this source might have been, but this source was not one of Steele’s source. Huge bombshell. (p. 175)
2. Someone has been killed as a result of Steele’s reports.
Simpson’s lawyer, Josh Levy, drops this on p. 279. “Somebody’s already been killed as a result of the publication of this dossier and no harm should come to anybody related to this honest work,” he says. Curiously, nobody challenges this, which makes it seem an accepted fact. Maybe they were all just tired after 9 hours of questioning. The person is not named, but presumably it’s someone in Russia. Otherwise, it would be a bigger deal, right?
3. Felix Sater is connected to Russian organized crime kingpin Semion Mogilevich This connection has been alleged in a Supreme Court petition filed in 2012 by lawyers Fred Oberlander and Richard Lerner to unseal Sater’s criminal case. The Website Deep Capture made the same claim, but the sourcing wasn’t very strong, as did two New York attorneys in court filings. (Update: Sources I’ve spoken to led me to doubt this claim.) (p.69)
4. Chris Steele broke off talks with the FBI in part because of a story in The New York Times. This was the infamous Halloween 2016 story that reported that an FBI investigation of Trump found no ties to Russia. The Times story and FBI Director James Comey’s bizarre decision to reopen the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s email made Steele concerned that the FBI was being manipulated for political ends by Trump’s people. (p. 178).
5. Bill Browder’s comical efforts to hide from Fusion GPS and Glenn Simpson.
This isn’t a single event. It’s more like a pattern. Maybe Simpson is a liar as Browder says or maybe Browder doesn’t like anybody nosing around in his business practices in Russia. Read it for yourself and see what you think pp 40-48.
Part I: The princess in the gilded cage
Oxana Fedorova was a tall, raven-haired beauty from Pskov, a old Russian city near Estonia. She was studying to be a police officer in St. Petersburg, Russia when she decided to try her luck in a local modeling contest. Fedorova entered the 1999 Miss St. Petersburg pageant and won. Two years later, the 23-year-old police lieutenant became Miss Russia, which awarded her a new Mercedes and a Cartier watch.
Vladimir Putin, newly installed as Russia’s president, was said to be a keen admirer of the reigning Miss Russia, a karate black belt and an excellent shot. A photo of Fedorova was on display near his office in the Kremlin. The Telegraph of London reported that the organizers of the Miss Russia pageant had crowned Fedorova “in a feudal display of loyalty to the head of state.” She was even rumored to be Putin’s secret lover. Not true, Fedorova said. “It’s just a coincidence that we are both from St. Petersburg, the work of fate. There are no links with the president.”
Fedorova’s real boyfriend wasn’t the president. He was a Russian mobster from St. Petersburg.
Vladimir Semenovich Golubev, aka “Barmeley,” got out of in prison and became a gangster in St. Petersburg in the 1990s. Golubev was a silent partner in Adamant Holding, a real estate company founded in 1992 that today controls 29 shopping malls in St. Petersburg. (See Russian Forbes.)
The Russian press reported that Golubev had links to the Tambov gang, a criminal syndicate that dominated St. Petersburg in the 1990s. Back then, the deputy mayor of St. Petersburg, a man named Vladimir Putin, was collaborating with the Tambov gang to launder money and gain control of the gambling business. (See Karen Dawisha’s excellent book Putin’s Kleptocracy.)
According to Russian press reports, Golubev had supported Fedorova since she she had won Miss St. Petersburg as a teenager. Fedorova reportedly traveled either in his company or with guards he sent to accompany her. Officials with Miss Universe noted that money never seemed to be a problem for the beauty queen. She was like a beautiful bird living in Golubev’s gilded cage.
Part II: Miss Universe
In 2002, Oxana Fedorova entered Miss Universe, the international beauty pageant then owned by Donald Trump.
The pageant was held in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Fedorova and other beauties from around the world competed for prizes that included a year’s salary and an apartment in one of Trump’s Manhattan buildings. (The apartment was more like a dormitory for Miss Universe shared it with Miss USA and Miss Teen USA.)
At the Coliseo Roberto Clemente in San Juan, Fedorova dominated the swimsuit competition and was crowned with the diamond-studded tiara.
Trump, who was in the audience watching, allegedly rigged the contest for Fedorova, according to Seth Abramson, an author and attorney. Abramson said he spoke to a source present that night in Puerto Rico who claimed that Trump told the celebrity judges — actors, fashion designers, and NFL star Marshall Faulk — whom to choose as winner.
Four months after she was crowned Miss Universe, Fedorova was fired. Federova had failed to show at numerous photo shoots and other high-profile functions, including a commitment to help crown Miss Teen USA. It was the first time that a winner had been forced to surrender her title.
Trump said the president of the Miss Universe organization, Paula Shugart, had asked Fedorova to resign. “When Oxana didn’t resign, Paula had no choice but to terminate her,” he said. Anonymous “insider” sources quoted by the New York Post went for Fedorova’s jugular. “An unbelievably spoiled bitch,” one called her. Another said she was overweight and pregnant, which Fedorova denied.
Over the years, Fedorova has given several reasons for her decision to give up the title of Miss Universe. She had to care for an ailing relative. She did not want to give up her studies. (She now holds a doctoral degree.) She was upset no one had warned her before her lewd interview with radio host Howard Stern.
Asked by Russian reporters whether pressure from her gangster boyfriend Golubev led her to abandon the Miss Universe crown, Fedorova replied, “This is my personal life, and I do not want to talk about it.”
The view from Russia was that Trump had been paid off to crown Fedorova. Nikolay Kostin, the organizer of the Miss Russia contest, suggested to a reporter for the respected Russian daily Kommersant that Trump had been bribed to hand the crown to Fedorova.
“Nikolay Kostin in response to such accusations only smiles and asks who then dared to offer a bribe to the owner of the Miss Universe contest Donald Trump, who presented the crown to Oxana Fedorova, and how much he was given.
Vitali Leiba, president of the model agency Red Stars, told the newspaper, “It is very difficult to determine the addressee of a possible bribe. We can say that Trump was given a bribe, or it is possible that the U.S., in the person of Trump, offered a bribe to Russia, encouraging her representative at the contest.”
Update: An astute reader points out that Vitali Leiba was a founding shareholder of Arigon Company Ltd., a Channel Islands company established in 1990 by the Brainy Don, Semion Mogilevich whose name keeps turning up in the Trump-Russia affair. An 1996 FBI report called Arigon “the center of the Mogilevich Organization’s financial operations.”
Part III: The Ugliness in Trump’s Beauty Contests
There is no proof that Trump was bribed or that he tipped the scale for Oxana Fedorova, but there were multiple claims that the pageants were rigged.
Michael Schwandt, a choreographer who worked on Miss Universe and Miss USA, told Guanabee.com that Trump would have all the contestants line up and he would walk past like a commander reviewing his troops with an assistant taking notes. “It’s just kind of common knowledge that he picks six of the top 15 single-handedly,” Schwandt said.
The choreographer said Trump told him he exercised the “Trump rule” so because some of the most beautiful women were not chosen as finalists in the past “and he was kind of upset by that.” Schwandt disavowed his comments but here is audio of Trump explaining the “Trump Rule” to Miss USA contestants.
A contestant in 2012 Miss USA told a judge that her contest had been rigged. Sheena Monnin wrote on her Facebook page that a fellow contestant had seen a sheet of paper listing the five finalists before the contest. (She reaffirmed the claim in her delcaration.)
…. I witnessed another contestant who said she saw the Top 5 BEFORE THE SHOW EVER STARTED proceed to call out in order who the Top 5 were before they were announced on stage. Apparently the morning on June 3rd she saw a folder lying open to a page that said ‘FINAL SHOW telecast, June 3, 2012’. After the Top 16 were called and we were standing backstage she hesitantly said to me and another contestant that she knew who the Top 5 were. I said ‘who do you think they will be? She said that she didn’t ‘think’ she ‘knew’ because she saw the list that morning. She relayed whose names were on the list. Then we agreed to wait and see if that was indeed the Top 5 called that night. ….
Trump was furious. He said Monnin had “loser’s remorse,” and said that if you “looked at her and compared her to the other people who were in the top 15, you would understand why she was not in the top 15.” His consigliere Michael Cohen called into TMZ Live and said that Monnin had 24 hours to retract her statement or that she could “bet [her] a** that [Miss Universe] will sue . . . seeking massive damages.” Consigliere Cohen was good to his word. Trump obtained a $5 million defamation award against Monnin in an uncontested arbitration proceeding, which was upheld by a federal judge.
A 2013 investigation by Jezebel found that a pageant recruiter in Trump’s Miss USA franchise allegedly demanded a blow job in exchange for magazine work that would allow a contestant to pay the $895 contest entrance fee.
Trump had acquired the Miss Universe franchise in 1996. He reportedly paid tens of millions of dollars (the exact figure was not disclosed) to buy it from ITT Corp., beating out beat two television networks and several South American media moguls. (The deal also included Miss USA and Miss Teen USA.) Trump ran Miss Universe as a 50-50 partnership with TV networks, first with CBS, and, after 2002, with NBC.
On the surface, it looked like a good business. It cost $20 million to bring the 2013 Miss Universe pageant to Moscow. Emin Agalarov whose family owns the arena that hosted the pageant broke down the costs for Russian Forbes. A third of that $20 million went to secure rights. Another third: organizational costs. And the final third goes to the production and broadcast costs. (Another report said overseas rights to Miss Universe were selling for $6 million in 2003.)
Very little of that money, however, was distributed to the general partners of Miss Universe. We know this because Trump had assigned his half of his interest in Miss Universe (25 percent of the company) to his publicly-traded corporation, Trump Entertainment Resorts, Inc. In 2002, the year Fedorova won in Puerto Rico, Trump Entertainment collected a mere $700,000 for it quarter share of the pageant. In 2003 and 2004, Trump Entertainment earned nothing from Miss Universe.
Where was all the money going?
Even if the business was a stinker, there was one attraction for Trump. It allowed him to indulge his Porky’s-style adolescent fantasy of seeing beautiful women naked when they were in no position to refuse.
“I’ll go backstage and everyone’s getting dressed, and everything else, and you know, no men are anywhere, and I’m allowed to go in because I’m the owner of the pageant and therefore I’m inspecting it,” Trump told Howard Stern in 2005.
Listen for yourself:
Asked whether he had ever slept with a contestant, Trump declined to say. “It could be a conflict of interest. … But, you know, it’s the kind of thing you worry about later, you tend to think about the conflict a little bit later on.”
Trump sold Miss Universe in 2015 to the talent agency WME | IMG for $28 million. The value of the franchise had been damaged by Trump’s description of Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists, which led NBC and Univision to drop coverage of Miss USA.