With coverage of Donald Trump's Russian ties resurgent in the news again and more and more stories about his campaign officials and surrogates having on going contact with Russian officials, it is a timely question to ask what did the FBI and CIA know about Trump's Russia ties prior to the beginning of the 2016 presidential campaign. As a very lengthy piece in Talking Point Memo lays out, the answer is plenty and none of it positive. As it turns out, one individual on the Trump organization had a history of securities fraud, ties to Mafia crime families and the Russian mob. In fact, it looks likely that Trump Soho in New York City was largely financed by Russian money and funds from favored Russian money launderers. The take away? That Trumps claims that he has no previous ties to Russia are utter lies. Here are article highlights (read the entire piece):
As you've likely inferred from my recent posts I've spent a lot of time in recent days and weeks piecing together different elements of the Trump/Russia story. I've brought other colleagues into the work and plan to expand that once we have people hired for the three new investigative positions I discussed last month. Today everyone is talking about the inexplicable news about Jeff Sessions. But there's another dimension of the Trump/Russia story which has only become clear to me recently but which provides a critical backstory for understanding the background of this scandal and news story.
Let's go back to the story of Felix Sater, the Russian-American immigrant, convicted felon and longtime Trump business associate we discussed last week.
Let me review two separate streams of information which are critical to understanding the story. First, here are some basic and well-attested facts about Felix Sater.
The US government went and continues to go to extreme lengths to keep Sater's cooperation and work for the government a secret. Until quite recently, it went to great lengths to keep Sater's conviction itself, and all documents related to it, a secret. It took the extraordinarily rare step of managing the entire adjudication of Sater's crimes in secret, with all documents kept secret. Federal judges even pursued what might reasonably be called a vendetta against two lawyers who used leaked information about Sater's case in lawsuits growing out of a failed Trump building venture, Trump Fort Lauderdale, as well as lawsuits on behalf of victims in the original pump and dump scheme.
The federal government also kept Sater on as a cooperating witness for fully 11 years before finally sentencing him in 2009 for the plea deal in 1998. In a $42 million securities fraud case, Sater received no jail time, was not forced to pay restitution and was fined a mere $25,000. In other words, he walked away from the crime with close to no punishment.
It is impossible to know precisely what Sater was doing during this decade. But statements from government officials, news reports and Lauria's book make clear that it required him to have extensive associations with and knowledge of the mafia and touched not just on organized crime but specifically on critical matters of national security. Based on published reports and Lauria's book, it seems extremely likely that it also required him to have extensive knowledge of and contacts in the criminal underworld in the former Soviet Union. Clearly the US government saw Sater's cooperation as highly important. Otherwise it would not have gone to such lengths to get it, to keep it secret and to protect Sater after the fact.
My aim here is simply to demonstrate who Felix Sater is, his connections with a transnational criminal underworld stretching from New York's Outer Boroughs to Central Asia and (quite likely but not totally proven) meeting up with the weapons market where organized crime touches on international terrorist networks.
We don't just know this information about Sater. Just as importantly we know that the FBI, attorneys in the Eastern District of New York and almost certainly the CIA also knew about Sater's connections with these worlds since they were enlisting his apparently extremely valuable cooperation to help conduct investigations and national security operations in those realms.
Here's where I think this becomes significant to the present moment. If you line up Sater's story and his time as a cooperating witness with his time as a top business associate and finally employee of Donald Trump, they overlap almost exactly.
Trump first met Sater and got into business with Bayrock Capital, where Sater was a cofounder, in 2003. In Bayrock, Sater partnered with Tevfik Arif, a former Soviet trade and commerce official from Kazakstan. Trump and Bayrock partnered together on numerous building projects and Sater was the point man on most of them. The most notable is Trump Soho, which was financed with money from Russia and Kazakstan. There was also Trump Fort Lauderdale, the Sater-managed project whose collapse first triggered the revelation of Sater's 1998 securities fraud conviction. Trump's work with Bayrock continued until 2010 when Sater went to work for the Trump Organization full time - again, putting together deals and financing for Trump-branded building projects.
Let's put this together.
The federal government knew who Sater was, his ties to the criminal underworld, business ties into that world in the former Soviet Union, etc. They also had to know of his deep and longstanding association with Donald Trump, his key role in numerous Trump projects during the first decade of this century and his role arranging financing for these projects. We don't know if the federal government had specific knowledge of the details of these business transactions or whether or how deeply Donald Trump was reliant on capital from Russia and more generally the murky world of oligarchs and underworlds that Sater is clearly immersed in and from which he appeared to draw investment capital. But they likely would have suspected as much, at least that Trump had uncomfortably close ties to someone like Sater.
As long as Donald Trump was just a high-profile and frequently clownish real estate tycoon from New York and the star of The Apprentice, this probably didn't matter very much. After all, as I've noted, there's no specific evidence that Trump was involved in any of Sater's criminal activity.
But at some point in 2014 or 2015, Donald Trump started moving toward having a credible shot at becoming the President of the United States. By early 2016 that became a real possibility.
It seems quite probable that as Trump moved closer to the presidency in the early months of 2016, alarm bells started to go off in the FBI and the CIA, as the relevance of business partnerships with Sater and reliance on capital out of the former Soviet Union suddenly became dramatically more relevant. Again, as I said, as long as Donald Trump was just Donald Trump this didn't matter that much. There's plenty of dirty money sloshing around the New York real estate world. But when it started to seem plausible that he might become the next President, this would start to be a matter of great concern.
All of what I've said here would be an issue even if the Russian government had never inserted itself into the US election. It almost certainly predates any awareness within the US national security and law enforcement worlds that that was happening. But I suspect it is a critical backdrop for how this evidence was interpreted once it began to come to light. It quite possibly also informed and drove some of the scrutiny that was applied to Trump and his associates once it did.