A new report from the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence offers a damning portrait of the people Donald Trump chose as his partners for potential projects in Russia. They include individuals with alleged connections to the mob, to Vladimir Putin and to human trafficking.
The group would comprise an extraordinary list of associates for any international businessman, let alone for the sitting president of the United States.
Trump Organization representatives did not respond to requests for comment. In 2016, Trump Organization lawyer Alan Garten insisted that the business conducts thorough due diligence on its outside partners. “We do extensive vetting on everyone we do business with,” he told Forbes at the time. “We do background checks on an international level. We do background checks on a local level. We check every available database commonly used. We use outside experts who specialize in this area. And that’s in addition to looking at the deal itself. So extensive vetting goes on.”
Doesn’t seem like it. Here are the details on the people connecting Trump to Russia.
Trump has long gotten heat for his association with Felix Sater, a managing director at a firm called Bayrock Group, which worked with the eventual president on potential projects in New York, Florida and Arizona. In 1995, Sater finished a 15-month stint in prison for assault. Three years later, he pleaded guilty to racketeering as part of a Mafia-tied pump-and-dump stock scheme. He kept himself out of prison that time by cooperating and sharing intelligence with the feds for more than a decade on subjects including the mob, North Korea and Osama bin Laden.
Tuesday’s report outlines the sort of sources Sater kept close to him. “Sater began using his existing network, largely in Russia, to establish a network of contacts including intelligence officers, military operatives and personnel at military research facilities in various countries,” the report states. “Sater explained that he was in contact with ‘mostly GRU [Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate] guys.’”
The report also offers additional details on the nature of Trump’s relationship with Sater, who eventually had a Trump Organization business card and an agreement that he would receive a portion of proceeds from certain deals. “This arrangement, and Sater’s office space on the 26th floor of Trump Tower only several offices away from Trump, gave Sater greater access to Trump, allowing Sater the ability to see Trump frequently and ‘pitch’ business opportunities to him,” the report explains. “During this time, Trump would see Sater every day, generally more than once. In general, Sater recalled that he had interacted with Trump ‘hundreds’ of times over the course of their relationship.”
In 2007, the New York Times published a story on Sater’s past, and Trump distanced himself immediately. “We do as much of a background check as we can on the principals,” Trump said at the time. “I didn’t really know him very well.”
In a deposition taken days after the article came out, Trump claimed he had worked mostly with a man who he identified as the owner of Bayrock, Tevfik Arif. “The one I dealt with was Mr. Arif,” Trump said, explaining that Arif had been working with him on new business opportunities in Turkey, Poland, Ukraine and, of course, Russia. “Mr. Arif had the contacts,” Trump said. “He’s very international, as I’m sure you’ll see if you interview him. And he had international connections.”
But Arif also came with his own baggage that, unlike Sater’s, had not yet caused much commotion. In Tuesday’s report, the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence laid out a slew of accusations against Arif: “Information obtained by the committee suggests he was involved in Russian organized crime, money laundering and human trafficking dating back to at least 2000.”
A spokeswoman for Arif said she was not able to comment.
The report includes significant redactions, making it difficult to understand the evidence against Arif. But it is clear that some accusations came from his old partner. “Sater, Arif’s longtime business partner, suggested to the committee that he believed Arif engaged in human trafficking in the United States and elsewhere. According to Sater, Arif brought ‘thousands’ of women into the United States, primarily from Ukraine,” the report says.
Trump’s plans with Arif eventually fell apart. “When I saw him once,” Trump recalled in the 2007 deposition, “I said, ‘It’s too bad we didn’t do those deals.’ He said, ‘It’s too bad.’ Because if you know anything about Moscow and the different places, the market has been through the roof, more than the United States. So I told him, I said, ‘It’s too bad we didn’t do those deals. They would have been very good deals.’ ”
Trump made it especially clear that he wanted to invest in Russia. “Russia is one of the hottest places in the world for investment,” he said, adding, “We will be in Moscow at some point.”
Emin and Aras Agalarov
Trump finally got to Moscow in 2013, when Russian billionaire Aras Agalarov and his pop-singer son, Emin, hosted the Miss Universe contest at Crocus City Hall, a property they control on the outskirts of the city.
The math behind the event did not really add up, according to Tuesday’s report. The Agalarovs’ firm ended up spending about $12 million to host the contest. The Agalarovs paid $6 million in licensing fees and took on an additional $6 million in various other expenses. In return, they only received about $2 million in revenue, meaning they lost roughly $10 million on the event.
Trump, who was the co-owner of Miss Universe and therefore received his money, didn’t seem to mind that his partners hadn’t fared so well. “I had a great weekend with you and your family,” he tweeted at Aras Agalarov after the event, which included a performance by Emin. “You have done a FANATASTIC job. TRUMP TOWER-MOSCOW is next. EMIN was WOW!” The Agalarovs and the Trumps ended up pursuing a real estate project, but it also fell apart.
That might have been a good thing for Trump, given what the Senate report says about his partners: “The Agalarovs have significant ties to Russian organized crime and have been closely affiliated with individuals involved in murder, prostitution, weapons trafficking, kidnapping, extortion, narcotics trafficking, money laundering and other significant criminal enterprises. Some of those activities have extended outside of Russia, including to the United States.”
The report goes on: “Aras Agalarov also has significant ties to the Russian government, including to individuals involved in influence operations targeting the 2016 U.S. election. He has access to President Putin and to Putin’s close aide Dimitry Peskov.”
A spokesperson for Crocus Group, the Agalarovs’ firm, did not respond to a request for comment.
The preliminary negotiations on the proposed Trump-Agalarov real estate project went through the president’s son Donald Trump Jr. and Irakli Kaveladze, who worked for Aras Agalarov, according to Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election.
The new Senate report highlights Kaveladze’s own complications, drawing on previous work from the U.S. government: “According to a report by the United States General Accounting Office (GAO) in October 2000, Kaveladze has been involved in a range of activities in the United States that raise serious concerns regarding Russian money laundering. According to the GAO, companies created by Kaveladze established approximately 2,000 corporations, some of which had made up names for Russian brokers. Kaveladze’s companies moved more than $1 billion in wire transfer transactions into 236 accounts at two U.S. banks, most of which was then transferred back to accounts in eastern Europe again for Russian brokers. Kaveladze has insisted that he had no involvement in any wrongdoing, calling the GAO investigation a ‘witch hunt.’”
The Trump Organization had received warnings about the Agalarovs from another associate, Giorgi Rtskhiladze. “According to Michael Cohen,” the new report explains, “around the time of the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow, a friend, Giorgi Rtskhiladze, cautioned that he ‘did not care for the Agalarovs, thought they were gangsters and didn’t do business with them.’ According to Cohen, when Rtskhiladze heard that Donald Trump Jr. was considering a real estate development project with the Agalarovs, Rtskhiladze again warned Cohen that the Agalarovs, and particularly Aras Agalarov, ‘are really rough.’”
Reached Tuesday night, Rtskhiladze struck a softer tone. “I told Michael that the Agalarovs were prominent businesspeople, and while Crocus was a very successful group, I would proceed with caution because conducting business in Russia can be difficult, and he would be mindful of bringing Mr. Trump to Russia,” Rtskhiladze wrote in an email. “I mentioned to Michael Cohen that my business with Crocus was not what I expected it to be. At no such time did I ever utilize the word ‘gangsters’ with respect to the Agalarovs.”
Rtskhiladze, who had done business with the Trump Organization in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, eventually passed along another proposal for a project in Russia. That deal also did not materialize, but it may have entangled candidate Trump with government officials in Russia. The Senate report notes that Rtskhiladze told Cohen a concept for the project was “being shared with the presidents cabinet and Moscow mayor.”
“I am unable to recall exactly what I told Michael,” Rtskhiladze wrote in his email to Forbes, emphasizing that he was passing along the idea for the project on behalf of one of his friends in Moscow. “To the best of my recollection, my friend mentioned that the developer was preparing a presentation of his project for the mayor of Moscow, and if they had the Trump trademark/license, it would have been far more impressive.”
“Michael’s goal was to always have nothing less than a spectacular Trump tower project in Moscow,” Rtskhiladze added. “And he expected to hear that the project had the government’s support, as he seemed to be convinced that, unless the project had support from the top Russian gov, it would never materialize.”
Instead of the Rtskhiladze proposal, the Trump Organization ultimately chose to pursue a deal during the 2016 presidential campaign with a developer named Andrey Rozov, who was in turn working with Felix Sater. “I came to Michael and said, ‘Michael, I have a potential Trump Tower deal in Moscow that we could do,’” Sater recounts in the Senate report. “‘I have a good developer. I want to speak to Mr. T.’ He said, ‘Sure.’ He came back to me and said, ‘Let’s go.’”
Cohen, also quoted in the report, adds his side of the story. “After the conversation with Mr. Sater, I told Mr. Trump that there’s an opportunity to develop the tallest building in the world in Moscow,” Cohen says in the report. “He asked me who it was with. I told him Felix is bringing the proposal, and he was like, ‘Oy, Felix!’ And I said to him, ‘But you have to understand, Felix is not the partner in this. He’s just the licensee’s representative. And he’s not involved. And Mr. Trump said, ‘Okay, keep him tight.’ Meaning, keep him on a tight leash.”
Separate from Sater, Rozov had his own set of entanglements. “A body of information suggests Rozov’s personal and professional network likely has at least some ties to individuals associated with Russian influence operations,” states the Senate report. “For example, Rozov’s associate Stalbek Mishakov has significant ties to Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch who the committee assesses undertakes a wide variety of Russian government influence operations.” Attempts to reach Rozov proved unsuccessful.
Momentum on the Rozov deal sputtered out in mid-2016, but Cohen did not tell Trump that it was totally dead, because he believed there was still a chance that it could be revived, according to the Mueller report. When asked, during a congressional hearing, why Trump’s business eventually stopped pursuing a tower in Moscow, Cohen offered a simple answer: “Because he won the presidency.”