Trump and the Russian Connection

There is a country song by Garth Brooks called Friends in Low Places. It’s a catchy tune about having friends that aren’t at the top of the social strata. Donald Trump on the other hand has friends in high place but while they may be high up in that social hierarchy, Trump’s friends, much like himself, aren’t exactly the most savory characters. So who are these low friends in high places? The list is long and consists of felons, embezzlers, foreign lobbyists, personal lawyers under investigation by the FBI and on. The list reads like a cast of characters from an international spy novel. Trump continuously denies that he has any connections to Russia which rings more hollow every time he says it. On Sunday, it got even more questionable when this New York Times story hot the front page.

A week before Michael T. Flynn resigned as national security adviser, a sealed proposal was hand-delivered to his office, outlining a way for President Trump to lift sanctions against Russia.

Mr. Flynn is gone, having been caught lying about his own discussion of sanctions with the Russian ambassador. But the proposal, a peace plan for Ukraine and Russia, remains, along with those pushing it: Michael D. Cohen, the president’s personal lawyer, who delivered the document; Felix H. Sater, a business associate who helped Mr. Trump scout deals in Russia; and a Ukrainian lawmaker trying to rise in a political opposition movement shaped in part by Mr. Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort. [..]

The amateur diplomats say their goal is simply to help settle a grueling, three-year conflict that has cost 10,000 lives. “Who doesn’t want to help bring about peace?” Mr. Cohen asked.

But the proposal contains more than just a peace plan. Andrii V. Artemenko, the Ukrainian lawmaker, who sees himself as a Trump-style leader of a future Ukraine, claims to have evidence — “names of companies, wire transfers” — showing corruption by the Ukrainian president, Petro O. Poroshenko, that could help oust him. And Mr. Artemenko said he had received encouragement for his plans from top aides to Mr. Putin.

“A lot of people will call me a Russian agent, a U.S. agent, a C.I.A. agent,” Mr. Artemenko said. “But how can you find a good solution between our countries if we do not talk?”

MSNBC host Rachel Maddow has a good summery of the NYT report.

So who are all these people?

We know a little about Paul Manafort, possibly more that he’d like us to know, since he was briefly Trump’s campaign manager last summer but got the boot when it was discovered that he had failed to register as a foreign agent when he was playing footsie with pro-Russian former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. Last August, the New York Times reported finding ledgers pledging $12.7m in undisclosed cash payments from the former Russian-backed Ukrainian government to Mr Manafort between 2007 and 2012. Politico is now reporting that Manafort may have been the victim of a blackmail attempt:

A purported cyberhack of the daughter of political consultant Paul Manafort suggests that he was the victim of a blackmail attempt while he was serving as Donald Trump’s presidential campaign chairman last summer.

The undated communications, which are allegedly from the iPhone of Manafort’s daughter, include a text that appears to come from a Ukrainian parliamentarian named Serhiy Leshchenko, seeking to reach her father, in which he claims to have politically damaging information about both Manafort and Trump.

Manafort is also connected to Ukraine’s richest men, Dmytro Firtash who is under indictment here in the US on corruption charges. Manafort and Firtash were linked in a real estate project to redevelop the Drake Hotel site in Manhattan, a Trump organization project.

He is currently under investigation by the FBI.

The next character in this novel is pro-Putin Ukrainian parliamentarian named Andrii V. Artemenko, who met with Trump’s private lawyer Michael Cohen and Russian born Felix Sater, a convicted felon who we’ll get to later, about the so-called peace plan. Artemanko brands himself a Trump-style populist who is now under investigation by the FBI but also by prosecutors in the Ukraine for treason.

Michael is Trump’s personal lawyer, and prior to this appointment he was Executive Vice-President of The Trump Organization and special counsel to Trump. He has now given four conflicting statements about the Russian-Ukraine peace plan and is part of the FBI’s investigation of the Trump campaign’s Russian links.

The craziest character in all of this is Felix Sater, or Satter as he now calls himself. Sater was born in Russia and is an American citizen. As Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo puts it the details about Mr. Slater are eye-popping

He dropped out of college and began working as a stock broker. But in his late 20s he got into bar fight where he stabbed a fellow broker in the face with a shattered glass. He did time in prison for this attack. After he got out he got involved in a major securities fraud scheme (basically a ‘pump and dump’ operation) tied to the Genovese and Colombo crime families. He got caught. And that’s where things get interesting.

After Sater got busted, somehow he managed to offer his services to the FBI and supposedly the CIA to work on their behalf purchasing stinger missiles and other weapons on the then wild and free-wheeling Russian black market. Whatever Sater was doing for the CIA in the black market arms smuggling world seems to have become much more important after 9/11 – thus Sater’s high value to the US government.

I know that sounds all but incredible. The details of Sater’s alleged work for the CIA are contained in this September 2012 article in The Miami Herald. A good bit of the story emerges from an account by Sater’s accomplice, Salvatore Lauria. Lauria was Sater’s accomplice in the pump and dump scheme and was also there the night he stabbed the guy in the face at the bar. And yes, we’ll hear more from him in a moment. Because Lauria was also involved with Sater and Trump in the Trump SoHo building project. [..]

According to Sater’s Linkedin profile, Sater joined up with Bayrock in 1999 – in other words, shortly after he became involved with the FBI and CIA. (The Times article says he started up with Bayrock in 2003.) In a deposition, Trump said he first came into contact with Sater and Bayrock in the early 2000s. The Trump SoHo project was announced in 2006 and broke ground in November of that year. In other words, Sater’s involvement with Bayrock started soon after he started working with the FBI and (allegedly) the CIA. Almost the entire period of his work with Trump took place during this period when he was working for the federal government as at least an informant and had his eventual sentencing hanging over his head. [..]

What about Salvatore Lauria, Sater’s accomplice in the securities swindle?

He went to work with Bayrock too and was also closely involved with managing and securing financing for the Trump SoHo project.

The Times article I mentioned in my earlier post on Trump SoHo contains this …

Mr. Lauria brokered a $50 million investment in Trump SoHo and three other Bayrock projects by an Icelandic firm preferred by wealthy Russians “in favor with” President Vladimir V. Putin, according to a lawsuit against Bayrock by one of its former executives. The Icelandic company, FL Group, was identified in a Bayrock investor presentation as a “strategic partner,” along with Alexander Mashkevich, a billionaire once charged in a corruption case involving fees paid by a Belgian company seeking business in Kazakhstan; that case was settled with no admission of guilt.

Where this all goes no one knows bu as Charlie Pierce said, I will read any story anywhere that contains the phrase, “once stabbed a guy in the head with a broken margarita glass.”