Sorting Out The Latest Twist In The Trump/Russia Saga: Shady Business Dealings With Russian Mafia Figures

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Is there such a thing as a slow news day with President Trump? Over the weekend, a string of accusations, heavily researched pieces, and other reports either arrived or were resurrected (from last fall) on a few fronts. One, that the Trump Organization has been involved with some fairly shady, even criminal, individuals over the years, mostly with connections to Russia; and two, that the ongoing Michael Flynn scandal has ensnared a new player, Trump’s personal attorney Michael Cohen, who has also played a significant role in the Trump organization.

Cohen reportedly delivered to Flynn a sealed document detailing a “peace plan” — which would essentially allow Russia to retain control of the Crimea region and lift sanctions against the country — straight to the doorstep of Michael Flynn, right before he resigned as National Security Advisor. Further, that plan was supposedly drafted with the assistance of Felix Sater, a past Trump associate with a questionable background. So what are the facts, and how connected are these two events?

First, it’s worth a word of caution: The Trump Organization is a complex entity with a lot of moving parts. It’s a perfectly credible argument that Donald Trump himself may have nothing whatsoever to do with any of the events we’re about to discuss. Both, however, raise questions the Trump administration will need to address clearly and in detail.

Who’s Felix Sater?

The first discussion centers around Trump SoHo. First began more than a decade ago, and finished in 2010. In of itself, the building is worth a long article; one of the major investors was Tamir Sapir, a billionaire investor who got his start selling Soviet oil and oil products and who passed away at 64 amid claims of suffering from aphasia since 1998.

Sater — who has been pictured with Trump — was a member of the Bayrock Group, which was heavily involved in the construction of Trump SoHo. Founded by Tavfik Arif, a former Soviet bureaucrat, Bayrock has been involved in extensive Trump developments across the world. Trump himself has stated he doesn’t know how Bayrock is run or how they secure their funding, but Sater became the public face of the company (despite questionable deals and a sketchy past) as the company grew out of the fall of Communism in Russia.

Sater comes into the story due to a settlement over Trump SoHo, which the New York Times noted while diving into Sater’s background:

Mr. Sater was convicted and sent to prison in 1993 after a New York bar fight in which he stabbed a man in the face with a broken margarita glass. That was a matter of public record. However, what few people beyond insiders at Bayrock knew was that five years later, Mr. Sater was implicated in a huge stock manipulation scheme involving Mafia figures and Russian criminals — and that he became a confidential F.B.I. informant. Recently unsealed federal court records show that Mr. Sater helped the government disrupt an organized crime ring on Wall Street and deal with an unexplained national security matter involving his foreign connections.

That, in of itself, looks bad, and the fact that Trump claims to have little idea who Sater is would seem to be contradicted by a business card Sater carried naming him a “senior advisor” to Trump that Forbes turned up as a part of a lengthy look into Sater’s past. That analysis states that other members of the Trump Organization, including Donald Trump Jr., interacted with him, and a background check conducted by a due diligence firm for the Forbes article turned up, among other things, Bayrock executives complaining that Sater’s past put business deals at risk. There was also a bizarre anecdote about Sater threatening a man with castration in the mix.

That said, Sater seems to have no connection to Trump and the White House at this point, campaign donations aside. So why is Sater alleged to have been speaking with Trump’s personal attorney about lifting sanctions on Russia?

Who’s Michael Cohen?

Michael Cohen is a curious figure himself. Cohen, who has occasionally, and arguably disastrously, represented Trump on air and threatened to sue The Daily Beast over allegations Trump committed sexual assault, claiming that it was impossible to rape your wife.

Mostly, though, Cohen is Trump’s personal attorney, and was formerly the executive vice-president of the Trump Organization and Trump’s special counsel. He doesn’t have any State Department duties, and he’s not a diplomat, as far as we know, which makes the news that arrived this weekend all the stranger and potentially serious.

How Is Michael Flynn Involved In This Mess?

At the root of the reporting this weekend are statements that Cohen and Sater privately met in New York City (along with Ukrainian lawmaker Andrii V. Artemenko) to draft a “peace plan” that would lift sanctions imposed on Russia by the Obama administration and essentially give the U.S.’s blessing to Russia’s attempt to annex Crimea from the Ukraine. Cohen supposedly delivered the documents, in person, to Michael Flynn, the National Security Advisor who resigned over inappropriate contact with Russian officials, allegedly about lifting the sanctions in question.

Cohen, curiously, acknowledged to the Washington Post but changed his story. That is, he says that he had met Sater, and that the two had drafted the documents in question, but Cohen says he didn’t deliver the documents.

“I acknowledge that the brief meeting took place, but emphatically deny discussing this topic or delivering any documents to the White House and/or General Flynn,” Cohen said. He said he told the Ukrainian official that he could send the proposal to Flynn by writing him at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

However, when speaking to the Times just a day before, Cohen informed them he had, in fact, delivered the documents to Flynn. In of itself, this is unusual, and likely this won’t be the last time Cohen will need to account for these events. But all of this filters down to a handful of crucial questions we don’t have answers to right now.

Is There A Trump Connection?

The first and simplest issue is to question why Sater, of all people, would be involved in such a “peace plan” in the first place. He has no authority in the Russian government, has apparently never worked for the Russian government, and has no diplomatic or other authority to draft such an agreement. So why was he having this discussion in the first place?

Secondly, why was Cohen involved in this discussion? Cohen, again, has no role at the State Department, is not a part of Trump’s diplomatic apparatus, and has no experience brokering such deals. Was he acting on his own behalf or on the behalf of someone else? Finally, what’s Flynn’s connection to all this? Why would he be presented with a “peace plan,” and not Rex Tillerson, Trump’s State Department head?

It should be noted it’s not illegal for two people to chat over drinks, come up with an idea, and run it by a colleague. All of this may simply be an extremely poorly considered string of events where nobody considered how an action might look to observers, which has certainly been the case with the Trump administration. However, in light of Flynn’s resignation and associated accusations, the White House would be wise to clear the air quickly.