Posts

The Steele Dossier and WaPo’s Trump Tower Scoop

For some reason, many people who’re convinced the Trump Russia investigation will hit paydirt but who haven’t been particularly attentive believe the Steele dossier must all be true. This, in spite of the fact that some parts of it clearly are not true. The best example of that is report 086, labeled as July 25, 2015 (but which must actually date to July 2016), which quotes a former senior Russian intelligence official claiming FSB was having difficulty compromising western and G7 government targets. In the previous year, the Russians had been enjoying quite a lot of success against just those kinds of targets, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Russia’s APT 29 is also believed to have compromised the DNC in July 2015), making it surprising anyone following Russian matters even marginally closely could present that report as credible.

The Steele dossier is not a document that is either credible or not as a whole; it is a series of raw intelligence reports based off a series of sources, some of which conflict with each other, some of which may be credible, others of which are less so. Moreover, there are a number of details about the dossier as we received it or as we’ve since learned about its production that raise legitimate questions about its quality.

Two seemingly contradictory claims provide one example that is especially noteworthy given WaPo’s report that the Trump organization inked a branding deal in Russia in late 2015. The very first report released as the Steele dossier, dated June 20, claims that the FSB has, for years, been trying to cultivate Trump by offering him “lucrative real estate development deals in Russia” but “for reasons unknown, TRUMP had not taken up any of these.”

The sourcing on this claim definitely includes “a close associate of TRUMP who had organized and managed his recent trips to Moscow” (though how would they know FSB was dangling real estate to compromise Trump unless they were themselves tied to FSB?) and may include the trusted compatriot of a “senior Foreign Ministry figure.”

Compare that with the undated report (it probably dates to between July 19 and July 30, 2016) crediting “a separate source with direct knowledge” claiming that Trump’s “claimed minimal investment profile in Russia … had not been for want of trying.”

Which is it? Has Trump been pushing for real estate deals but failing, or have figures close to Putin been trying to entice him with such deals only to have him respond with remarkable coyness?

A September 14 report, reported second-hand from two people in Petersburg, goes so far as to claim Trump had even paid bribes to get business deals in the city, but offered little more. Significantly, the sources said Aras Agalarov — who was involved in the June 9, 2016 meeting offering dirt on Clinton in New York’s Trump Tower — would have any details on real estate deals and sex parties and the clean-up thereof.

All of which is to say that in three different reports, Steele’s sources offered conflicting details about whether Trump was trying to get business in Russia but had failed, or Russia was trying to suck Trump into business deals as part of a program to compromise him, only to have him inexplicably resist.

Which brings us to the WaPo’s latest scoop, which reveals that between November 2015 and January 2016, the Trump organization signed a licensing deal for a big real estate project in Moscow, which ended up flopping because there was actually no deal behind it.

As part of the discussions, a Russian-born real estate developer urged Trump to come to Moscow to tout the proposal and suggested he could get President Vladimir Putin to say “great things” about Trump, according to several people who have been briefed on his correspondence.

The developer, Felix Sater, predicted in a November 2015 email that he and Trump Organization leaders would soon be celebrating — both one of the biggest residential projects in real estate history and Donald Trump’s election as president, according to two of the people with knowledge of the exchange.

Sater wrote to Trump Organization Executive Vice President Michael Cohen, “something to the effect of, ‘Can you believe two guys from Brooklyn are going to elect a president?’ ” said one person briefed on the email exchange. Sater emigrated to the United States from what was then the Soviet Union when he was 8 and grew up in Brooklyn.

Trump never went to Moscow as Sater proposed. And although investors and Trump’s company signed a letter of intent, they lacked the land and permits to proceed and the project was abandoned at the end of January 2016, just before the presidential primaries began, several people familiar with the proposal said.

[snip]

Discussions about the Moscow project began in earnest in September 2015, according to people briefed on the deal. An unidentified investor planned to build the project and, under a licensing agreement, put Trump’s name on it. Cohen acted as a lead negotiator for the Trump Organization. It is unclear how involved or aware Trump was of the negotiations.

For six months, Christopher Steele pushed his sources for information on any deals Trump had planned in Russia. And only one of them — the one suggesting his go-between consult with Agalarov — offered any hint that a deal might have actually been done. Yet just months earlier, a deal had purportedly been signed, a deal personally involving Michael Cohen, who figures prominently throughout the dossier.

At least on their face, those are contradictory claims, ones that (because the WaPo story is backed by documents Congress will shortly vet) either emphasize how limited Steele’s collection was, even on one of his key targets like Cohen, or may even hint he was getting disinformation.

Or perhaps reading them in tandem can elucidate both?

First, some comments on the WaPo story.

It seems the real story here is as much the details as the fact that the deal was proposed. For example, I’m as interested that Felix Sater, from whom (as the story notes) Trump has been trying to distance himself publicly for years, was still brokering deals for the Trump organization as late as November 2015 as any other part of the story. See this post for some reasons why that’s so interesting.

It’s also quite significant that whoever leaked this to the WaPo did not explain who the investors were. Schedule another scoop in a week or so for when some outlet reveals that detail, because I suspect that’s as big a part of the story as the fact that the deal got signed. What entity came to Cohen months after Trump had kicked off his presidential campaign, and offered up the kind of branding deal that Trump loves (and which at least some of Steele’s sources say Trump had been seeking for over a decade), yet without the permits that would be a cinch if Putin and the FSB were really pushing the deal as part of a plan to compromise the candidate?

The sourcing, too, is of particular interest. WaPo describes its story as coming from, “several people familiar with the proposal and new records reviewed by Trump Organization lawyers;” in another place it describes its sources as, “several people who have been briefed on his correspondence.”  It explains that the emails are going to be turned over to Congress soon.

The new details from the emails, which are scheduled to be turned over to congressional investigators soon, also point to the likelihood of additional contacts between Russia-connected individuals and Trump associates during his presidential bid.

This all feels like an attempt, on the part of Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, to reveal to Trump via non-obstructive channels what he has found in a review of documents he’s about to turn over, with an emphasis on some of the most damning parts (Sater and the timing), but without yet revealing the public detail of the investors. By releasing it in this form, Cohen’s associates give Trump warning of what’s about to come, while blunting the damage the revelation will have in more fleshed out form.

Finally, the WaPo emphasizes Sater’s push for Trump to get Putin to say nice things. Particularly given the lack of permits here, that suggests Sater recognized the deal was not actually done, it needed powerful push from Putin. A push that, given the January collapse, apparently didn’t come in timely fashion. That may be the more interesting take-away here. The deal was, when Sater bragged about it to the guy who (according to Steele’s dossier) would shortly go on to clean up Paul Manafort’s earlier corrupt discussions with Russia, illusory. But it makes it clear that Cohen, if and when he had those discussions, was aware of the Trump organization’s earlier, failed effort to finally brand a building in Moscow. It would mean that if those dodgy meetings in Prague actually happened, they came against the backdrop of Putin deciding not offer the help needed to make the Trump deal happen in the months before the election started.

All that may suggest the Steele dossier may instead be rich disinformation on a key point, disinformation that hid how active such discussions really were.

In any case, the WaPo story is not definitive one way or another. It may be utterly damning, the kind of hard evidence Cohen is about to turn over that he is aware could really blow the investigation into Trump wide open, or it could be yet more proof that Trump continued to resist the allure of real estate deals in Russia, as some of Steele’s sources claimed. But it does raise some important questions that reflect back on the Steele dossier.

Update: NYT got the actual language of two of the Sater emails, which have now been delivered to HPSCI.

Michael I arranged for Ivanka to sit in Putins [sic] private chair at his desk and office in the Kremlin. I will get Putin on this program and we will get Donald elected. We both know no one else knows how to pull this off without stupidity or greed getting in the way. I know how to play it and we will get this done. Buddy our boy can become President of the USA and we can engineer it. I will get Putins [sic] team to buy in on this, I will manage this process.

[snip]

Michael we can own this story. Donald doesn’t stare down, he negotiates and understand the economic issues and Putin only want to deal with a pragmatic leader, and a successful business man is a good candidate for someone who knows how to negotiate. “Business, politics, whatever it allis the same for someone who knows how to deal.”

Why does Sater tie the Trump Tower deal so closely with getting Trump elected?

Robert Mueller’s Grand Jury and the Significance of Felix Sater

In response to Monday’s server hiccups and in anticipation that Mueller is nowhere near done, we expanded our server capacity overnight. If you think you’ll rely on emptywheel reporting on the Mueller probe, please consider a donation to support the site

The world is abuzz with the news that Robert Mueller has impaneled a DC-based grand jury that he used to subpoena information on the June 9, 2016 meeting between Don Jr., Paul Manafort, Jared Kushner, and some Russians promising dirt on Hillary Clinton. In reality, the Special Counsel had already been using a grand jury to get information on Mike Flynn and Paul Manafort and we should always have expected a dedicated grand jury.

Nevertheless, the move has convinced the chattering classes that this investigation is for real.

This comes as a surprise to people, apparently, after reports of Mueller’s 16th hire, illegal foreign bribery expert Greg Andres. It’s almost as if people haven’t been making sense of where Mueller is going from the scope of his hires, which include:

  1. Mob specialists: Andrew Weissman and Lisa Page are mob prosecutors.
  2. Fraud specialists: Weissman and Rush Atkinson are also fraud prosecutors.
  3. Corporate crime specialists: Weissman also led the Enron Task force. One of Dreeben’s key SCOTUS wins pertained to corporate crime. Jeannie Rhee has also worked on white collar defense.
  4. Public corruption specialists: Mueller hired someone with Watergate experience, James Quarles. And Andrew Goldstein got good press in SDNY for prosecuting corrupt politicians (even if Sheldon Silver’s prosecution has since been overturned).
  5. International experts: Zainab Ahmad, who worked terrorism cases in EDNY, which has some of the most expansive precedents for charging foreigners flown into JFK (including Russia’s darling Viktor Bout), knows how to bring foreigners to the US and successfully prosecute them in this country. Aaron Zelinsky has also worked in international law. Elizabeth Prelogar did a Fulbright in Russia and reportedly speaks it fluently. And, as noted, Andres has worked on foreign bribery.
  6. Cyber and spying lawyers: Brandon Van Grack is the guy who had been leading the investigation into Mike Flynn; he’s got a range of National Security experience. Aaron Zebley, Mueller’s former chief of staff at FBI, also has that kind of NSD experience.
  7. Appellate specialists: With Michael Dreeben, Mueller already has someone on the team who can win any appellate challenges; Adam Jed and Elizabeth Prelogar are also appellate specialists. Mueller’s hires also include former clerks for a number of SCOTUS justices, which always helps out if things get that far.

I lay this out there to suggest that in addition to hiring a bunch of super stars, Mueller also appears to have picked people for their expertise. Those picks reflect an already well-developed theory of the case, one formed long before he impaneled his own grand jury. And many of them boast expertise fairly distant from the question of foreign adversary’s hacking a political party’s server.

And I’d suggest there’s good reason for that.

Some of Mueller’s theory of the case undoubtedly comes from whatever evidence Jim Comey’s FBI and Van Grack’s grand jury had already collected, which at least publicly pertains to Mike Flynn’s disclosure problems, his comments to the Russians, and Paul Manafort’s money laundering. Some of it comes from stuff that was being investigated in NY.

But remember: Trump’s sordid ties to Russian mobsters (see categories 1, 2, 3, and 5) go back a long way. One of the best ways to understand what and how close some of those ties are is to look at the case of Felix Sater. Josh Marshall’s description here gets at a lot of the important bits.

Sater is a Russian emigrant who was jailed for assault in the mid-90s and then pulled together a major securities fraud scheme in which investors lost some $40 million. He clearly did something for the US government which the feds found highly valuable. It seems likely, though not certain, that it involved working with the CIA on something tied to the post-Soviet criminal underworld. Now Bayrock and Trump come into the mix.

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 Timesarticle 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.

All sounds totally legit, doesn’t it?

But there’s more!, as they say.

Sater’s stint as a “Senior Advisor” to Donald Trump at the Trump Organization began in January of January 2010 and lasted roughly a year. What significance that has in all of this I’m not sure. But here’s the final morsel of information that’s worth knowing for this installment of the story.

How exactly did all of Sater’s secret work and the federal government’s efforts to keep his crimes secret come to light?

During the time Sater was working for Bayrock and Trump he organized what was supposed to be Trump Tower Ft Lauderdale. The project was announced in 2004. People paid in lots of money but the whole thing went bust and Trump finally pulled out of the deal in 2009. Lots of people who’d bought units in the building lost everything. And they sued.

In other words, an FBI (and, possibly, CIA) informant had links with two of Trump’s business with ties to the Russian mob for — effectively — the entire extended Mueller tenure at FBI.

This is a point one of the few other people with reservations about Mueller as Special Counsel made to me not long ago. The FBI — Mueller’s FBI — has known about the ties between Trump’s businesses and the Russian mob for well over a decade. The FBI — Mueller’s FBI — never referred those ties, that money laundering, for prosecution in that entire time, perhaps because of the difficulties of going after foreign corruption interlaced with US businesses.

Now, in a remarkably short timeframe, former mob prosecutor Robert Mueller has put together a dream team of prosecutors who have precisely the kind of expertise you might use to go after such ties.

Because now it matters. It matters that the President has all these obligations to the Russian mob going back over a decade, because he can’t seem to separate his own entanglements from the good of the country.

Yes, Robert Mueller convened a grand jury and he has used it to go after the records of a meeting set up by one of Trump’s key Russian allies, Aras Agalarov, and his campaign, the guy who, at the very end of Mueller’s tenure at FBI, helped Trump stage the Miss Universe pageant in Russia, an event that may have marked significant new levels of Trump exposure to Russian compromise. But Mueller was on the trail of Trump and his Russian crime ties long before that. (The person with Mueller reservations actually wondered whether Trump himself wasn’t cooperating with the FBI in this period.)

Folks have made much of this exchange in the NYT’s long interview with Trump.

SCHMIDT: Last thing, if Mueller was looking at your finances and your family finances, unrelated to Russia — is that a red line?

HABERMAN: Would that be a breach of what his actual charge is?

TRUMP: I would say yeah. I would say yes. By the way, I would say, I don’t — I don’t — I mean, it’s possible there’s a condo or something, so, you know, I sell a lot of condo units, and somebody from Russia buys a condo, who knows? I don’t make money from Russia. In fact, I put out a letter saying that I don’t make — from one of the most highly respected law firms, accounting firms. I don’t have buildings in Russia. They said I own buildings in Russia. I don’t. They said I made money from Russia. I don’t. It’s not my thing. I don’t, I don’t do that. Over the years, I’ve looked at maybe doing a deal in Russia, but I never did one. Other than I held the Miss Universe pageant there eight, nine years [crosstalk].

SCHMIDT: But if he was outside that lane, would that mean he’d have to go?

[crosstalk]

HABERMAN: Would you consider——

TRUMP: No, I think that’s a violation. Look, this is about Russia. So I think if he wants to go, my finances are extremely good, my company is an unbelievably successful company. And actually, when I do my filings, peoples say, “Man.” People have no idea how successful this is. It’s a great company. But I don’t even think about the company anymore. I think about this. ’Cause one thing, when you do this, companies seem very trivial. O.K.? I really mean that. They seem very trivial. But I have no income from Russia. I don’t do business with Russia. The gentleman that you mentioned, with his son, two nice people. But basically, they brought the Miss Universe pageant to Russia to open up, you know, one of their jobs. Perhaps the convention center where it was held. It was a nice evening, and I left. I left, you know, I left Moscow. It wasn’t Moscow, it was outside of Moscow.

Technically, Trump was only asked about whether he’d consider Mueller’s review of finances unrelated to Russia to be outside his lane. But Trump largely answered it about Russia, about business deals — the condos, the pageant — with Russia going back to the time Mueller’s FBI would have been working with Felix Sater to learn about the Russian mob.

Yeah. It’s no surprise Mueller has impaneled a grand jury.