CRIME + NO PUNISHMENT: DID FELIX SATER’S 20 YEARS AS AN INFORMANT help land him at the center of the Trump-Russia story?
AMONG THE TRUMP-RUSSIA investigation’s many loose ends, one stands out: the Trump Tower Moscow project and the conflicting statements from President Donald Trump and his former advisers about their attempts to complete a lucrative business deal in Russia in the midst of the 2016 election.
The man closest to the project, longtime Trump business associate Felix Sater, was set to appear before the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees this past week. But with many details of the 400-page special counsel investigation still shrouded in mystery, Sater’s testimony has been postponed indefinitely, or at least until members of Congress better understand the contents of the so-called Mueller report.
Sater’s story is a familiar plotline in the Trump-Russia narrative: An opportunistic ex-con ingratiates himself into the Trump Organization, landing a rent-free office on the 26th floor of Trump Tower, then brokers connections between the future president, Trump’s family and company, and Russian elites, eventually including the Kremlin. When the unbecoming details of Sater’s past — his secret prosecution, his ties to organized crime — come to light, the president disavows their relationship.
The less familiar story is how Sater got here, and how his path to the center of the current political scandal was enabled and, arguably, abetted by some of the same people who went on to work in the special counsel’s office. The government has acknowledged Sater’s long-running cooperation and he has spoken publicly about his purported role in obtaining Osama bin Laden’s phone numbers before 9/11, identifying a North Korean official seeking to buy nuclear weapons technology from the Russians, and helping to disrupt an assassination plot on former Secretary of State Colin Powell in Afghanistan.
But the details and terms of Sater’s agreement with the government remain largely secret, contained in sealed court filings submitted in his 20-year-old criminal case. (Last month, The Intercept sought the unsealing of some of these materials, including his cooperation agreement. Judge Leo Glasser ordered both the U.S. Attorney’s Office and Sater’s counsel to respond by April 8.)
Sater may have remained in the shadows, but long before special counsel Robert Mueller’s report found that the Trump campaign had not colluded with the Russian government, his name emerged in what seemed — on its face — to be direct evidence of such an effort.
“I will get Putin on this program and we will get Donald elected,” Sater famously wrote in a November 2015 email to Michael Cohen, then Trump’s personal attorney, that was first published in the New York Times. “Our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it…I will get all of Putin’s team to buy in on this, I will manage this process.”
That wasn’t collusion, Sater told The Intercept in an interview last week. “It’s called marketing. It’s giving both sides what they want.”
Eventually, Sater was called in to explain that to the prosecutors in Mueller’s office. While he declined to discuss the details of that interview, he did describe an exchange with Andrew Weissmann, one of Mueller’s senior prosecutors, during the meeting.
“What the hell is it with these emails?” Weissmann asked, according to Sater. “You really know how to be on the front page, don’t you, Felix?”
If Weissmann’s tone sounds casual and even jocular, it might be because the two men have known each other for 20 years. Weissmann supervised the 1998 stock fraud case that originally brought Sater into the government’s orbit as a cooperator. He is not the only member of Mueller’s team who goes way back with Sater. FBI Special Agent William McCausland who worked on former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn’s prosecution, handled Sater as early as 2003, after he became an informant. (“One of the hardest-working and best FBI agents I’ve ever worked with,” Sater said of McCausland.) Other former Eastern District prosecutors who were detailed to the special counsel include Zainab Ahmad and Greg Andres, who served as chief of the office’s criminal division at the time Sater was sentenced.
Peter Carr, the spokesperson for the special counsel’s office, declined to comment.
Sater’s history as an informant who worked with members of the special counsel’s team, coupled with his position at the center of the Trump-Russia story, raises the question of whether the Russia investigation was, ultimately, a circular exercise. Could Mueller’s investigation have been avoided — or dramatically narrowed in scope — had federal prosecutors not cut Sater a secret deal in 1998 but, instead, prosecuted him?
This sort of hypothetical-in-hindsight may not sit well with members of Sater’s prosecution team, all but one of whom declined to speak to The Intercept for this story. The only exception, former Eastern District prosecutor and now New York state Sen. Todd Kaminsky, said it’s unfair to suggest that law enforcement officials should have anticipated Sater’s involvement in a political scandal implicating the president.
“I think it would be very difficult to tell an FBI agent or a prosecutor in, let’s say, 2002, knowing what you know about Sater — that he’s a savvy businessman, that’s he’s a stock defrauder, that he stabbed someone in the face with a martini glass — and have them say, ‘You know what, I don’t think we should get this information on Al Qaeda, because one day this guy is going to be in the middle of an international conspiracy that goes to the highest level [of government],’” Kaminsky said.
For his part, Sater told The Intercept he didn’t play any role in investigations into Trump, before, during, or after the election. “The FBI has never asked me to provide information about the Trump Organization or Donald Trump at any time,” he said. “There was never any connection with me from my case and the Trump investigation other than during interviews with Mueller.”
Sater also said he never used his role as a senior advisor to Trump to carry out law enforcement work. Though, he would not say whether he signed an “otherwise illegal activity” — an authorization from the Department of Justice to violate the law in the context of an investigation — which, in some instances, requires review by the director of the FBI. (Mueller was FBI director from 2001 until 2013, when Sater was cooperating with the bureau.)
Sater also took exception to questions about whether he’d ever been approached by a foreign intelligence agency while acting as a government informant. “Where do you think I got half this shit from? From a dentist?” he said. “Was I ever the subject of them trying to turn me? Who knows.”
The Trump Moscow project, he said, was a straight-ahead real estate deal. “I’m telling you, believe it or not, investigate it or not, there was no intelligence component to me trying to do a Trump Tower,” Sater said. “I’m a businessman. I’m a developer. I saw an opportunity. I went for it. It’s not right. It’s not wrong. It’s just what it is.”
Yet nothing is ever quite as it seems with Felix Sater. He’s been called a spy, a stock cheat, a real estate developer, a gangster, a Russian, an American patriot.
Twenty years ago, federal prosecutors saw him in more practical terms: as someone they could work with.
The Art of the Deal
Sater’s cooperation did not occur in a vacuum. In the early winter of 1998, a group of federal prosecutors in the Eastern District of New York faced a perennial question: Do we prosecute this guy? Or do we cut him a deal?
Sater was a 31-year-old ex-con, a Russian Jewish emigre who’d served a year in state prison for an assault stemming from a fight in a bar. That made for an unremarkable pedigree in their jurisdiction. He appeared to have graduated from his state-court felony to a sprawling federal white-collar conspiracy in which he was accused of defrauding retirees, including at least two Holocaust survivors, out of millions, according to court filings.
The allegations against Sater alone made him a good target for prosecutors. Financial crime was a growing racket for the Italian Mafia and Sater was at the center of it. He said he could help penetrate a criminal underworld otherwise closed off to the FBI: the mob’s growing presence on Wall Street. (“When you grow up in Brooklyn and Staten Island, everybody knows a guy,” he told The Intercept.) Sater was savvy, capable, and connected — an ideal cooperator. Two decades later, those same qualities would put him at the center of the Trump-Russia story.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of New York had made its name flipping criminals, most notably Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano, the Gambino family deputy who testified against John Gotti in 1992. After three acquittals, Brooklyn prosecutors finally secured a conviction against Gotti — and a life term in prison. Gravano had a hand in 19 murders, but he received time served for his testimony. His deal is a case study in the stark moral logic underlying cooperation agreements: a lesser evil for a greater good. The Eastern District would go on to apply that logic to devastating effect against New York’s five Mafia families throughout the 1990s and early 2000s.
Former FBI Special Agent Leo Taddeo, the first agent to work with Sater, described the office’s culture of cooperation as “healthy.”
“The Eastern District does the government’s business and it does it really well,” Taddeo said. “And part of that business is entering into cooperation agreements every day.”
As the office branched out into national security cases after the September 11 attacks, criminal cooperation agreements took on an even more complex moral dimension. Prosecutors continued to successfully recruit cooperating witnesses in terrorism cases, even though the cooperators had in some cases been enemies of the state.
One such witness, Bryant Neal Vinas, a Long Island man who joined Al Qaeda, provided key intelligence and testimony on the terror group’s operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In a 2015 case against three al-Shabaab members, prosecutors relied on the testimony of a man who helped plan and execute the 2010 World Cup bombings in Kampala, Uganda, which killed 70 people, including Nate Henn, a 25-year-old NGO worker from North Carolina, and injured six Americans and scores of others. The key witness, Mugisha Mohamoud, had served five years in prison in Kenya after confessing to his role in the attack and was living there when he testified. The U.S. has not publicly charged Mohamoud or extradited him. The three al-Shabaab defendants pleaded guilty and were sentenced in 2016.
Sater in Washington, D.C., on May 5, 2018.
“No Task Was Too Big”
Within this context, Felix Sater presented a relatively straightforward profile as a cooperator. He hadn’t committed any death penalty-eligible offenses and, by his own account, he was contrite and eager to do the right thing. The Justice Department’s official position on Sater is that his value as a cooperator far outweighed any liabilities. It also implicitly outweighed concerns over his potential for recidivism. At Sater’s sentencing in 2009 — 11 years after he first surrendered — then-prosecutor Kaminsky told the judge: “Felix Slater was one of the best cooperators we worked with. There was nothing he wouldn’t do. No task was too big. He was really helpful and was the key to open a hundred different doors that they couldn’t open prior to that time.”
Sater had hired two former Eastern District prosecutors to represent him at that hearing, Leslie Caldwell and Kelly Moore. Both had worked at the U.S. Attorney’s Office at the time he became a cooperator. Caldwell, who went on to become an assistant attorney general in the Obama administration, had represented the government in an early appearance in one of the stock fraud cases for which Sater provided information.
“I’m hesitant to use the word redemption, but I think it fits Mr. Sater,” Caldwell told the judge at the sentencing. “I think he has redeemed himself.” She explained that Sater had developed such a close relationship with the FBI that he had been traveling freely to Russia as part of his real estate business for 10 years without being required to report those trips to his handlers, as is generally required for informants. Caldwell closed her remarks on Sater’s character with a prediction. She told the judge that Sater is “not going to appear before this court or any other court again in the context of a criminal case.”
Neither Caldwell nor Moore responded to requests for comment.
The prosecutors involved in Sater’s original case have since risen to some of the top positions in federal law enforcement. Loretta Lynch, who served as U.S. attorney in Brooklyn during his cooperation, became attorney general under President Barack Obama. Caldwell and Weissmann went on to lead the Enron task force before rising to even more senior positions, with Caldwell serving as assistant attorney general for the criminal division and Weissmann running the department’s fraud section. Weissmann also served under Mueller at the FBI. When his former boss was appointed special counsel, Weissmann joined what became known as the Mueller investigation.
Their career success may have little to do with Sater’s cooperation, yet the two cannot be entirely disentangled. During her 2015 confirmation, when asked about Sater, Lynch said that he provided “information crucial to national security and the conviction of over 20 individuals, including those responsible for committing massive financial fraud and members of La Cosa Nostra.”
At Sater’s 2009 sentencing, Glasser chose not to give him prison time, even though the RICO statute exposed him to a potential 25-year sentence. Glasser instead imposed a $25,000 fine and told Sater, “The extent of your cooperation over all of those years clearly manifests that you have a very sincere and deep respect for the law.”
Fifteen years earlier, it was Glasser who had sentenced Gravano to time-served.
Glasser, who is 94, still hears cases in the Eastern District; he declined to comment.
A Lesser Evil
Cooperation agreements are, by their very nature, transactional, and in the lesser-evil-for-the-greater-good formulation, Sater appeared to more than live up to his end of the bargain. Last year, in preparation for closed testimony before the House Subcommittee on Intelligence, he provided Congress a bulleted list of 23 examples of his intelligence and investigative work, according to a statement obtained by BuzzFeed. By his own account, Sater was an operative of superhero proportions — someone who could cobble together a team of former Spetsnaz mercenaries to hunt bin Laden while unraveling terrorist financing schemes and also building his own intelligence network of spooks around the world, all without receiving compensation from the government. The breadth of his self-described activities suggests an uncanny understanding of the various markets for information in the U.S. government’s law enforcement and intelligence agencies.
Most of Sater’s claims have so far proven impossible to independently verify. One former intelligence official who worked with the FBI’s New York office, but didn’t have direct knowledge of Sater’s cooperation, voiced skepticism.
“Somebody who claims to have done all that he has screams bullshit,” the official said. “It sounds like he took the FBI for a ride.”
So what did Sater get for his cooperation? His freedom, for one. In addition to the $25,000 fine, Sater forfeited a home in the Hamptons, but he did not spend a single night in jail. More important, Sater retained his identity. Judges and federal prosecutors agreed to conceal his charges and eventual conviction. His plea agreement required him to plead guilty to a single count in a racketeering indictment but, in a legal but entirely opaque practice favored by prosecutors the Eastern District, he did so in secret and under a false name. Even the courtroom was sealed, with reporters, the public, and — had they shown up — the victims of Sater’s fraud barred from entering the hearing.
Unlike a cooperator who testifies in a public trial, Sater was never subjected to the adversarial system of justice. He was, in effect, represented by the government in both the prosecution and the defense. And with the press shut out of the closed proceedings, there was no one with an incentive to impeach his credibility or question the government’s version of events.
In the eyes of the justice system, Sater was a two-time felon with links to both the Italian and Russian mobs who had been convicted of sophisticated financial crimes. While there was public information on his assault conviction, there was no public record on his conviction in the Eastern District. When Sater met Manhattan celebrity real estate developer Donald Trump in 2002, he appeared to be little more than a 38-year-old former Wall Street prodigy from Shearson Lehman trying to reinvent himself in New York real estate.
From left, Donald Trump, Tevfik Arif, and Felix Sater attend the Trump Soho launch party on Sept. 19, 2007, in New York.
To work effectively with the Trump Organization, Sater leveraged the two assets he’d secured from the Eastern District: his freedom and his identity. After September 11, he joined Bayrock, a real estate venture operating out of Trump Tower. There, Sater developed a working relationship with Trump, appearing at groundbreaking ceremonies and hosting Donald Jr. and Ivanka on a 2006 trip to Moscow — where he boasted in an email to Michael Cohen that he “arranged for Ivanka to sit in Putins [sic] private chair.” As a political refugee who fled anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union, Sater saw his relationship with Russia as all business.
“I’ve never been Russian in my life. I’m an American Jew who happened to have had the misfortune of being born in Moscow,” he said. “I went there to make money. I speak Russian. I can take advantage of an extra edge.”
Sater’s signature project with the Trump Organization, Trump Soho, also broke ground in 2006. The next year, Trump discussed a potential Trump Moscow project during a deposition in a libel case. Throughout this period, Sater remained under a secret indictment in the Eastern District, awaiting sentencing.
But as Sater struggled to get Trump Moscow off the ground, he discovered a problem with the Trump brand, he told The Intercept.
“It had no value,” he said. “They didn’t want to pay Trump the licensing fee because they’re like, ‘Who the hell is Trump in Russia? Who knows him?’”
The solution materialized nearly a decade later when Trump’s 2016 campaign began to get traction, Sater said.
“When he started running and he started saying good shit about Putin and Putin started saying good shit about him and he started to get great ink in Russia, I was like, ‘Perfect,’” Sater said. “This is probably a perfect opportunity to get a Trump Tower Moscow done.”
The potential conflicts of interest triggered by a leading presidential candidate doing a secret multimillion-dollar business deal with help from a foreign power didn’t concern him.
“I wasn’t running,” Sater said. “I don’t need to worry about the morality of, ‘should a candidate be involved in business?’”
He dismissed any notion that the deal “was trying to give leverage to the Russians so they could Manchurian candidate our president. I was trying to make money.”
Sater wasn’t the only one, he said. The Trump Organization planned a global expansion after the election, which Trump and everyone around him assumed that he would lose.
“They were sitting there thinking about the 27 towers and the 27 different places they were going to build after the election,” he said. “Do you honestly think they were sitting there and saying ‘Who’s going to get the West Wing and who’s going to get the East Wing?’”
The Trump Organization did not respond to a request for comment.
Several hours into Cohen’s public appearance before the House Oversight and Reform Committee last month, Sater’s name surfaced in questions from Rep. Harley Rouda, D-Calif., Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., and Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif. The members of Congress focused on Trump’s relationship with Sater — and the president’s public statements denying that he knew the man who had been a close associate for a decade.
Sater could not explain why Trump has disavowed him but said he was “disappointed.” The White House declined to comment.
The president’s former business associate was not surprised that the special counsel appeared to clear the Trump campaign of any conspiracy with Russia.
“Let me tell you this way: If I knew of even the slightest instance of anybody in the United States colluding with Russia, I’d be in the offices of the FBI in about three minutes,” Sater said. “You know that I know where to go.”
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