The long road to redemption for Felix Sater, Trump's man in Moscow

NEW YORK — The most astonishing thing about Felix Sater is that he’s alive. If, after all, even a fifth of what he says about himself is true, he would still have a considerable number of enemies among the members of the Russian mafia in the United States, the Russian mafia in Russia, what remains of the Italian mafia, what remains of al-Qaida and any number of other decently armed entities.

And then there are the more conspiratorial-minded supporters of President Trump, who have mused that Sater — who was instrumental in planning a Trump project in Moscow that some say is the key to understanding the Kremlin’s purported leverage over the White House today — may be “a central figure in a Deep State scheme to derail Trump,” as a blog post by the conservative organization Judicial Watch put it.

Felix Sater
Felix Sater, a former business associate to President Trump. (Photo: Stefani Reynolds/CNP via Zuma Wire)

Sater is not, however, floating face down in the Hudson River but instead living 40 floors above it, in a glass tower on the far West Side of Manhattan that overlooks the wide blue opening of Upper New York Bay. When I ask in genuine wonder how he has managed to avoid running afoul of his various adversaries, Sater quickly grows defiant.

“F*** them,” he says. “I’m still standing.”

And he’s standing tall, at least these days. Today, some of Sater’s most bombastic and outlandish claims were at least partially confirmed, when Brooklyn federal Judge Leo Glasser unsealed a 2009 letter detailing Sater’s lengthy cooperation with federal authorities on a variety of apparently fruitful investigations. The letter, which was submitted by federal prosecutors Benton J. Campbell and Todd Kaminsky, praises Sater for providing the U.S. government with “highly sensitive” information about international terrorist organizations.

Ten pages long and ripe for a Hollywood treatment, the 5K letter — customarily written by a federal prosecutor to a judge so that a cooperative defendant gets a lighter sentence — was timed to coincide with Sater’s sentencing for financial crimes he had committed a decade before, in the mid-1990s. The letter describes how Sater went from mob-connected financial fraudster to government source on several high-level matters. For one, Sater provided U.S. intelligence authorities with Osama bin Laden’s satellite phone numbers. He helped in the takedown of Philip Abramo, a scammer once known as the “King of Wall Street.” And he unraveled Turkish and Russian financial fraud schemes.

And although it details his own financial crimes, the 5K letter is about as good a professional recommendation as one could hope for. “Without exception,” it reads, “every one of these agents has told the government that Sater was an exemplary cooperator who worked diligently to further the aims of the mission to which he was assigned.”

Sater’s lawyer, Robert S. Wolf, says the letter should finally prove the depth and breadth of his client’s contributions to the United States and silence his critics. “Mr. Sater has finally received official validation and confirmation of his extraordinary cooperation with our government and assistance to our country’s national security. He provided crucial intelligence about terrorist organizations threatening our safety, exposing himself to great danger at tremendous risk to him and his family. This earned him the well-deserved recognition of the government and the court. This official verification extinguishes all skepticism and silences those who questioned his credibility.”

What’s not clear is whether release of the letter will change public opinion of Sater. That opinion has generally not been kind. Press reports have described him as a “liar and self-promoter” (the Nation), “former mobster and convicted felon” (Salon), “gangster” (the Intercept) and “thug” (Red State). Perhaps the kindest thing anyone has called Sater in recent memory is Individual 2, as he was known in court filings by special counsel Robert Mueller in his investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Individual 1 in those same documents was President Trump, for whom Sater worked as a real estate scout, with a particular focus on facilitating a friendship with the Kremlin.

Sater shows little interest in the Mueller report. “I’ll get around to reading it one day,” he says dismissively. He would much rather talk about the 5K letter, which is understandable, since it paints him in a much more favorable light than Mueller does.

Despite its cinematic detail, the 5K letter, with its maddeningly vague allusions to “the details of an assassination plot against President [George W.] Bush,” does not explain everything about the stubbornly inexplicable career of Felix Sater. (The plot, Sater explains, was based in the Senate’s basement barber shop, and “information on North Korea’s nuclear capabilities” was courtesy of the Russians.) But the letter does suggest that he has a Zelig-like ability to insert himself into clandestine places and organizations highly hostile to outsiders — and then to escape unscathed with information he should have never been granted access to. If Sater were to announce that he has information on what really went down in the Air Force facility Area 51, nobody who knows him would be especially surprised.

Every age gets the hero it deserves, and Sater seems perfectly suited for ours, a man self-made and possibly self-created, a nonpolitician who is a political celebrity and who, at a recent dinner at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., had the men at an adjacent table staring and pointing his way. Felix Sater is a person, but he is also very much a brand. And that brand, with all its mediagenic intrigue, all its tweet-ready mystery, is far more tuned to the present moment than the tight-lipped probity of Robert Mueller or the tiring sanctimony of James Comey.

The hero — our hero — is a Brooklyn macher not without brains and not without heart. He is paunchy but not fat. His eyes are droopy, but when he speaks, the words come quick. So do the cigarettes. Hanging on a black cord on his chest is a necklace in the outline of a dog tag, the blank space signifying members of the American military missing in action. The dog tags — which Sater says he does not like to talk about — get him worked up, and he begins to discuss his own patriotic exploits.

The master raconteur pauses to ask a question: “Now what if I were to tell you something really f***ing wild?”

Pretty much everything Sater says is really f***ing wild. He grew up wealthy in the Lenin Hills section of Moscow, the son of a successful meat store manager. Sater’s family, which was Jewish and solidly anti-Communist, left the Soviet Union in 1972. There was a short stint in Italy, a longer stint in Israel, and then a very short stint in Baltimore. They finally settled in Brighton Beach, a faded seaside neighborhood in Brooklyn. A few blocks from where the Saters lived, an apartment complex had risen several years before: Trump Village.

Sater’s father, who had been a boxer before taking charge of the Moscow meat store, wanted his only son to be like Henry Kissinger, who had just won the Nobel Prize for his controversial peace effort in Vietnam. “I grew up to truly despise Henry Kissinger,” Sater says. His father worked as a night guard at the Lower East Side offices of the Forward, a venerable Yiddish-language newspaper. He would bring bundles of the paper back home to Brooklyn, sending young Felix to hawk copies to Jewish pensioners on the Brighton Beach boardwalk. Whatever young Felix earned, his father took half.

Sater went to Abraham Lincoln High School, then a tough mix of white ethnics, Russian immigrants and African-Americans. He attended college at Pace University, in lower Manhattan, but the fabled banking houses of nearby Wall Street beckoned, and Sater couldn’t resist. He left school and was apparently so successful as a stock trader that he became, in his own telling, the youngest vice president ever minted at Bear Stearns (the firm is long defunct, the claim all but impossible to verify). He joined other firms on his way to becoming a Master of the Universe. In his mid-20s, Sater was without a college degree but also young, rich and, unlike Kissinger, not facing accusations of war crimes.

Then came a spring night in 1991, when Sater and two associates were out for drinks at the nondescript El Rio Grande restaurant on East 38th Street (it’s still there today). There were words with a commodities trader named Stephen Friedman. Maybe the beef was over a girl, maybe it was over something else. This is how Sater puts it: “Two guys full of piss and vinegar and drunk got into a bar fight.”

That fight involved Friedman hitting Sater with a beer bottle, and in response, Sater hit Friedman with a margarita glass. Sater says that, contrary to most press reports, he did not assault Friedman with the jagged stem of the glass but, rather, with the glass intact. “That’s to ... show that Donald Trump hangs out with violent, bad guys,” he says of the broken-glass narrative.

Before the fight, Sater had been hoping to one day become president of the New York Stock Exchange. He imagines his life as it would have been if he’d never bloodied Friedman’s cheek: “I’d be living in Greenwich and running a $10 billion hedge fund, with my own private plane, a couple of yachts, and going to the Met Gala and vacationing with the Steve Cohens of the world.”

Needless to say, it hasn’t quite worked out that way. Sater is now divorced and living alone, his 12th Avenue apartment bearing the slightly cluttered feel of single life. Among its decorations is a sheathed samurai sword, perhaps just in case an aggrieved member of la Cosa Nostra, which Sater claims to have helped bring down, comes seeking retribution. There are photographs of his three daughters, now all grown. He doesn’t see them all that much these days.

“The bar fight changed my life,” Sater says.

Arrested for assault, Sater was eventually sent to Rikers Island for about three months. This becomes a story of its own, which Sater tells with hands flailing, body jerking to and fro: an unlikely alliance with the Latin Kings; trafficking marijuana; a near brawl with the Bloods that had Sater taping phone books to his torso for protection. I don’t know if this actually happened to Felix Sater, but I am fairly confident that it could not have happened to anyone but Felix Sater.

Riker's Island prison complex
The Rikers Island prison complex in New York City. (Photo: Seth Wenig/AP)

Sater was eventually released from jail pending an appeal, but funding that appeal — and thus avoiding an actual prison sentence — would require some aggressive Forward sales. Sater says his legal fees were running into the six figures. He was without a job, with his first daughter just born. “Unfortunately,” he says, “nobody would hire a felon.” And so, badly in need of money, he and two associates started a firm called White Rock.

“Firm” might be a generous description. White Rock was, as the government’s 5K letter describes, a front for “securities fraud in connection with the fraudulent offerings and after-market manipulation” of stocks. Sater and his associates ran a pump-and-dump scheme that netted them some $40 million, which the 5K letter says “was then carefully laundered through off-shore nominee bank accounts.”

In other words, Sater sought to rescue himself from an assault charge by committing massive securities fraud.

White Rock’s other partners, in particular Salvatore Luria, had close ties to Italian organized crime in Brooklyn. So did Sater’s father, who had gone into business with Ernest “Butch” Montevecchi, a reputed soldier in the Genovese crime family. Sater rejects the notion that he was himself a gangster, and while he isn’t necessarily proud of what White Rock did, he isn’t willing to cede credit for the scheme to his Mediterranean counterparts.

“You don't possibly believe,” Sater says, “that the Italian organized crime families could orchestrate a major stock scam do you? And who in their entire family would write the prospectus? Who in the mafia knows how to spell, much less write a financial prospectus?”

He continues in a mock Bensonhurst accent: “Hey yo, Vinny. Hey, how you doin’? How you doin’?” The accent stops. “Come on. You know some of these people from growing up. Any one of them strike you as financially very savvy?”

The point is made, if not especially subtly.

Sater lost his appeal on the 1991 assault charge and went to a New York State prison in Otisville (his future Trump Organization associate Michael Cohen is currently incarcerated at the federal Otisville prison). He was released in 1996, and the following year, White Rock collapsed, though Sater says he was no longer involved in the scheme by then.

In 1996, Sater took his first business trip to Moscow. The initial reason was to help a Western investor recover stolen funds, but Sater quickly understood that the post-Soviet gangland of the Yeltsin years was not going to countenance any such effort. He just as quickly grasped that the largely unregulated capitalism of that time would allow him to do what the United States never would.

Sater says that his introductions in Moscow were helped along by the fact that his father had been friends with Vladimir Vystosky, the great countercultural singer and songwriter of the 1970s. “I could sing his songs,” Sater says, “and as soon as I would bring up his name, that’s it. The door would open wide, and it was like being Bob Dylan’s nephew or something.” (The story is impossible to confirm, as both Sater’s father and Vystosky are dead.)

Around this time, Sater’s life increasingly began to take on the trappings of a John le Carré novel. In Moscow, he was introduced to Milton Blane, an American defense contractor affiliated with the Defense Intelligence Agency. Over breakfast at an Irish pub, Sater says Blane recruited him to work as an American intelligence asset. (It appears, based on public records, that Blane was involved in acquiring Russian military equipment for U.S. intelligence.)

Sater says that Blane — who is also dead and unable to confirm this account — was astonished by the ease with which Sater had gained access to the upper reaches of the Kremlin. “You’re sitting drinking with him,” Sater recalls Blane telling him of one Russian general of interest to American intelligence. Just getting the general’s license plate number would have been an accomplishment for American intelligence in years past, Blane supposedly told Sater. And there Sater and the general now were, “singing f***ing songs, talking about f***ing hookers,” Blane said. “Your country needs you, and we need you to step up. This type of access — I don’t understand how you came to it, but you’re here and your country needs you.”

Sater’s most valuable contact in Moscow would prove to be Evgeny Schmikov, a former general in the GRU, or Russian intelligence. When Blane supposedly asked Sater to help with obtaining information about Russian radar-jamming systems, Sater naturally went to Schmikov.

Schmikov saw no problem working with the U.S., Sater says, seeing it as a potential partnership that he could benefit from in the future. “He starts introducing me and taking me to closed military cities,” Sater says of Schmikov. Eventually, he says, he delivered for Blane: “I got him a scientist. I don’t know whether he closed a deal with him or not.”

It also happened that Schmikov was an associate of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Northern Alliance leader in Afghanistan who would be assassinated two days before the 9/11 attacks. The journalist Seth Hettena, who has written extensively on Trump’s connection to Russia, has uncovered photographs of Schmikov in Afghanistan, along with a photograph of what appears to be Sater and Schmikov in Dubai, both wearing traditional white dishdashas.

Sater says that through Schmikov, he developed contacts to Khalil, an Afghan national who Sater says was a “senior intel operative” for Massoud, with sources deep in al-Qaida. Khalil, in turn, organized a buyback of Stinger missiles that had been given by the U.S. to Afghan mujahideen during the conflict with the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Now the U.S. feared that those same weapons could be used against American interests. It is unclear if any missiles were ever returned to U.S. possession, but the effort redounded to Sater’s behalf. “Sater even provided the serial numbers for each of the missiles,” the 5K letter written in 2009 says. (Neither of the two signatories to that letter could be reached for comment, but Kaminsky, the former federal prosecutor, has said that Sater’s “cooperation was of an extraordinary depth and breadth, almost unseen in this United States Attorney’s Office.”)

Sater says that through Khalil, he had indirect access to bin Laden’s personal secretary, which leads to one of the most incredible assertions in the 5K letter: “Sater also passed on specific information about Osama bin Laden, including what were believed to be bin Laden’s satellite telephone numbers and information about who was supplying arms to bin Laden.”

Asked if he ever tried calling those numbers, Sater scoffs: “Why would I want to call Osama bin Laden from my phone? For what purpose?” He says that his informant continued to provide him information about bin Laden’s whereabouts even after the 9/11 attacks, a point the 5K letter appears to confirm.

Sater tells an even more incredible story about traveling with Schmikov to Tajikistan in the spring of 1998. In the middle of the night, they set out for Afghanistan with “a bunch of Spetsnaz guys,” as Sater puts it, a reference to Russia’s fearsome special forces. “These are gigantic motherf***ers, pumped up, crazy f***ing tattoos, you know, sword and shield bulls*** scars all over the place, armed to the teeth.”

As the convoy plowed south, Schmikov announced that he knew where bin Laden was. “We’re going to pick up about 30 fighters and we’re marching on Tora Bora,” Sater says Schmikov told him. “We know the camp he’s in right now. We’re going to attack under cover of darkness and kill everybody in the camp.”

Sater says he was able to get the CIA on a satellite phone through his longtime lawyer, Robert Wolf, who continues to represent him to this day. When asked how he would produce proof of the assassination, Schmikov offered a suggestion: “We’ll cut off his head, you’ll bring his head back.” The difficulties of bringing a severed human head through customs aside, negotiations broke down over how much the U.S. would pay for an assassination attempt.

There are, to put it mildly, Sater skeptics, including at the agencies he is purported to have helped. “I have nothing to offer you on the topic,” says Defense Intelligence Agency public affairs officer James Kudla. “I’ll neither confirm nor deny his claims.” A spokeswoman for the Central Intelligence Agency would say nothing. Critics generally caution that Sater exaggerates the effects his information had on crucial investigations, whether of al-Qaida or the Italian mafia. They see him as an adept storyteller, but not much more than that.

Even as he continued working on behalf of American intelligence, Sater continued to face his own legal troubles. In January 1998, the just-released 5K letter says, “the New York City Police Department received a call from the manager of a storage facility who was cleaning out a storage bin after its owners did not answer several delinquency notices. Inside the bin, the manager found loaded handguns and various documents related to White Rock/State Street, which revealed Sater’s role in the above-mentioned fraudulent schemes.”

Sater — who now claims the locker was not his — returned to the United States, where he began telling federal authorities everything he knew. In addition to the information about al-Qaida, he gave the federal government copious information on Italian organized crime in New York. In fact, Sater claims to have singlehandedly ended the reign of La Cosa Nostra. “I gave up Frank Coppa,” he says of the high-ranking Bonnano crime family captain. “Frank Coppa gave up Joe Massino, Joe Massino gave up the mafia.” In other words, you have Felix Sater to thank for making Little Italy safe again. More incredible than the boast itself is the fact that the boast … more or less checks out.

Sater says his work for the government was out of a sense of duty, not hopes of leniency or restitution. “They never paid me one red penny for anything that I ever did,” he says of the federal government.

In 2001, Sater founded the Bayrock Group, a real estate investment firm. The firm rented office space in Trump Tower. Sater says that, one day, he simply walked into Trump’s office and declared, “I’m going to be the most successful real estate developer in New York, and I think you should think about partnering up with me while I’m still cheap.”

Trump supposedly laughed in return. But two years later, the two began working together. Four years after that, he was the subject of a New York Times profile that depicted him as a close, enigmatic associate of Trump who was a key figure in the development of a Trump high-rise in SoHo.

Much as he would in later years, Trump attempted to distance himself from Sater in that article. Then, as now, the avowals of unfamiliarity were not entirely convincing. “It seemed that Mr. Trump relied heavily on Mr. Sater’s opinion on certain markets,” a Denver-based developer told the Times.

The White House would not comment on the record for this story, and press representatives for the Trump Organization did not answer a request for comment.

Trump certainly relied on Sater when it came to Moscow, where it seemed like Schmikov and other contacts from Sater’s time there would help make a Trump Tower reality. By 2010, Sater was a member of the Trump Organization and working in earnest on the project. Sater says he had the “third office down” from Trump in Trump Tower.

Donald Trump and Felix Sater
Donald Trump and Felix Sater at a 2007 Trump hotel launch party in New York City. (Photo: Will Ragozzino/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images)

Exactly how close Trump and Sater really were is one of those questions that can be endlessly parsed. The truth notwithstanding, Sater will always labor to escape having put his name to one of the most notorious communiqués in recent political history: “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.” Sater wrote those words in 2015, when the likelihood of a Trump presidency was still remote. The recipient of Sater’s email was Michael Cohen, then Trump’s lawyer at the Trump Organization.

In his exchange with Cohen, Sater appears to exaggerate his ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, much in the same way his detractors say he inflates his relevance as a U.S. intelligence asset. However deep or shallow those ties to the Kremlin were, they came to naught, which Sater claims he realized was for the best. “As soon as [Trump] won the Republican primary, I knew that was a bad statement,” he says. “I knew there would be no way we’d be building a Trump Tower in Moscow.”

Instead of showing Putin around his new penthouse apartment at Trump Tower Russia — the plan was to offer it as a promotional gift — Sater would be called to testify on four occasions before both House and Senate committees about his Russia-related efforts on Trump’s behalf. Mueller’s team interviewed him twice; in another one of those confluences that seem to mark Sater’s existence, that team included Andrew Weissmann, who had years before signed a cooperation agreement between Sater and the FBI.

Sater says his turns before the Democratic-controlled House, in particular, were a waste of time, but that anti-Trump legislators like Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif. (who is also the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee), had to keep on investigating for the sake of impeachment-hungry Democrats. “Their base will storm their offices,” he says of congressional Democrats, “and burn down their furniture, if they announce the investigation over and there’s no collusion with Russia.”

If the Mueller report did not exonerate Trump, it did not exonerate Sater either. And that’s why he is still talking, still making his case, still trying to work off the ill will of the bar fight and stock scheme. “I didn’t jaywalk,” he acknowledges. “I committed two serious crimes. But I stopped thousands of crimes, and possibly even terrorist attacks, and possibly saved lives. … Blame me for what I did at 25, but don’t neglect what I did for the next 20.” Of course, what Felix Sater has and hasn’t done will remain in great dispute.

And so he sits in his Manhattan tower, on 12th Avenue instead of Fifth, telling his story in the hope that people will believe he is more than just another Brooklyn goon, and see him as Felix Sater — that lovable gangster, that fraudster with a conscience — a man worthy of redemption.


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