The redacted version of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report contained quite a bit of information about the perfidy of the Trump White House, the lack of evidence on collusion, and the limits of testimony to support a criminal charge of obstruction. But what’s most interesting is what the report did not say.
This can be seen in the report’s accounting of the Trump Moscow project, which — for all of its clumsiness and failure to materialize — remains the most substantive link between the Trump Organization and the Kremlin. The report’s section on the project, headlined, “Russian government links to and contacts with the Trump campaign,” consists of a 12-page account of two fledgling Trump deals in Moscow. The report paints a picture of three of Trump’s dealmakers, Donald Trump Jr., Michael Cohen, and Felix Sater, trying to get the project off the ground with little success. The president has denied having any business relationships with Russia, but that lie falls apart in an email-by-email, text-by-text, call-by-call narrative of the deals. The report makes clear that he and two of his children participated in efforts to build a Trump Tower in Moscow as then-candidate Trump heaped praise on Russian President Vladimir Putin in the midst of the 2016 campaign.
The most glaring omission concerns Felix Sater. The report describes Sater as a “New York-based real estate advisor,” which is technically accurate — but a bit like calling O.J. Simpson a “California-based football player.”
The report fails to mention a few things that would appear to be relevant information to Justice Department officials. For one, Sater was a criminal cooperator, confidential source, and intelligence asset working for a variety of federal agencies over two decades — leaving aside his felony convictions for assault and racketeering. The silence on these facts is colored by the peculiar, decadeslong relationship between Sater and members of Mueller’s staff. Sater’s 1998 criminal cooperation agreement was signed by a senior member of Mueller’s team, Andrew Weissman, then a prosecutor in Brooklyn’s U.S. Attorney’s Office. The apparent remarkable coincidence that a central figure within this report would have a substantive history with some of its investigators and authors goes unremarked on. A footnote indicates that Sater spoke under a proffer in a redacted grand jury matter.
Sater, for his part, said of the report in a text message to The Intercept yesterday, “[h]aven’t read it yet.”
In a previous interview with The Intercept, Sater said that he never mixed his roles as a government asset and a real estate executive working with Trump.
In a hearing on Wednesday before federal judge I. Leo Glasser, The Intercept argued to unseal portions of Sater’s criminal docket. Earlier this month, the judge permitted the government to file a motion in secret in response to The Intercept’s request to unseal court filings in Sater’s 20-year-old criminal case. The judge ruled that the government, Sater, and the court will conduct a closed evaluation to determine which materials can be released; he declined to allow The Intercept’s counsel to participate in that evaluation.
In the hearing, Glasser said that none of the sealed records have any bearing on Sater’s relationship with the president.
“There isn’t a mention of Trump,” the judge said.
Sater has been a long-running problem for Trump. The president has all but disavowed his relationship with Sater in the past, but in his written answers to the Mueller team, he referred directly to Sater.
This direct acknowledgement of Sater’s role in the deal goes further than contradicting the president’s prior disavowals. It implicitly places Sater at the center of a significant transaction attempted by the Trump Organization in the midst of the election. However, the report does not detail any direct contact between Sater and Trump on the Moscow project — which Sater said is accurate.
The “Moscow Project” was defined by unseemly alliances. Sater played the central role in attempting to secure both the financial and political capital to get the project off the ground, partnering with Evgeny Dvoskin, a Russian bank official who was under indictment in the Eastern District of New York for securities fraud and money laundering — and who happened to work for a Ukraine-based bank placed on the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control sanction list. Dvoskin, according to Sater, was a childhood friend who, as it happens, was also indicted in a securities fraud case in the Eastern District of New York. (Sater, who worked as a cooperator for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, said he had no part in that case.) When they were discussing the Trump Moscow deal, Sater said, Dvoskin did not mention that his employer, Genbank, was under Treasury sanctions.
“Why would he?” Sater said in a text message to The Intercept.
Dvoskin sought to broker a relationship with VTB Bank, a primarily state-owned Russian lending bank which faced Treasury sanctions in 2014 related to the invasion of Crimea. VTB had both the assets and political clout to champion the deal.
Describing the relationship between Genbank and VTB, Sater said in an interview with The Intercept, “My guy [Evgeny Dvoskin] spoke to a banker at VTB who turned around and said, ‘We’d be very interested.’ I didn’t even have a pro forma to show them. How do you get a deal from a bank without even showing them a pro forma? You sort of gauge their interest in a quick conversation, ‘We’re thinking of building the tallest building in Europe. Do you want to see the deal?’ Do you know any banker that’s going to say, ‘No, we’re not going to see the deal. Please don’t show it to us.’” But the conversation on financing the Trump Tower never advanced to the stage of discussing numbers, according to Sater.
Trump was kept in the loop by his personal lawyer Michael Cohen, an arms-length situation that offered one degree of separation from the fact that the Trump Organization’s emissaries and partners in Russia had known criminal histories.
In the midst of these negotiations, another Russian approached Ivanka Trump, who relayed him to Cohen. This approach from Dmitry Klokov, an executive with a background as a political operative, resulted in what was an opportunity for a direct connection with Putin, according to the report.
Sater did not know whether Klokov was trying to nudge in on the project, but said to The Intercept that the Trump Organization was “trying to do the deal with different people the best I can understand.”