WhoWhatWhy’s Editor-in-Chief Russ Baker joins “serious comedians” Tim Dillon and Ray Crump in studio to discuss his recent groundbreaking article on Donald Trump, the Russian mob, and the FBI.
Featured prominently in the discussion is Felix Sater, a curious Trump associate whose business card claimed “Senior Advisor to Donald Trump”, yet in a deposition Trump claimed he wouldn’t recognize him if he was in the room.
It turns out that Sater, a convicted criminal with mob connections, had become an FBI informant inside a mob organization with roots in Russia and ties to Vladimir Putin.
What does it all mean? How could this important but unknown past history explain Putin’s suspected effort to influence the election? Is the president compromised by the Kremlin? Could Trump have been working with the FBI? All this and more.
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Full Text Transcript:
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Tim Dillon: We’re really going to take a hard critical look at the people that decided to hate the billionaires, the dictators, the CEOs.
This is Tim Dillon, everybody. Thanks for joining Going to Hell. We’re here with our colleague Ray Crump (Ray: “Hello”). We’re also here with our returning guest, one of our favorites, the great Russ Baker, author of the book Family of Secrets. (Ray: “Phenomenal.”) If you’ve not read it, get it. Also the founder of WhoWhatWhy.org, one of our favorite places for online investigative reporting. And he’s here today because if you’ve not read this. And a lot of people who are – it’s been shared on Twitter and Facebook and everybody that has read it has commented on it, which is always a good sign. People have been affected by it. More than one person tweeted at me, messaged me “You got to do a podcast on this, there’s so much here.” People wrote me that this is real journalism, and they’ve done a really great job here. I think it’s about a 6500-word piece. There is substantial effort here, basically in detailing some of the relationship between the Trump Administration and Donald Trump himself with figures in the Russian underworld, politicians, and of course, looking at the angle the FBI, and why perhaps the FBI is reticent to disclose everything they know. Russ, thank you for coming in.
Russ Baker: Sure. Glad to be here.
Tim: So let me ask you. After the election was so devisive, I kind of fell into the belief system that the Russian narrative was kind of a way for people to explain the election results. The media had gotten everything wrong. The polls were wrong. People were… I think it was a traumatic event for a lot of people. So I kind of dismissed a lot of this as this is just part of the grieving process.
Ray Crump: It seems like the intelligence apparatus, and the deep state kind of pushed this, it seemed like they were trying to push another Russian Cold War, instigate with Russia…
Tim: But one thing, when I read the article, I realized this was a bit, as most things are, this was a bit more complicated. Did you have any of those feelings after the election? Or did you think immediately “Oh hey, there’s probably something here.”
Russ: Absolutely, I was very wary of efforts to stir up that traditional rivalry as over the years at WhoWhatWhy we reported how Russia has played an interesting and even somewhat constructive role in being maybe the only power in the world that can question this sort of monolithic war machine that historically the United States has been. And so yes, I would agree with your assessment of that. And I think therefore, just like you and Ray, we come at this honestly, approaching this from an open mind, not embracing this narrative particularly, but starting to see some things that made us say “hmm, we’d better take a closer look.”
Tim: Right. And one of the things … the article again. People should read the article. I read it about five times because there is so much there. But what’s interesting to me, what strikes me, – and I know a little bit about New York City real estate, of course Donald Trump is a real estate mogul. He’s got a big building on Fifth Avenue. And a lot of the old money big buildings in New York City: 5th Avenue, Park Avenue, they’re co-ops, they have boards. And those boards want to see all of your financial documents before you move into that building. So if you are somebody who has made your money in a less than reputable way, if you’re considered new money, if you’re a Russian oligarch, if you’re gangster and you end up moving into some of those condos, and many of those people actually ended up moving into Trump Tower. A lot of these gangsters and a lot of these people that later on were arrested for all kinds of nefarious activities, this story really focuses on a few particular people. But one of them, the guy Felix Sater, and this guy is somebody who, he worked closely with Donald Trump. And this is somebody who now Donald Trump is kind of, very much like George HW Bush kind of forgot where he was during the Kennedy assassination, Trump has now been quoted saying things like if he was “in a room with this guy, I’d have trouble identifying him.” Tell us a little bit about this particular individual because he seems to be very important, in kind of linking all of these things together.
Russ: And by the way, it’s kind of funny, because you can say something like “I’d have trouble identifying him in a room” that doesn’t actually mean that you wouldn’t know exactly who he was but you would get in trouble for identifying him. So technically that could be true. I noticed that about a lot of statements. Like Trump says things like: “I have no business in Russia” which doesn’t preclude that he had business in Russia. That he has business in other former Soviet republics. That his partners have business in Russia. Whatever. There are many, many permutations. But anyway, getting to the heart of this, this building, Trump Tower, when it was built, as we report in our article on WhoWhatWhy, they had all this amazing bunch of people who were quite interesting. We started looking at the floors below. Trump had the triplex, the top three floors. And right below it are the choicest floors… I don’t want to say that of everybody, because it wasn’t, I assume, everybody but a lot of the people on those floors at the top are these very interesting characters, like a woman who was the lady friend of the boss of the mobbed-up Concrete Union. Of course the Concrete Union was what put up Trump Tower. So his lady friend who somehow happened to have all this money – not clear where it’s from – she buys all these apartments and then she wants to combine them all, she wants to put in a swimming pool in her own apartment! He knew her, he knew the concrete boss really well, but when he dealt with the concrete boss, he went through the mob lawyer Roy Cohn, I guess for liability. There was another guy in there who ended up being arrested in Trump Tower for ordering a murder. That guy, Donald Trump personally sat with him in at a conference table as the man counted out $250,000 in cash to get the deal. It’s not like he didn’t know these people.
Tim: Isn’t some of that unavoidable though when you own a glossy building in the middle of NYC. Or was there something special about the culture?
Russ: I think there was. I think it was the bling factor, the kind of people that like to wear a lot of gold chains and stuff, like to be associated with a very gold building and a very golden man with golden hair, to be optimistic about his hair. And they saw this as this marvelous brand, another generation of Gucci or Pucci or Ferucci, saw Trump as the name to be associated with. But the thing is that Trump would have to be naïve not to know the extent to which real estate is being used for money laundering. And he would be naïve not to know that people coming from a country where nobody had any money and suddenly they’re billionaires, that you do have to wonder where they get the money to buy these apartments.
Tim: Right. So Felix Sater is a guy that grows up, he was born I believe in the Ukraine or Russia.
Russ: He was born in Russia. His father was Ukranian. They emigrated when he was young, came to the United States.
Tim: Grows up in Brighton Beach, Sheepshead Bay, I forget which. And he goes to jail. He slams a guy in the face with a margarita glass in 1991.
Ray: In jail?
Tim: No, before gets there.
Russ: They stopped serving margaritas in jail.
Tim: But he becomes involved in a bunch of different schemes and eventually becomes an informant for the Feds.
Russ: Correct. The background on that is… They call it with the Russian mob. I guess we can use that term. But basically it’s not Russian but mobsters in the form of the Soviet Union, so it’s from all the different constituent parts of the Soviet Union, actually even other Eastern European countries. But there always was some sort of organized crime, even under the Communist system. The jails were full of these people although they also were tolerated in certain ways because people who were in official positions who needed to move their ill-gotten monies themselves out might need protection against internal feuds or what have you. They also provide a lot of goods. They worked actually very closely with the Soviets. There was an electronic store here in New York that’s also connected to the story – I don’t know if that’s even in the piece, but one of these people we mention, they had an electronic store by the UN and the Soviet diplomats were always in and out of there and the mob was very helpful in supplying the Soviet Union with all kinds of contraband stuff that it needed. So these people, some of them began emigrating while there still was the Soviet Union. And then when the Soviet Union ended, the floodgates opened and all these people left. And by the way, even before that, the Soviet Union, under pressure to release so-called dissidents or people of other belief systems, opened their jails up and let all these mobsters pour out and many came, among other places, to the United States. So they were already here.
Ray: That was in the 80s?
Russ: That was going back to the seventies, actually with the Jackson-Vanik Amendment. These people began looking for opportunities. It’s not like… they didn’t go to Yale. They’re not getting hired immediately by Goldman Sachs, maybe later, but they were looking for opportunities and they tend to fall into those sorts of circles. Some of them began working with La Cosa Nostra, the Italian mob. And so they began working with them but they started looking for opportunities and as the Soviet Union came apart, more and more highly educated people left. A lot of these people had degrees, computer program, computer science, mathematics. They were very skilled people, financial whizzes. Here they are in the United States. What are they going to do? They don’t even speak the language properly. They found these illicit trades. And a lot of them started moving into kind of like Wolf on Wall Street, shops, boiler rooms where they were working all kinds of schemes …
Tim: Pump and dump, stock schemes…
Russ: That was what Felix Sater did, even though he was born here. Even though… I’ve never met him, but I assume he speaks accentless English. He ended up working in one of these places. We’re going to have another article coming out soon with some more of that. Some other interesting people in the Trump administration have come out of the same shops.
Russ: But anyway, so he got into this thing. There were all these mobsters involved, it was, as you say, a pump and dump, basically calling little old ladies, anybody they could target who they thought were not financially sophisticated, selling them on these wonderful opportunities, these penny stocks, whatever. And of course they knew these were worthless. It was illegal what they were doing and they took people for an awful lot of money. The FBI was investigating these things as they do financial crimes. And right at the same time they became aware of the Russian mob, belatedly I must say.
The FBI often becomes aware of things kind of belatedly. You hit them on the head with a shoe for a few years, eventually they pay attention. Yeah, Hoover said there wasn’t organized crime at all. You can imagine It would be hard to go from that to Russian organized crime. Anyway, they start looking at this stuff and they start asking around and they learned that there’s this guy. And I hope I’m not stepping on your intro here.
Russ: They start looking. There’s a guy, it’s organized. Who is it organized by? And then allegedly, of course we always use the word allegedly with all this, it’s run by a guy, some people call him the fat man, some people call him the Brainy Don, but he was a guy by the name of Simeon Mogilevich.
Tim: Yes! I was watching when BBC did an interview with him.
Russ: It’s great to watch him because he is straight out of central casting.
Tim: He’s out of central casting. What’s fascinating about the Russian mafia is – and you go into this a bit in the article – it’s different than other mafias in that there is such a level of state backing. That it’s almost like it’s a mafia state. A lot of state actors involved with organized crime, and I guess it would almost be like the Italian mafia in the 60s where they had the power to influence the political system in a way that they don’t anymore. So this guy, this Simeon is somebody that supposedly has some level of relationship with Putin.
Russ: That’s where we want to be going. And I just want to be clear here if anyone listening starts wondering “what does this have to do with Trump?” It’s got everything to do with Trump. And Trump is always just a step away from all this, so correct, exactly right, what we’re looking at is: it is said by the experts that the Russian mob was and is very close with Vladimir Putin, and that Simeon Mogilevich and Putin are very close …
Ray: Was the Russian mob used by the KGB back in the day?
Russ: It was used. Correct, Ray. And so they have had a symbiotic relationship all the way through and very important today. And so, in fact, the whole Russian government and the economy, a lot of the people who were, as KGB, the GRU, all these different intelligence agencies, when they lost their jobs, they were looking for work, they sometimes ended up in organized crime, have other buddies and got rid of…
Tim: A revolving door! We had it with Goldman Sachs!
Our government. It’s the same type of thing.
Russ: That’s right. It’s totally permeable. So anyway, you have all these people and they all know each other, and they’re all kind of working together. And then you have all these oligarchs, these guys now with billions of dollars out of nowhere. And they’re either enemies or friends of Putin, and who knows where he’s got his money stashed. Of course there is all this need to wash all this money, get it out of the country for safekeeping. And of course real estate is maybe the best place to park it. As also, by the way, these various kinds of companies where you can appear to lose a lot of money, it doesn’t even matter because you’re really just trying to wash these obscene sums through the company. And the losses can paper over where the money came from and where it ended up. So what you’re looking at is Semion Mogilevich, FBI becomes extremely interested in him. He’s called the Boss of Bosses of this important mob…
Tim: And he said that he can affect the world economy! How can he do that? Because that’s fascinating.
Russ: I can’t tell you specifically but we see a lot of references to that where they’re talking about the FBI, the Department of Justice, they’re talking about the capability… I think what they mean is that they had these people who’re doing computerized trading. They were attempting, they were doing hacking… Once you’re able to get into the computers and once you’ve got people in the supply chain, in all of these companies at various different levels, you could do almost anything you want.. It really is kind of, like out of a James Bond movie. This unaccountable octopus-like entity. And by the way I understand they had or have thousands and thousands of soldiers, just enormous, just an army of them.
Ray: Thus far, and besides cooperation with them, does it far outweigh the scope of the American mafia, the Italian mafia?
Russ: Yes, I think it does, it really does. And they were just much better, also getting into so-called legitimate businesses. And by the way, banks. And developing relationships with big banks. There are still a lot more to come out… It turned out they were involved with the Bank of New York. You may remember that big scandal? The collapse of the Bank of New York. Other banks, the Safra Bank, and so on and so forth. Many, many banks. And now we hear about new names of banks we hadn’t heard of before.
Tim: What’s really interesting about this article, it underscores, there’s certainly a lot of intrigue involving Trump and everything like that, but it also underscores the idea that at the apex in society you have gangsters, bankers, politicians, they’re all kind of sitting at the same table.
Russ: I like to say that we all know the term ‘the underworld’. I like to use the term ‘overworld’ to describe the so-called legitimate players who themselves have, let’s call them criminal tendencies or lack of ethics or morality, and a sort of ruthlessness. And it’s very, very hard to separate the underworld from the overworld, except that the overworld are friends of the people who make the laws, ergo they’re not susceptible to them.
Tim: Right. So the FBI becomes interested in Mogilevich and is this when they turn Felix Sater?
Russ: Right. So what we understand is that the FBI was so desperately interested in bringing him down, and once they started looking at this company that Sater and his friends were involved with, they could see signs that this was orchestrated at a higher level. And somehow I guess they determined that Mogilevich had his hand in it, that this was one of his operations.
Ray: Was there an event that spurred the FBI into action with this? Was the Russian mob behind some high profile…
Russ: Yeah, there was a company called White Rock, also later called State Street… I don’t remember specifics how they first got onto it, but these kinds of things happen pretty organically.
Ray: That’s what it sounds like that must have led them to …
Russ: No, it’s what led them to the case of Felix Sater. In other words they came onto him, they came onto this whole scheme. I think they realized there was a mob connection to the scheme because of the people involved and how they operated. And at some point, what we understand is that Felix Sater made a deal with them. And he said: “I know a lot, and I can be a big help to you. What can you do for me?”
Tim: Which is a ballsy move, when you talk about a guy like Mogilevich… I mean from what we understand of the Russian mafia is they are brutal! And ruthless! Extremely deadly. So to cooperate with the Feds for as long as he did, that’s got to be… that’s something! This is interesting.
Russ: It’s very interesting.
Tim: Did they have a lot on him? What was the reason he did that?
Russ: Why did he turn?
Russ: Because he was personally liable for something like forty million dollars.
Tim: That’ll do it!
Russ: He would have had to pay an awful lot of money and he would have to go to jail for a long time. And instead they deferred – this was all suppressed – all the information I’m telling you, the US government attempted to suppress all of this, they didn’t want any of this of course to come out…
Tim: Which allowed Sater to then conduct legitimate business ventures…
Ray: Being that he was born in Russia but he was raised in America, was he on the inside track of the Russian mafia?
Russ: Well, there’s a lot more we need to find out. We don’t know exactly, but whatever it was, we have these statements. They deferred his sentencing for many, many years and he apparently reported to the FBI on a daily basis. They asked the judge to be lenient toward him. They said he had been extremely important to them on various points of information, both on terrorism, national security and also on organized crime. And that goes to apparently a claim he made that Mogilevich and the mob were trafficking in nuclear weapons. You can imagine how that would get the attention of the FBI real quick.
Russ: Because what was happening, the Soviet Union melted down and some of these scientists went to North Korea and so forth. They had every reason to be concerned about this. In any case, this guy cuts a deal with them. And during the period that he appears to be reporting to the FBI on a daily basis, he joins a firm that moves into Trump Tower. And this is called Bayrock. And this firm is a real estate development firm, goes into business with our now-President, Donald Trump. And basically, it seems that a lot of this is even Felix Sater’s idea. You probably now the Soho Hotel is a big fabulous building. Apparently a lot of this wasn’t even Trump’s idea, Bayrock was Felix Sater’s idea. And they raised money from all these people, from again the former Soviet Union.
Tim: And in your estimation is Bayrock essentially just a money-laundering operation for ill-gotten gains that other nefarious enterprises have made in the Soviet Union?
Russ: Well, we don’t know, we don’t want to characterize it but when you look at it you can see the participants. So for example, they’re very interesting figures who put money into it, they’re all described in some detail in the article. One of them is a company out of Iceland which, as you know, its financial system collapsed before the rest of the financial system as part of what was the Great Recession of 2008.
And that FL group is identified as close to Putin. Some very strong Russian…
So they came with some money later on. Some came in earlier, people from Kazakhstan with vast sums of money of unknown origin. So that’s what basically funded this thing.
Now you have to know Donald Trump was in pretty deep financial trouble. He, against the advice of everybody, made this huge play in Atlantic City, was a kind of a white elephant, none of this could be supported and everything began collapsing. And originally he dealt with banks and afterward a while the banks didn’t want to have anything to do with him. So he was kind of desperate, was looking for money wherever he could. Here come all these people from the former Soviet Union, many of them, from what we understand, with connections to organized crime.
Tim: Do you think, is it fair to say Trump was potentially being floated financially by some of these figures? And this is speculation where you say “It is potentially one of the reasons why he might not want to release his tax returns.”
Russ: Right. And of course you know about this so-called tax return with two pages that were obtained by Rachel Maddow. I was surprised that there was no comment about this. It shows Donald Trump earning $135million in 2005. We looked that up to see how much that was because we’re so poor that $135 bucks sounds like a lot to us. We didn’t know what that was and we looked at it. Almost nobody earns that kind of money. We even found that this guy Mercer, the billionaire, a multi-billionaire who funded Trump, he made less than that in one of his good years. I mean, this is an enormous amount of money. That was his income.
Ray: A guy like Bill Gates who
Russ: This is reported income. It’s a good year. And yet, and yet, the Atlantic City thing had collapsed, where is it coming from? And so it’s kind of in this period that all this stuff is going on, and he just – I don’t want to jump to the punch line here – one does have to wonder where does all this money come from. If he is in so much trouble, who is giving him all of this, and we see him – this is the period where he is involved with all these people from the Soviet Union.
Tim: Interesting. And you start connecting the dots.
Russ: One of the things you have to know about Trump is, although his name is on many of these properties, he often liked to tout himself as a guy who gets his hands dirty, in construction. “I put up buildings, I manage workmen.”
He really was and increasingly is, in the licensing business. And meeting people and saying “Hey, you want my name on your building?” And so in these cases, he receives fees for the use of his name. And sometimes he receives equity. And that can be quite substantial.
What’s very interesting in a lot of the Bayrock projects Felix Sater was traveling around the world promoting, those things didn’t make any money and yet these people seemed to live pretty well so you talk about money laundering, you talk about – this is all hypothetical of course – you can find ways to raise money from people who think it’s a good deal and it goes into Trump’s pocket, it goes into their pocket, and the thing is never billed, never called profits.
Ray: I think the important thing you brought up in the article is that Sater – he didn’t have protection of the government, keeping this information about him – he never would have been able to enter into these deals as a convicted felon.
Russ: Well, that’s right and that is critical. First of all, in his felony conviction for assault I guess it was, or battery, whatever it was, he attacked this guy, as you say, with the margarita glass. That already was on his record. And then, the conviction in the pump and dump situation, these basically barred him for life from involvement in a lot of these securities and financial types of activities. And so they had to sort of mask his involvement in Bayrock. And there was another guy who was the official front guy and so on, but it’s very clear that he held, I think it was 63% of Bayrock. He was really the guy behind it and there was Trump dealing with Felix. We have pictures of him with him. He knew that this guy was the guy.
Tim: The government seals the record allowing him to conduct his business. Is that so he can stay in the mix and continue to inform on people? Why did they have such an interest in him being able to go out there and continue to earn money? Is it … I imagine it is so he could continue to…
Russ: It’s logical so that he can function and do the job he is offered to do. What we see is during these years
Tim: It’s like letting the guy earn. They say when you turn someone in the mafia, you let him go out and sell coke…
Russ: Well, after they prosecuted, convicted, and jailed all these other people involved in the pump and dump, there he is and his docket sort of goes dark. They’re giving him this whole period where he uses a different name. He spells it Felix Satter, so that nobody can connect it to him
Tim: Supposedly in this period he and Trump are getting so close that they traveled to Moscow together looking for opportunities.
Russ: He traveled actually with Donald Jr and Ivanka. Supposedly Donald asked him: “The kids happen to be running around Moscow, would you show them around a bit?” Everything is put in such a benign kind of way but Donald Jr gave a speech, an interview with media where he said “Most of our money is coming from Russia.”
Tim: Wow. That’s funny.
Ray: The obvious parallel for this is the FBI involvement with Whitey Bulger where they allowed him to operate for years, commit countless murders, because he was giving information. Is it different in the sense that, I believe, Bulger, they had a quid pro quo from the beginning. Is it even more unusual if they have a guy who they basically allow this much leeway? To commit additional crimes?
Russ: I don’t know. The FBI operates that way. At WhoWhatWhy.org we publish many articles about the FBI and how it operates. Some of our articles, and we’ve talked about it on a prior show, are the relationships that they have with people who are perceived as possible terrorists.
Russ: They talk to them and they say “Hey, can you go into the mosque and stir up some stuff and see if people bite?” The 1993 World Trade Center bombing is what that was.
Russ: We even think that the Boston Marathon bombing had an element of that with Todashev again coming from these former Soviet Republics. We see these patterns and so … this story of Trump and his relationships with mobsters from the Eastern block, that ties to Putin and everything, this FBI thing, it’s all [nest?] and it’s a much larger and unsolved mystery how the FBI operates: accountability… And I have to say, we do need to have an agency like it, and I know there are many, many good, honest, hard-working people that try to do the best that they can and we need to be supportive of them. But the fact is that all these places need to be held accountable. And there are people in there who have strategies that are disastrous. They don’t want those ever to come out. And the media serve the public interest and we’re supposed to be letting the air rush into the room.
Tim: What’s interesting, this never would have been known, we have the article here, if, basically you say that Trump’s relationship with Sater would never have been known if a Bayrocker placed, stumbling upon this cooperation agreement with the FBI among other sensitive information that had inadvertently been left accessible. That employee sought out attorney Fred Oberlander who [co-opted] the documents, Oberlander who was instructing undergraduates at Yale began to deconstruct the byzantine financial structure that was Bayrock which allegedly hid a range of crimes, including massive scale money laundering from sources in the former Soviet Union. So again, this is a story that we almost never would have known.
Ray: Just to clarify, what exactly does that mean, that a Bayrock employee, what information was sitting around, what happened?
Russ: As we understand it, this fellow had been told certain things about the company, who owned it and how it operated. He was an officer of the company and he was out there working on these projects. And this was a real guy, working on hotels and things like that. And if you suddenly find out that you’re in the midst of a thing with a guy who is basically a convicted felon involved with financial scams, mob ties,
Ray: The officer of the company?
Russ: No, Sater is the guy who is the mob guy. No, the guy who found the papers, who knows the details on that, people sometimes do stupid things. Anyway, he goes and gets a lawyer and says: “I got a problem here, what do I do?”
You see, if you’re working with somebody who is a criminal, and you don’t reveal that, then you’re potentially on the hook for all of that stuff. And that could be absolutely devastating.
Ray: Once you do know you got to immediately sabotage…
Russ: You’ve got to … so he goes to a lawyer to find out what to do. And it’s through those lawyers that some of this begins to come out. But what I want to emphasize is, and it’s very, very important, these lawyers have not been allowed to talk. And in fact, the Department of Justice and the FBI, and I think this is the core of our article currently up on WhoWhatWhy.org, is that the FBI not only doesn’t want the Sater relationship to come out. They’re concerned about this whole larger story. They don’t like to talk about how they work, obviously this very big operation against the Russian mob, they don’t want anything about that said, revealed or who they work with or how they do it.
Tim: Is there something called a hyper-injunction?
Russ: Hyper-injunction. That’s right. They went to extraordinary measures and they got a judge basically to gag these lawyers so they couldn’t talk to anybody. They wanted to follow through with what they had found and be able to talk to people. They were basically ordered “We are told not to communicate any of this to the Congress of the United States.”
Tim: This is fascinating. Here it says: in February 2010, the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in Manhattan instructed Oberlander – that was the attorney who is pursuing this after this guy had found the documentation – in a secret order not to inform the legislative branch of the United States Government what he knew about Felix Sater. That order remains under seal but the federal judge has unsealed the redacted version and apparently the Appellate Court was persuaded that the unusually broad order was justified on the merits, but the lawyers opposing Sater found the imposed remedy extraordinary and they said this, this is very interesting: “How the order not to tell Congress what we know may be the first and only hyper-injunction in American history. If there are others who have been scared and silenced by judges who wish to nullify congressional and public oversight, we may never know and that is frightening. “
So literally this is basically saying you cannot inform an entire branch of government what is going on.
Russ: Right. You can see what the problem with that is. Entities of the executive branch, like the FBI, are supposed to be accountable to the branches. And here you have the second branch, the judiciary, saying “you can’t talk to the third branch, the ones that are elected by the people.”
Tim: Right. So you diminish the capacity for oversight and it totally removes it. Which is a huge problem. There’s another guy here, for there are so many villains in the article. There’s another guy. Semion Mogilevich who is the Boss of Bosses, the Brainy Don, gets a judge in Russia to release this other guy and I forget this other guy’s name.
Tim: Yes, Ivankov. What is his deal?
Russ: So he is considered to be this incredibly ruthless… The FBI gets a tip that he is now in the United States is the word on the street. The emissary has arrived. Tam-ta-dam-tam! And it’s like oh-my-god oh-my-god oh-my-god! Where is he?! If it’s a movie, the clock is ticking. Find the guy, you’ve got to find the guy. And they can’t find him, they can’t find him. And someone, I don’t know how it happened but they find him and he is living in … Trump Tower! So here is Trump again. And then, as soon as they find out he’s there – I don’t know if he’s tipped off – and he vanishes. They call him a cipher because every time they thought they knew where he was, he wasn’t there.
Then they get another guest tip and then he is in Atlantic City at … the Casino Taj Mahal! So Trump Trump Trump Trump.
Ray: There was later in the article, I forget her name, I believe they were lawyers for Sater, who ended up working at the Attorney General’s office.
Russ: So this is another twist in the story, is that Sater is described, when it becomes time for him to be sentenced, they go before this judge in this closed proceeding and they say “your honor” and we know this from these partially unsealed documents, and they say: “This man has been a tremendously important asset for us” not that word but “done a tremendous service and he’s provided incredible information on national security and also on organized crime. He’s been extremely helpful and extremely cooperative and reliable” and so forth and so they’re asking for leniency. And it’s very interesting who the people are who testify for him because later on we find that two of the US attorneys, prosecutors for the eastern district of Manhattan, the office that is running this whole operation against the mob. I guess that’s where Brooklyn is, where they were headquartered. They then, these two women who were mentioned in the story, were working at the Justice Department. Ostensibly they should be prosecuting these people and Felix Sater but instead what they do they’re all asking for leniency for him and then they leave government. And I kid you not, they join a law firm and they become Felix Sater’s lawyers.
Tim: And the law firm is Morgan Lewis.
Russ: We’re going to get to that. So that’s those two people.
Ray: Is there a legal restriction against that?
Russ: I don’t think so. Tim was talking earlier about the revolving door. People routinely leave the Justice Department. They all say, first the prosecutor, then the defense lawyer, it’s not …
Ray (or Tim?): The optics…
Russ: The optics are not great. I’m not a lawyer. It’s fascinating. We thought it was fascinating. And apparently our readers do too. And so these two women went to work there. One of them is now back, moved up and became number three in the Justice Department.
Tim: Back at the Justice Department.
Russ: Very high level. She was, and now she is out.
Ray: She was responsible for taking Mogilevich off the Most Wanted list.
Russ: I don’t know if you can identify it by a single person. Mogilevich was a few years ago removed from the FBI’s Most Wanted list which was extraordinary because supposedly they never remove anybody unless they’re dead or some other special circumstances. Certainly he was not out of the picture, had never been cleared… We don’t know what all of these sort of chess moves are about. Some of the decisions were obviously made at a very high level. And I think those kinds of things that we don’t know the answer to, are why it’s so important that investigative reporters keep digging because these are going to reveal, we hope, like peeling an onion at higher and higher levels what’s going on at the gamesmanship between the US, Russia, Trump, these leaks. What is this all about? That’s what we’re trying to find out.
Tim: Ray had a great point, when you walked in, you looked at Felix Sater and he’s an asset. Is it possible, on some level, that Trump is an asset?
Russ: Well, we’ve thought about that. I don’t know that he’s an asset to the country. But the way this thing looks, one gets the sense that… Well, we know actually that he has always attempted to maintain a very good relationship with the FBI. And knowing that with the casinos which was much after Trump Tower, he knew that the FBI was going into Trump Tower. They had taps and everything because there were all these arrests in his building. How did he not know that? He maintained a relationship with them. Now how do you do that? If you maintain a relationship with these people, what do they want? They want information. He’s been able to operate unfettered, and you have to wonder why. You have to wonder why he’s never come under, if he ever has, whatever more scrutiny.
Ray: Now Sater is basically an asset for 20plus years with the FBI.
Russ: Yes, it’s a lot of years.
Ray: But has there been, to justify what they’re doing, any substantial prosecution against the Russian mob in that time?
Russ: That is a great question. We know that there has been plenty of prosecution at least on a piecemeal basis. Unfortunately, there was a fellow back when the two of the three authors of this article WhoWhatWhy.org, Jonathan Larsen and myself, our former staffers on The Village Voice back in its heyday when it did really amazing investigative reporting, we had a colleague, Robbie Friedman, wrote books under I. Friedman. One was called Red Mafiya. Robbie had started looking into these things, looked into them for years and became the number one target of Semion Mogilevich who then supposedly put a $100,000 price on Robbie’s head. Robbie did die a couple of years later, supposedly of an unrelated rare blood disease. Who knows about that! But the reason I’m mentioning this is Robbie really came into looking at the Russian mob almost by accident. He was looking at other things, and he became involved and I think he really was the leader in investigating that. And I don’t know, sadly, to this day, if there really is anybody on that beat or has been for years who really has been following this in a kind of conclusive dot-connecting way.
Ray: This might be too speculative, they’re more vicious, they put a $100,000 price on the head of this guy. Do you think that effectively curtails a decent amount of journalism?
Russ: Oh absolutely. There’s a clear sense of journalism, the risks involved in doing any of this kind of work. We either discuss it or we put it out of our minds and just get to it.
Tim: So basically, what’s fascinating is, James Comey, who is a very interesting character. You know, James Comey, whenever he speaks, it’s fascinating to watch him. And one of my favorite parts in the article is essentially James Comey basically saying “I can’t go into those details here. I just can’t do it.” But yet, very open – and you point this out – about the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email. It seems, to a lay person like myself, that there was some favoritism towards a certain candidate over another.
Russ: Now we get to another point which is where we start going back to Morgan Lewis.
Russ: This law firm. This is a law firm that these former DOJ prosecutors joined where they represented Felix Sater’s interests before this judge to get leniency for him. One of them went back to the DOJ, the other is still there. What’s very interesting is Morgan Lewis has a large and very active practice in Moscow of forty lawyers. He just won some kind of reward like the best law firm of the year! And what also is extremely interesting is when Trump was being scrutinized – and I want to pause here for emphasis – when Trump was being scrutinized about his finances, his taxes, his ethics, if he was president what was going to happen to all of his businesses, he hired a law firm to supposedly sort this all out and make sure he was clean. What firm did he hire? Morgan Lewis!
[Voices mingle: That’s great! I mean this is…! Laughter.]
Tim: And you posit that perhaps he did that because attorney-client privilege …
Russ: They represent Felix Sater! Right away… It’s their job, I guess, to represent Felix Sater’s interests. It actually seems like a conflict of interests for them, now I think about it, I look on your shoulder, I don’t know the law on this but it sounds like a conflict of interests for them to be representing this Felix Sater who could potentially implicate Trump and being hired by Trump supposedly to assure the public that he is clean!
Tim: Right!! It’s just fascinating. What do you attribute… Do you buy the idea that number one – and this is outside these issues but I’m sure you’ve looked at them – when you look at something like Wikileaks, do you say that Wikileaks has the feeling that it is a Russian operation to some degree? Or is that too far of a jump?
Russ: I think that’s too far of a jump. Who knows, of course. In this world we really don’t know who any of these people are. We’re at a point where people are speculating who does Donald Trump really work for?
Tim: Well Snowden has been given asylum in Moscow. And then you have Wikileaks seemingly releasing…
Russ: Yes. I think to be fair we have to keep in mind that Snowden didn’t have many options of where to go, and certainly his exposing things about the US national security apparatus that would alarm Americans, not just Russia but a few of those countries had every reason to say huh, we’d better allow these people to continue doing what they’re doing. And that doesn’t mean that they’re working together on this stuff.
The other thing I think it’s important to note, is that Julian Assange… Hillary Clinton had called for Julian Assange – as I recall, don’t hold me to this – to be brought back basically…
Tim: and to drone him. She joked about droning him: “Can’t we drone him?”
Russ: To prove how tough she was. Which is one of the things she does. And obviously this guy, Julian Assange, just like Snowden, thinks he was providing a public service. We’ve already forgotten how popular Wikileaks was for providing this information. Remember that video of the US helicopters killing these people, horrendous stuff Wikileaks released, tons of stuff, important stuff. Wikileaks provided a real service. I’m not a great fan of Julian Assange. I met him personally and had some unpleasant dealings with him…
[Lots of noise here, voices mingling]
Tim: What are you not a fan of?
Russ: He’s imperious. I think a lot of the people who worked with him, at Wikileaks itself, became fed up. He’s a very difficult, self-involved, aggressive person. On the other hand, and I think this speaks to the importance of the work that they had done, have done at least, let’s put that aside. Because a lot of the people who are willing to risk a lot, may not necessarily be people who want everybody to like them.
Tim: So you don’t buy the DNC being hacked is a Russian hacker and that Wikileaks…
Russ: Oh no! I’m not saying that it’s not!
Tim: It’s hard to know.
Russ: It’s hard to know and I think one of the reasons more and more people are turning to WhoWhatWhy.org
is because we’re careful, we’re thoughtful and we’re not shooting from the hips. We tell you what we don’t know.
Tim: Because it seemed obvious that the FBI did seem to have a preferred candidate when they came out…
Russ: So now we get back to the FBI’s New York office. And this is very important. Because the New York office is very close with Felix Sater… By the way, Felix Sater went on to run something like Republicans something-or-other for Trump…
[Tim et alia: Right, Republican Russians for Trump, hah-hah-hah, great hilarity]
Russ: And Felix Sater made a large donation. Listen, we didn’t even put this in the article. It was like it’s enough already. This guy, and it’s one more thing we have to talk about, what was Felix Sater doing in January of this year, we’ll get to that. But let me first of all just point out that not only do they have Morgan Lewis helping Felix Sater and helping Trump, but this guy, [Uwer?], one of the FBI agents running Sater, he left the government and he went to work, they created a private security company with FBI people. And their big client was candidate Donald Trump. So there they are, literally protecting Donald Trump. And as I recall, Uwer was visibly identified at rallies, physically coming after people in the crowd, manhandling them. So this guy, and as far as we know they are… this firm we believe is still… Trump took his private security with him to the White House, very controversially. And we think these FBI people are still in there…
Ray: As President he brought them in?
Ray: So they’re supplementing the Secret Service?
Russ: He has a whole retinue that travels with him that’s not Secret Service. They call them The Red Guard.
Tim: J t!
Russ: In other words, there are so many extraordinary things going on…
Ray: What is the justification… Well, the justification privately, if he’s going to go… Maybe Kennedy would have been better off with his own…
Russ: This gets back, as you know, to my book Family of Secrets, where I go in extensively on the Kennedy assassination. Nobody in the Establishment wants to hear that and they start calling you names but that story, just like this story, has a lot more to it. And Trump – I just want to mention this – has people talking to him who do read some of these things and they say “You know what, the Secret Service, ah, Reagan, etc etc, all these different shootings were not successfull… “ and then he sees all these people climbing the fence. I don’t know if it’s Leslie Neilsen in there but you better be careful. I don’t blame him for wanting an extra layer of protection, especially as unpopular as he has become.
Ray: We were talking about the election a minute ago. Now of course this is an amazing article and it hasn’t been put together like this before, but was the information out there at all to the extent that Hillary Clinton, or her campaign, could have [unintelligible].
Russ: Interesting question. And remind me after I answer that, to go into this final thing what Felix was doing in January. So that’s a great question. I love it. I hadn’t thought too much about that. I will say this: I think that we overrate our “betters”. We always think that “oh those people know what they’re doing.” The people, oh my god, they tell me Hillary has the best help. Top strategists, they’ve got everything, you know. I’m not going to name names, but people related to me and friends, they’re all sending me these polls, it’s absolutely certain; this guy is the expert on statistics, has worked all the numbers, and so on. And so people sense that they’re on top of everything and they sense that during the campaign they were monitoring everything and putting it all together. No, they’re not. These people have no sleep. They work non-stop for six, nine months. They’re crazed. It’s all they can do is get up and stick a toothpick in their eye. I don’t think they saw these patterns.
Ray: Do you find it unusual but in similar vein, especially after the convention, when Trump got the nomination, the Establishment media, without any shame, completely turned on Trump, went to war on him in a very overt way. I’m not saying it wasn’t justifiable. Maybe they felt principled to do it. I’m pretty cynical. But do you find it at all unusual that they didn’t go this route at all?
The media, the New York Times, the Washington Post…
Tim: They wrote a few articles. Nothing this deep…
Russ: Here’s the problem. This is an enormously complicated article we spent two months on trying to sort this stuff out. Listen, the media, I’m not a big media basher, hey, I’m in the media. Most of them try to do their job. But these are not all like rocket scientists and it is very difficult work. Even if they’re good, most of them can’t put it together. You can show this stuff, I’m not kidding you. We have like record traffic at WhoWhatWhy.org on this story. We have important people like Facebook people saying “This is one of the biggest stories in years. This is the best of investigative journalism…” And then we hear that people are sending it to other reporters and they say: “Yeah, what is that, like an outline that could be an article?” Little snarky comments, so they don’t know necessarily how to put this kind of thing together. It’s too complicated, it’s too difficult, it requires too much painstaking effort. It’s hard, I’m not just… Maybe I am patting us on the back but I’m mainly saying that it’s hard to do this kind of work.
Ray: Is it because so much of the media information is sent from government sources?
Tim: So much of what they’re writing is being dictated? Dictating essentially for these people in power. They’re not… This article is great because you really take a look at why the FBI wouldn’t want this information out there. And do you feel that there are people that wouldn’t want to write about that because they would lose access?
Russ: This is huge, Tim. They need access, because they cover beats. They have a person covering the FBI covering Maine Justice. They have people cover the CIA and the NSA and so on. The way things come out is that the guy covering the CIA gets a tip from somebody who is trying to screw over the FBI. That’s how that stuff works.
Tim: why is the CIA at war with Trump? Do you believe it is because they believe he is some type of danger to the country? Or because he wants to stop their perpetual war machine that Hillary and Obama kind of were fine with? Which one is it?
Russ: I think it is a combination of things. The CIA is not monolithic like anything else. It’s full of decent people. I know plenty of former CIA people and they are actually lovely people with a conscience.
Russ: And there are struggles inside the agency all the time. But I think if you were to try identify fundamentally whatever dominant factions are in there … and by the way these are not the CIA director. These are lower level. People use terms like shadow state, deep state, whatever you want to call it. This is the notion of constituencies that exist over long periods of time and also have relationships and connections to people of course outside government, whether it’s banking or whether it’s the military industrial complex, these big corporations with all their war making profits and so on. So there’s a whole bunch of different reasons and I think they’re all in play.
Ray: I don’t think we discussed it here but in the article the idea that post 9/11 Sater most likely was used by… you mentioned that the Russian mob was dealing in nuclear missiles, in that climate of stopping terrorism, it’s very likely that he was used.
Russ: It’s almost certain that he told them that he had some information. He traveled widely in a period when he was tantamount to being a convicted criminal. He traveled widely, allowed to leave the United States and he went to the former Soviet Union on a number of occasions. Presumably he says he was reporting back on a daily basis. He was reporting back. It gets very, very complicated. Because you pointed out why wasn’t he taken out by the Russian mob? Why would Putin allow him to move around? This is where it gets incredibly complicated. A little bit like House of Cards. Because Putin apparently knows all about him, is very concerned. This guy Ivankov, the deputy to Mogilevich, alleged deputy to him, a few years back made a statement to somebody about how Mogilevich and Putin are like joined at the hip and almost immediately he was killed by a sniper while walking down the street in Moscow. You know, there are very high stakes here. Russian diplomats have been getting killed here right and left. There’s a whole history of counter-intel, double agents, triple agents, quadruple agents. So we don’t really know, and you can never say with certainty…
Tim: Quadruple agents working for four countries? What is that? Is it a double agent…
Russ: It means an extra reversal, so for example if you’re an agent, you’re working for a country against another country. If you’re a double agent, the country that you’re spying on, turns you and you’re now pretending to spy on them but you’re really giving them information about your bosses.
Tim: You’re a mole.
Russ: That’s a double agent. A triple agent is one who pretends he turned but actually is still working for the original boss and says “Hey, they think they turned me.”
A quadruple agent you can figure out.
Ray: It’s ultra speculative, but do you think there is any possibility that he is basically a double agent for Putin or the Russian government?
Russ: Here is where this gets really interesting. [chorus: “We’re talking about Felix”] I get to my favorite point. In January 2017, and this was in the news, it was like a blip, although it was a huge thing. A member of the Ukranian Parliament who is pro-Moscow, comes to New York and meets in a NY hotel with a couple of guys and we understand from accounts from him, although he has changed his story a number of times, he came to a so-called peace agreement I guess from Putin, that could be submitted to the Trump Administration as to how they might rectify – there’s this embargo against Russia which is hurting them – over their incursion into Ukraine , and this is a proposal how Trump could solve this whole thing. So he bring it and he meets with Trump’s personal lawyer, a guy named Michael Cohen and another guy, Felix Sater. Now what is Felix Sater supposedly, years ago, out of the picture. He’s meeting, he is with his buddy Donald Trump’s personal lawyer. [great hilarity]. And there they are meeting with a representative, I guess, of Putin to hear what he wants them to pass to Trump. This is to me the climax of a great movie.
Tim: Do you have any gut feeling as to whether perhaps Sater has been working for Russia the whole time?
Russ: I don’t want to speculate but the fact is here he is to meet with this pro-Putin guy and to help pass this thing along, you see. That’s why it’s so complicated. That’s another reason whatever the FBI knows, they may not even know themselves and they may realize they don’t know and different people in the Bureau may think “Oh, we got taken.” We got played.
Ray or Tim?: How can people donate to your organization so you can get more journalism like this? Because WhoWhatWhy is a real non-profit. You’re not beholden to anybody, any corporate interests. Basically you can do this kind of journalism because you’re able to. You’re not dependent on advertisers.
Russ: We literally do this with donations from listeners and readers. If you folks don’t give we can’t report. It’s as simple as that. We’re very, very pure. We’re very focused and idealistic and we can do it because of you. You don’t ask us to carry water for anybody. You just want to know the truth.
The way to donate to WhoWhatWhy.org is to go to our website WhoWhatWhy.org, click on the donate button or go to WhoWhatWhy.org/donate. We love the social media, we’re on Facebook WhoWhatWhy, we’re on Twitter, I’ve got a personal Twitter @RealRussBaker and that’s where I can have a little more fun, be a little more snarky.
Tim: Do you have anything else?
Ray and then Tim: There’s so many threads. Quick bullet points, what Trump is involved with. Basically, in the ‘80s he’s basically bankrupt. It seems that he most likely received an infusion of capital from Russia, the Russian mob. He’s worked on these high-profile projects with this convicted felon who the FBI is using as an informant. In 2007 the New York Times comes out and says this guy has a criminal past and has to step down from Bayrock. Then Felix Sater becomes Trump’s personal…guy.
Russ: We didn’t even talk about that. Basically what happens is he essentially remains in the building. Now he is, I believe, one floor below the Trump organization. According to Sater himself he is a regular, goes up and hangs out with the Donald all the time. And he’s got an office, an email address, the Trump Organization business card that says Special Adviser to Donald Trump.
Tim: And then eventually they’re all raising money. Donald Trump wins the presidency. The FBI seems aboard with that. He’s tied in with the president of the United States. He’s still functioning even though he’s supposed to know about the mob.
Tim: And potentially, who knows, this guy could be looking at being a double agent. We don’t know.
Russ: We have no idea.
Tim: Russ Baker, it’s always great to have you.
WhowhatWhy.org or go buy Family of Secrets. When Is that new Kennedy book coming out? We want to read it so bad.
Russ: This is a side-line for me but I’ve got to get back to that.
Tim: We’re very excited about that.
Go buy Family of Secrets if you haven’t.
Go to WhoWhatWhy.org: It’s very easy to donate.
We love having Russ here. If you want to see Russ live, he comes, he gives speaking engagements, that’s also on his website.
Thank you guys for listening. Rate-review us on iTunes for any live shows or things like that. We love Russ, we love having him on. He’s fascinating. Everything you do is great.
Russ: So are you guys for doing this.
Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Donald Trump (DonkeyHotey / Flickr – CC BY-SA 2.0) and Kremlin (bernswaelz / Pixabay).