Cloak & Swag­ger

Newsweek - - News - BY BILL POW­ELL

He’s been called many things: busi­ness as­so­ciate of Don­ald Trump, ca­reer crim­i­nal and highly val­ued in­for­mant. Will the real Felix Sater please stand up?

Aabout three years ago, not long af­ter don­ald Trump an­nounced his im­prob­a­ble bid for the White House, Felix Sater sensed a big op­por­tu­nity. He and his child­hood friend, Michael Co­hen—then a lawyer and deal­maker for the Trump Or­ga­ni­za­tion—had been work­ing for more than a decade, on and off, to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. The New York real es­tate mogul had long wanted to see his name on a glitzy build­ing in the Rus­sian cap­i­tal, but the project had never ma­te­ri­al­ized.

Now, with Trump run­ning for of­fice, the tim­ing seemed right to Sater, who felt he had the proper con­nec­tions for the project. A Moscow na­tive whose fam­ily had fled to Brook­lyn in the 1970s, he had re­turned to Rus­sia in the 1990s, where he had done busi­ness with a num­ber of high-rank­ing for­mer So­viet in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cers. He even­tu­ally came back to New York but had stayed in touch with some of them—po­ten­tially a ma­jor as­set in sign­ing a lu­cra­tive deal. He even boasted to Co­hen that Trump Tower Moscow could some­how help the can­di­date win the elec­tion. “Our boy can be­come pres­i­dent of the USA and we can en­gi­neer it,” Sater wrote in a Novem­ber 2015 email. “I will get all of [Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir] Putin’s team to buy in on this.”

It didn’t turn out as planned. The Moscow deal never came through and even­tu­ally led to ten­sion be­tween Sater and Co­hen—ten­sion that hasn’t gone away. But to the shock of al­most ev­ery­one, at least part of Sater’s boast­ful email turned into re­al­ity: Trump’s vic­tory. Yet al­most im­me­di­ately, al­le­ga­tions of col­lu­sion with Moscow dogged his pres­i­dency. Rus­sia had in­ter­fered in the elec­tion, with an in­tri­cate campaign of hack­ing, “fake news” and other forms of in­for­ma­tion war­fare. And as U.S. in­ves­ti­ga­tors try to piece to­gether what hap­pened—and de­ter­mine whether the Trump campaign co­or­di­nated its ef­forts with the Krem­lin—sater’s boast­ful emails have piqued their cu­rios­ity.

Co­hen, now the sub­ject of a fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tion, has been sum­moned to talk to spe­cial coun­sel Robert Mueller, as well as the House and Se­nate in­tel­li­gence com­mit­tees. They were in­ter­ested in Sater too. Sud­denly, re­porters be­gan hound­ing him, show­ing up at his house on Long Is­land, call­ing him at all hours. The neg­a­tive pub­lic­ity hurt his ca­reer in real es­tate, and his wife of more than two decades, with whom he has three chil­dren, has left him. As for the pres­i­dent of the United States, he claims he wouldn’t rec­og­nize Sater—a man he had a busi­ness re­la­tion­ship with for years—if they sat in a room to­gether.

In the two years since the Trump-rus­sia scan­dal ex­ploded into the head­lines, few have been the sub­ject of more cu­rios­ity and spec­u­la­tion than Sater. There were end­less press re­ports about his back­ground: He was an ex-con, pur­port­edly with links to the Mafia, who had worked with Trump on failed real es­tate deals in Florida and Man­hat­tan. Ru­mors sur­faced that his for­mer real es­tate com­pany, Bay­rock, was a money laun­der­ing ve­hi­cle for cor­rupt busi­ness and po­lit­i­cal fig­ures in Rus­sia and Ukraine (some­thing he de­nies). He also picked

a pe­cu­liar mo­ment—the mid­dle of Trump’s pres­i­den­tial campaign—to try to re­vive the Moscow deal, brag­ging about his clout with Putin, one of Washington’s most po­tent ad­ver­saries. And the only public de­fense—hinted at in court doc­u­ments over the years—seemed to be an im­prob­a­ble story about how he’d wound up help­ing Amer­ica track down Osama bin Laden, among other ad­ven­tures in es­pi­onage.

So who is Felix Sater? Is he con­nected to the mob? Is he a spy? Trump’s man in Moscow? Or is he a key fig­ure in Mueller’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion, the man who will ul­ti­mately bring down the pres­i­dent and fi­nally an­swer the ques­tions swirling around Rus­si­a­gate? Pun­dits have spec­u­lated about all of the above. But over three meet­ings and more than eight hours of conversation, Sater of­fered new de­tails about his life—from ru­mors about his Mafia con­nec­tions to his en­counter with Rus­sian hack­ers in St. Peters­burg.

And his story—the way he tells it, at least—is stranger than I had ever imag­ined.

An Amer­i­can Tale

“i’m tired of read­ing this shit,” sater says.

It’s early May, and we’re sit­ting at a cof­fee shop in­side the Man­darin Ori­en­tal, a tony ho­tel in Washington, D.C. Sater had trav­eled there to tes­tify be­fore the House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee. The 52-year-old, wear­ing a blue blazer with an Amer­i­can flag pin af­fixed to the lapel, ex­plains how much of what’s been writ­ten about him is false. It’s why he’s been spend­ing a lot of time with jour­nal­ists. His campaign for “per­sonal re­demp­tion,” as he calls it, be­gan ear­lier this year with a lengthy ar­ti­cle on Buz­zfeed, fol­lowed by a cou­ple of TV in­ter­views and now our cof­fee talk. And he wants his rep­u­ta­tion back.

The most in­ter­est­ing thing about Sater is what that rep­u­ta­tion con­sists of. In 1972, his fam­ily em­i­grated from Moscow. They were among the first wave of Jews al­lowed to leave the So­viet Union dur­ing the Cold War. For a year, they lived in Is­rael be­fore mov­ing to Coney Is­land, a neigh­bor­hood in Brook­lyn where many Rus­sian im­mi­grants wound up. Sater was 6 years old when he ar­rived in the states.

Sater grew up as a nor­mal Brook­lyn kid. His fa­ther worked as a cab driver, and young Felix at­tended public schools. He also per­formed odd jobs and hawked The Jewish Daily For­ward, a news­pa­per, in Brighton Beach.

Af­ter high school, he en­rolled at Pace Univer­sity, but his col­lege days didn’t last long. He got a part­time job on Wall Street at a bou­tique in­vest­ment bank and loved ev­ery­thing about it. “I breathed it in like it was air,” he says, be­com­ing a full-time bro­ker by the age of 19—a sym­bol of suc­cess in his old neigh­bor­hood. Within a few years, Sater was mak­ing se­ri­ous money. He mar­ried his wife, and the two moved into a fash­ion­able Up­per East Side apart­ment build­ing, de­vel­oped by Fred Wilpon, the owner of


the New York Mets. One of their neigh­bors was the team’s star first base­man Keith Her­nan­dez. “I was liv­ing a fairy tale life,” he says.

But one night in 1991, he went out drink­ing with some of his col­leagues, and a com­bi­na­tion of “al­co­hol and testos­terone” re­sulted in a bar fight. The way he tells it, a cur­rency trader came at him with a beer bot­tle, so he grabbed a mar­garita glass, broke it and stabbed the guy with its stem. It took 115 stitches to sew up the man. Sater landed be­hind bars in New York’s in­fa­mous jail Rik­ers Is­land.

Re­leased af­ter a cou­ple of months—a judge al­lowed him out on bond while he was ap­peal­ing his con­vic­tion—he was un­able to get a le­git­i­mate job on Wall Street; the case had sul­lied his rep­u­ta­tion. So Sater joined a firm that was run­ning an old-fash­ioned pump-and-dump op­er­a­tion straight out of The Wolf of Wall Street: It bought thinly traded stocks and then talked them up to hap­less cus­tomers, scam­ming them out of tens of mil­lions of dol­lars. A few months later, Sater’s ap­peal failed, and he ended up back at Rik­ers, where he served more than a year be­hind bars for the as­sault in the bar.

It was the worst pe­riod of his life. “[I] had a wife and a young daugh­ter to take care of,” he says. “I didn’t know what I was go­ing to do when I got out. It was bleak.”

A Spy Among Friends

once out of jail, sater went back to his job at the pump-and-dump op­er­a­tion; be­cause of his rap sheet, he still couldn’t find work in le­git­i­mate fi­nance. But af­ter about six more months, he says, he quit. “I was dis­gusted with my­self,” he says. “I needed to leave the dark side.”

His next stop: Rus­sia. By the time Sater ar­rived in the mid-’90s, the So­viet Union had col­lapsed, Boris Yeltsin was in power, and Moscow had em­braced a law­less ver­sion of cap­i­tal­ism. The city was an­ar­chic, ruth­less, but full of op­por­tu­nity. Through con­nec­tions on Wall Street, Sater started a telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions com­pany in Rus­sia sell­ing transat­lantic ca­ble for voice and data trans­mis­sion from the newly demo­cratic coun­tries of the for­mer So­viet Union

wouldn’t know “MY FA­THER him.”


to AT&T. Dur­ing that era, the once-pow­er­ful So­viet mil­i­tary and in­tel­li­gence ser­vices were in dis­ar­ray. Large swaths of both were being pri­va­tized. A bevy of for­mer mil­i­tary of­fi­cers and in­tel­li­gence op­er­a­tives went to work for busi­ness­men—some le­git­i­mate, some with ties to or­ga­nized crime, all look­ing for a piece of the new Rus­sian econ­omy. One man, a se­nior So­viet mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence official in Afghanistan dur­ing the Red Army’s oc­cu­pa­tion, took an in­ter­est in Sater and his tele­com com­pany.

Sater won’t di­vulge the man’s real name—he just refers to him as “E”—but he was an ac­quain­tance who changed the Amer­i­can’s life in unimag­in­able ways. The two soon be­came close, and Sater rou­tinely went to banyas (sau­nas) with E and his friends to drink and re­lax. Al­most all of E’s friends were also for­mer high-rank­ing mil­i­tary or in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials.

One night, the group went out to din­ner, and Sater met an Amer­i­can named Mil­ton Blane, who in­tro­duced him­self as a con­sul­tant. A few days later, Blane in­vited him to a pop­u­lar Bri­tish pub in cen­tral Moscow. He told Sater he was con­nected to “some se­ri­ous peo­ple,’’ guys who had ex­tra­or­di­nary ac­cess to se­nior lev­els of the Rus­sian armed forces. OK, Sater said, so what?

Blane was an of­fi­cer of the De­fense In­tel­li­gence Agency, op­er­at­ing out of the U.S. Em­bassy in Moscow. Sater, with his ties to “E” and his friends, could be very help­ful. To Sater’s as­ton­ish­ment, Blane was re­cruit­ing him to be­come an in­tel­li­gence as­set. The U.S. was work­ing on anti-missile de­fense sys­tems, and the DIA wanted to find out how Moscow’s worked. (For­mer FBI and CIA of­fi­cials sup­port Sater’s ac­count. Like many gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials in­ter­viewed for this story, they asked for anonymity be­cause they weren’t autho­rized to speak about the mat­ter.)

Sater says it took him “about three se­conds” to de­cide. “I’m in,” he told Blane, a de­ci­sion he now says was driven by both “pa­tri­o­tism” and a “ro­man­tic no­tion” of es­pi­onage.

He had no idea what he was get­ting him­self into.

Mob­sters, Feds and Ji­hadis

be­cause of e’s time in afghanistan, he was fa­mil­iar with the coun­try. One of his clos­est con­tacts was a se­nior in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer for the North­ern Al­liance, a group at war with the Taliban for con­trol of the coun­try in the wake of the So­viet withdrawal. Moscow was the Al­liance’s chief source of arms, and this con­tact—i’ll call him “Hamid”— fre­quently trav­eled back and forth to Rus­sia.

Dur­ing the So­viet oc­cu­pa­tion, the U.S. had sup­plied stinger mis­siles to rebel groups fight­ing the Red Army. Once the USSR pulled out, how­ever, Amer­i­can pol­icy even­tu­ally changed; it be­came clear that ji­hadi groups, in­clud­ing Al-qaeda, might use the mis­siles for ter­ror­ism. In 1995, Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton signed an ex­ec­u­tive or­der to round up as many of the stingers as pos­si­ble in Afghanistan.

Both Hamid and E knew what Sater was do­ing, who he was work­ing for. And for the right price, they of­fered to help the Amer­i­cans reac­quire some of the mis­siles. Sater re­layed this mes­sage to Blane, who asked for proof. The Afghan sent photos of the se­rial

num­bers of the stingers, paired with the same day’s news­pa­per. Im­pressed, Blane turned the mat­ter over to the Cia—which was tasked with col­lec­tion—and the agency be­gan ne­go­ti­at­ing to buy back the mis­siles. Sater then be­gan deal­ing with Lan­g­ley. (He be­lieves his in­for­ma­tion helped the agency re­cover at least some of the mis­siles, but he can’t say for sure.)

Late in 1998, Sater got a call from an FBI agent in New York named Leo Tad­deo, who told him about an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the pump-and-dump op­er­a­tion on Wall Street that Sater had left be­hind—part of a broader probe into the Ital­ian Mafia’s ex­pand­ing pres­ence on Wall Street. The FBI had some dirt on Sater, who had got­ten in­volved with two Brook­lyn mob mem­bers—“guys whose job it was to keep other mob­sters away”—be­fore he went to Moscow, and Tad­deo told him he was likely to be charged with fraud. If he came back and co­op­er­ated, a judge would take that into ac­count at sen­tenc­ing. (A for­mer FBI official in New York says Sater’s story is ac­cu­rate.)

Sater agreed to re­turn to the states. He then called E and told him what was go­ing on, and the for­mer in­tel­li­gence official asked him to de­lay the trip, not say­ing why. Two days later, E pro­vided Sater with a packet of in­for­ma­tion from his Afghan con­tact, Hamid. It in­cluded num­bers for the satel­lite phones used by a man then liv­ing near the Afghan bor­der with Pak­istan: Osama bin Laden, the leader of Al-qaeda, the ji­hadi group that had just bombed the U.S. em­bassies in Kenya and Tan­za­nia. (A for­mer CIA of­fi­cer fa­mil­iar with Sater’s story says the agency came to be­lieve the num­bers were authentic.)

When Sater ar­rived back in the U.S. in late 1998, he met with Jonathan Sack, the as­sis­tant U.S. at­tor­ney in New York’s East­ern Dis­trict, who was han­dling the stock fraud case. Sater told him what he had been do­ing in Moscow, and the CIA and DIA backed up his claims. Both agen­cies wanted their as­set sent back to Moscow, but Sack was un­moved. And Sater was mys­ti­fied. “So I’m giv­ing the CIA bin Laden’s sat phone num­bers,” he tells me, “and this guy [Sack] is more con­cerned with go­ing af­ter ‘Vinny Boom Botz.’”

Sater pleaded guilty to fraud and agreed to help the feds with the stock case. “I did 10 or 15 de­brief­ings,” he says. “They ended up sat­is­fied.” Sack agreed to de­lay his sen­tenc­ing.

Clin­ton that sum­mer had ordered an airstrike on Al-qaeda train­ing camps in Afghanistan, based in part, for­mer CIA sources say, on in­for­ma­tion Hamid had passed on. “[The CIA] re­ally wanted me to go back [to Moscow] at this point,” Sater says. But Sack and the FBI still wouldn’t al­low it.

In late 2000, as Sater helped the feds take on the mob, he also tried to make some money. He joined a real es­tate busi­ness—bay­rock—and the com­pany man­aged to get a few deals, he says.

His work as a gov­ern­ment in­for­mant was equally fruit­ful. Two FBI sources say Sater’s co­op­er­a­tion would even­tu­ally help turn Frank Coppa, a cap­tain in the Bo­nanno crime fam­ily, into a co­op­er­at­ing wit­ness against the mob or­ga­ni­za­tion—“a real turn­ing point in the war on the Mafia,” a source says. Even­tu­ally, his co­op­er­a­tion on the stock scams helped the feds get 19 guilty pleas, ac­cord­ing to Sater and law en­force­ment of­fi­cials.

That fig­ure seemed sig­nif­i­cant at the time, and Sater says he “hopes” it helped atone for his crimes. But the Mafia cases would turn into an af­ter­thought com­pared with his next role—one that was even more im­prob­a­ble.

Greed Is Good

on the morn­ing of septem­ber 11, 2001, sater was still work­ing at Bay­rock and mak­ing his nor­mal morn­ing com­mute into Man­hat­tan. But when he neared the Mid­town Tun­nel, he saw it: The twin tow­ers of the World Trade Cen­ter had been hit by planes, one af­ter the other.

Sater doesn’t re­mem­ber ex­actly when he re­al­ized bin Laden was re­spon­si­ble for the car­nage. But once he did, he says, his mind raced back to his time in Moscow, when he was fun­nel­ing in­for­ma­tion to the U.S. gov­ern­ment. One bizarre episode stood out, he claims: In the spring of 1998, he, E and about 15 or 20 ex–so­viet spe­cial forces fight­ers went to Dushanbe, the cap­i­tal of Ta­jik­istan, a for­mer So­viet repub­lic that bor­ders Afghanistan. They had in­for­ma­tion from Hamid’s sources in the North­ern Al­liance about bin Laden’s lo­ca­tion—a camp in the moun­tain range called Tora Bora. Hamid had proved his bona fides, so “we had no rea­son to doubt what he was telling us,” Sater claims. And E and his men were go­ing to try to take out bin Laden—for a price. They drove from Dushanbe across the bor­der to Mazar-i-sharif, where they ren­dezvoused with North­ern Al­liance fight­ers.

Sater claims he called Lan­g­ley, say­ing he had real in­tel­li­gence about bin Laden’s where­abouts and sol­diers who were will­ing to move on the camp. What he needed to know was how much the agency would pay. “Greed was al­ways my go-to weapon,” Sater says. Get­ting E into po­ten­tially lu­cra­tive tele­com deals, as well as Sater’s back­ground as a Rus­sian-speak­ing for­mer Wall Street guy, had ce­mented his re­la­tion­ship with the for­mer mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer.



The CIA, Sater says, told him the bounty on bin Laden was $5 mil­lion. He claims he told the agency that wasn’t go­ing to cut it: “Th­ese guys were walk­ing into a po­ten­tial blood­bath. There were about 50 of [them] to­tal. They needed at least a mil­lion dol­lars each.” The CIA balked, Sater claims, and the group re­treated to Dushanbe, then back to Moscow. (Three for­mer CIA of­fi­cials de­clined to ei­ther con­firm or deny this ac­count. Hamid couldn’t be reached for com­ment.)

As bin Laden’s face be­came a per­ma­nent fix­ture in the pa­pers and on the news, Sater couldn’t shake the thought out of his mind: “Could we have had him? Was that a pos­si­bil­ity? I’ll never know.”

Not long af­ter the 9/11 at­tacks, the FBI again reached out to Sater. Only this time the bu­reau wanted him to get in touch with Hamid—and help with coun­tert­er­ror­ism—not the mob. The Amer­i­can in­for­mant did what the bu­reau asked, and he knew what to ex­pect from the Afghan. “What’s in it for me?” Hamid asked. He “didn’t give a damn about Amer­i­cans,’’ Sater says. But Al-qaeda had re­cently as­sas­si­nated Ah­mad Shah Mas­soud, the leader of the North­ern Al­liance, so the Afghan said he would help if the money was right.

Sater had al­ready given this some thought. He claims he told Hamid—ac­cu­rately, as it turned out, but not be­cause he knew any­thing—that the Amer­i­cans would soon in­vade the coun­try. The Afghan needed more than that. So Sater claims he as­sured him the U.S. would de­pose the Taliban and set up a cen­tral bank in Kabul. The Afghan, he says, could help run it. This was a com­plete lie, but Sater says he sold it by putting to­gether a packet of official-look­ing le­gal doc­u­ments, al­legedly from the U.S. gov­ern­ment, au­tho­riz­ing the cre­ation of the bank. He shipped them and a satel­lite phone to Hamid, who be­lieved the story, ac­cord­ing to Sater.

Soon, the Amer­i­can as­set says, be­fore the first CIA para­mil­i­tary op­er­a­tors en­tered Afghanistan, the in­for­ma­tion started to flow. It was de­tailed and spe­cific, and even in­cluded lo­ca­tions of Al-qaeda fight­ers, weapons cachess and in­for­ma­tion about how the 9/11 at­tack­ers had fi­nanced their op­er­a­tion. The way Sater re­calls it, a rel­a­tive of his Afghan in­for­mant was mar­ried to Taliban leader Mul­lah Omar’s per­sonal sec­re­tary, and they trav­eled ev­ery­where to­gether, in­clud­ing to the caves of Tora Bora, where he and bin Laden re­treated af­ter the United States in­vaded.

For Sater, the work was sur­real and of­ten grat­i­fy­ing. “FBI agents would come to my house each night and stay there un­til 2 or 3 in the morn­ing,” he says, “drink­ing my wife’s cof­fee, por­ing over this stuff.” (An FBI official who knew Sater at the time said the gen­eral out­line of this story is ac­cu­rate but de­clined to go into specifics.) Sater says he has never been paid by any U.S. gov­ern­ment agency for his as­sis­tance, and cur­rent and for­mer FBI of­fi­cials con­firm that. “As all this was go­ing on,” Sater says, “I just re­mem­ber think­ing how crazy it all was. “How in the fuck did I get in­volved in all this?”

Hack­ers, Liars and Jour­nal­ists

in the early 2000s, not long af­ter the war in Afghanistan be­gan, Sater says he met Trump, thanks to his work for Bay­rock, the real es­tate com­pany. (Nei­ther the White House nor Co­hen would com­ment for this story.) Sater raised money for Bay­rock from, among oth­ers, a wealthy busi­ness­man from the for­mer So­viet repub­lic of

Kaza­khstan, and he per­suaded peo­ple in Trump’s or­bit—in­clud­ing Co­hen, his old friend—to bring his deals be­fore the boss.

Two of the ideas worked out. Sater and the New York real es­tate mogul even­tu­ally worked on the Trump Soho in Man­hat­tan and a ho­tel and condo project in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, which failed af­ter the 2008 eco­nomic cri­sis. He and Trump, Sater claims, were friendly but not par­tic­u­larly close. As Abe Wal­lach, a for­mer Trump Or­ga­ni­za­tion ex­ec­u­tive, once told the jour­nal­ist Tim O’brien, “It’s not very hard to get con­nected to Don­ald if you make it known that you have a lot of money and you want to do deals and you want to put his name on it.”

But Trump even­tu­ally dis­tanced him­self from Sater, af­ter The New York Times pub­lished an ar­ti­cle de­tail­ing the lat­ter’s crim­i­nal con­vic­tion for as­sault, as well as his role in the stock scam case. “If he were sit­ting in the room right now, I re­ally wouldn’t know what he looked like,” Trump said of Sater in a 2013 video de­po­si­tion taken in con­nec­tion with a civil law­suit. Two years later, as Trump was run­ning for pres­i­dent, a re­porter asked the Ap­pren­tice star about his for­mer busi­ness part­ner, and he replied: “I’m not that fa­mil­iar with him.” For Sater, th­ese com­ments were hurt­ful, but he didn’t stop try­ing to work with Trump; there was still money to be made.

Nor did he cease work­ing with the FBI. Law en­force­ment of­fi­cials say that be­gin­ning in 2005— and con­tin­u­ing for sev­eral years after­ward—sater helped break up a Rus­sian ring in St. Peters­burg that was hack­ing into the U.S. financial sys­tem. Tad­deo, the FBI agent who had sum­moned Sater back to the U.S. in the pump-and-dump case, worked with him on the case. The two men trav­eled to Limassol, Cyprus, a pop­u­lar post-so­viet va­ca­tion spot for Rus­sians. Un­der the FBI’S watch, Sater had in­fil­trated the hack­ers, help­ing them launder money, and even met with the group’s ring­leader in Cyprus.

The irony of this op­er­a­tion is not lost on Sater. Ac­cord­ing to an in­dict­ment brought by Mueller, it was al­legedly a St. Peters­burg out­fit, the In­ter­net Re­search Agency, that spread “fake news” in the U.S. be­fore the 2016 elec­tion. I asked Sater whether the FBI has in­di­cated that the cases he worked on were linked to the same group, or to the al­leged Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee hack­ers. “It could be part of the same group,” Sater claims. “They’ve told my lawyer that some of the in­for­ma­tion we gath­ered is still ‘ac­tion­able.’” (The De­part­ment of Jus­tice de­clined to com­ment on the mat­ter.)

Ei­ther way, in court pro­ceed­ings and in tes­ti­mony be­fore Congress, var­i­ous law en­force­ment of­fi­cials have con­sis­tently vouched for Sater— in­clud­ing for­mer At­tor­ney Gen­eral Loretta Lynch, who told the Se­nate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee that he had pro­vided “valu­able and sen­si­tive” in­for­ma­tion


to the gov­ern­ment when she was run­ning the U.S. at­tor­ney’s of­fice in Brook­lyn. Which is why when Sater was fi­nally sen­tenced for the stock scam case in 2010—a case brought against him 12 years ear­lier—he got just a $25,000 fine.

For a once-con­victed felon who had taken part in a mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar scam, that was noth­ing.

‘A Bit of a Blowhard’

hack­ers. ter­ror­ists. spies. mafioso. the fu­ture pres­i­dent of the United States. Un­be­liev­ably, for a kid from Brook­lyn, all of th­ese peo­ple have been in Sater’s or­bit. And now he’s split­ting his time be­tween New York and L.A. and try­ing to be­come a Hollywood pro­ducer. He’s like Zelig, I tell him as we fin­ish our break­fast dur­ing our fi­nal meet­ing, at the Man­darin Ori­en­tal in D.C. He chuck­les at the ref­er­ence, the main char­ac­ter from a 1983 Woody Allen movie who be­comes a bit player in the lives of his­tor­i­cal fig­ures, from Adolf Hitler to Al Capone.

But as the Rus­si­a­gate probe con­tin­ues, Sater’s Zelig-like role in the af­fair re­mains murky. It’s hard to know what to make of his story, hard to pin down where Sater the deal­maker be­gins and Sater the as­set ends. Mueller’s in­ves­ti­ga­tors—some of whom Sater has worked with dur­ing his years as an in­for­mant—are said to be in­ter­ested in the Trump

Tower Moscow project. (E, the ex-so­viet in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer, was re­port­edly part of it as well.) They’re ap­par­ently in­ter­ested in a Ukrainian peace deal Sater and Co­hen tried to bro­ker—one that would have in­volved lift­ing U.S. sanc­tions on Rus­sia—a re­sult the Krem­lin has long de­sired. And the spe­cial coun­sel is also in­ter­ested in money laun­dered from Rus­sia and Ukraine, which could bring into fo­cus how an ob­scure—and now de­funct— in­vest­ment bank in Ice­land, the FL Group, was able to in­vest $50 mil­lion in the Trump Soho project. Some sus­pect the com­pany was laun­der­ing money out of Rus­sia. Jody Kriss, a for­mer col­league of Sater’s, made this ac­cu­sa­tion as part of a civil law­suit against Bay­rock al­leg­ing rack­e­teer­ing and claimed Sater used to brag about how close the bank was to Putin. Sater de­nies that, and the two set­tled the suit ear­lier this year. The Moscow-born deal­maker claims he an­swered all of Mueller’s ques­tions to the spe­cial coun­sel’s “sat­is­fac­tion,” adding that in­ves­ti­ga­tors told him he is not a tar­get in the probe. (The spe­cial coun­sel’s of­fice de­clined to com­ment.)

To­day, Sater seems weary of the Rus­si­a­gate queries—and the ques­tions it has raised about his back­ground. Some have al­leged he has ties to Rus­sian or­ga­nized crime, which Sater calls “bull­shit.” There are ru­mors that his fa­ther was a capo in a gang run by al­leged über boss Semion Mogilevich; Sater de­nies that as well. His fa­ther,


he ac­knowl­edges, ended up in the “dis­pute set­tle­ment” busi­ness in Brook­lyn af­ter he could no longer drive a taxi be­cause of a back in­jury. He pleaded guilty in 2000 to ex­tort­ing res­tau­rants and other small busi­nesses in Brook­lyn and got three years’ pro­ba­tion. But he was not work­ing for the so-called “brainy don,” as Mogilevich is known. “My fa­ther wouldn’t know Semion Mogilevich if he fell on him,” Sater says. Be­sides, he adds, “I helped the Jus­tice De­part­ment pre­pare a stock fraud case against [Mogilevich]” in 2011. (Two FBI sources back up Sater’s claims. Mogilevich did not re­spond to ques­tions for com­ment through his lawyer in time for pub­li­ca­tion.)

Over the past year, some press re­ports have spec­u­lated that Sater was a source for the Steele dossier, the ex­plo­sive memos writ­ten by a for­mer Bri­tish spy al­leg­ing that the Krem­lin co­or­di­nated parts of its in­ter­fer­ence campaign with mem­bers of the Trump team. “Not true,” Sater says. “I swear on the heads of my chil­dren.”

Oth­ers have also sug­gested he might turn on Co­hen; as Buz­zfeed first re­ported, the two the two oc­ca­sion­ally bick­ered over con­trol of the Trump Tower Moscow project, among other things. Af­ter re­ceiv­ing a re­fer­ral by Mueller, the U.S. At­tor­ney’s Of­fice for the South­ern Dis­trict of New York is now in­ves­ti­gat­ing Co­hen for pos­si­ble bank fraud. Would Sater serve as a wit­ness against him? “Against him?” Sater says. “I doubt it,” adding that he has no in­for­ma­tion about the case.

It may look strange—sus­pi­cious even—that he and Co­hen were pursuing a ma­jor real es­tate deal in Moscow. In the mid­dle of a pres­i­den­tial campaign. On be­half of the Trump or­ga­ni­za­tion. With a for­eign power, an ad­ver­sary that was—at the ex­act same time—in­ter­fer­ing in the U.S. elec­tion. But on Novem­ber 8, 2016, Sater claims that he, like many oth­ers, watched in “dis­be­lief” as Trump was elected pres­i­dent. “No one thought he would win. And that in­cludes Don­ald.”

Even though he sup­ported him, Sater al­lows that “Don­ald is a bit of a blowhard.” And per­haps, he sug­gests, he too has dab­bled in puffery, which is how he ex­plains his state­ments about Trump Tower Moscow—that he could push the deal through, that a real es­tate ven­ture could some­how de­ter­mine the out­come of an Amer­i­can elec­tion. Years ago, Sater ap­par­ently had enough clout to get Ivanka Trump into Putin’s then-empty Krem­lin of­fice, where she twirled around in his seat. But now he sug­gests that he and E are not so con­nected that they could eas­ily get Putin’s per­sonal ap­proval on a high-profile real es­tate deal with Trump’s name on it.

As we stand in the lobby at the Man­darin Ori­en­tal, I have one last ques­tion for Sater: Does Mueller re­ally have any­thing on the pres­i­dent? The enig­matic in­for­mant-cum-deal­maker of­fers what seems to be a sin­cere re­sponse. “I think,” he says, “Don­ald is go­ing to be re-elected.”

He smiles broadly and adds some­thing he’s told other re­porters be­fore: “And af­ter his sec­ond term, then we’ll do Trump Tower Moscow.”

The spe­cial coun­sel, be­low, is said to be in­ter­ested in the Trump Tower Moscow project, which Sater worked on with Co­hen, op­po­site page top.

MONEY BALL By the time Sater ar­rived in Rus­sia in the mid-’90s, the So­viet Union had col­lapsed and Moscow had em­braced a law­less ver­sion of cap­i­tal­ism. Clock­wise from op­po­site page top: the Rik­ers Is­land jail, the New York Stock Ex­change, the Krem­lin in Moscow and Yeltsin.

HUNT­ING OSAMA Sater says he not only helped the U.S. track down stinger mis­siles in Afghanistan, bot­tom right, he pro­vided the CIA with satel­lite phones used by bin Laden’s Al-qaeda, the ji­hadi group that bombed the U.S. em­bassies in Kenya and Tan­za­nia, be­low.

FIRE AND FURY Not long af­ter the Septem­ber 11, 2001, at­tacks, Sater, op­po­site page top right, en­tered the real es­tate busi­ness, which is how he met Trump. He also con­tin­ued his work as an in­tel­li­gence as­set.

IN­SIDE MAN Sater’s role in Rus­si­a­gate re­mains murky. But for­mer ofɿ­cials such as Lynch, op­po­site page top, say the long­time in­for­mant was a valu­able in­tel­li­gence as­set in other cases.

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