In January, Donald Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen, met with a most unusual peace envoy: a former mobster and government informant named Felix Sater. They were joined by a third man, Andrii Artemenko, a member of the Ukrainian parliament with alleged ties to organized crime figures. Mr. Artemenko and Mr. Sater wanted the new president to consider a “peace deal” that would cede Crimea to Russia in exchange for the withdrawal of Russian forces from eastern Ukraine. Mr. Cohen was interested. Mr. Sater gave Mr. Cohen the proposal in a sealed envelope and Mr. Cohen dropped it off at the office of then-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn while visiting the White House to meet with President Trump. The government of Ukraine learned about the deal the way the rest of the world did, by reading about it in the New York Times. It furiously denounced the move as a “gross violation” of Ukrainian law by forces “covertly representing Russian interests.”
No U.S. laws were broken in the backchannel approach to the White House and Mr. Artemenko, who has modeled his political persona on Mr. Trump, denies any connection to organized crime. But the episode underscores some of the dangers for the Trump White House lurking in the Russia connection case. Following the money may take Special Counsel Robert Mueller to some very shady places.
Throughout his life, Mr. Trump has not shied away from contacts with organized crime figures. He crossed paths with them in the construction business, in the casino business, in deals with Mr. Sater and his colleagues, and through his longtime personal attorney Roy Cohn, whose client list included many of New York’s leading mobsters. Maybe Mr. Trump never did business with the mob. Maybe he just got a kick out of gangsters. We don’t know. But the problem now for President Trump is a special counsel who may want to know, and who is empowered to find out.
Mr. Cohen and Mr. Flynn are under congressional scrutiny in the Russia connection case and presumably Mr. Mueller is taking a look at them as well. If reports that Mr. Mueller will follow the Trump money trail are accurate, Mr. Sater is also likely to come under investigation. Mr. Sater is in the middle of a ferocious legal battle that places Trump properties at the center of a complex alleged fraud scheme involving big Russia-related money.
Mr. Cohen has been involved with sketchy Russian and Ukrainian deals that also may attract Mr. Mueller’s attention. Earlier this month, BuzzFeed reported that Mr. Cohen worked on a business deal linked to “members of the Russian and Ukrainian underworld.” In a lengthy investigative report, BuzzFeed traced Mr. Cohen’s connection to Viktor Topolov, a wealthy Ukrainian businessman and politician. In 2006, Mr. Cohen helped Mr. Topolov seek funds to build an ethanol factory. Mr. Topolov was a powerful force in Kiev, BuzzFeed reports, “with access to Ukrainian banks and politicians. He also ran a conglomerate, Kyiv-Donbas, that employed three executives the FBI described as members of a violent Russian organized-crime network. One was a mob enforcer who admitted taking part in at least 20 murders, and who was closely associated with Semion Mogilevich, a powerful boss in Russian organized crime.”
Mr. Sater is also connected to the Mogilevich crime family. According to a court document filed in a Sater-related case, Mr. Sater’s father, Michael Sheferovsky, was a “syndicate boss” for the Mogilevich organization. In 2000, Mr. Sheferovsky, having relocated to the U.S. decades earlier, pleaded guilty to two counts of extortion for shaking down businesses in Brooklyn.
“By the time of his meeting” with Mr. Cohen, the BuzzFeed report notes, “Topolov was one of the richest men in Ukraine.” Part of Mr. Topolov’s wealth involves the CSKA Kiev soccer team, where he came under suspicion in an alleged embezzlement and money-laundering scheme. Mr. Topolov eventually stepped aside from the lucrative soccer franchise and was replaced by his friend, Andrii Artememko. Mr. Artemenko spent more than two years in jail on charges related to the CSKA case. Political pressure secured his release and he and his allies have attacked the entire prosecution as political payback. Years later, Mr. Artemenko would team up with Mr. Sater to deliver the backchannel peace proposal to Mr. Cohen.
Mr. Trump’s former presidential campaign manager, Paul Manafort, also finds himself in Ukrainian hot water. Mr. Manafort has longstanding ties to pro-Russia political forces in Ukraine, engaged in Ukraine business deals with a Russian oligarch close to Vladimir Putin, and appears in a controversial Kiev “secret ledger” that purports to list $12 million in clandestine payments to him from a Kremlin-aligned political party.
Mr. Manafort was the Trump campaign manager during the Republican National Convention in July, when campaign officials intervened to rewrite the party platform position on Ukraine, softening its hardline rhetoric on Russia. Mr. Manafort exited the campaign in August after questions were raised about the secret Kiev payments. Mr. Manafort has denied any wrongdoing. Asked about the party platform incident on ABC, Mr. Trump said, “I wasn’t involved in that,” but confirmed that campaign aides had played a role.
Micah Morrison is chief investigative reporter for Judicial Watch. Follow him on Twitter @micah_morrison. Tips: email@example.com
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