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Digital Subscriptions > Newsweek International > 15th June 2018 > Cloak & Swagger

Cloak & Swagger

HE’ S BEEN CALLED AN Associate OF DONALD TRUMP AND A CAREER Criminal CONNECTED TO THE MOB. BUT U.S. INTELLIGENCE AGENCIES CALL HIM SOMETHING ELSE: A Highly-Valuable ASSET. WILL THE REAL Felix Sater PLEASE STAND UP?

INFORMANT

PHOTOGRAPH BY Stephen Voss

ABOUT 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.

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WILL RUSSIA'S WORLD CUP GAMBIT PAY OFF? Vladimir Putin kept a watchful eye on a black-and-white soccer ball as it soared toward him through a spacious Kremlin office, before he deftly bumped it back with his head. On the other side of the room, Gianni Infantino, the president of FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, waited for the return pass. When it came, he flicked the ball up, juggling it from foot to foot before kicking it back to the Russian president. The two men, both dressed in suits and ties, were taking part in a promotional video for this summer’s World Cup, which Russia will host for the first time. Russia hopes the World Cup will help improve its international image. The Kremlin’s enemies may have other plans.