Two very different men have been instrumental in introducing financiers and clients from Russia and the former Soviet bloc to the Trump Organization’s real estate machine: Felix Sater, Donald Trump’s former business partner and a convicted felon, and Michael Cohen, Trump’s brash, longtime personal attorney.
And TPM now has learned from conversations with both Sater and Cohen that the two men know each other dating back to their teenage years, when they were acquaintances from nearby towns on Long Island. Both went on to make their fortunes in real estate, eventually working with the same big-name businessman—although they insist that neither helped the other land his gig with the Trump Organization.
“It isn’t a family atmosphere kind of thing,” Sater said of the several years he told TPM he worked directly for Trump scouting deals, some as far afield as Moscow. “You sort of ran around and did your own deals.”
The two men say they arrived in business with Trump through different avenues. While Cohen declined to speak broadly about Sater, he agreed to confirm or deny some of Sater’s statements and add slightly to Sater’s explanation of how the two men entered the Trump orbit independently of each other.
“The family knew about me because I purchased several Trump apartments over the years and Don, Jr. had sold me multiple apartments at one of the properties and was combining them [into a single deal] for me,” Cohen explained.
Sater’s tale is a little more dramatic and harder to confirm in its particulars. In his telling, he began working with one of his neighbors, a Kazakh real estate developer named Tevfik Arif, at a new firm called Bayrock, the offices of which were downstairs from the Trumps. That’s how Sater said he landed a meeting with Trump.
“I walked in and knocked on his door and told him I was going to be the biggest developer—this is 2000, 2001—first in the United States and then worldwide,” Sater said of the President. His braggadocio paid off, he said: “We got along very, very well.”
But the Russian money didn’t begin to flow immediately. “There were no Russian investors at that point,” he told TPM. “1998, ’99, 2000—Russians did not have any money.” The reason, Sater said with a laugh: “$8-a-barrel oil!”
He pegged the date to when Russians finally had money to spend abroad around 2005, the same year Bayrock signed a one-year deal to explore developing a Trump Tower in Moscow. The group even proposed the site of an old pencil factory for the building, but the deal never closed.
Long before they were seeking such deals, Cohen and Sater were running in the same circles, in the area where Brooklyn bleeds into Long Island. Cohen is from Five Towns, the informal name for a few tony suburban hamlets—more than five, less than eight—in Nassau County, east of Jamaica Bay. Sater hails from the less genteel Brooklyn neighborhoods of Brighton Beach and Coney Island, west of the bay.
“It was an emigrant enclave of Jews from the former Soviet Union,” Sater recalled. “Coney Island was kind of tough. I was one of the white kids on the block, which led to lots of beatings. It was difficult growing up but it toughens you up.”
His toughness didn’t always serve him well. A bar fight with a fellow Wall Streeter ended when Sater stabbed the other man in the face with a margarita glass; the injured man needed 110 stitches and suffered nerve damage. Sater went to prison for a year, which he describes as “the worst time in my life,” and a few years after his release, he became embroiled in a stock fraud scam.
Sater said he most clearly remembers the beginning of his relationship with Cohen from the time the former Trump Organization attorney began dating his now-wife, whom Sater describes as a girl from his neighborhood of Jewish Soviet expatriates. Cohen told TPM the pair had known each other before then, in their teenage years, and that he hadn’t yet begun dating his wife, reportedly a Ukrainian émigré, when he was in his teens.
“He wasn’t one of my close friends, just a guy dating a girl in the neighborhood and we had a bunch of mutual friends,” Sater said. “We eventually both started working at Trump Org. Prior to that, again, lots of mutual acquaintances.”
Sater said he and Cohen still speak to each other, even if they seem a bit loath to speak about each other.
“We did not own real estate together, but certainly looked at a bunch of stuff together, during Trump and post-Trump,” Sater says. “After I left there, I was still looking at deals for Trump, but I would think about real estate with Michael. [It] was just two real estate guys talking.” Sater starts to say something more, but cuts himself off and ends almost bashfully: “I would be more than happy to do a deal with Michael,” he says.
Cohen was less forthcoming than his acquaintance. “I don’t give profile pieces on people,” he told TPM when asked about Sater. When asked why not, he answered, “I just don’t want to.”
Still, the two men appear to know each other well enough for there to be considerable trust. They were both involved in a scheme to deliver a “peace plan” to the White House that proposed letting Ukrainian voters decide whether to lease Crimea to Russia in hopes that the move would lead to the relaxation of international sanctions.
Sater told TPM he called the now-notorious meeting with Cohen and Ukrainian politician Andrii Artemenko in February to discuss the future of Ukraine. Cohen took the meeting, and told the New York Times that he ultimately left the proposal on the desk of then-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn (Cohen would later give several contradictory interviews in which he walked back his involvement).
Nothing ever came of the plan, but it caused outcry from all corners of the diplomatic world—who were these men, and what were they doing?
Asked why he arranged the meeting, Sater told TPM “Because I could!” Trump had distanced himself from Sater—in a 2013 deposition, he claimed not to know what Sater looked like—but he had Cohen’s ear, and the issue at hand pertained to a region of the world of interest to both men.
In conversation, Sater framed his pursuit of the deal as deep concern for the region of his birth. “Everyone in the proposal, all three sides would have won,” he said. “As a side note, some civilians wouldn’t have been killed and shelled. In hindsight, I’m glad I did it. Anybody can paint it any way they want, but it was a peace deal.”