There are just two real estate developments connected to President Donald Trump that special counsel Robert Mueller has showed a reported interest in so far: there’s the Trump SoHo, of course, subject of pages upon pages of dirt-digging, but there’s also the failed Trump International Hotel and Tower, a boondoggle every bit as embarrassing as the SoHo disaster. The developers of the Toronto project, which was just a licensing deal for Trump, hold close connections to oligarchs in the former Soviet bloc, and the project’s sales structure was a mirror image of the Trump SoHo’s—as are its legal troubles.
What makes the 67-story tower interesting to Mueller, as the Wall Street Journal has reported, is the link between the project and Vnesheconombank, or VEB, the state-owned Russian bank on whose board Vladimir Putin himself sat, and that has been under U.S. sanctions since 2014. And the link between that bank and the Toronto project is Alexander Shnaider, a 49-year-old billionaire commodities trader whose career was initially spent buying “erstwhile state assets in the republics and satellites of the Soviet Union,” to quote a Globe and Mail profile from the year after the Trump Toronto was announced.
Born in what was then Leningrad but raised in Israel and Toronto, Shnaider went to work in the 1990’s for his then-father-in-law, Lithuanian trader Boris Birshtein, one of the first major moneymen to emerge from the wreckage of the USSR. Shnaider, whose worth Forbes pegs at $2.85 billion, abhorred the spotlight at the time, telling Forbes in 2005, “I don’t know if I am ready for all this attention.” By the time the Trump-branded hotel finally opened in 2012 however—two years behind schedule—Shnaider was happy to appear at the ribbon-cutting.
Symon Zucker, Shnaider’s attorney, told TPM that his client has not been contacted by federal investigators looking into some of Trump’s business deals as part of their probe into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.
Trump was badly in need of new partners by the time Shnaider came along in 2004. The Toronto tower had its initial debut in 2001, with the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company proclaiming that Trump would join as “co-developer of the Ritz-Carlton hotel and residences.”
The announcement was made in a joint press release between the Ritz-Carlton and The Bowmore Group of Companies. In the first of a more-than-decade-long parade of indignities heaped on the Toronto tower, The Bowmore Group of Companies turned out to be chaired by one Lieb Waldman, who had been convicted of stealing $900,000 in a bankruptcy scam in Pennsylvania and was in Canada avoiding extradition. Ritz-Carlton pulled out of the project.
Trump didn’t waste time: He and Shnaider began ironing out the Toronto project in 2002, and in 2004, Trump re-unveiled the hotel by way of a website praising his own acumen in typically understated terms: “Some dream in black & white. Others never dare. A visionary dreams in bold vivid hues. Donald J. Trump dreams in color.”
His new partners were both very happy to let him take top billing on the tower, even as they purchased the necessary site for the project for $27.4 million. The two people in charge were Shnaider and another Russian-born man, Val Levitan, the CEO of Talon International Development, which Levitan and Shnaider formed to manage the project. Levitan would later testify that his experience with vending machines made him a competent hotel manager, according to Mitchell Wine, who represents a group of plaintiffs suing Shnaider, Levitan and Trump for misrepresenting the value of apartments in the Toronto tower.
One of the stranger aspects of Trump’s hotel deal in Toronto, and in the SoHo development, was the mixed-use nature of not just the building but the units within it. Briefly, the units were sold as condos with a panoply of exorbitant monthly fees; when the owners weren’t in the units, which they were required to vacate 245 days of the year, they were rented as hotel rooms, with the rental income used to offset the fees. Low room occupancy rates—much lower than advertised to prospective investors—meant the units didn’t just fail to generate revenue, they cost the owners a bundle.
Despite reusing the SoHo template, Trump had no skin in the Toronto game, however colorful his dreams, said Wine, who contended Trump still has “a duty of care” to people who invested in the project on the strength of his reputation.
“What he seems to do in all his projects is he gives you the impression that he’s building the building, it’s all the glitter and glamour and quality of his name,” Wine told TPM. “And then when you read the fine print, he has nothing to do with the building. He’ll come to some of the openings.”
Shnaider’s reputation was much darker. The most interesting acquisition he made during his post-Soviet era of fortune-building was a Ukrainian steel mill: The sale of the mill, Zaporizhstal, after Perestroika was a suspiciously closed-off affair, the Globe and Mail reported—as were the sales of many assets in the bizarre and dangerous world of post-Soviet privatization where the soon-to-be-billionaire thrived. Shnaider sold Zaporizhstal in 2010, but to whom and how, no one appears to be sure; Shnaider hasn’t disclosed the buyer, and Zucker told TPM he doesn’t know who the buyer was.
Shnaider had been due to sell the mill for $1.2 billion to Rinat Akhmetov, the richest man in Ukraine, and a major political player and backer of Putin-supported Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. Akhemtov, in fact, was former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s first major political employer in Ukraine.
When Shnaider ultimately did sell the mill for a reported $1.7 billion to an unnamed buyer, at least 50 percent of his shares in it were sold through a complex offshore transaction financed by VEB, as detailed in the Panama Papers. An anonymous source told the Russian newspaper Kommersant at the time of the sale that the bidders themselves were Russian. Today, companies owned by Akhmetov hold a controlling interest in the mill.
Zucker told the Wall Street Journal some $15 million from the sale of the mill had been used to cover cost overruns for the Toronto tower; later, he told the newspaper he couldn’t confirm that any money from the sale went toward the project. Zucker took exception to the Journal’s characterization of Shnaider’s financial dealings as suspicious—the deal, he said, was no different than Vnesheconombank financing a mortgage.
“Even if he’d wanted to put it into the Trump hotel, he could have,” Zucker told TPM. “It’s his money!”
Levitan resigned in 2013, after he, Shnaider and Trump started fielding lawsuits from their clients, one of them a class action, that accused them of selling units in the Toronto tower as investment opportunities—something they’d promised they wouldn’t do when they submitted their initial prospectus to Canadian regulators.
The developers then defaulted on a $310 million Austrian bank loan in 2015. Exactly one week before Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, a Canadian bankruptcy judge placed his branded Toronto tower into receivership. The building’s new owners, a holding corporation run by JCF Capital, decided to get rid of the Trump name in June; workers began to remove the signage on what is now the Adelaide Hotel in July.
For the privilege of removing Donald Trump’s name from its facade, the Adelaide paid the Trump Organization at least $6 million.