Ukraine is no coincidence

Impeachment and dirty dollars that are uncomfortably close to the NBA


The President is iffy on Belgium—once calling it a “beautiful city.” He made up a country called “Nambia” and reportedly needed some convincing that Nepal and Bhutan existed. Then pronounced them “nipple” and “button.”

There are 195 countries in the world. That’s news to Donald Trump; he reportedly once told the prime minister of Japan that he never knew we had so many. 

The point being: Most don’t earn his attention. 

So last week when the White House released a version of Trump’s call with the Ukrainian president, what struck me was: he seems to know an awful lot about Ukraine:

  • “I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say Crowdstrike... I guess you have one of your wealthy people... The server, they say Ukraine has it.”

  • “I heard you had a prosecutor who was very good and he was shut down and that's really unfair.”

  • “The former ambassador from the United States, the woman, was bad news and the people she was dealing with in the Ukraine were bad news so I just want to let you know that.”

Belgium’s GDP is more than four times Ukraine’s; the President isn’t sure it exists. But in the case of Ukraine, he knows about servers, ambassadors, and prosecutors. 

Why is Donald Trump so interested in Ukraine?

One answer is simple: Because it matters to his election, and to him. All these stories of hacking, servers, Paul Manafort, Hunter Biden, and Rudy Giuiliani. 

But there might be another reason too. A lot of big-dollar business these days involves giant sums of money—licit and illicit—moving quietly around the globe, beyond the reach of governments. Sometimes it ends up in the U.S., in anonymous Delaware corporations, South Dakota trust funds, and untraceable bank accounts. After that it’s very hard to say where it ends up, and that’s the problem. Some of it ends up awfully close to the White House. Some of it ends up awfully close to the NBA. 

This is a transcript of Craig Unger, on a podcast, talking about his book, House of Trump, House of Putin

One instance I go to it in depth in House of Trump, House of Putin is you see the Ukraine energy trade. And you see Semion Mogilevich, who's one of the most powerful Russian mobsters sort of being granted the Ukraine energy trade, which means he's allowed to take enormous amounts of liquid natural gas, and so forth, that start out in Russia and Turkmenistan and go through pipelines in the Ukraine, and he's essentially able to skim off huge amounts of money off the top. It was around 750 million dollars a year. When I say let's follow the money, that's what I start to look at. And that money needs to be laundered, and it needs political protection in Ukraine, which means let's bring in Paul Manafort. One good way to launder it is through real estate, and it would be great to have a real estate mogul who's got thousands of condos he can sell without asking any questions. 

Ahh, Semion Mogilevich. He’s one of the more vexing figures on the global stage, a presence lurking behind a lot of our news these days. Google him and you’ll find reporting suggesting there is almost no limit to his influence. (I saw one org chart, on which one of the second-tier “employees” was Vladimir Putin.)

Unger landed on Mogilevich in an interesting way. A painstaking researcher of public records, he has explained that a lot of the work of creating this book was tracing down property records from websites like StreetEasy. He wanted to see who owned condos in Trump buildings. 

What he found, to a surprising degree, was that from the earliest days of Trump Tower, the answer was: people with ties to Mogilevich.

In the first few pages of House of Trump, House of Putin, Unger tells the story of David Bogatin, who reportedly immigrated to the U.S. from Russia, and by the mid-80s had learned to mimic a gas station scam he learned from the Italian mob. When Bogatin ran into some trouble, he partnered with the Colombo crime family for protection, and together they made millions. 

“Bogatin became fixated on a garish fifty-eight story edifice in midtown Manhattan with mirrors and brass and gold-plated fixtures everywhere,” writes Unger. “A monument to conspicuous consumption.” Trump Tower. The Village Voice would later report that Trump himself met with Bogatin, and sold him five condos for $6 million in cash. 

“Trump Tower offered a special feature that was exceedingly rare,” continues Unger. “At the time, according to David Cay Johnston, Trump Tower was one of only two buildings in New York City that sold condos to buyers who used shell companies, such as limited liability companies, which allowed purchasers to buy real estate while concealing their identities.”

This meant you could park your cash in real estate with no records for the authorities to inspect. Evidently word got around that there was, as Unger says, “an ideal vehicle through which criminals could put their dirty money into luxury condominiums while keeping their ownership anonymous. Thus, according to the New York State attorney general’s office, when Trump closed the deal for five apartments with David Bogatin, whether he knew it or not, he had just helped launder money for the Russian mafia.”

Unger wrote a Washington Post column highlighting his research. What is surprising isn’t only that there are names of so many known criminals, but as Unger details with particulars, that so many of them are meaningfully connected to Mogilevich. 

Once upon a time, when he ran the FBI, Robert Mueller put Mogilevich on the FBI’s most wanted list. In 2006, he sent a special team to Budapest, where Mogilevich lived at the time. Mogilevich then moved to Moscow. In 2011, Mueller made a speech about the changing nature of organized crime:

This is not “The Sopranos,” with six guys sitting in a diner, shaking down a local business owner for $50 dollars a week. These criminal enterprises are making billions of dollars from human trafficking, health care fraud, computer intrusions, and copyright infringement. They are cornering the market on natural gas, oil, and precious metals, and selling to the highest bidder. 

These crimes are not easily categorized. Nor can the damage, the dollar loss, or the ripple effects be easily calculated. It is much like a Venn diagram, where one crime intersects with another, in different jurisdictions, and with different groups.

How does this impact you? You may not recognize the source, but you will feel the effects. You might pay more for a gallon of gas. You might pay more for a luxury car from overseas. You will pay more for health care, mortgages, clothes, and food.   

Vats of illicit dollars are moving around the world and co-mingling with legitimate dollars, often in giant businesses. Ukraine does not rank high in many things. But over recent decades, it has become a leader in corruption. Natural gas has been at the core of it. The Ukraine’s natural gas wars have their own Wikipedia entry and have been the subject of many investigations that are peppered with the names of people close to Putin and those close to Mogilevich. (Many sources connect those two, including an audiotape from Alexander Litvinenko before he was killed.) 

A just-released episode of Trump, Inc. includes plenty of reporting on-the-ground in Ukraine:

Co-host, Ilya Marritz: “What’s it like to live in a place where nobody knows what’s true?”

Investigative journalist Aubrey Belford: “It’s like living in the United States.” 

Oliver Bullough writes, of Ukrainian corruption: “As one lawyer in Ukraine put it to me: ‘The choice isn’t between taking the bribe, or being honest; it’s between taking a bribe, or your children being killed. Of course you take the bribe.’”

If TrueHoop has a real agenda, it’s to get you all to read Bullough’s incredible book Moneyland. It describes how large sums of money move in troubling ways all over the globe. Naturally, the opening chapter—and it’s a dramatic one—is about corruption in Ukraine. Specifically, the ridiculously opulent abandoned Ukrainian palace that Bullough tours, once owned by the president, Paul Manafort’s client, who has since fled to Russia. There’s an “ostrich collection.” (What is it with the ostriches?) 

So much money has been routed so many different ways and to so many different entities that we will never trace it all down. Tough-to-trace dollars define the real estate markets in cities like London, Miami, Los Angeles, and New York. “Some 30 percent of condo sales in large-scale Manhattan developments since 2008 have gone to foreign-based buyers,” writes Bullough, “with the vast majority of them paying the full sum up front.”

Unger details a lot of those kinds of transactions, by Mogilevich-affiliated criminals, in Trump’s building. Almost in parallel, through very different methods, former MI6 officer Christopher Steele found similar things, and the result is what is known as the Steele Dossier. Jane Mayer describes Steele in an incredible 2018 New Yorker story. His project started like Unger’s—when he noticed a lot of the characters in a FIFA scandal shared an address.

Steele soon came across Trump Tower again. Several years ago, the F.B.I. hired Steele to help crack an international gambling and money-laundering ring purportedly run by a suspected Russian organized-crime figure named Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov. The syndicate was based in an apartment in Trump Tower. Eventually, federal officials indicted more than thirty co-conspirators for financial crimes. Tokhtakhounov, though, eluded arrest, becoming a fugitive. Interpol issued a “red notice” calling for his arrest. But, in the fall of 2013, he showed up at the Miss Universe contest in Moscow—and sat near the pageant’s owner, Donald Trump.

“It was as if all criminal roads led to Trump Tower,” Steele told friends.

I find myself feeling similarly, but with a twist. I used to find all of the names around these various scandals dizzying. But now, it’s simpler for me to wonder: Is this associated with Semion Mogilevich? 

We could play this game all day. But let’s play it in a way that connects to the NBA. Here are some of the characters involved in Trump SoHo:

  • Bayrock—a company headquartered in Trump Tower, was run day-to-day by Felix Sater. Whether or not Sater is connected to Mogilevich is the subject of much reporting and discussion. Multiple pages of Unger’s book dissect Sater’s possible connections with Mogilevich. Sater denies it.

  • Alexander Mashkevich—the documentary Active Measures calls him “Mogilevich’s banker.” 

  • Donald Trump, as Unger has described.

Now why is all this mentioned here, by an NBA media company? Because Trump SoHo was reportedly financed by three figures on the list above (Bayrock, Mashkevich, Trump), an Icelandic bank with purported Russian ties  … and a collection of people who worked at Drexel Burnham Lambert many years ago:

  • Apollo Global founder Leon Black.

  • Apollo Global itself, which created the fortunes of the governors of the Hawks and 76ers. 

  • The CIM group, a notablymysteriousreal estate investment group run by the brother of the Hawks’ governor.

All of this first came up before in writing about, of all things, Jeffrey Epstein. A Bayrock brochure and press release claims Apollo has invested heavily in Bayrock real estate in the U.S. 

Black has profound business ties to many NBA figures. Most prominently, his co-founders at Apollo include Tony Ressler—governor of the Hawks (and Black’s brother-in-law)—and 76ers governor Josh Harris. 

Black is also tied to Epstein. A charity controlled by Black reportedly donated $10 million to a charity controlled by Epstein. It’s one of Epstein’s only publicly known sources of on-the-record revenue. 

I have been joking privately that I could write a Hollywood version of this. A fictionalized version. Regular TrueHoop readers know that, to me, one of the big questions surrounding all of this is who paid for Epstein’s expensive lifestyle? And was it all an effort to collect dirt on powerful people? It would be so perfect if Mogilevich—by reputation, essentially a Bond villain—were behind it all!

But totally nuts, right? That’s not really how the world works, is it? Probably not. But … here’s a Rolling Stone article by Nina Burleigh: 

Federal prosecutors have admitted in bail filings they don’t know what Epstein actually did for money. But one clue lies in another lawsuit between Epstein and some of the accusers in Florida. An Epstein accountant testified that Epstein got his “money start” from Maxwell’s father.

This is about Epstein’s partner, Ghislaine Maxwell, daughter of noted media titan Robert Maxwell. Burleigh writes: 

In their book Robert Maxwell: Superspy, British investigative journalists Gordon Thomas and Martin Dillon claim that Maxwell was a conduit between the KGB, the Israeli intelligence service Mossad, and the emerging Russian kleptocrat oligarchy in the 1980s, creating some 400 companies that were used to launder the newly capitalist Slavs’ dirty money.

The authors alleged Maxwell was in business with Russian mob kingpin Semyon Mogilevich, a 300 pound financial mastermind who has been compared to the Wall Street bank Goldman Sachs for the scale of his criminal empire. Mogilevich is on the FBI’s ten most wanted list for a variety of sophisticated financial schemes, besides the standard mob businesses of trafficking in humans and drugs.

It all feels a little CIA, right?

Remember how all this started? Donald Trump seemed unduly interested in the inner workings of Ukraine. I don’t know why that’s the case. But I know that if we are really sober in thinking about it and assessing the known information, there are a lot of hard questions for the president. And a couple, perhaps, for the NBA too. 

If we want to understand, we need to start thinking like CIA analysts. Which brings us to the whistleblower’s complaint that touched off this whole Trump-Ukraine impeachment inquiry. On the day it was released, we knew almost nothing about the author. All I knew was that it was set up and phrased exactly as described in the book Psychology of Intelligence Analysis by Richards Heuer, Jr. It’s a book commissioned by the CIA to train analysts in thinking about, assessing, and presenting information in the most sober way imaginable. 

When I read the whistleblower’s report, thought to myself this person has read that book. Amazingly, the man who told me about that book, former CIA officer Jeff Asher emailed: “Not sure if you saw the whistleblower complaint but I wanted to point it out to you as an example of exactly how CIA trains its analysts to write and think.” Since then, there has been reporting that the author of the whistleblower’s complaint was a CIA officer stationed at the White House. 

This report sounds crazy, but also very carefully considered. It’s a laudable way to think. 

Sometimes, we think about foreign influence as if we are still in the Cold War. Listening in on phone calls, Russian spies trying to steal our weapons, or whatever. Stuff out of movies. And maybe that’s real. 

But what’s certainly real is that newly, this decade, when huge sums of money are invested in everything from skyscrapers to investment funds, a lot of the money is offshore, anonymized, and capable of secret influence over key people. Robert Mueller says the current generation of the mob is profiting from all kinds of businesses, from mortgages to luxury cars. We don’t know whether or not a mobster’s dollars influence the President

Getting some sunshine in there is a critical and new need. The NBA is on the front lines of this because the league office vets billionaires, and, if accepted, elevates their reputations. The league isn’t used to having to show its work when they assure us this or that governor is legit. CIA analysts aren’t publishing reports on NBA finances like they are about Trump phone calls. But we’ll have to think about how to handle the new reality, when the giant piles of money it takes to buy a sports team come with real questions. Do those dollars come with attachments? It could matter.

Coming soon: TrueHoop’s spin on the NBA season preview, with all kinds of unique insight for every team.