Since coming to power in 2017, President Donald Trump has introduced or reintroduced a dazzling and sometimes baffling cast of characters to the American public. Figures like the well-known Rudy Giuliani or the previously unknown Michael Cohen have brazened their way to notoriety on the coattails of the reality TV president, but possibly no one in the Trump orbit has as incredible a backstory as the Russian-American mobster, spy, and Trump Tower Moscow booster Felix Sater.
As a sign of how wild his life is, in March of 2019, his wife Viktoria filed for divorce from him in Long Island, but that wasn’t the most notable thing to happen to Sater that month. No, the more notable incident for the real-life international man of mystery was his public testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, followed the next day by his private testimony to the House Judiciary Committee.
Sater was born to a Jewish family in Moscow in 1966. Facing persecution for their faith, the family emigrated to Israel when Sater was a child, and later to the United States, ending up in Brighton Beach, New York. It was here that he allegedly became acquainted with a young Michael Cohen, who would go on to serve as lawyer and “fixer” to a future president of the United States, and ultimately end up in prison.
Sater beat Cohen to the clink, however. After dropping out of college to work on Wall Street, he got into a fight with a commodities broker in a bar in 1991 and was convicted of first-degree assault. He served 15 months in prison for the offense and was barred from working as a broker in the future. The ban didn’t seem to constrain Sater going forward, however, and in 1998 he was convicted of fraud in a Russian Mafia-backed $40 million penny stock pump and dump scheme. He didn’t go to prison this time, though. Instead, he went to work for the FBI as an informant in organized crime cases.
His cooperation seems to have lasted more than a decade. In 2009, he was finally sentenced for the 1998 fraud, ending his assistance with a $25,000 fine and no jail time. Loretta Lynch, who would go on to serve as Attorney General under President Obama, sealed the records of his case for ten years when she was the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York.
During her confirmation hearings in 2015, senators asked about her decision to seal the Sater records, and she testified that Sater had provided “information crucial to national security and the conviction of over 20 individuals, including those responsible for committing massive financial fraud and members of La Cosa Nostra.”
So what was Sater up to for those ten years? Well, according to some court filings that were unsealed in 2018, in 1998, Sater received five satellite phone numbers belonging to Osama bin Laden. This was before the 9/11 attacks, but even then, bin Laden was one of the most dangerous, and most wanted, terrorists in the world. According to a 2011 statement by government attorney Todd Kaminsky, Sater’s cooperation “was of an extraordinary depth and breadth, almost unseen, at least in this United States attorney’s office.”
Sater alerted American officials to a late-1990s Afghan government plan to sell Stinger missiles, which can be used to bring down airplanes. He shared, according to a federal court filing, “specific information about key leaders in Al Qaeda and affiliated groups, including information that could help the United States locate those individuals.”
He thwarted terrorist plans to shoot down Colin Powell’s plane, an assassination plot against George W. Bush, and a scheme to poison Dick Cheney. Sater identified a North Korean agent shopping for nuclear materials for his government in 2004. A year later, he brought down Russian and Ukrainian cybercriminals. And all the while, he had been working with the FBI to uncover Wall Street scams run by various New York crime families from the 1990s on.
Once he’d burned his bridges with Wall Street through the pump and dump fraud and conviction, Sater created the Bayrock Group and used it to muscle into New York real estate business. Where did he decide to headquarter the new venture? In Trump Tower, one floor below the Trump Organization’s offices.
Sater began working on development projects in Moscow, and being in the same business as his famous neighbor and landlord, he and Donald Trump struck up a friendship. In 2006, Sater took Donald Trump Jr. and Ivanka Trump on a trip to Moscow with him, even providing them with a tour of the Kremlin during which Ivanka reportedly took a spin in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s chair while his office was empty.
When his old friend Donald Trump announced his campaign for the presidency in 2015, Felix Sater had an idea. In 2018, he told BuzzFeed News, “I figured, he’s in the news, his name is generating a lot of good press. A lot of Russians weren’t willing to pay a premium licensing fee to put Donald’s name on their building. Now maybe they would be.”
So, quite famously, Sater set up a meeting with his childhood friend Michael Cohen, then a key employee of Donald Trump’s, to talk about licensing Trump’s name for a new tower in Moscow. The structure would be built and financed by Russian companies, and Trump’s name would grace the building. After they parted, Sater emailed his friend, “I will get Putin on this program and we will get Donald elected. Buddy our boy can become President of the USA and we can engineer it. I will get all of Putins [sic] team to buy in on this.” Much of his plan did, in fact, come to fruition.
It appears that Sater’s ability to always be in the shadows of world-changing events has worn on his wife, Viktoria. According to a report in Page Six, she “has had enough” and would prefer to raise their three daughters in peace. She filed for divorce on March 19 and has retained Bernard Clair, who is also currently representing Judith Giuliani in her divorce from Trumpworld associate Rudy Giuliani.
When your marriage in Queens is ending, the team at Zelenitz, Shapiro & D’Agostino can help. Call us today at 718-523-1111 for a free consultation with an experienced Queens divorce and child custody attorney.