According to Felix Sater, who built the Trump Soho condominium tower in Lower Manhattan and partnered with President Trump on several other projects, Trump didn’t lose sleep over where the money to build his branded properties came from.
“I would show him a deal and he’d say ‘let’s go,’” recalled Sater, who once occupied an office down the hall from the future president in Trump Tower. “The due diligence part was kind of light.”
At a panel hosted by The New Yorker magazine on Saturday, where he shared the stage with attorney Michael Avenatti and journalists Adam Davidson, Ruth Marcus and David Barstow, Sater shared some insights into the president’s relationship with Russia.
Trump has been under scrutiny for his ties to Russia’s President Putin and for his lukewarm response to Russian government’s efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Sater acknowledged that Trump has an affinity for Russian investors, but according to him the reason is mundane. “Donald Trump loved Russian buyers for one very simple reason: their checks cleared, and quickly,” Sater said.
Wealthy Russians, meanwhile, were drawn to Trump properties because of their “opulence,” “over-the-top” design, and the president’s celebrity. Buying at a Trump property “became a status symbol: I have arrived,” Sater said.
Asked if money was laundered through Trump properties, Sater replied “yes and no,” pointing to his Trump Soho co-developer Tamir Sapir as an example. “He made his money, when the Soviet Union collapsed, in the oil business. Rightly, wrongly, stole it, deserved it, didn’t deserve it… he took all that money and invested it in New York real estate,” Sater said of the late Sapir. “By the time he invested with us — he put $300 million into the building — the concept of ‘was this money dirty or not’… If we go back the Roosevelts made all of their money in the drug business, in China, in opium. So I mean how far back do you go to look at the money?”
Sater’s Bayrock Group built Trump Soho in partnership with the Sapir Organization and leased the Trump name for the property. Trump hired him as a “senior adviser” in 2010 and gave him a Trump Organization business card. That year, the three companies were sued for allegedly lying about sales at trump SoHo. Sater tried to broker a Trump-branded real estate development in Moscow in 2015, while Trump was running for president.
A 2017 New Yorker investigation by Davidson unearthed evidence of potential money laundering at another Trump-name property, in Azerbaijan, but Sater dismissed the suggestion that the president was in on the game. “There were some pretty hairy characters involved. Did they use laundered money? I would guess yes,” Sater said. “Was Donald Trump involved with helping them launder the money? I don’t think he was involved, I think he just didn’t care.”