Analysis

Active Measures director says Trump's Russian mob ties are his biggest legal vulnerability

Director Jack Bryan chronicles Russia's decades-long effort to influence global politics through covert methods, including a series of money-laundering schemes that trace directly back to Trump.
US President Donald Trump and Russia's President Vladimir Putin shake hands during a meeting in Hamburg, Germany, on July 7, 2017. (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
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by Brent Bambury

As Donald Trump's legal team changed this week, so did the version of events relating to the transfer of hush money to a porn star. The admission made on Wednesday by Rudy Giuliani that Trump knew about the payment — a reversal of Trump's earlier claim — took the White House by surprise.
Adult film actress/director Stormy Daniels in January of 2017. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

But on Friday morning Trump put some distance between himself and Giuliani without clarifying the ever confusing details of the payment.

Those details matter because the payment could constitute a violation of campaign finance law.

Trump may be vulnerable on that front, or Robert Mueller may find evidence of collusion with Russia or obstruction that would expose the president to other charges.

Jack Bryan believes Trump's legal vulnerabilities go back even further, predating his presidency.

"I think he's got very serious legal problems," Bryan says on Day 6. But they might not be the problems raised by Stormy Daniels.

Once he loses out in Atlantic City, once he can't get a loan from a bank, that's when the Russian mafia says: 'We have an opportunity here.'- Jack Bryan, director of Active Measures

Bryan's first feature length documentary, Active Measures, takes a long look at malevolent Russian influence, but it converges on Trump, his association with Russian mobsters and the Russian money that kept him in business.

Vanity Fair asks: "Is This the Documentary That Can Take Down Trump?"

A better question might be: 'How mad will this make Putin?'

US President Donald Trump and Russia's President Vladimir Putin talk during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders' summit on November 11, 2017. (Getty Images)

Shell companies buy condos

Active Measures shows how foreign investments made by Russian oligarchs bolster the Kremlin's ambitions to exert influence in the west. The key is money laundering — the export of Russian wealth with the knowledge and approval of Putin.

The Trump Taj Mahal, now known as Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City, in Atlantic City, New Jersey. (CP Images)

Bryan says mobsters were Trump clients as early as 1985.

"He sells three condos to a man named David Bogatin, who's a Russian mobster," Bryan says. "This is in Trump Tower. And the reason they did Trump Tower is that it was the second building in New York where a shell company could purchase a condominium. And so it makes it much more easy to launder dirty money."

When Trump's fortunes fall, the Russians smell blood.

"Once he loses out in Atlantic City, once he can't get a loan from a bank, that's when the Russian mafia says: 'We have an opportunity here,'" says Bryan.

That's when Trump becomes less of a partner for Russian mobsters and more of a mark.

Bryan's film alleges that Trump needed Russian mob money to reinvent himself after his disastrous string of bankruptcies. Without it, the film alleges, he would never have won the presidency.

"The Russians saved him. They rescued him. He would not have gotten back in business without them," journalist Craig Unger says in the film.

Cars pass by a billboard showing US President-elect Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin placed by pro-Serbian movement in the town of Danilovgrad on November 16, 2016. (Savo Prelevic/AFP/Getty Images)

Bayrock Group, Sater and Cohen

After multiple bankruptcies, when most of Trump's investors had fled, a real estate firm with Russian backing moved into Trump Tower.  Bryan's film sees this as a turning point, an intensification of Russian interference and a new source of wealth for Trump.

Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump's personal attorney, walks along a sidewalk in New York on April 11, 2018. (Seth Wenig/Associated Press)

"Bayrock Group is a Russian real estate firm. The manager was this guy Felix Sater, and he is very connected to the Russian mafia," Bryan says.

Sater, a convicted felon, also has ties to Trump's recently fired attorney, Michael Cohen. Bryan says Cohen entered the Trump organization at the same time as Bayrock.

"Cohen is childhood friends with Felix Sater. They went on their first date together," Bryan says. "They did a lot of business together."

Bayrock operated from offices two floors below Trump's and partnered with him on a wide variety of real estate deals from 2002 to 2011. Bryan says Bayrock likely didn't see Trump as a political player or a potential president. They saw him as a shield.

"I think, at that point, they're seeing him as: he's a really famous guy and it's great cover because nobody's going to question a lot of money going into the Trump organization. And they knew that he needed the money. And also they knew he's really litigious. And so it would be really hard to go after him. And I think that he just became this sort of perfect place to stash money."

Donald Trump and Felix Sater. (Shooting Films)

How money laundering could be exposed

Through this period, Sater remained in contact with his old friend Michael Cohen. A series of emails between the two, written during the campaign, appeared last year in the New York Times.

The FBI raided Michael Cohen's office and home on April 9th. Bryan says it could mark a turning point in the investigation of the president.

FBI Director Robert Mueller. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

"I think Cohen knows just about everything," he says.

He points to the significance of the Cohen case being handled by the US attorney's office for the Southern District of New York, and recounts Trump's warning to Robert Mueller.

"The early laundering, the real serious laundering you see from 2004 all the way to 2014, that is going to be taken as a separate case by the Southern District of New York. And I think the reason for that is that Trump, at one point, said that it will be crossing a red line if he looked at his personal business dealings."

Bryan chooses to end Active Measures with images of resistance, but he warns democracy needs more action to withstand an onslaught that he describes as the organized, effective and corrupt influence exported by Russia.

"If we want to deal with this, we have to address the underlying problems," he says. "And if we do it, really, if people demand that we do that, I think that in the long run this could have been a really positive thing. If we don't, then I think we're going down a really dark path."

Traditional Russian nesting dolls depicting US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin are displayed at a souvenir street shop in St. Petersburg, Russia. (Dmitri Lovetsky/Associated Press)

To hear the full interview with Jack Bryan, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.