Six Degrees of Cash Corruption: Putin to Trump

What a week, back in the U.S.S.A.! Today’s blog post focuses on a story that seems surreal, has been overlooked, and is of major importance.

Given former Acting U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates’s principled Senate testimony regarding Mike Flynn’s Russian connections, and given Trump’s firing of FBI Director Comey and his next day’s tone-deaf welcome of the Russian Foreign Minister to the Oval Office with Russian journalists present but American press barred, and given Trump’s volunteered admission that the firing was motivated by his rage over the FBI investigation of his campaign’s collusion with Russia—given all that, the surrealism in what you’re about to read will be self-evident. As for the importance? Well, you know when you work a jigsaw puzzle how you first find the more easily locatable corners and edges, then work inward to the center? For months now, investigative journalists and different U.S. intelligence agencies have been doing just that. But this story is, if not the center itself, a large chunk of the puzzle very close to that center piece. Today’s blog post is based on a major investigative article by respected journalist Ben Schreckinger that ran in Politico magazine on April 9, titled “The Happy Go Lucky Jewish Group That Connects Trump And Putin.”

I don’t know why this piece hasn’t garnered huge attention, but it hasn’t. Perhaps it got lost in the blizzard of news scandals drenching us all. Perhaps attacks by conservative American Jewish groups accusing Schreckinger and Politico of anti-Semitism for daring to report on connections exposed in the piece had a chilling effect on press that might otherwise have picked up the exposé. One or two fragments of this story might have reached you via other sources—the dots—but without the connective tissue that links a worldwide political and financial network and connects the dots. Schreckinger’s brilliant, intrepid research makes for an article too long and detailed to simply reprint here, though I urge you to check it out in full. But I can’t resist sharing these cliff notes. The only additions I have made to his research—e.g. more dots—are identified as such, from a fact-checked website or reliable news source such as The New York Times—or else are clearly evident as my own comments.

Schreckinger’s article is about Chabad, a small Hasidic Orthodox Jewish sect that has been carefully built by one man into a global phenomenon. The Chabad-Lubavitch movement, founded in Lithuania in 1775, now has adherents in 80 countries and over 1000 cities, including Kathmandu and Hanoi. Chabad-Lubavitchers are the fundamentalist evangelicals of the Jewish world, black-fedora-wearing guys and their activist-for-Chabad yet subservient women who bear on average 8 to 10 children. The men celebrate charismatic worship, proselytizing on campuses and city streets while distributing literature and blaring music from their converted camper vans, called “mitzvah tanks.”

Lubavitchers are notable for their fundraising skills: their financial records are not made public but we know that as early as 1990, they were taking in an estimated minimum of $100 million annually. They own real estate all over the planet, launch a new multimillion dollar yeshiva (religious school) every other year, construct and operate treatment centers for lapsed Jews who fall into drug and alcohol use, and establish Chabad Houses—places to welcome converts and promulgate their traditional-belief-but-worldly-practice form of worship. Chabad sometimes makes news—as it did in New York City in 1991 when a car in the motorcade of their leader, Rabbi Menachim Mendel Schneerson, struck and killed a seven-year-old African American child, sparking the Crown Heights “riots” after Schneerson refused to express apologies or sympathy over the death, or even comment on it at all.

Schneerson, seventh in a line of rabbis claiming descent from the sect’s founder, was the organizer who forged this global movement from what had been a minor sect, and he ruled the Chabad world from his headquarters in the New York City borough of Brooklyn. From this base he battled assimilation, which he called a “spiritual holocaust,” engaged in Israeli politics from afar, and issued religious, political, social, financial, and other decrees with the authority of an absolute monarch. City and state politicians were leery of crossing him and tried to curry his favor, since he controlled a large bloc of votes. He also had a talent for outreach marketing, setting up toll-free phone numbers and satellite-TV hookups, and insisting that being a Chabad follower did not require traditional dress but could include “Modern Orthodox” who choose secular dress; indeed, he deliberately steered Chabad toward recruiting less observant Jews who weren’t “full-on adherents.” Schneerson’s cult-leader-status grew, and he never disputed the title of “King Messiah” reverently used by his followers, whom he blessed by dispensing dollar bills.

Nothing slowed Schneerson’s zeal to expand Chabad-Lubavitch—not long-running fights (sometimes physical, sometimes in court) with other Hasidic groups; not charges of racism (in contesting the presence of Ethiopian Jews in Israeli schools); not scandals about rabbinical rape of young women; not even long-running criminal trials for multiple cases of child sexual abuse by teachers at Chabad yeshivas in Australia.

Schneerson died in 1994, and the funeral cortege was so huge it froze traffic in Brooklyn. Chabad continues, however, although no single powerful leader has emerged. But many of Schneerson’s followers still believe he is the Messiah and is still alive after death, and those who don’t nevertheless follow his path.

Now, what has all this to do with Trump? File the above info and let’s take a lateral leap.

Starting in 1999, Vladimir Putin was consolidating control in Russia. He wanted to undermine the opposition, including the established umbrella for Jewish civil society, the Russian Jewish Congress. So he enlisted two of his wealthiest oligarch cronies, Lev Leviev and Roman Abramovich—remember those names—to create an organization to be called the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia. The strategy was one of displacement and replacement. Leviev and Abramovich were major funders of Chabad, so the new federation would be under the leadership of Chabad Rabbi Berel Lazar, who would soon become known scornfully as “Putin’s rabbi.” Chabad became Putin’s tool, and by 2014 the sitting Chief Rabbi of Russia was pushed out and “Putin’s rabbi” Lazar installed in his place. Lazar was the only Jewish leader present at Putin’s triumphant announcement of the annexation of Crimea. He was also Putin’s special guest at the opening of the Sochi Olympics (on the Sabbath, yet!) and he was Putin’s personal tour guide at Jerusalem’s Western Wall. Anti-Semitism suddenly was officially discouraged in Russia, and a state-sanctioned Judaism, Chabad-Lubavitch, was publicly celebrated. In 2013, a $50 million Jewish center opened in Moscow, funded by Abramovich with Putin himself contributing the equivalent of a month’s salary. The center was and remains under the auspices of Chabad.

Meanwhile, Trump, seeking Russian projects and especially capital, joined forces with a partnership called Bayrock-Sapir, which had close ties to Chabad. This company would later face multiple lawsuits for fraud, a criminal investigation of a Manhattan condo project, and an ongoing lawsuit filed by its own former executives, for racketeering and extortion.

Bayrock-Sapir was led by three men: Felix Sater, Tevfik Arif, and Tamir Sapir. Felix Sater is a Chabad House member and a convicted mob associate who in time would work directly for the Trump Organization. Tevfik Arif, a Turkish-born former Soviet bureaucrat turned wealthy real-estate developer (and Chabad donor), was arrested in a raid on a yacht in 2010 and charged with running an international underage prostitution ring, a charge he managed to beat on technicalities. And Tamir Sapir, a billionaire who will return later in this story—well, in 2007, Sapir’s daughter married the right-hand man of Putin pal Leviev. Donald Trump, who termed Sapir “a great friend,” hosted the wedding at Mar a Lago. Some months later, Trump met with Leviev to discuss Moscow deals, and attended a bris (circumcision) ceremony for Sapir’s new grandson at Rabbi Schneerson’s grave, which is a holy Chabad site.

Still with me? The plot thins—becoming more transparent.

Trump senior-adviser-son-in-law Jared Kushner later bought a $300 million building from Leviev, by that time the largest funder of Chabad worldwide. And remember Abramovich, the other major Chabad funder who, along with Leviev, is in Putin’s inner-circle? Abramovich is also part owner of a firm with contracts to provide 40 percent of the steel for the Keystone XL pipeline. He owns a large stake in the Russian oil mega-corporation, Rosneft, a company implicated in the Trump-Russia collusion investigations. His wife Zhukova hosted Ivanka and Jared in Russia in 2014 (while scouting real estate properties), and the Abramoviches reportedly attended Trump’s inauguration as Ivanka’s guests. Zhukova, a friend and business partner of Rupert Murdoch’s ex-wife Wendi Deng, has grown even closer to Ivanka, who in turn has grown closer to Wendi Deng, who of late repeatedly has had to deny that she has been dating (wait for it!) Putin.

What a small world!

And remember Felix Sater? The Chabad House member and convicted mob associate from Bayrock who partnered with Trump on numerous developments? He escorted Ivanka and Donald Junior around Moscow in 2006 to, again, scout potential projects. When Sater’s stock-fraud conviction became public, Donald Senior nevertheless brought him on to the Trump Organization as a top-level adviser, though later Trump claimed he barely knew Sater. Chummy photos would seem to prove otherwise.

From here on, things get positively Byzantine, with interlocking deals and financing between Russia and Trump, with Ivanka and Sater working together on the Trump Soho Hotel, and with a cast of thousands of additional supporting players from Turkey, Soviet Georgia, and Azerbaijan, plus the usual suspects, Carter Page, Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, Mike Flynn, Russian diplomats, et al.

But I’ll include here only one new character: Michael Cohen, former Trump Organization executive vice-president, now Donald’s personal lawyer, nicknamed “Trump’s pit bull.” It was Cohen who tried to defend Trump’s campaign-convenient newfound opposition to abortion by saying, “People change their positions all the time, the way they change their wives.” Cohen, who scoffs at the idea he has ties to Chabad, was a featured speaker this past March at a gala dinner of The Rabbinical College of America, which is described on the Chabad site as educating students worldwide to be “emissaries of the Lubavitcher Rabbi.” The gala was to honor David Shulkin, now U.S. Secretary of Veterans’ Affairs, for his service to the Chabad community. Such a coincidence.

The New York Times reported that in January, Michael Cohen met with his former Trump Organization colleague, convicted felon Felix Sater, to explore a Ukraine deal that would lift U.S. sanctions on Russia and deliver Crimea to Russia uncontested. Cohen brought the proposal resulting from that meeting in a sealed envelope to the then-National Security Adviser: Michael Flynn.

Not surprisingly, Jared Kushner (whose father was also a convicted felon, remember) himself had been active in his undergraduate years at Harvard in the local Chabad House. The Kushner family had long been donors to Chabad, but Jared built his own connections with Putin’s Chabad circle over real estate. Furthermore, Jared apparently isn’t merely “Modern Orthodox” as reported, but appears to be Chabad-Lubavitch Orthodox—as his converted wife, Ivanka Trump, appears to be. Three days before the election, Jared and Ivanka prayed for Trump’s victory at Rabbi Schneerson’s grave—and they have chosen Washington DC’s Chabad shul as their home synagogue.

Hell, no wonder Comey requested more agents for the FBI investigation. You need maps, charts, Venn diagrams, and a compass to navigate, much less unravel, the web of this sinister travesty. If you read Ben Schreckinger’s impressive full article, keep a stiff drink nearby. Just not Manischewitz wine or Russian vodka.

Oh, and by the way, if anyone is so stupid or cruel as to accuse me of anti-Semitism for furthering this crucial work of investigative reporting, they might as well check out my decades-long record of criticizing Israel’s policy toward Palestine, and my even longer record of criticizing all organized religions—in particular fundamentalist evangelical versions thereof—plus sects, cults, and patriarchal institutions that deify men and segregate women, deny them divorce and other rights, pressure them to bear 8 to 10 children, and close ranks against exposure of rabbinical rape of girls and criminal investigations of child sexual abuse in their schools and communities.

By the way, my maternal grandfather was a rabbi and my paternal grandfather was gassed to death and incinerated at Auschwitz. I never knew either one, which may or may not be just as well.

Long live freedom of the press.