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Felix Sater: Trump wanted to reveal my secret CIA, FBI work during the campaign

Michael Isikoff
Chief Investigative Correspondent

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump wanted to reveal years of secret work that his one-time real estate adviser Felix Sater did for the CIA and FBI because he thought it would result in “mildly positive” press stories that would make him look “patriotic,” Sater said in a new interview.

Trump had previously sought to distance himself from Sater — even insisting in a sworn deposition that he barely knew him. But the Republican presidential candidate thought the disclosure would show “the guy that worked with him, you know, was doing stuff to protect our country,” Sater said, detailing his interactions with Trump about his undercover operations with U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies for the first time.

Felix Sater (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Stefani Reynolds/CNP via Zuma Wire)

But Trump was blocked from the disclosure, Sater added, when one of his lawyers pointed out that the covert work was “sealed information” that government prosecutors had argued would jeopardize national security if made public. (Trump lawyers Alan Garten, general counsel of the Trump Organization, and Rudy Giuliani did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Sater’s claims.)

Sater made his comments in a new interview with Yahoo News’ “Skullduggery” podcast shortly after a federal judge unsealed 10-year-old documents that confirm in greater detail than ever before the work that he did for government agencies starting in the late 1990s and continuing for more than a decade.

His undercover role as government cooperator followed an earlier criminal past that included convictions for smashing the face of a commodities broker with a margarita glass in a bar fight and bilking investors for millions of dollars in a mob-related “pump and dump” stock scheme.

“Sater’s cooperation was of a depth and breadth rarely seen,” federal prosecutors wrote to his sentencing judge on Aug. 27, 2009, detailing “crucial” information that Sater provided leading to the conviction of more than 20 financial fraudsters, mafia members and international cybercriminals.

In addition, the prosecutors wrote, Sater “went above and beyond what is expected of most cooperators” and “placed himself in great jeopardy,” including flying to Afghanistan and Central Asia to provide the CIA with details about Osama bin Laden’s satellite phones, the location of Taliban leader Mullah Omar and even an assassination plot against President George W. Bush.

“I know for a fact that I have stopped 100,000 times more crime than I committed with my bar fight and the stock fraud,” Sater said in the “Skullduggery” interview. “And I know that I protected my country. And I know I risked my life for it.”

Download or subscribe on iTunes: “Skullduggery” from Yahoo News

“I’m not proud of the bad things I’ve done,” he added. But, he insisted, he left his life of crime of his own accord. “When given the opportunity to correct those things, I jumped at it, and I’ll do it again.”

The release of the long-sealed documents on Friday by U.S. District Judge I. Leo Glasser was at least partial vindication for Sater, a colorful Russian-born émigré whose ties to Trump have long been a subject of controversy. Critics of the president, including some in Congress, have suggested that Sater was a potential link between Trump and organized crime.

Felix Sater arrives for a closed-door interview with the House Intelligence Committee last month. (Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

The criticism was amplified by disclosures that the real estate adviser had reached out to Russian contacts in 2015 to advance a proposal for a giant Trump Tower in Moscow. The business plan was never publicly disclosed during the presidential campaign.

But Sater insisted the new material proves that his undercover work for the government more than compensated for his previous crimes. Among the details disclosed in the August 2009 letter — and another one by his own lawyers to the judge — was information Sater provided the government about assassination plots against then-Secretary of State Colin Powell (during a trip to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan) and President Bush (which, according to Sater, involved a plan for al-Qaida agents to release biological agents in the Senate barbershop).

How did Sater know about all this?

“How crazy does this sound? I had an inside source in the cave with Mullah [Omar] and bin Laden,” he claimed. “That’s where I was getting my intel from because I basically co-opted Mullah Omar’s personal secretary to provide me intel. That’s why it was such a high level.”

Much of Sater’s information about these and other terror plots grew out of his connections to “several high-ranking Russian military or former military” officers, including “frequent contact with a former high-ranking KGB officer and arms dealer who possessed information about potential threats to the Asian republics,” the prosecutors wrote in their unsealed letter. (Sater confirmed, in the “Skullduggery” interview, that this was an apparent reference to Evgeny Shmykov, an arms dealer who Sater pointed out actually had been an officer of the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency. It was Shmykov who in 2015 Sater had contacted in an effort to secure his Trump Tower Moscow plan.)

“Of course, Sater did not report this information from first hand knowledge and cannot be held responsible if not all of it was actionable,” the prosecutors cautioned. “Sater, acting in good faith, simply made this intelligence available to those who were in a position to determine its value.”

Felix Sater leaves during a break in his testimony before the House Intelligence Committee. (Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

The separate, Oct. 19, 2009, letter from Sater’s lawyers — also unsealed by Glasser Friday — contained its own surprises. It came from a major U.S. law firm, Morgan Lewis, and was signed by one of its partners who was representing Sater at the time: Leslie Caldwell, a former federal prosecutor in Brooklyn who later became chief of the Criminal Division at the Justice Department under President Barack Obama. The letter successfully asked Glasser to forgo a prison sentence for Sater in the fraudulent stock scheme on the grounds that he had been “fully rehabilitated.”

But it is Sater’s comments during the interview about his relationship with Trump that are likely to be of the most interest. He described how he became a real estate adviser to the Trump Organization — with a nearby office at Trump Tower in Manhattan — and even escorted daughter Ivanka Trump and son Donald Jr. on a trip to Moscow, at their father’s request.

“Donald asked me, ‘Dude, ... look, my kids are going to Moscow. Would you mind going with them? You know, I’d be, I’d feel a lot safer,’” Sater recalled. It was on that trip that Sater, during a private tour of the Kremlin, claimed that he arranged for Ivanka to take a spin in Vladimir Putin’s office chair. “She sat in a chair spinning around twice, you know, she was giddy like a schoolgirl afterwards,” Sater said.

Yet when the first news stories about his criminal past began to appear in 2007 — and lawsuits were filed relating to his ties to Trump — the real estate mogul did everything he could to distance himself from Sater. “If [Sater] were sitting in the room right now, I really wouldn’t know what he looked like,” Trump said in a sworn court affidavit in 2013. “Felix Sater, boy, I have to even think about it. I’m not that familiar with him,” Trump told an Associated Press reporter when he was asked about him in 2015.

Asked how he felt when Trump sought to disown him, despite their long association, and why he continued to try to do business with Trump after those comments, Sater, after a long pause, replied: “I think it’s something that I have to truly dive deeper on my next session with my psychiatrist.”

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