A Brief History of Michael Cohen's Criminal Ties

From the Russian mob to money launderers, Trump's personal attorney has long been a subject of interest to federal investigators

Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump's longtime personal lawyer, walks through the lobby of Trump Tower in New York on Jan. 6, 2017. Credit: Sam Hodgson/The New York Times/Redux

Copyright © Seth Hettena. Based on an excerpt from Trump / Russia: A Definitive History to be published by Melville House Publishing on May 8th. 

Michael Cohen, President Trump's long-time lawyer and personal "pit bull," was brought to heel yesterday when federal agents raided his office in Manhattan's Rockefeller Center. The U.S. Attorney's office in Manhattan, acting on a referral from Special Counsel Robert Mueller, is investigating Cohen for possible bank fraud and campaign finance violations that stem, at least in part, from a $130,000 payment Trump's attorney made to hush up a porn star who says she slept with the president. ("I will always protect Mr. Trump," Cohen said.) Meanwhile, Mueller is investigating a $150,000 "donation" that Cohen arranged for Trump's foundation in 2015 from a Ukrainian billionaire named Victor Pinchuk. "Attorney-client privilege is dead!" Trump tweeted this morning. It's not dead, but the raid on Cohen's home, office and swanky Park Avenue hotel room is an extraordinary step that underscores his decade-long role as Trump's heavy, fixer and connector.

Cohen joined the Trump Organization in 2006, and eventually became Trump's personal lawyer, a role once occupied by Roy Cohn, Senator Joseph McCarthy's heavy-lidded hatchet man during the Red Scare who advised Trump in the 1980s. Michael Cohen's bare-knuckled tactics earned him the nickname of "Tom," a reference to Tom Hagen, the consigliore to Mafia Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather. He grew up on Long Island, the son of a physician who survived the Holocaust in Poland, and like Tom Hagen spent a childhood around organized crime, specifically the Russian Mafiya. Cohen's uncle, Morton Levine, was a wealthy Brooklyn doctor who owned the El Caribe Country Club, a Brooklyn catering hall and event space that was a well-known hangout for Russian gangsters. Cohen and his siblings all had ownership stakes in the club, which rented for years to the first Mafiya boss of Brighton Beach, Evsei Agron, along with his successors, Marat Balagula and Boris Nayfeld. (Cohen's uncle said his nephew gave up his stake in the club after Trump's election.)

I spoke to two former federal investigators who told me Cohen was introduced to Donald Trump by his father-in-law, Fima Shusterman, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Ukraine who arrived in the U.S. in 1975. Shusterman was in the garment business and owned a fleet of taxicabs with his partners, Shalva Botier and Edward Zubok – all three men were convicted of a money-laundering related offense in 1993. "Fima may have been a (possibly silent) business partner with Trump, perhaps even used as a conduit for Russian investors in Trump properties and other ventures," a former federal investigator told me. "Cohen, who married into the family, was given the job with the Trump Org as a favor to Shusterman." ("Untrue," Cohen told me. "Your source is creating fake news.")

Shusterman, who owned at least four New York taxi companies, also set his son-in-law up in the yellow cab business. Cohen once ran 260 yellow cabs with his Ukrainian-born partner, the "taxi king" Simon V. Garber, until their partnership ended acrimoniously in 2012. Glenn Simpson, the private investigator who was independently hired to examine Trump's Russia connections during the real estate mogul's presidential run, testified before the House Intelligence Committee that Cohen "had a lot of connections to the former Soviet Union, and that he seemed to have associations with organized crime figures in New York and Florida – Russian organized crime figures," including Garber.

A curious episode in Cohen's life came in 1999 when he received a $350,000 check from a professional hockey player named Vladimir Malakhov, who was then playing for the NHL's Montreal Canadiens. According to Malakhov, the check was a loan to a friend. The friend, however, swore in an affidavit that she never received the money and never even knew the check had been written until it was discovered years later in a Florida lawsuit. So what happened to the money? One interesting lead was an incident involving Malakhov, who was approached in Brighton Beach and shaken down for money by a man who worked for the Russian crime boss, Vyacheslav Ivankov. "Malakhov spent the next months in fear, looking over his shoulder to see if he was being followed, avoiding restaurants and clubs where Russian criminals hang out," according to testimony an unnamed Russian criminal gave to the U.S. Senate in 1996. Cohen, who said he didn't know Malakhov or anyone else in the case, offered his own theories as to the origin and fate of the check in a 2007 deposition with Malakhov's attorneys.

Q. You don't recall why this check was written to you for $350,000 in 1999 and how these funds left your trust account in any way, shape or form?

A: Clearly Vladimir Malakhov had to have known somebody who I was affiliated to and the only person I can—and I mentioned my partner's name, Simon Garber, who happens also to be Russian.

Regardless of what he did or didn't know Cohen was able to purchase a $1 million condo at Trump World Tower in 2001, persuading his parents, his Ukrainian in-laws and Garber to do the same in other Trump buildings. Cohen's in-laws Fima and Ania Shusterman bought three units in Trump World Tower worth a combined $7.66 million (one of which was rented to Jocelyn Wildenstein, the socialite known as "Catwoman" for undergoing extreme facial plastic surgery to please her cat-loving husband). Cohen later purchased a nearly $5 million unit in Trump Park Avenue. In a five-year period, he and people connected to him would purchase Trump properties worth $17.3 million. All the frenzied buying by Cohen and his family caught the attention of the New York Post, often described as Trump's favorite newspaper. "Michael Cohen has a great insight into the real-estate market," Trump told a reporter in 2007. "He has invested in my buildings because he likes to make money – and he does." Trump added, "In short, he's a very smart person."

During Trump's presidential run, reporters noticed a curious thing about Cohen. Questions about Trump's business or his taxes went to his chief legal officer or another staffer, but Cohen handled questions about Russia. "One of the things that we learned that caught my interest," Simpson testified to Congress in November 2017, "serious questions about Donald Trump's activities in Russia and the former Soviet Union went to Michael Cohen, and that he was the only person who had information on that subject or was in a position to answer those questions."

In the 1990s, there was an informal group of federal and local law enforcement agents investigating the Russian Mafiya in New York that called themselves "Red Star." They shared information they learned from informants. It was well known among the members of Red Star that Cohen's father-in-law was funneling money into Trump ventures. Several sources have told me that Cohen was one of several attorneys who helped money launderers purchase apartments in a development in Sunny Isles Beach, a seaside Florida town just north of Miami. This was an informal arrangement passed word-of-mouth: "We have heard from Russian sources that … in Florida, Cohen and other lawyers acted as a conduit for money."

A year after Trump World Tower opened in 2002, Trump had agreed to let Miami father-and-son developers Gil and Michael Dezer use his name on what ultimately became six Sunny Isles Beach condominium towers, which drew in new moneyed Russians all too eager to pay millions. "Russians love the Trump brand," said Gil Dezer, who added that Russians and Russian-Americans bought some 200 of the 2,000 or so units in Trump buildings he built. A seventh Trump-branded hotel tower built up Sunny Isles into what ostensibly has become a South Florida Brighton Beach.

An investigation by Reuters found that at least 63 individuals with Russian passports or addresses have bought at least $98.4 million worth of property in the seven Trump-branded luxury towers. And that was a conservative estimate. At least 703 – or about one-third – of the 2044 units were owned by limited liability companies, or LLCs, which could conceal the property's true owner. Executives from Gazprom and other Russian natural resource giants also owned units in Trump's Sunny Isles towers. In an observation that several people I spoke with echoed, Kenneth McCallion, a former prosecutor who tracked the flows of Russian criminal money into Trump's properties, told me, "Trump's genius – or evil genius – was, instead of Russian criminal money being passive, incidental income, it became a central part of his business plan." McCallion continued, "It's not called 'Little Moscow' for nothing. The street signs are in Russian. But his towers there were built specifically for the Russian middle-class criminal."

Cohen joined the Trump Organization around the time that the second Sunny Isles tower was being built. A few years earlier, he had invested $1.5 million in a short-lived Miami-based casino boat venture run by his two Ukrainian business partners, Arkady Vaygensberg and Leonid Tatarchuk. Only three months after its maiden voyage, it would become the subject of a large fraud investigation. But Cohen was saved from his bad investment by none other than Trump himself, who hired Cohen as an attorney just before his casino ship sank. A source who investigated Cohen's connections to Russia told me, "Say you want to get money into the country and maybe you're a bit suspect. The Trump organization used lawyers to allow people to get money into the country." 

Residents at Sunny Isles included people like Vladimir Popovyan, who paid $1.17 million for a three-bedroom condo in 2013. Forbes Russia described Popovyan as a friend and associate of Rafael Samurgashev, a former championship wrestler who ran a criminal group in Rostov-on-Don in southeastern Russia. Peter Kiritchenko, a Ukrainian businessman arrested on fraud charges in San Francisco in 1999, and his daughter owned two units at Trump Towers in Sunny Isles Beach worth $2.56 million. (Kiritchenko testified against a corrupt former Ukrainian prime minister who was convicted in 2004 of money laundering.) Other owners of Trump condos in Sunny Isles include members of a Russian-American organized crime group that ran a sports betting ring out of Trump Tower, which catered to wealthy oligarchs from the former Soviet Union. Michael Barukhin, who was convicted in a massive scheme to defraud auto insurers with phony claims, lived out of a Trump condo that was registered to a limited liability corporation.

Selling units from the lobby of the Trump International Beach Resort in Sunny Isles was Baronoff Realty. Elena Baronoff, who died of cancer in 2015, was the exclusive sales agent for three Trump-branded towers. Glenn Simpson, who spent a year investigating Trump's background during the campaign, testified before the House Intelligence Committee that Baronoff was a "suspected organized crime figure."

An Uzbek immigrant who arrived in the United States as a cultural attaché in public diplomacy from the Soviet Union, Baronoff became such a well-known figure in Sunny Isles Beach that she was named the international ambassador for the community. Baronoff accompanied Trump's children on a trip to Russia in the winter of 2007–2008, posing for a photo in Moscow with Ivanka and Eric Trump and developer Michael Dezer. Also in the photo, curiously, was a man named Michael Babel, a former senior executive of a property firm owned by Oleg Deripaska, the Russian metals tycoon Paul Manafort allegedly offered personal updates on Trump's presidential campaign. Babel later fled Russia to evade fraud charges.

Baronoff had interesting connections to Sicily. She reportedly met her friend, the Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, there. Baronoff was also close with Dino Papale, a local businessman, who described himself to The New York Times as "president of Trump's Sicilian fan club," while sporting a red "Make America Great Again" cap. Days after Trump's election in November, the local newspaper, La Sicilia, quoted Papale at length describing Trump's secret visit to the island in 2013. Papale hinted that he organized meetings between Trump and Russians.

Michael Cohen's in-laws, the Shustermans, also bought real estate in Sunny Isles. The development was paying off. Trump's oldest son, Don Jr., would later note, "We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia." There is no question Trump owed his comeback in large part to wealthy Russian expatriates.

Cohen and Felix Sater have known each other for nearly 30 years. They met in Brighton Beach when Cohen started dating his future wife, Shusterman's daughter, Laura, who Sater says he knew from the neighborhood. When Cohen joined the Trump organization, Sater had become a fixture in the office. Sater was developing Trump SoHo, a hotel-condo in lower Manhattan that later would be consumed by scandal, and had earned Trump's trust. Trump asked him to look after his children, Ivanka and Don Jr., on a 2006 visit to Moscow. (It was during the Moscow trip that Sater used his Kremlin connections to impress Trump's daughter. Sater would later boast: "I arranged for Ivanka to sit in Putin's private chair at his desk and office in the Kremlin.") When Sater's criminal past was exposed in The New York Times, Trump suddenly looked and acted like a man with something to hide. Despite laying claim to "one of the great memories of all time," he seemed to be having trouble recollecting who Sater was. "Felix Sater, boy, I have to even think about it," Trump told The Associated Press in 2015. "I'm not that familiar with him." Sater flatly contradicted Trump's version of their relationship. In a little-noticed interview with a Russian publication, Snob, Sater was asked if his criminal past was a problem for Trump. "No, it was not. He makes his own decision regarding each and every individual."

In the midst of Trump's presidential run, Sater was shopping a deal to build a Trump World Tower Moscow. Between September 2015 and January 2016, Sater tried to broker a deal for a Moscow company called IC Expert Investment Company. (Sater worked for IC Expert's owner, Andrei Rozov, after he left Bayrock.) Trump signed a letter of intent in October with IC Expert Investment for a Moscow hotel-condo with the option for a "Spa by Ivanka Trump." Providing financing was VTB, a Russian bank subject to U.S. sanctions. Sater's contact at the Trump Organization was his old friend, Trump's lawyer, Michael Cohen. In mid-January, Sater urged Cohen to send an email to Dmitry Peskov, Vladimir Putin's press secretary, "since the proposal would require approvals within the Russian government that had not been issued." Cohen sent the email, got no reply, and said he abandoned the proposal two weeks later.

What Cohen called his old friend's "colorful language" attracted attention from congressional investigators and Special Counsel Robert Mueller's office: "Michael I arranged for Ivanka to sit in Putins private chair at his desk and office in the Kremlin," Sater emailed Cohen in November 2015. "I will get Putin on this program and we will get Donald elected. We both know no one else knows how to pull this off without stupidity or greed getting in the way. I know how to play it and we will get this done. Buddy our boy can become President of the USA and we can engineer. I will get all of Putins team to buy in on this."

Sater gave an unsatisfactory answer to BuzzFeed about why he wrote this email. "If a deal can get done and I could make money and he could look like a statesman, what the fuck is the downside, right?"

Shortly after Trump took office, Sater teamed up with Cohen to submit a Ukrainian peace plan to then national security advisor Michael Flynn that would have opened the door to lifting sanctions on Russia. What happened to the plan? The lawyer at first told The New York Times that he left the plan in Flynn's office. Then, after the story became an embarrassment, he called the Times story "fake news" and claimed he pitched the plan into the trash.

Cohen has always acted to protect Trump, and he likely believed that he could always rely on the impenetrable shield of attorney-client privilege. Arguably, no one who has worked with Trump over the past decade knows more about the president's past business dealings in Russia and elsewhere abroad than Cohen. Now that prosecutors have him in their sights, here's the question: Will Cohen's shield, now broken, become a sword? 

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President Donald Trump responded to the recent raid of his personal attorney Michael Cohen's office. Watch below.