For better or worse, I ended my young adult years on the fringes of a magical place and a magical time -- New York City in the late 1980s. I mean "magical" in overlapping layers of the word; the public figures did all seem surrealistically larger than life -- but there was also "magic" in the sense that nothing was really what it seemed to be. Every Wednesday on my reverse commute back into the city from the cemetery-overlooking Long Island newsroom where I worked, I bought a copy of the Village Voice to see which supposedly upright politician was actually in bed with the Mafia...or worse.
One night the well-regarded borough president of Queens, where I was living at the time, a guy named Donald Manes, who some touted as a possible future mayor, grabbed an 8-inch kitchen knife and stabbed himself to death right in the heart -- triggering a scandal that would send many of New York's top pols to prison. But in the decade of "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous," no one was whom he claimed to be -- certainly not the Wall Street titans who proved mostly to be inside traders.
One person really stood out as the symbol of that era. When I think of him back then, I remember racing to catch a train in Penn Station and grabbing a New York Post with the giant headline "BEST SEX I EVER HAD" and the devilishly beaming face of Donald Trump. Trump -- with his ghost-written Art of the Deal creating his business myth amid a blur of yachts, limos and women -- was the ultimate creation of 1980s hype, and arguably the ultimate example of public delusion. By the start of the 1990s, Donald Trump seemed to be so over -- his over-leveraged casinos and other properties in Chapter 11, more of a morality tale than a success story.
Whatever happened to that guy?
Heh, just kidding. As I write this in 2017, the whirlwinds of Trump's unprecedented 45th presidency are swirling more powerfully than usual -- with a brutal crackdown on undocumented immigrants kicked off, a new travel ban targeting majority-Muslim nations circling the runway, and a vigorous debate over how the Trump White House is dealing with a wave of anti-Semitism, among other flare-ups. I could write about all these things, but I can't help but sense there's a bigger crisis looming. That Trump's D.C. house of cards will come crashing down sooner than later, for essentially the same reason that his business empire collapsed a generation ago -- that despite two years of non-stop public vetting, our figurehead is not what he seems.
I'm referring, of course, to the exploding scandal over Trump, his inner circle, and their bizarre history of dealings with Vladimir Putin's Russia. It was, no doubt, the remarkable reporting on this scandal by news outlets such as the New York Times and the Washington Post that caused the president to lash out at the media as "the enemy of the American people." But the questions raised by Russia's apparent efforts to tilt the 2016 election toward Trump, campaign contacts and possible financial dealings that are under investigation by the FBI, Trump's unusual statements and seeming policy shifts toward Putin, and the Russian dealings of former national security adviser Michael Flynn that led to his ouster are simply too loud to ignore.
A week before Michael T. Flynn resigned as national security adviser, a sealed proposal was hand-delivered to his office, outlining a way for President Trump to lift sanctions against Russia.
Mr. Flynn is gone, having been caught lying about his own discussion of sanctions with the Russian ambassador. But the proposal, a peace plan for Ukraine and Russia, remains, along with those pushing it: Michael D. Cohen, the president's personal lawyer, who delivered the document; Felix H. Sater, a business associate who helped Mr. Trump scout deals in Russia; and a Ukrainian lawmaker trying to rise in a political opposition movement shaped in part by Mr. Trump's former campaign manager Paul Manafort.
At a time when Mr. Trump's ties to Russia, and the people connected to him, are under heightened scrutiny — with investigations by American intelligence agencies, the F.B.I. and Congress — some of his associates remain willing and eager to wade into Russia-related efforts behind the scenes.
The story was close to a smoking gun for those who are suspicious of Trump's ties to Putin and who think the new president wants to give away the store when it comes to dealing with Russian expansionism. For one thing, the proposed deal in that envelope would give Putin the vast influence he seeks in Ukraine and remove American sanctions on Russia -- with seemingly nothing for the United States in return. Is this "The Art of the Deal"? And what to make of direct involvement of Cohen, one of Trump's closest associates, who only seems to turn up for the president's most sensitive matters.
And who is Felix Sater?
Sater -- more than anyone else -- may be the holder of the secrets upon which the future of Trump's presidency depends. The man has a long history of close ties to Russian oligarchs, American organized crime...and Donald Trump. In the 1990s and 2000s, when Trump was desperate to write "The Art of the Comeback" (which indeed was the title of his sequel), convicted felon Sater arrived as a source of capital for some of Trump's projects -- with an office in Trump Tower and business cards proclaiming that he was a senior adviser to The Donald.
Sater, now 50, of Port Washington (Long Island), is a felon, but has also been praised as a valued government informant.
Trump worked with Bayrock Group LLC, the company for which the Moscow-born Sater, who grew up in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, was an executive.
Bayrock partnered with Trump on a SoHo project and others in which Trump branded luxury real estate deals. Sater also worked with the Trump Organization on a failed hotel deal in Moscow and other projects, including one in Denver.
Sater, at one point, had business cards identifying himself as a senior adviser to Trump, and had an office on the same floor as the future president's at 725 Fifth Ave., although Trump has made efforts to distance himself.
In 1991, during an argument with a commodities broker in a Manhattan restaurant, authorities said Sater stabbed a man in the cheek and neck with the stem of a margarita glass. He served a year on first-degree assault in the city jail system.
Sounds like a nice guy. The weird thing is that -- despite Sater's seemingly close relationship with the future president of the United States -- Trump has explicitly gone out of his way to practically deny that he knows Sater at all:
Trump has repeatedly said he barely remembers Sater. In sworn testimony in 2013, Trump said he wouldn't recognize Sater if they were sitting in the same room. In an interview last year with the Associated Press, he said, "Felix Sater, boy, I have to even think about it."
That paragraph, by the way, comes from a 2016 Washington Post article that's illustrated with a 2007 picture of Trump at a groundbreaking with Sater and one of the Russian native's business associates. But when it comes to Russia and the political and business dealings of Trump and his associates, memories suddenly go kablooey. Lawyer Cohen has changed his story about his dealings with Sater, the Ukranian political figure. and the ousted Flynn a grand total of four times so far. And of course Flynn lost his job over lying about his own dealings with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. (one of a shrinking number of Russian characters in this drama who has NOT dropped dead of a sudden heart attack, but I digress...)
More importantly, the Sater saga seems to raise serious questions about Trump's claims -- repeated emphatically in last week's stemwinder of a 77-minute press conference -- that he has no business dealings with Russia whatsoever. And it again begs the great unanswered question from the 2016 campaign, of why Trump broke with tradition to keep his income tax returns secret from the American people.
It certainly appears that throughout the 2000s -- when Trump looked more like a 1980s has-been than a future leader of the free world -- that he was kept afloat by his reality-show paycheck, transparent scams like Trump University, licensing his name in various overseas kleptocracies and perhaps through his dealings with Sater and others with high-up Russian connections. Indeed, Donald Trump Jr. said as recently as 2008 that "we see a lot of money pouring in from Russia." What does President Trump owe to his friends in Moscow in return? We don't know -- and what else don't we know about the man who's been our president for just over a month? Just like in 1990, the "successful billionaire" that won the hearts of Rust Belt voters in November 2016 again may not be exactly who he says he is.