Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

A Birthday Video Call Captures a Telling Moment in Trump's Russia Connections

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

A Birthday Video Call Captures a Telling Moment in Trump's Russia Connections

Article excerpt

WASHINGTON * Several businessmen and celebrities from the former Soviet Union gathered on the Turkish Riviera in June 2005 to celebrate the grand opening of what was billed then as the country's most luxurious hotel.

The owners were from Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan, and it was the birthday of one of them, Tofik Arifov, a former Soviet official turned real estate developer with offices in Manhattan's Trump Tower.

There was food, drink and song. There was also a video conference call from a well-wisher from the U.S. who couldn't attend but who, according to a Russian news account, urged the celebrants to raise their glasses.

"Tofik is my friend!" Donald Trump said through the phone. "Let's toast Tofik!"

That moment, revealed in sealed documents obtained by McClatchy that were part of a British lawsuit involving several Russians, captures Trump in a milieu that has since cast a cloud over his presidency. The court documents focused on what law enforcement calls Russian "OCGs" organized criminal groups.

Among those court papers was also a story about the birthday party that appeared in Izvestia, the Russian news agency, on June 20, 2005. It was written by Bozhena Rynska, a lingerie model turned columnist who is followed by millions of Russians, drawn to her insider tales of Russia's rich and powerful.

Arifov and at least two others at the party, Alexander Mashkevich and Tamir Sapir, both billionaires with roots in the former Soviet Union, have been linked to allegations of illegal activities, according to court documents, diplomatic cables and news accounts. Mashkevich has been linked to allegations of money laundering. He and Arifov have been alleged to have associations with organized crime. Sapir has been accused of nonpayment of loans for his New York real estate empire, as well as illegally importing rare animal parts.

All three were also involved in a Lower Manhattan real estate project known as Trump SoHo, developed by the Bayrock Group, which was once headquartered in Trump Tower and partnered with the Trump Organization. The result would be bankruptcy and a tangle of lawsuits, some still unresolved.

The White House referred questions to the Trump Organization. Its attorney, Alan Garten, did not respond to three requests for comment.

Trump has denied having any "dealings" with Russia, but he has dealt with oligarchs, the uber-rich industrialists who emerged with the Kremlin's blessing after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Any due diligence would have shown the Trump Organization that the backgrounds of some of the guests at the Turkish hotel birthday party would have raised questions.

"The normal constraints of reputational risk just don't apply to him," said Jack Blum, a former Senate investigator and expert on money laundering. …

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