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Trump Denies Links To Russian-American Businessman


For months, the president has been beset with questions about his business dealings. And now there are growing calls for Congress to investigate his ties to Russia. Trump insists he has no investments in Russia. He has sometimes done business with companies linked to the former Soviet Union. For example, a real estate company called the Bayrock Group. Among that company's executives was a Russian-American businessman who had once spent time in prison. NPR's Jim Zarroli has more.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: The Trump SoHo New York in Lower Manhattan is something of a celebrity hangout, a place where you might catch a glimpse of people like the Kardashians.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Khloe, can I get a wave? You're so hot.

ZARROLI: The hotel was built as part of a deal between Trump and a real estate company called the Bayrock Group. And it's often cited as evidence of possible ties between Trump and Russian money. Bayrock was founded by a former Soviet official named Tevfik Arif. Trump biographer Michael D'Antonio says at the time the SoHo project was announced in 2006, a lot of Russian money was flowing into New York.

MICHAEL D'ANTONIO: And people in business understood that some of this money wasn't quite clean. And you had to be quite careful about who you welcomed as a partner.

ZARROLI: Trump agreed to do a licensing deal with Bayrock. And among Bayrock's top executives was the Russian-born businessman Felix Sater. It's safe to say that Sater has had his ups and downs over the years, as he acknowledged in a short speech to a Jewish group in 2014.


FELIX SATER: My life has been beyond interesting. My wife says living with me is like reading next week's paper today.

ZARROLI: In the early '90s, Sater served time in prison for assault after stabbing a man with a broken glass in a bar fight. A few years later, he was convicted in a stock fraud scheme. But U.S. officials say he agreed to cooperate with the government on an unrelated national security matter, which helped him avoid more prison time. And later, he went to Bayrock, which leased office space in Trump Tower. Michael D'Antonio says the details of Sater's career remain murky.

D'ANTONIO: He's head of a company that's got an office in Trump Tower, and somehow has the financial wherewithal to support a Trump development. Where did the cash for Bayrock come from? That's a really important question.

ZARROLI: Sater didn't return calls seeking comment. Over the years, Sater has continued to hitch his wagon to the Trump team. He reportedly helped Trump's children scout locations for new properties in Eastern Europe. His business cards identify him as a senior Trump adviser. And in one recent incident, Sater and Trump's personal attorney, Michael Cohen, met with a Ukrainian politician who wanted to pass on a plan to ease economic sanctions on Russia. Tim O'Brien wrote a book about Trump.

TIM O'BRIEN: The question that hangs over all of this for me is why is Donald Trump associating with someone like this? And why is he still in the Trump Organization's orbit since Trump got elected? How did he wind up weighing in on things like Russian sanctions and the Ukraine?

ZARROLI: Trump himself has defended Sater, rejecting claims, for example, that he has ties to the mafia. Here, Trump was speaking in a 2013 deposition.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I don't think he was connected to the mafia. He got into a bar room fight and - in fact, he was supposedly very close to the government of the United States as a witness or something.

ZARROLI: At any rate, Trump said, he didn't really know Sater all that well. If he were sitting in a room right now, Trump said, I really wouldn't know what he looked like. Jim Zarroli, NPR News, New York.


Jim Zarroli is an NPR correspondent based in New York. He covers economics and business news.