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It was difficult to pierce the veil of ownership, but I made some headway by collaborating on a reporting project with an investigations team at the Columbia University School of Journalism. Manuela Andreoni and Inti Pacheco, two recent graduates who are now investigative fellows, have spent months researching the Silk Road Group, Mukhtar Ablyazov, Yerkin Tatishev, and B.T.A. Bank. They have looked closely at relevant lawsuits, and they have obtained and translated property records and corporate registries from around the world.
Although Tatishev had repeatedly assured me that he was not involved in making decisions about Silk Road Group projects that had been funded by B.T.A. loans, I continued to accrue contradictory evidence. I recently received a cache of internal Silk Road Group e-mails, dating back to 2014, and they make clear that Tatishev has exerted detailed operational control over the company’s activities, including real-estate businesses that were funded by the B.T.A. loans. The e-mail cache shows that David Borger, a German financier who is a top executive at the company, regularly informed Tatishev about delicate internal financial matters and asked him for approval on a wide variety of decisions pertaining to Silk Road Group hotels, casinos, telecommunications infrastructure, and hydroelectric plants. Many of these projects had been initially funded by loans made while Tatishev was a senior official at B.T.A. Bank.
In one e-mail exchange, from earlier this year, Tatishev weighed in on a decision about which investment bank the Silk Road Group should use for a transaction. “We are cool guys,” Tatishev wrote. “And should always work with cool guys.” Borger responded, “Dear Yerkin, in this case can you please help us to get a cool deal with them?” He then asked Tatishev to describe how he wanted the deal to be structured.
In another recent e-mail discussion, which touched on crucial questions about the ownership and the financing of a major Silk Road Group project, Borger told Tatishev, “I need your ok.” In a subsequent e-mail, George Ramishvili, the C.E.O. of the Silk Road Group, added that Tatishev needed to give his approval. Tatishev did so. In a 2014 e-mail, a Silk Road Group consultant sent Tatishev and Ramishvili a summary of a plan they had devised to settle the outstanding debt owed to B.T.A. Bank.
Video from Trump’s visit to Georgia provides further evidence that Tatishev was a key part of the Silk Road Group—and suggests that Trump recognized his importance. During a speech that Trump gave in Tbilisi, Tatishev can be seen sitting in the audience next to Ramishvili. Trump says, “We have two great partners.” He points toward the seats where Tatishev and Ramishvili are sitting. “And they’re going to do a fantastic job.” (Giorgi Rtskhiladze, the Silk Road Transatlantic Alliance executive who met me in Manhattan, told me that Trump must have thought it was him, not Tatishev, sitting next to Ramishvili. But Rtskhiladze and Tatishev look nothing alike: Rtskhiladze is clean-shaven, with light-colored hair; Tatishev is nearly bald, with dark facial hair.) Tatishev accompanied Trump to meet Saakashvili at the Presidential Palace, in Tbilisi. When Michael Cohen, the Trump Organization executive, went to Georgia in 2010 to discuss building a tower with the Silk Road Group, he also met with Tatishev. A representative of the Silk Road Group said that Tatishev is a friend of Ramishvili and simply wanted to say hello to a big American tycoon. Inviting friends to important business meetings, the representative said, is common practice in the Caucasus region.
With minimal due diligence, Trump Organization executives would have noticed that the Silk Road Group exhibited many warning signs of financial fraud: its layered and often hidden ownership, its ornate use of shell companies, its close relationship with a bank that was embroiled in a financial scandal. Trump’s visit to Georgia occurred while his company was making a series of similar foreign deals. Until then, the Trump Organization had ventured abroad only occasionally: in 1999, a set of Korean buildings licensed the Trump name; in 2006, Trump bought a golf course in Scotland; the following year, construction began on a Trump-branded tower in Turkey. But by 2012 Trump was struggling in the U.S. market. His biggest investment, in American casinos, had proved ruinous, and he was now a minority owner of a near-bankrupt business. Trump had defaulted on loans multiple times, and nearly every bank in the U.S. refused to finance deals bearing his name. And so Trump turned to people in other countries who did not share this reluctance to give him money. In 2012 alone, the Trump Organization negotiated or finalized deals in Azerbaijan, Brazil, Canada, Georgia, India, the Philippines, the United Arab Emirates, and Uruguay.
At the time, the Trump Organization had only a handful of staff members involved in dealmaking. His children Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump, Jr., assumed a management role in many of these foreign projects. According to Rtskhiladze, Trump, Jr., helped oversee the Batumi deal. At one point, Rtskhiladze and Cohen held two days of meetings in New York to discuss the project. Trump, Jr., dropped by several times. According to former executives at the Trump Organization, the company lacked rigorous procedures for assessing foreign partners.
A month after Trump visited Georgia, he agreed to license his name to, and provide oversight of, a luxury hotel in Baku, Azerbaijan, a deal that I examined in an article in The New Yorker earlier this year. Trump received several million dollars from the brother and the son of an Azerbaijani billionaire who was then the Minister of Transportation—a man who, U.S. officials believe, may have been simultaneously laundering money for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. In 2013, Trump met with the Azerbaijani-Russian billionaire Aras Agalarov and his son, Emin; that November, they partnered with Trump on the Miss Universe contest, in Moscow, and discussed building a Trump Tower in the Russian capital. In June, 2016, at Emin Agalarov’s request, Trump, Jr., met with Natalia Veselnitskaya, a lawyer who has represented Russian intelligence. Trump, Jr., was promised damaging information about Hillary Clinton. Veselnitskaya came to the meeting accompanied by business associates who have extensive ties to Georgia and Azerbaijan.
In December, 2012, not long after Trump signed the Batumi licensing deal, a company called Riviera, L.L.C., bought the fifteen-acre parcel of land on which the Trump Tower Batumi would supposedly be built. The price was twelve million dollars, and the seller was Vento, L.L.C., which was owned by a company that was owned by a company that was owned by a company that was owned by the Silk Road Group. Riviera, L.L.C., was also partly owned by the Silk Road Group. In other words, the Silk Road Group was selling property to itself.
The Financial Action Task Force, headquartered in Paris, is led by representatives from thirty-seven nations. In 2007, the task force issued a report about the use of real-estate projects for money laundering. The report makes note of several red flags. It warns of “complex loans” in which businesses “lend themselves money, creating the appearance that the funds are legitimate.” It also warns of the use of offshore shell companies and tangled corporate legal structures, especially those in which third parties are hired to administer a company and conceal its true ownership. These intertwined companies can then trade property among themselves, in order to create inflated valuations: “An often-used structure is, for example, the setting up of shell companies to buy real estate. Shortly after acquiring the properties, the companies are voluntarily wound up, and the criminals then repurchase the property at a price considerably above the original purchase price. This enables them to insert a sum of money into the financial system equal to the original purchase price plus the capital gain, thereby allowing them to conceal the origin of their funds.”
The report states that money launderers often find that “buying a hotel, a restaurant or other similar investment offers further advantages, as it brings with it a business activity in which there is extensive use of cash.” Casinos—like the one planned for the Trump Tower Batumi—are especially useful in this regard. The casino was to be owned by the Silk Road Group and its partners.
Alan Garten, the chief legal officer for the Trump Organization, declined to describe the due diligence behind the Batumi tower. When the deal was signed, the general counsel for the Trump Organization was Jason Greenblatt, who is now President Trump’s envoy to negotiate Middle East peace. (The White House declined to comment for this story, referring me instead to Sekulow, Trump’s lawyer, who also declined to discuss the specifics of the Batumi deal.)
A representative of the Silk Road Group told me that the company had been eager to assuage any ethical concerns the Trump Organization or other potential partners may have had, and so it had conducted due diligence—on itself. In May, 2012, the Silk Road Group commissioned K2 Intelligence, a firm founded by the investigator Jules Kroll, to produce a report. (This was fourteen months after the Trump Organization signed the Batumi deal.) I recently obtained a summary of the report, which explained that K2 was “asked to probe the background and integrity of S.R.G.’s principal shareholder, George Ramishvili, more deeply than a standard investigative or compliance report might.” However, the report seems to have addressed only one issue: a rumor, circulating in the Georgian media, that Ramishvili had once been a member of the Mkhedrioni, a right-wing militia. K2 concluded that the rumor was false. The summary did not address the Silk Road Group’s funding sources, its complex legal structure, or its relationship to the B.T.A. Bank scandal, which was unfolding in London courts at the time. Other due diligence may have been performed, but the Silk Road Group, K2, and the Trump Organization declined to share specific information.
Ross Delston, a prominent anti-money-laundering attorney in Washington, D.C., told me that, if one of his clients approached him with the possibility of entering a licensing relationship with the people involved in the Batumi deal, he “would tell him not to walk away but to run away—to run like hell.” He explained, “There are too many aspects of the deal that don’t make sense, and there’s no way, as an outsider, that you could conduct sufficient due diligence to figure out if it is criminal.”
So many partners of the Trump Organization have been fined, sued, or criminally investigated for financial crimes that it is hard to ascribe the pattern to coincidence, or even to shoddy due diligence. In criminal law, there is a crucial concept called “willful blindness”: a person can be convicted of a crime even if he was unaware of certain aspects of the crime in which he was engaged. In U.S. courts, judges routinely explain to juries that “no one can avoid responsibility for a crime by deliberately ignoring what is obvious.” (When the Trump Organization cancelled the Batumi deal, it noted that it held the Silk Road Group “in the highest regard.”)
John Madinger, the former Treasury official, said that, in any deal that might involve money laundering, there is one critical question: “Does the financial transaction make economic or business sense?” In recent years, a lot of residential housing has been built in Batumi, but most of it has consisted of what Colliers, the market-analysis firm, calls “low-segment”—down-market—apartments. The Trump Organization, with its extensive experience in the luxury real-estate market, could surely sense that it would not be easy to enlist hundreds of wealthy people to buy multimillion-dollar condominiums in Batumi. I asked several New York real-estate developers to assess the proposed tower. One laughed and said that the Batumi deal reminded him of “The Producers,” the Mel Brooks movie about two charlatans who create a horrible musical designed to fail. Another New York developer, who spent years making deals in the former Soviet Union, told me, “A forty-seven-story tower of luxury condominiums in Batumi is an insane idea. I wouldn’t have gone near a project like this.”
Giorgi Rtskhiladze, the Silk Road Transatlantic Alliance executive, confirmed that the luxury-housing market in Batumi was nonexistent in 2012, when he invited Donald Trump to visit Georgia, but said that the tower’s investors were nonetheless confident that a Trump-branded skyscraper would attract buyers. He insisted that the Silk Road Group had not taken part in anything illicit, and said that B.T.A. Bank’s 2005 decision to lend the Silk Road Group several hundred million dollars was hardly suspicious. The company had been working in Kazakhstan for years, transporting oil products, and had become close with the Tatishev family. When the bank that Tatishev helped run, B.T.A., decided to invest in redeveloping Batumi, the obvious partner was the Silk Road Group. “We were the partner they knew,” Rtskhiladze said. “We’re active in the region.”
Rtskhiladze acknowledged that it was quite a big loan for such a poor country. “Unbelievable,” he called it. And it was true that the Silk Road Group had little experience in hotels or construction or telecommunications when it suddenly entered those industries. But, he pointed out, Georgia was still emerging from the torpid days of the Soviet Union. “You’re talking about a country that had no experience,” he said. “Nobody else had experience.” In any case, he suggested, “real-estate development wasn’t that complicated. You hire third parties, who do feasibility studies. You look at the numbers. It wasn’t that difficult.” He added, “We like to do clean, transparent business.”
I asked Rtskhiladze why he had invited Trump, who has generally avoided travelling abroad, to Georgia. He told me a story from 1989, when he was a young soldier in the Soviet Army. “They told me, for target practice, to shoot Ronald Reagan’s face,” he recalled. “I refused.” The Army jailed him for several days. Soon after he was released, he said, he saw a magazine with Trump on the cover. He told himself, “One day, I will go to New York and meet this man.”
He argued that the fact that “there was no luxury in Batumi” was precisely why the idea of a Trump Tower was so smart. The skyscraper, with its “pool and gyms and conference rooms,” would single-handedly create “an entire universe of very New York-style luxury in a seaside town.” The luxury condominiums, he added, were “for international buyers—Saudis, Turks, Russians.” In his “strong opinion,” the Trump brand was “the only brand for them.” (David Borger, the Silk Road Group executive, told me that a study by a well-regarded Turkish firm had concluded that the tower was a good business idea, but he declined to share the name of the firm or the study.)
Melanie A. Bonvicino, who handles communications for the Silk Road Group, told me that the Trump Tower Batumi deal demonstrated an openhearted vision. “With the Batumi project, Trump was once again able to demonstrate his keen business sense,” she wrote in an e-mail. “Donald Trump in his role as futurist and visionary ordained the region as the next big thing. Mr. Trump had an immediate grasp over the geopolitical significance of the Republic of Georgia and its Black Sea region, acknowledging its vast potential by jointly transforming this hidden gem into the next Riviera. In the élite realm of global residential and commercial real-estate developers, the Trump moniker was and remains synonymous with Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and Michael Jackson.”
In 2009, when Ablyazov fled to London, the Kazakh government seized control of B.T.A. Bank. (Tatishev moved to Singapore in 2013.) A lawyer representing the bank, Roman Marchenko, informed the Silk Road Group that he had reason to believe that it had participated in Ablyazov’s loan scheme. The Silk Road Group denied any wrongdoing. A settlement was reached, for fifty million dollars—a bargain price, considering that the loans had totalled three hundred million. Marchenko believes that the Silk Road Group was deeply entwined with Ablyazov, but Kazakh government officials decided to stop investigating. They were pursuing Ablyazov’s stolen assets all over the world, and there was more money in other countries.
The Kazakh government placed B.T.A. Bank’s assets under the authority of its sovereign-wealth fund. Soon after, Timur Kulibayev—the powerful son-in-law of the country’s dictator, Nursultan Nazarbayev—became the director of the fund. Kulibayev and his staff had access to all the bank’s internal documents. Recently, Kulibayev became the majority owner of the bank, giving him total control over B.T.A.’s archives, as well as ownership of its assets. Kulibayev was surely familiar with the players involved in the Trump Tower Batumi project. In 2011, Giorgi Rtskhiladze and Michael Cohen, the Trump Organization executive, began promoting the idea of a Trump Tower in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. They visited Astana and met with Karim Masimov, the Prime Minister. Masimov is now the head of Kazakhstan’s national-security apparatus.
Keith Darden is a political scientist at American University who has written extensively on the use of compromising information—kompromat—by former Soviet regimes against people they want to control. He told me that Kazakh intelligence is believed to collect dossiers on every significant business transaction involving the country. This would be especially true if a famous American developer was part of the deal, even if it would not have occurred to them that he might one day become the U.S. President. “There is no question—they know everything about this deal,” Darden said.
Darden explained that Kazakh intelligence agents work closely with their Russian counterparts. Kulibayev himself has direct ties to Russia’s leadership. In 2011, he was named to the board of Gazprom, the Russian gas behemoth, which is widely considered to be a pillar of Putin’s fortune. In “The Return: Russia’s Journey from Gorbachev to Medvedev,” Daniel Treisman, a political scientist at U.C.L.A. who specializes in Russia, wrote, “For Putin, Gazprom was a personal obsession. He memorized the details of the company’s accounts, its pricing rules and pipeline routes. He personally approved all appointments down to the deputy level, sometimes forgetting to tell the company’s actual C.E.O., Aleksey Miller.” Kulibayev could not possibly be serving on Gazprom’s board without Putin’s ascent.
Robert Mueller has assembled a team of sixteen lawyers. One of them is fluent in Russian, and five have extensive experience investigating and prosecuting cases of money laundering, foreign corruption, and complex financial conspiracies. The path from Trump to Putin, if one exists, might be found in one of his foreign real-estate deals.
When Mueller was appointed special counsel, his official writ was to investigate not just “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump” but also “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation.” Much hinges on the word “directly.” Sekulow, Trump’s lawyer, insists that Mueller’s mandate essentially stops at the Russian border. Pawneet Abramowski, a former F.B.I. intelligence analyst, told me that Sekulow’s assertion is nonsensical. “You must follow the clues,” she said. When investigating a businessperson like Trump, “you have to follow the money and go wherever it leads—you must follow the clues all the way to the end.”