Trump’s Former Fixer’s Three Congressional Hearings Beginning Today Are a Great Opportunity to Demand Answers to Key Unsolved Mysteries that Show the Larger Trump-Russia Picture
Also see related article: How Cohen’s and Manafort’s Ukraine Ties Tell the Deeper Story of Trump-Russia and the Mueller Probe
AMMAN — Trump has conspicuously Tweeted and talked about the idea that Michael Cohen’s wife and Ukrainian father-in-law have some sort of shady criminal connections and has sent his eager minion and Russia point-person Rudy Giuliani to publicly discuss the same. Leaving aside that Giuliani has his own huge shady connection to the Russian mafia and Kremlin operative network linked to Trump and his former Campaign Chairman, Paul Manafort, and that Trump’s actions amount to blatant witness tampering in spirit and probably also in a strict legal sense, Trump may actually be doing more damage to himself in his calls to shed light on the Cohen family’s shady dealings.
That is because many of those shady ties and dealings also involve the same Russian mafia and Kremlin agent network from which Trump is trying so hard to distance himself, a network that envelops everyone from his former Campaign Chairman and now convicted felon Paul Manafort and Donald Jr. to his son-in-law Jared Kushner and many of Trump’s top business partners over the past two decades, among others. And while Cohen’s connections have been barely explored in the media and publicly released investigations’ material, Cohen’s upcoming hearings present a unique opportunity to show the public how this all ties together, both demonstrably and possibly. It is one of the few chances the main public lens might actually zoom out to show the public the bigger picture instead of the non-stop barrage of details that are overwhelming for most people when they try to understand the Mueller probe and the whole Trump-Russia saga.
To start, we must go back to late 1990s Ukraine.
Kiev Connections for Cohen
In post-Soviet Ukraine, a businessman named Viktor Topolov ran a construction company called Kyiv-Donbas, and as the 1990s drew to a close, he was allegedly employing several members of the Russian mafia through his company. Among these was Leonid Roytman, officially a vice president of Kyiv-Donbas, which Rotyman said regularly served as a conduit and meeting-hub for organized crime in Ukraine. According to the FBI, in reality, Roytman was a (now confessed) hitman and Russian mafioso linked to Semion Mogilevich.
Semion Mogilevich is one of the biggest mafia bosses in the world and was long on the FBI’s most-wanted list, the “boss of bosses” of the Russian mafia known mainly for two things: his tight relationship with Putin and his “brainy don” financial schemes of immense complexity that are difficult to expose. Back in the 1990s, as he was cementing that close relationship with Vladimir Putin, he attended a 1995 mafia summit meeting in Tel Aviv hosted by Boris Birshtein (at some point becoming father-in-law of his one-time employee Alexander Shnaider, later Trump’s primary partner in the scandalous, majorly-Russian-funded Trump Tower Toronto saga), where he and other top Eastern European organized crime figures met to lay out their plans for Ukraine.
At this point, Mogilevich’s tentacles were well into the Ukrainian energy sector, and it would irresponsible not to look at the following in that context and in the above paragraph’s context since money laundering run by Mogilevich and behind most of the nation’s gas deals for the past few decades would dictate the course of politics, war, and peace in Ukraine through the present, all part of a scheme to bend Ukraine to Putin’s and Russia’s will.
Returning to Topolov, he would be a major player in an alleged money laundering and embezzling scandal that involved the Ukrainian state gas company Naftogaz and its Russian counterpart, gas giant Gazprom, in addition to the Ukrainian football team CSKA Kiev. Topolov ran the team during this scandal until he handed it off in 1999 to Ukrainian Andrii Artemenko. It would be Artemenko who would take much of the fall for the gas-football scandal.
Topolov seemed to fare better and within a few years had become a powerful Ukrainian politician. At this stage, he and his “longtime business partner,” Alex Oronov (who was also quite close with Artemenko), entered into a new business arrangement with Oronov’s son-in-law (who had married Oronov’s daughter Oksana) and his son-in-law’s brother. The husband was one Bryan Cohen, and his brother was also married to a Ukrainian, Laura Shusterman, the daughter of convicted money-launderer and Ukrainian immigrant to the U.S. Fima Shusterman.
This brother was none other than Michael Cohen, soon to be Donald Trump’s laywer, fixer, and confidante.
Before he got in deep with Topolov and Trump, Michael Cohen was involved in shady business deals with suspicious and “connected” Russian/former Soviet state partners. But given where he was raised, that is not terribly surprising. The Cohen brothers grew up in the Brighton Beach area of Brooklyn, an area notorious for Russian mafia activity, and their uncle even ran a catering business that was for a time a hot-spot for Russian mobsters.
As a boy, Michael even became friends with a neighborhood boy, Felix Sater, who as an adult would end up having a long history of alleged and proven Russian mafia and money laundering activity, with even one uncorroborated U.S. Supreme Court petition alleging that his father was a captain in the Mogilevich mafia outfit. Sater was himself convicted of Russian-mafia-involved money laundering run from a Trump property at the same time Mogilevich was running similar schemes in the U.S. and Canada, but much of Sater’s file was sealed when he began cooperating with the U.S. government on numerous issues, including cases that involved stinger missiles and even al-Qaeda. Mysteriously, Sater ended up working with, and later for, Trump, on a serious huge yet disastrous real-estate deals that all ended in some combination of lawsuits, bankruptcies, scandal, failure, and heavy suspicion of money laundering. These deals involved major financing from shadowy Russian and former Soviet-state figures linked to the Russian mafia and/or the Russian/Soviet government and were going down around the same time that the Cohens were setting up shop with Topolov and Oronov. Since Cohen quickly rose to top Trump confidante at the time the Sater-brokered deals were blowing up and falling apart, and given that Cohen was childhood friends with Sater (it was they who coordinated the now infamous Trump Tower Moscow feelers), it is far more likely than not that Cohen was aware of a lot of the drama involving the Sater deals.
The Cohens-Topolov-Oronov project took the form of a Ukrainian ethanol business venture. In 2006 (the same year Michael Cohen rose rapidly into Trump’s inner orbit), the brothers Cohen solicited investment from Americans to build a factory for the ethanol project, meeting Topolov in person during in the process; they failed in their pitch, but others funded the investment to the tune of millions. Considering no ethanol was ever produced by the venture, this entire setup is extremely suspect and the few explanations that have been given fall short and leave unanswered many questions that would be highly relevant to a number of investigations related to Trump-Russia issues, includin Special Counsel Mueller’s probe.
This need for greater scrutiny is only increased when one realizes that this all happened at the same time one of the largest money laundering scams in history was underway in Ukraine. The previously alluded to gas deals were part of a massive plot designed to hand Ukraine over to Russian President Vladimir Putin, at first indirectly, but later even involving a push to formally hand over Crimea, the Ukrainian region illegally occupied and annexed by Russia in 2014, to Russia.
While Mogilevich had set up the laundering mechanisms to launder billions behind the scenes, It was none other than later-to-be convicted felon and former Trump Campaign Chairman Paul Manafort and his deputy Rick Gates—now at the center the Mueller probe—who were running the political side of the gas scheme for Putin’s chosen candidate in Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, and his pro-Russian party, the Party of Regions. They also engaged in related work to further Russian interests, sometimes with Oleg Deripaska, who has been in several Trump-Russia related scandals of late. That work is central to major Mueller lines of inquiry and was often related to shady gas deals for Gazprom gas worth many billions that were being used by Putin allies to siphon money to pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine over many years, eventually allowing Yanukovych and his Party to take over the government and precipitating the (Euro)Maidan revolution, the Ukrainian civil war, and Russia’s snatching of Crimea.
This massive money laundering operation involved a huge chunk of the organized crime activity in Ukraine at the time, and it would be hardly surprising to find Topolov—who was previously tied to money laundering, Gazprom, the Russian mafia, and Mogilevich specifically—may have used his business venture with the Cohens to play a part in this massive laundering scheme consuming Ukraine at the time. That so little is known or offered about that ethanol business only further demands answers in the context of the overall situation, as Manafort’s and Gate’s work at this time is important to Mueller’s probe and since significant parts of Putin’s machinery that was trying to control Ukraine would also be mobilized to engage Trump and his inner circle.
Considering that Oronov, a “partner, mentor, teacher and friend” to Artemenko, helped organize negotiations shortly after Trump was inaugurated between Cohen and Sater on one hand and Artemenko on the other—negotiations designed to produce U.S. legitimization of the illegal Crimea annexation, legitimization that ran counter to U.S. policy and U.S. interests—and considering Manafort right up until he joined Trump’s campaign was doing political consulting for the pro-Russian successor to the Party of Regions, the Opposition Bloc, of which Artemenko was a member (Manafort even flew at least once while doing this business on a private jet owned by a company co-founded by Artemenko’s father), the focus should be clear: the relationships between Topolov, Oronov, Artemenko, Sater, and Cohen raise many unanswered questions, are at least partly-related to the Manafort-Gates work, and now is the time to have answers.
A Chance for Answers Now
In other words, if Cohen engaged in business that doesn’t add up with a Russian mafia and Mogilevich-linked Ukrainian politician (Topolov), whose old (seemingly criminal) partner (Artemenko) is close with that Ukrainian politician’s-then partner, Cohen’s brother’s father-in-law (Oronov), and that partner ends up sitting opposite Cohen years later discussing a deal on Crimea when Cohen represents the president of the United States (Trump), and if for most of the time in between, Putin’s best friend in the Russian mafia (Mogilevich) had been working on a massive scheme to hand over Ukraine to Putin with the man who would become that U.S. president’s Campaign Chairman (Manafort), and that same man tied to Cohen’s old business partner, brother’s father-in-law, and presidential diplomacy involving Cohen (Artemeko) had been a member of the pro-Russian party employing that future Campaign Chairman until shortly before he became said Campaign Chairman and whose father co-founded a company flying that future Campaign Chairman around to do this business, and that Campaign Chairman runs a campaign for a candidate and president who is the most pro-Kremlin since the American-Soviet alliance of WWII, Congress and the media might want to ask some questions about all this.
While Wednesday’s public House Oversight Committee will be quite restricted to avoid interfering with Mueller’s probe, the closed Senate and House Intelligence Committees’ hearings (today and Thursday, respectively) will be less so. However possible, the questions raised from the above must be asked.
Despite all his proven past wrongdoing in support of Trump and allegedly in other situations, Cohen should still be applauded for attempting to assist the cause of justice and the law today. However, it should still be remembered that for years, he was one of Trump’s most loyal soldiers, one with multiple organized crime connections. Through that lens, the questions of what exactly he was doing in Ukraine in and around 2006—when so many other nefarious things were going on related to the Special Counsel’s investigation and other Trump-centered investigations involving people in the orbits of Cohen’s business partners and in the orbit of Cohen himself—still demand answers, and the upcoming hearings are an excellent chance to demand them.
The story of Cohen’s Ukrainian father-in-law and wife has yet to be really fleshed out, but if they are indeed connected to Russian organized crime, a focus on that may haunt Trump, especially if they are connected to the same Mogilevich network that worked for so long with Manafort and has long sought to engage Trump himself.
© 2019 Brian E. Frydenborg all rights reserved, no republication without permission, attributed quotations welcome
Also see related article: How Cohen’s and Manafort’s Ukraine Ties Tell the Deeper Story of Trump-Russia and the Mueller Probe
Brian E. Frydenborg is an American freelance writer and consultant from the New York City area who has been based in Amman, Jordan, since early 2014. He holds an M.S. in Peace Operations and specializes in a wide range of interrelated topics, including international and U.S. policy/politics, security/conflict/(counter)terrorism, humanitarianism, development, social justice, and history. You can follow and contact him on Twitter: @bfry1981
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