A federal judge has confirmed for the first time that Felix Sater, a former Donald Trump business associate who drove Trump Tower Moscow negotiations during the 2016 election, helped the U.S. government track down Osama bin Laden.
During a hearing on Thursday in the Eastern District of New York — held as part of a lawsuit brought by First Look Media to unseal records related to Sater’s longtime cooperation with the government on various national security issues — Judge I. Leo Glasser said the media group already knew all of the “very interesting and dangerous things” Sater had done through his decade as an FBI informant.
“He cooperated,” Glasser said. “And you know what he did over the 10, 11 years, because you told me that you know. He provided the telephone number of Osama bin Laden. He has done an awful lot of very interesting and dangerous things.”
The detail is just another bizarre side plot that has emerged over the two-plus years that federal investigators, lawmakers and journalists have tried to uncover every detail about possible interactions between the Trump campaign and Russian intermediaries during the 2016 election. The probes have put spotlights on a cast of figures in Trump’s extended orbit, many of whom possess unusual backgrounds.
Sater was pulled into the public eye because of his role in trying to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. The deliberations have been of interest to investigators for two reasons. One, they occurred as the Kremlin was orchestrating an extensive campaign to interfere in the U.S. presidential election. And two, Trump’s personal attorney Michael Cohen later lied to Congress about how deep into campaign season the negotiations lasted.
As congressional investigators turned their attention to Sater, he regularly promoted the work he did as an FBI informant, arguing it displayed his patriotism.
He said in written remarks to lawmakers that he “provided crucial intelligence information” about Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida “before and after the 9/11 attacks.” He gave BuzzFeed more details — which the publication independently confirmed — saying that he obtained five of the personal satellite telephone numbers for bin Laden before the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
On Thursday, the judge confirmed the bin Laden anecdote.
But Glasser seemed hesitant about revealing more about Sater’s classified work.
The Judge indicated that unsealing Sater’s 5k1 letter — which is a memo outlining the extent of a defendant’s cooperation, and to what extent that should be taken into consideration for sentencing — still risked disincentivizing other confidential informants from coming forward and cooperating with the government in the future.
The judge asked what else the public needed to know “that would affect these House of Representatives hearings and Mr. Trump?”
Sater had been planning to testify before the House Intelligence Committee in March, but his hearing was postponed after Attorney General Bill Barr released a summary of special counsel Robert Mueller’s primary findings, marking the end of the probe.
Sater’s informant work stems from a 1998 case in which he pleaded guilty to participating in a $40 million stock fraud scheme orchestrated by the mafia in New York. Sater agreed to secretly collect information for the government, which described his cooperation as “extraordinary” in national security cases that have never been named or confirmed in open court before Thursday.
But despite Thursday’s disclosure, most of the details of Sater’s cooperation with the government still remain officially secret.
Glasser noted that the interest in Sater’s case has “nothing to do with the criminal prosecution going back to 1998. Not a thing.”
Sater landed in the middle of the Russia investigation when emails he wrote to Cohen were published by the New York Times in 2017.
“I will get Putin on this program and we will get Donald elected,” Sater wrote in a November 2015 email to Cohen, pitching him on a massive real-estate deal in Moscow and implying it could help Trump win the election. “Our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it…I will get all of Putin’s team to buy in on this, I will manage this process.”
Sater and Cohen have known each other for years, going back to Sater’s partnership with the Trump Organization on the construction of Trump SoHo in Manhattan. Bayrock, the real-estate development company that Sater co-founded, was accused in a lawsuit of being “substantially and covertly mob-owned and operated,” and engaging in “related crimes,” including money laundering and racketeering. Sater has long denied the allegations and settled the lawsuit in principle last year.
Sater also helped Trump scope out Russia deals in the early 2000s. He showed Ivanka Trump and her brother Donald Trump Jr. around Moscow in 2006 when their father was scouting real estate there.
Mueller’s team interviewed Sater about his emails to Cohen. Mueller prosecutor Andrew Weissmann — the same prosecutor who supervised the 1998 stock fraud case against Sater — was part of the interview.
Sater, for his part, views the judge’s public acknowledgment of his help in the bin Laden case as proof of his loyalty to the United States and further evidence that he’s not working to advance the interests of his birth country, the former Soviet Union.
“I am proud and honored to have been able to help my country fight this terrorist and killer of Americans,” he told POLITICO.
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