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Bottom of the Drink
They had to go. The Coke machine, the snack machine, the deep fryer. Hoisted and dragged through the halls and out to the curb, they sat with other trash beneath gray, forlorn skies behind Kirkpatrick Elementary, one of a handful of primary schools in Clarksdale, Mississippi. That was seven years ago, when administrators first recognized the magnitude of the problem. Clarksdale, a storied delta town that gave us the golden age of the Delta blues, its cotton fields and flatlands rolling to the river, its Victorian mansions still beautiful, is at the center of a colossal American health crisis. High rates of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease: the legacy, some experts say, of sugar, a crop that brought the ancestors of most Clarksdale residents to this hemisphere in chains. “We knew we had to do something,” Kirkpatrick principal SuzAnne Walton told me.
Walton, Clarksdale born and bred, was leading me through the school, discussing ways the faculty is trying to help students—baked instead of fried, fruit instead of candy—most of whom have two meals a day in the lunchroom. She was wearing scrubs—standard Monday dress for teachers, to reinforce the school’s commitment to health and wellness. The student body is 91 percent African American, 7 percent white, “and three Latinos”—the remaining 2 percent. “These kids eat what they’re given, and too often it’s the sweetest, cheapest foods: cakes, creams, candy. It had to change. It was about the students,” she explained.
Take, for example, Nicholas Scurlock, who had recently begun his first year at Oakhurst Middle School. Nick, just tall enough to ride the coaster at the bigger amusement parks, had been 135 pounds going into fifth grade. “He was terrified of gym,” Principal Walton told me. “There was trouble running, trouble breathing—the kid had it all.”
“Of course, I’m not one to judge,” Walton added, laughing, slapping her thighs. “I’m a big woman myself.”
I met Nick in the lunchroom, where he sat beside his mother, Warkeyie Jones, a striking 38-year-old. Jones told me she had changed her own eating habits to help herself and to serve as an example for Nick. “I used to snack on sweets all day, ’cause I sit at a desk, and what else are you going to do? But I’ve switched to celery,” she told me. “People say, ‘You’re doing it ’cause you’ve got a boyfriend.’ And I say, ‘No, I’m doing it ’cause I want to live and be healthy.’”
Take a cup of water, add sugar to the brim, let it sit for five hours. When you return, you’ll see that the crystals have settled on the bottom of the glass. Clarksdale, a big town in one of the fattest counties, in the fattest state, in the fattest industrialized nation in the world, is the bottom of the American drink, where the sugar settles in the bodies of kids like Nick Scurlock—the legacy of sweets in the shape of a boy.
In the beginning, on the island of New Guinea, where sugarcane was domesticated some 10,000 years ago, people picked cane and ate it raw, chewing a stem until the taste hit their tongue like a starburst. A kind of elixir, a cure for every ailment, an answer for every mood, sugar featured prominently in ancient New Guinean myths. In one the first man makes love to a stalk of cane, yielding the human race. At religious ceremonies priests sipped sugar water from coconut shells, a beverage since replaced in sacred ceremonies with cans of Coke.
Sugar spread slowly from island to island, finally reaching the Asian mainland around 1000 B.C. By A.D. 500 it was being processed into a powder in India and used as a medicine for headaches, stomach flutters, impotence. For years sugar refinement remained a secret science, passed master to apprentice. By 600 the art had spread to Persia, where rulers entertained guests with a plethora of sweets. When Arab armies conquered the region, they carried away the knowledge and love of sugar. It was like throwing paint at a fan: first here, then there, sugar turning up wherever Allah was worshipped. “Wherever they went, the Arabs brought with them sugar, the product and the technology of its production,” writes Sidney Mintz in Sweetness and Power. “Sugar, we are told, followed the Koran.”
Muslim caliphs made a great show of sugar. Marzipan was the rage, ground almonds and sugar sculpted into outlandish concoctions that demonstrated the wealth of the state. A 15th-century writer described an entire marzipan mosque commissioned by a caliph. Marveled at, prayed in, devoured by the poor. The Arabs perfected sugar refinement and turned it into an industry. The work was brutally difficult. The heat of the fields, the flash of the scythes, the smoke of the boiling rooms, the crush of the mills. By 1500, with the demand for sugar surging, the work was considered suitable only for the lowest of laborers. Many of the field hands were prisoners of war, eastern Europeans captured when Muslim and Christian armies clashed.
Perhaps the first Europeans to fall in love with sugar were British and French crusaders who went east to wrest the Holy Land from the infidel. They came home full of visions and stories and memories of sugar. As cane is not at its most productive in temperate climes—it needs tropical, rain-drenched fields to flourish—the first European market was built on a trickle of Muslim trade, and the sugar that reached the West was consumed only by the nobility, so rare it was classified as a spice. But with the spread of the Ottoman Empire in the 1400s, trade with the East became more difficult. To the Western elite who had fallen under sugar’s spell there were few options: deal with the small southern European sugar manufacturers, defeat the Turk, or develop new sources of sugar.
In school they call it the age of exploration, the search for territories and islands that would send Europeans all around the world. In reality it was, to no small degree, a hunt for fields where sugarcane would prosper. In 1425 the Portuguese prince known as Henry the Navigator sent sugarcane to Madeira with an early group of colonists. The crop soon made its way to other newly discovered Atlantic islands—the Cape Verde Islands, the Canaries. In 1493, when Columbus set off on his second voyage to the New World, he too carried cane. Thus dawned the age of big sugar, of Caribbean islands and slave plantations, leading, in time, to great smoky refineries on the outskirts of glass cities, to mass consumption, fat kids, obese parents, and men in XXL tracksuits trundling along in electric carts.
Columbus planted the New World’s first sugarcane in Hispaniola, the site, not coincidentally, of the great slave revolt a few hundred years later. Within decades mills marked the heights in Jamaica and Cuba, where rain forest had been cleared and the native population eliminated by disease or war, or enslaved. The Portuguese created the most effective model, making Brazil into an early boom colony, with more than 100,000 slaves churning out tons of sugar.
As more cane was planted, the price of the product fell. As the price fell, demand increased. Economists call it a virtuous cycle—not a phrase you would use if you happened to be on the wrong side of the equation. In the mid-17th century sugar began to change from a luxury spice, classed with nutmeg and cardamom, to a staple, first for the middle class, then for the poor.
By the 18th century the marriage of sugar and slavery was complete. Every few years a new island—Puerto Rico, Trinidad—was colonized, cleared, and planted. When the natives died, the planters replaced them with African slaves. After the crop was harvested and milled, it was piled in the holds of ships and carried to London, Amsterdam, Paris, where it was traded for finished goods, which were brought to the west coast of Africa and traded for more slaves. The bloody side of this “triangular trade,” during which millions of Africans died, was known as the Middle Passage. Until the slave trade was banned in Britain in 1807, more than 11 million Africans were shipped to the New World—more than half ending up on sugar plantations. According to Trinidadian politician and historian Eric Williams, “Slavery was not born of racism; rather, racism was the consequence of slavery.” Africans, in other words, were not enslaved because they were seen as inferior; they were seen as inferior to justify the enslavement required for the prosperity of the early sugar trade.
The original British sugar island was Barbados. Deserted when a British captain found it on May 14, 1625, the island was soon filled with grinding mills, plantation houses, and shanties. Tobacco and cotton were grown in the early years, but cane quickly overtook the island, as it did wherever it was planted in the Caribbean. Within a century the fields were depleted, the water table sapped. By then the most ambitious planters had left Barbados in search of the next island to exploit. By 1720 Jamaica had captured the sugar crown.
For an African, life on these islands was hell. Throughout the Caribbean millions died in the fields and pressing houses or while trying to escape. Gradually the sin of the trade began to be felt in Europe. Reformers preached abolition; housewives boycotted slave-grown cane. In Sugar: A Bittersweet History Elizabeth Abbott quotes Quaker leader William Fox, who told a crowd that for every pound of sugar, “we may be considered as consuming two ounces of human flesh.” A slave in Voltaire’s Candide, missing both a hand and a leg, explains his mutilation: “When we work in the sugar mills and we catch our finger in the millstone, they cut off our hand; when we try to run away, they cut off a leg; both things have happened to me. It is at this price that you eat sugar in Europe.”
And yet there was no stopping the boom. Sugar was the oil of its day. The more you tasted, the more you wanted. In 1700 the average Englishman consumed 4 pounds a year. In 1800 the common man ate 18 pounds of sugar. In 1870 that same sweet-toothed bloke was eating 47 pounds annually. Was he satisfied? Of course not! By 1900 he was up to 100 pounds a year. In that span of 30 years, world production of cane and beet sugar exploded from 2.8 million tons a year to 13 million plus. Today the average American consumes 77 pounds of added sugar annually, or more than 22 teaspoons of added sugar a day.
If you go to Barbados today, you can see the legacies of sugar: the ruined mills, their wooden blades turning in the wind, marking time; the faded mansions; the roads that rise and fall but never lose sight of the sea; the hotels where the tourists are filled with jam and rum; and those few factories where the cane is still heaved into the presses, and the raw sugar, sticky sweet, is sent down the chutes. Standing in a refinery, as men in hard hats rushed around me, I read a handwritten sign: a prayer beseeching the Lord to grant them the wisdom, protection, and strength to bring in the crop.
“It seems like every time I study an illness and trace a path to the first cause, I find my way back to sugar.”
Richard Johnson, a nephrologist at the University of Colorado Denver, was talking to me in his office in Aurora, Colorado, the Rockies crowding the horizon. He’s a big man with eyes that sparkle when he talks. “Why is it that one-third of adults [worldwide] have high blood pressure, when in 1900 only 5 percent had high blood pressure?” he asked. “Why did 153 million people have diabetes in 1980, and now we’re up to 347 million? Why are more and more Americans obese? Sugar, we believe, is one of the culprits, if not the major culprit.”
As far back as 1675, when western Europe was experiencing its first sugar boom, Thomas Willis, a physician and founding member of Britain’s Royal Society, noted that the urine of people afflicted with diabetes tasted “wonderfully sweet, as if it were imbued with honey or sugar.” Two hundred and fifty years later Haven Emerson at Columbia University pointed out that a remarkable increase in deaths from diabetes between 1900 and 1920 corresponded with an increase in sugar consumption. And in the 1960s the British nutrition expert John Yudkin conducted a series of experiments on animals and people showing that high amounts of sugar in the diet led to high levels of fat and insulin in the blood—risk factors for heart disease and diabetes. But Yudkin’s message was drowned out by a chorus of other scientists blaming the rising rates of obesity and heart disease instead on cholesterol caused by too much saturated fat in the diet.
As a result, fat makes up a smaller portion of the American diet than it did 20 years ago. Yet the portion of America that is obese has only grown larger. The primary reason, says Johnson, along with other experts, is sugar, and in particular fructose. Sucrose, or table sugar, is composed of equal amounts of glucose and fructose, the latter being the kind of sugar you find naturally in fruit. It’s also what gives table sugar its yummy sweetness. (High-fructose corn syrup, or HFCS, is also a mix of fructose and glucose—about 55 percent and 45 percent in soft drinks. The impact on health of sucrose and HFCS appears to be similar.) Johnson explained to me that although glucose is metabolized by cells all through your body, fructose is processed primarily in the liver. If you eat too much in quickly digested forms like soft drinks and candy, your liver breaks down the fructose and produces fats called triglycerides.
Some of these fats stay in the liver, which over long exposure can turn fatty and dysfunctional. But a lot of the triglycerides are pushed out into the blood too. Over time, blood pressure goes up, and tissues become progressively more resistant to insulin. The pancreas responds by pouring out more insulin, trying to keep things in check. Eventually a condition known as metabolic syndrome kicks in, characterized by obesity, especially around the waist; high blood pressure; and other metabolic changes that, if not checked, can lead to type 2 diabetes, with a heightened danger of heart attack thrown in for good measure. As much as a third of the American adult population could meet the criteria for metabolic syndrome set by the National Institutes of Health.
Recently the American Heart Association added its voice to the warnings against too much added sugar in the diet. But its rationale is that sugar provides calories with no nutritional benefit. According to Johnson and his colleagues, this misses the point. Excessive sugar isn’t just empty calories; it’s toxic.
“It has nothing to do with its calories,” says endocrinologist Robert Lustig of the University of California, San Francisco. “Sugar is a poison by itself when consumed at high doses.”
Johnson summed up the conventional wisdom this way: Americans are fat because they eat too much and exercise too little. But they eat too much and exercise too little because they’re addicted to sugar, which not only makes them fatter but, after the initial sugar rush, also saps their energy, beaching them on the couch. “The reason you’re watching TV is not because TV is so good,” he said, “but because you have no energy to exercise, because you’re eating too much sugar.”
The solution? Stop eating so much sugar. When people cut back, many of the ill effects disappear. The trouble is, in today’s world it’s extremely difficult to avoid sugar, which is one reason for the spike in consumption. Manufacturers use sugar to replace taste in foods bled of fat so that they seem more healthful, such as fat-free baked goods, which often contain large quantities of added sugar.
It’s a worst-case scenario: You sicken unto death not by eating foods you love, but by eating foods you hate—because you don’t want to sicken unto death.
If sugar is so bad for us, why do we crave it? The short answer is that an injection of sugar into the bloodstream stimulates the same pleasure centers of the brain that respond to heroin and cocaine. All tasty foods do this to some extent—that’s why they’re tasty!—but sugar has a sharply pronounced effect. In this sense it is literally an addictive drug.
This raises the question, however, of why our brains would evolve to respond pleasurably to a potentially toxic compound. The answer, Johnson told me, lies deep in our simian past, when a craving for fructose would be just the thing our ancestors needed to survive.
I paraphrase Johnson in a voice borrowed from the fables, for what are even the best theories, if not the old stories told again in the language of science? Some 22 million years ago, so far back it might as well be the beginning, apes filled the canopy of the African rain forest. They survived on the fruit of the trees, sweet with natural sugar, which they ate year-round—a summer without end.
One day, perhaps five million years later, a cold wind blew through this Eden. The seas receded, the ice caps expanded. A spit of land emerged from the tides, a bridge that a few adventurous apes followed out of Africa. Nomads, wanderers, they settled in the rain forests that blanketed Eurasia. But the cooling continued, replacing tropical groves of fruit with deciduous forests, where the leaves flame in autumn, then die. A time of famine followed. The woods filled with starving apes. “At some point a mutation occurred in one of those apes,” Johnson explained. It made that ape a wildly efficient processor of fructose. Even small amounts were stored as fat, a huge survival advantage in months when winter lay upon the land and food was scarce.
Then one day that ape, with its mutant gene and healthy craving for rare, precious fruit sugar, returned to its home in Africa and begot the apes we see today, including the one that has spread its sugar-loving progeny across the globe. “The mutation was such a powerful survival factor that only animals that had it survived,” Johnson said, “so today all apes have that mutation, including humans. It got our ancestors through the lean years. But when sugar hit the West in a big way, we had a big problem. Our world is flooded with fructose, but our bodies have evolved to get by on very, very little of it.”
It’s a great irony: The very thing that saved us could kill us in the end.
Though just 11, Nick Scurlock is a perfect stand-in for the average American in the age of sugar. Hyperefficient at turning to fat the fructose the adman and candy clerk pump into his liver at a low, low price. One hundred thirty-five pounds in fifth grade, in love with the sweet poison endangering his life. Sitting in the lunchroom, he smiled and asked, “Why are the good things so bad for you?”
But this story is less about temptation than about power. At its best, the school can help kids make better decisions. A few years ago Pop-Tarts and pizza were served at Kirkpatrick. Now, across the district, menus have improved. The school has a garden that grows food for the community, a walking track for students and the public, and a new playground.
In a sense the struggle in Clarksdale is just another front in the continuing battle between the sugar barons and the cane cutters. “It’s a tragedy that hits the poor much harder than it does the rich,” Johnson told me. “If you’re wealthy and want to have fun, you go on vacation, travel to Hawaii, treat yourself to things. But if you’re poor and want to celebrate, you go down to the corner and buy an ice-cream cake.”
When I asked Nick what he wanted to be when he grew up, he said, “A chef.” Then he thought a moment, looked at his mom, and corrected himself. “A healthy chef,” he said.
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Where Trump's real estate world meets a top religious ally of the Kremlin.
Chabad of Port Washington, a Jewish community center on Long Island’s Manhasset Bay, sits in a squat brick edifice across from a Shell gas station and a strip mall. The center is an unexceptional building on an unexceptional street, save for one thing: Some of the shortest routes between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin run straight through it.
Two decades ago, as the Russian president set about consolidating power on one side of the world, he embarked on a project to supplant his country’s existing Jewish civil society and replace it with a parallel structure loyal to him. On the other side of the world, the brash Manhattan developer was working to get a piece of the massive flows of capital that were fleeing the former Soviet Union in search of stable assets in the West, especially real estate, and seeking partners in New York with ties to the region.
Their respective ambitions led the two men—along with Trump’s future son-in-law, Jared Kushner—to build a set of close, overlapping relationships in a small world that intersects on Chabad, an international Hasidic movement most people have never heard of.
Starting in 1999, Putin enlisted two of his closest confidants, the oligarchs Lev Leviev and Roman Abramovich, who would go on to become Chabad’s biggest patrons worldwide, to create the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia under the leadership of Chabad rabbi Berel Lazar, who would come to be known as “Putin’s rabbi.”
A few years later, Trump would seek out Russian projects and capital by joining forces with a partnership called Bayrock-Sapir, led by Soviet emigres Tevfik Arif, Felix Sater and Tamir Sapir—who maintain close ties to Chabad. The company’s ventures would lead to multiple lawsuits alleging fraud and a criminal investigation of a condo project in Manhattan.
Meanwhile, the links between Trump and Chabad kept piling up. In 2007, Trump hosted the wedding of Sapir’s daughter and Leviev’s right-hand man at Mar-a-Lago, his Palm Beach resort. A few months after the ceremony, Leviev met Trump to discuss potential deals in Moscow and then hosted a bris for the new couple’s first son at the holiest site in Chabad Judaism. Trump attended the bris along with Kushner, who would go on to buy a $300 million building from Leviev and marry Ivanka Trump, who would form a close relationship with Abramovich’s wife, Dasha Zhukova. Zhukova would host the power couple in Russia in 2014 and reportedly attend Trump’s inauguration as their guest.
With the help of this trans-Atlantic diaspora and some globetrotting real estate moguls, Trump Tower and Moscow’s Red Square can feel at times like part of the same tight-knit neighborhood. Now, with Trump in the Oval Office having proclaimed his desire to reorient the global order around improved U.S. relations with Putin’s government—and as the FBI probes the possibility of improper coordination between Trump associates and the Kremlin—that small world has suddenly taken on outsize importance.
Founded in Lithuania in 1775, the Chabad-Lubavitch movement today has adherents numbering in the five, or perhaps six, figures. What the movement lacks in numbers it makes up for in enthusiasm, as it is known for practicing a particularly joyous form of Judaism.
Mort Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, recalled having this trait impressed upon him during one family wedding at which the two tables occupied by his first cousins, Chabad rabbis, put the rest of the celebrants to shame. “They were dancing up a storm, these guys. I thought they were black. Instead they’re just black-hat,” Klein said, referring to their traditional Hasidic garb.
Despite its small size, Chabad has grown to become the most sprawling Jewish institution in the world, with a presence in over 1,000 far-flung cities, including locales like Kathmandu and Hanoi with few full-time Jewish residents. The movement is known for these outposts, called Chabad houses, which function as community centers and are open to all Jews. “Take any forsaken city in the world, you have a McDonald’s and a Chabad house,” explained Ronn Torossian, a Jewish public relations executive in New York.
Chabad adherents differ from other Hasidic Jews on numerous small points of custom, including the tendency of Chabad men to wear fedoras instead of fur hats. Many adherents believe that the movement’s last living leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who died in 1994, is the messiah, and some believe he is still alive. Chabad followers are also, according to Klein, “remarkable” fundraisers.
As the closest thing the Jewish world has to evangelism—much of its work is dedicated to making Jews around the world more involved in Judaism—Chabad serves many more Jews who are not full-on adherents.
According to Schmuley Boteach, a prominent rabbi in New Jersey and a longtime friend of Democratic Sen. Cory Booker, Chabad offers Jews a third way of relating to their religious identity. “You have three choices as a Jew,” he explained. “You can assimilate and not be very affiliated. You can be religious and Orthodox, or there’s sort of a third possibility that Chabad offers for people who don’t want to go the full Orthodox route but do want to stay on the traditional spectrum.”
This third way may explain the affinity Trump has found with a number of Chabad enthusiasts—Jews who shun liberal reform Judaism in favor of traditionalism but are not strictly devout.
“It’s not a surprise that Trump-minded people are involved with Chabad,” said Torossian. “Chabad is a place that tough, strong Jews feel comfortable. Chabad is a nonjudgmental place where people that are not traditional and not by-the-book feel comfortable.”
He summarized the Chabad attitude, which is less strict than the Orthodox one, as, “If you can’t keep all of the commandments, keep as many as you can.”
Torossian, who coincidentally said he is Sater’s friend and PR rep, also explained that this balance is particularly appealing to Jews from the former Soviet Union, who appreciate its combination of traditional trappings with a lenient attitude toward observance. “All Russian Jews go to Chabad,” he said. “Russian Jews are not comfortable in a reform synagogue.”
The Russian state’s embrace of Chabad happened, like many things in Putin’s Russia, as the result of a factional power struggle.
In 1999, soon after he became prime minister, Putin enlisted Abramovich and Leviev to create the Federation of Russian Jewish Communities. Its purpose was to undermine the existing umbrella for Russia’s Jewish civil society, the Russian Jewish Congress, led by oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky, a potential threat to Putin and President Boris Yeltsin. A year later, Gusinsky was arrested by Putin’s government and forced into exile.
At the time, Russia already had a chief rabbi as recognized by the Russian Jewish Congress, Adolf Shayevich. But Abramovich and Leviev installed Chabad rabbi Lazar at the head of their rival organization. The Kremlin removed Shayevich from its religious affairs council, and ever since it has instead recognized Lazar as Russia’s chief rabbi, leaving the country with two rival claimants to the title.
The Putin-Chabad alliance has reaped benefits for both sides. Under Putin, anti-Semitism has been officially discouraged, a break from centuries of discrimination and pogroms, and the government has come to embrace a state-sanctioned version of Jewish identity as a welcome part of the nation.
As Putin has consolidated his control of Russia, Lazar has come to be known derisively as “Putin’s rabbi.” He has escorted the Russian leader to Jerusalem’s Western Wall and attended the opening ceremony of the Sochi Olympics, Putin’s pet project, on the Jewish Sabbath. Putin returned that favor by arranging for Lazar to enter the stadium without submitting to security checks that would have broken the rules for observing Shabbat.
In 2013, a $50 million Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center opened in Moscow under the auspices of Chabad and with funding from Abramovich. Putin donated a month of his salary to the project, while the Federal Security Service, the successor to the KGB, pitched in by offering relevant documents from its archives.
In 2014, Lazar was the only Jewish leader present at Putin’s triumphal announcement of the annexation of Crimea.
But the rabbi has paid a price for his loyalty to Putin. Since the annexation, his continued support for the Russian autocrat has caused a rift with Chabad leaders in Ukraine. And for years, the Russian government has defied an American court order to turn over a trove of Chabad texts called the “Schneerson Library” to the Chabad Lubavitch headquarters in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Shortly after the opening of the tolerance museum, Putin ordered the collection transferred there instead. The move made Lazar the custodian of a prized collection that his Brooklyn comrades believe is rightfully theirs.
If Lazar has any qualms about his role in all the intra-Chabad drama, he hasn’t let on publicly. “Challenging the government is not the Jewish way,” the rabbi said in 2015.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, as Trump looked for business and investors in the former Soviet Union during the first years of this century, he struck up an enduring relationship with a firm called Bayrock-Sapir.
Bayrock was co-led by Felix Sater, a convicted mob associate.
Sater and another Bayrock employee, Daniel Ridloff, who like Sater later went on to work directly for the Trump Organization, belong to the Port Washington Chabad house. Sater told POLITICO Magazine that in addition to serving on the board of the Port Washington Chabad house, he sits on the boards of numerous Chabad entities in the U.S. and abroad, though none in Russia.
The extent of Sater’s ties to Trump is a matter of some dispute. Working out of Trump Tower, Sater partnered with the celebrity developer on numerous Trump-branded developments and scouted deals for him in the former Soviet Union. In 2006, Sater escorted Trump’s children Ivanka and Don Jr. around Moscow to scour the city for potential projects, and he worked especially closely with Ivanka on the development of Trump SoHo, a hotel and condominium building in Manhattan whose construction was announced on “The Apprentice” in 2006.
In 2007, Sater’s stock fraud conviction became public. The revelation did not deter Trump, who brought him on as “a senior advisor to the Trump Organization” in 2010. In 2011, a number of purchasers of Trump SoHo units sued Trump and his partners for fraud and the New York attorney general’s office opened a criminal inquiry into the building’s marketing. But the purchasers settled and agreed not to cooperate with the criminal investigation, which was subsequently scuttled, according to the New York Times. Two former executives are suing Bayrock alleging tax evasion, money laundering, racketeering, bribery, extortion and fraud.
Under oath, Sater has described a close relationship with the Trumps, while Trump has testified under oath that he barely knew Sater and would not be able to pick his face out in a crowd. Several people who worked closely with Sater during this period and who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, citing fear of retaliation from both men, scoffed at Trump’s testimony, describing frequent meetings and near-constant phone calls between the two. One person recalled numerous occasions on which Trump and Sater dined together, including at the now-defunct Kiss & Fly in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District.
“Trump called Felix like every other day to his office. So the fact that he’s saying he doesn’t know him, that’s a lot of crap,” said a former Sater colleague. “They were definitely in contact always. They spoke on the phone all the time.”
In 2014, the Port Washington Chabad house named Sater its “man of the year.” At the ceremony honoring Sater, the chabad’s founder, Shalom Paltiel, recounted how Sater would spill his guts to him about his adventures working as a government cooperator on sensitive matters of national security.
“I only recently told Felix I really didn’t believe most of it. I thought perhaps he watched too many James Bond movies, read one too many Tom Clancy novels,” said Paltiel at the ceremony. “Anyone who knows Felix knows he can tell a good story. I simply did not put too much credence to them.”
But Paltiel went on to recount receiving special clearance years later to accompany Sater to a ceremony at the federal building in Manhattan. There, said Paltiel, officials from every American intelligence agency applauded Sater’s secret work and divulged “stuff that was more fantastic, and more unbelievable, than anything he had been telling me.” A video of the event honoring Sater has been removed from the Port Washington Chabad house’s website but is still available on YouTube.
When I contacted Paltiel for this article, he hung up the phone as soon as I introduced myself. I wanted to ask him about some of the connections I’d come across in the course of my reporting. In addition to his relationship with Sater, Paltiel is also close to “Putin’s rabbi” Lazar, calling Lazar “my dear friend and mentor” in a short note about running into him at Schneerson’s gravesite in Queens.
According to Boteach, this is unsurprising, because Chabad is the sort of community where everybody knows everybody else. “In the world of Chabad, we all went to Yeshiva together, we were all ordained together,” Boteach explained. “I knew Berel Lazar from yeshiva.”
The Port Washington Chabad house has another Bayrock tie. Among its top 13 benefactors, its “Chai Circle,” as listed on its website, is Sater’s partner, Bayrock founder Tevfik Arif.
Arif, a former Soviet bureaucrat turned wealthy real estate developer, owns a mansion in Port Washington, an upscale suburb, but he makes a curious patron for the town’s Chabad. A Kazakh-born citizen of Turkey with a Muslim name, Arif is not Jewish, according to people who have worked with him. In 2010, he was arrested in a raid on a yacht in Turkey that once belonged to the founder of the modern Turkish state, Mustafa Kamal Ataturk, and charged with running an international underage prostitution ring. Arif was later cleared of the charges.
Before the scandal on Ataturk’s yacht, Arif partnered closely with Trump, Ivanka Trump and Sater in the development of Trump SoHo along with the Sapir family, a New York real estate dynasty and the other half of Bayrock-Sapir.
Its patriarch, the late billionaire Tamir Sapir, was born in the Soviet state of Georgia and arrived in 1976 in New York, where he opened an electronics store in the Flatiron district that, according to the New York Times, catered largely to KGB agents.
Trump has called Sapir “a great friend.” In December 2007, he hosted the wedding of Sapir’s daughter, Zina, at Mar-a-Lago. The event featured performances by Lionel Ritchie and the Pussycat Dolls. The groom, Rotem Rosen, was the CEO of the American branch of Africa Israel, the Putin oligarch Leviev’s holding company.
Five months later, in early June 2008, Zina Sapir and Rosen held a bris for their newborn son. Invitations to the bris described Rosen as Leviev’s “right-hand man.” By then, Leviev had become the single largest funder of Chabad worldwide, and he personally arranged for the bris to take place at Schneerson’s grave, Chabad’s most holy site.
Trump attended the bris. A month earlier, in May 2008, he and Leviev had met to discuss possible real estate projects in Moscow, according to a contemporaneous Russian news report. An undated photograph on a Pinterest account called LLD Diamond USA, the name of a firm registered to Leviev, shows Trump and Leviev shaking hands and smiling. (The photograph was first pointed out by Pacific Standard.)
That same year, Sapir, an active Chabad donor in his own right, joined Leviev in Berlin to tour Chabad institutions in the city.
Also present at the Sapir-Rosen bris was Kushner, who along with his now-wife Ivanka Trump has forged his own set of ties to Putin’s Chabad allies. Kushner’s family, which is Modern Orthodox, has long been highly engaged in philanthropy across the Jewish world, including to Chabad entities, and during his undergraduate years at Harvard, Kushner was active in the university’s Chabad house. Three days before the presidential election, the couple visited Schneerson’s grave and prayed for Trump. In January, the couple purchased a home in Washington’s Kalorama neighborhood and settled on the city’s nearby Chabad synagogue, known as TheSHUL of the Nation's Capital, as their house of worship.
In May 2015, a month before Trump officially entered the Republican presidential primary, Kushner bought a majority stake in the old New York Times building on West 43rd Street from Leviev for $295 million.
Kushner and Ivanka Trump are also close with Abramovich’s wife, Dasha Zhukova. Abramovich, an industrialist worth more than $7 billion and the owner of the British soccer club Chelsea FC, is the former governor of the Russian province of Chukotka, where he is still revered as a hero. He owes his fortune to his triumphant emergence from Russia’s post-Soviet “aluminum wars,” in which more than 100 people are estimated to have died in fighting over control of aluminum refineries. Abramovich admitted in 2008 that he amassed his assets by paying billions of dollars in bribes. In 2011, his former business partner, the late Boris Berezovsky—an oligarch who had fallen out with Putin and gone on to live in exile at the Trump International on Central Park West—accused him of threats, blackmail and intimidation in a lawsuit in the United Kingdom, which Abramovich won.
Abramovich was reportedly the first person to recommend to Yeltsin that he choose Putin as his successor. In their 2004 biography of Abramovich, the British journalists Chris Hutchins and Dominic Midgely write, “When Putin needed a shadowy force to act against his enemies behind the scenes, it was Abramovich whom he could rely on to prove a willing co-conspirator.” The biographers compare the two men’s relationship to that between a father and a son and report that Abramovich personally interviewed candidates for Putin’s first cabinet. He has reportedly gifted Putin a $30 million yacht, though Putin denies it.
Abramovich’s vast business holdings and his personal life overlap with Trump’s world in multiple ways.
According to a 2012 report from researchers at Cornell University, Evraz, a firm partly owned by Abramovich, has contracts to provide 40 percent of the steel for the Keystone XL pipeline, a project whose completion was approved by Trump in March after years of delay. And in 2006, Abramovich purchased a large stake in the Russian oil giant Rosneft, a company now being scrutinized for its possible role in alleged collusion between Trump and Russia. Both Trump and the Kremlin have dismissed as "fake news" a dossier that alleges that a recent sale of Rosneft shares was part of a scheme to ease U.S. sanctions on Russia.
Meanwhile, his wife, Zhukova, has long traveled in the same social circles as Kushner and Ivanka Trump: She is a friend and business partner of Rupert Murdoch’s ex-wife Wendi Deng, one of Ivanka’s closest friends, and a friend of Karlie Kloss, the longtime girlfriend of Kushner’s brother, Josh.
Over the years, Zhukova has grown close to Jared and Ivanka themselves. In February 2014, a month before Putin illegally annexed Crimea from Ukraine, Ivanka Trump posted a photo to Instagram of herself with Zhukova, Wendi Deng, a bottle of wine, and the caption, “Thank you [Zhukova] for an unforgettable four days in Russia!” Deng was recently rumored to be dating Putin, though she denied it. Other photos from the trip show Kushner was also present in Russia at the time.
Last summer, Kushner and Ivanka Trump shared a box at the U.S. Open with Zhukova and Deng. In January, Zhukova reportedly attended Trump’s inauguration as Ivanka Trump’s guest.
On March 14, The Daily Mail spotted Josh Kushner dining with Zhukova in New York. According to the outlet, Josh Kushner “hid his face as he exited the eatery with Dasha.”
A week later, at the same time Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump were vacationing in Aspen with her two brothers and their families, Abramovich’s plane flew from Moscow to Denver, according to a flight tracking service. Abramovich owns two properties in the Aspen area.
A spokesman for Abramovich declined to comment on the record about the Colorado overlap. The White House referred queries about the couples to a personal spokeswoman for Ivanka Trump. The spokeswoman, Risa Heller, initially indicated she would provide answers to questions about the Colorado overlap and recent contacts between the couples, but did not do so.
President Trump has reportedly sought security clearances for Kushner and Ivanka, who have taken on growing roles in his White House. For anyone else, a close personal relationship with the family of a top Putin confidant would present significant hurdles to obtaining security clearances, former high-ranking intelligence officials said, but political pressure to grant clearances to the president’s children would be likely to override any security concerns.
“Yes, such connections to Russia should matter for a clearance,” said Steve Hall, a former CIA Moscow station chief. “Question is, will they?”
“I don’t think the Trump family camp will have any trouble with security clearances, as long as there’s no polygraph involved,” said Milt Bearden, former chief of the CIA’s Eastern European division. “It’s absolutely crazy, but not going to be an issue.”
With Washington abuzz about the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation of Trump world’s relationship with Putin’s Kremlin, their overlapping networks remain the object of much scrutiny and fascination.
In March, the New York Times reported that Lazar had met last summer with the Trump administration’s special representative for international negotiations Jason Greenblatt, then a lawyer for the Trump Organization. The men characterized the meeting as a normal part of Greenblatt’s campaign outreach to Jewish leaders and said it included general discussion of Russian society and anti-Semitism. The meeting was brokered by New York PR rep Joshua Nass, and Lazar has said he did not discuss that meeting with the Russian government.
In late January, Sater met with Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, to discuss a proposed Ukraine peace deal that would end U.S. sanctions on Russia, which Cohen then delivered to Trump’s then-national security adviser Michael Flynn at the White House, according to the Times. Cohen has given varying accounts of the episode.
According to one Jewish Republican who said he sees Cohen “all the time” there, Cohen himself is a regular presence at the Midtown Chabad on Fifth Avenue, a dozen blocks south of Trump Tower and a half-dozen blocks south of his current office at 30 Rockefeller Plaza.
Cohen disputed this, saying, “I’ve never been to a Chabad and I’ve never been to one in New York City either.” Cohen then said he last stepped foot in a Chabad over 15 years ago to attend a bris. He said the last Chabad-related event he attended was on March 16 at a hotel in Newark when he spoke at a dinner honoring Trump’s secretary of veterans affairs, David Shulkin. The dinner was hosted by the Rabbinical College of America, a Chabad organization.
To those unfamiliar with Russian politics, Trump’s world and Hasidic Judaism, all these Chabad links can appear confounding. Others simply greet them with a shrug.
“The interconnectedness of the Jewish world through Chabad is not surprising insofar as it’s one of the main Jewish players,” said Boteach. “I would assume that the world of New York real estate isn’t that huge either.”
Ben Schreckinger is a reporter for Politico.Commenting on the news rich dating magazine sign up. Website for dating.