Behind Trump’s Russia Romance, There’s a Tower Full of Oligarchs

Down on his luck, the mogul found help from émigrés from the old Soviet empire.
Illustration: 731

On the 78th floor: a Russian who once was accused of mob ties and extortion by an oligarch. On the 79th, an Uzbek jeweler investigated for money laundering who was eventually executed on the street in Manhattan. And four floors higher, a pro-Moscow Ukrainian politician whose party hired a Donald Trump adviser.

When Trump World Tower at 845 United Nations Plaza began construction two decades ago as the tallest residential building in the country (90 stories), its most expensive floors attracted wealthy people getting their money out of what had been the Soviet Union. Trump needed the big spenders. He was renegotiating $1.8 billion in junk bonds for his Atlantic City resorts, and the tower was built on a mountain of debt owed to German banks. As Trump wrote in The Art of the Comeback, “It crushed my ego, my pride, to go hat in hand to the bankers.”

Trump World Tower

Trump World Tower

Photographer: Ludovic/REA/Redux

Trump’s soft spot for Russia is an ongoing mystery, and the large number of condominium sales he made to people with ties to former Soviet republics may offer clues. “We had big buyers from Russia and Ukraine and Kazakhstan,” says Debra Stotts, a sales agent who filled up the tower. The very top floors went unsold for years, but a third of units sold on floors 76 through 83 by 2004 involved people or limited liability companies connected to Russia and neighboring states, a Bloomberg investigation shows. The reporting involved more than two dozen interviews and a review of hundreds of public records filed in New York.

The 1990s were a sobering period for Trump, and it’s noteworthy that among those who helped him exit the decade are people to whom he’s shown deep loyalty. Presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway and Michael Cohen, his personal lawyer, bought units. Cohen got his Ukrainian in-laws to buy, too. Most of the units were bought before the tower was built, and prices weren’t disclosed. Trump World Tower ended up as a model for future developments—with money drawn from sales in Moscow.

Michael Cohen

Cohen

Photographer: Richard Drew/AP Photo

Two months before Trump broke ground in October 1998, Russia defaulted on $40 billion in domestic debt, the ruble plummeted, and some of the biggest banks started to collapse. Millionaires scrambled to get their money out and into New York. Real estate provides a safe haven for overseas investors. It has few reporting requirements and is a preferred way to move cash of questionable provenance. Amid the turmoil, buyers found a dearth of available projects. Trump World Tower, opened in 2001, became a prominent depository of Russian money.

Sam Kislin, a Ukrainian immigrant, issued mortgages to buyers of multimillion-dollar apartments in World Tower. It’s highly unusual for individuals to issue formal mortgages for U.S. luxury real estate, and the tower loans are the only ones Kislin ever made in New York, public records show.

Almost two decades earlier, Kislin had sold Trump about 200 televisions on credit. “I gave him 30 days, and in exactly 30 days he paid me back,” says Kislin, now 82. “He never gave me any trouble.” He says the televisions were for the Commodore Hotel, which Trump had bought in 1976 with Hyatt Corp.

Trump purchased the sets from an electronics store that Kislin had opened in New York with Tamir Sapir, an immigrant from Georgia. It was famous among Soviets who would buy VHS players and tape recorders to take back home. Sapir later grew rich trading Russian oil. He invested the proceeds in New York real estate, eventually becoming one of Trump’s development partners in Trump SoHo, a frequent focal point in inquiries about Trump’s financial ties to Russia and questionable Russian money. Sapir died in 2014.

Kislin became a fundraiser for Rudolph Giuliani’s mayoral campaign, bringing in millions for the future Trump surrogate. Investigated by the FBI in the 1990s for allegations including mob ties and laundering money from Russia, Kislin was never charged, and he maintains his innocence.

At Trump World Tower, Kislin provided a mortgage to Vasily Salygin, a future official of the Ukrainian Party of Regions linked to Russian President Vladimir Putin, to buy an 83rd-floor apartment. Salygin’s time in office overlapped with Paul Manafort’s tenure as an adviser to the party. Manafort later served as Trump’s campaign manager before his Russian links led to growing criticism and his resignation.

The push to sell units in Trump World Tower to Russians expanded in 2002, when Sotheby’s International Realty teamed up with Kirsanova Realty, a Russian company. One reception at Moscow’s swank Hotel Baltschug Kempinski pitched the tower alongside Trump’s West Side condos and his building on Columbus Circle.

Eduard Nektalov, an Uzbekistan-born diamond dealer, purchased a 79th-floor unit directly below Conway’s for $1.6 million in July 2003. He was being investigated by federal agents for a money-laundering scheme, which involved smelting gold to make it appear like everyday objects that were then hauled to drug cartels in Colombia. Nektalov sold his unit a month after he bought it for a $500,000 profit. Less than a year later, Nektalov, rumored to have been cooperating with authorities, was gunned down on Manhattan’s Sixth Avenue.

Gil Dezer

Gil Dezer

Photographer: Rolando Diaz/Bloomberg

Simultaneous with when the tower was going up, developer Gil Dezer and his father, Michael, were building a Trump-backed condo project in Sunny Isles Beach, Fla. “Russians love the Trump brand,” he says, adding that Russians and Russian Americans bought some 200 of 2,000 units in Trump buildings he built. They flooded into Trump projects from 2001 to 2007, helping Trump weather the real estate collapse, he says.

“The Trump Organization is a global brand and much like every other real estate company has likely had purchasers from people of different backgrounds buy units within their properties,” Amanda Miller, vice president for marketing at the organization, said in an email. “The press’ continued fascination with creating a narrative that is simply not there is both misleading and fabricated.”

Trump buildings in Sunny Isles

Trump buildings in Sunny Isles

Photographer: Angel Valentin/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Sales agent Stotts helped rent out apartments owned by those who invested in World Tower. Her very first job was filling Cohen’s apartment after he moved to 502 Park Ave., another Trump building. Three months after the New York Post reported that Cohen and his Ukrainian in-laws had bought units in World Tower, Trump hired him.

In 2008, his oldest son, Donald Jr., said, “We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.” What he was referring to has never been clarified, nor has its significance in explaining Trump’s friendly attitude toward Moscow. But part of the answer may lie in the hundreds of millions of dollars that salvaged Trump’s apartment buildings at a time of financial vulnerability.
 
With Michael Smith, Alexander Sazonov, and Polly Mosendz

The bottom line: Trump was heavily leveraged when he built World Tower in Manhattan, which Russians flocked to.

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