The FBI did wiretap Trump Tower, but its target was not the future president of the United States and the operation was over well before Donald Trump even declared his candidacy. Instead, the bureau was listening in on a Russian crime organization that worked out of offices on the building's 63rd floor, just three stories below Trump's penthouse. As reported by ABC News on Tuesday, the FBI had the building under surveillance, including electronic monitoring, from 2011 to 2013. The investigation led to the indictment of Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov, who is wanted by Interpol and on the lam in Russia, and 33 individuals suspected of working for him.
“He is a major player,” Mike Gaeta, who ran the FBI’s Eurasian organized crime unit in New York and led the 2013 FBI investigation, told ABC News about Tokhtakhounov, who holds both Russian and Israeli citizenship.
“He is prominent. He has extremely good connections in the business world as well as the criminal world, overseas, in Russia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, other countries.
"Because of his status, we have kept tabs on his activities and particularly as his activities truly enter New York City. Their money was ultimately laundered from Russia, Ukraine and other locations through Cyprus banks and shell companies based in Cyprus and then ultimately here to the United States," Gaeta said.
Tokhtakhounov, a “vor v zakone,” the equivalent of a "godfather" in Russian crime organizations, has been a fugitive from American justice since before the wiretap in Trump Tower. In the summer of 2002 Tokhtakhounov , who is also known as “Taiwanchik” ("little Taiwanese in Russias), was arrested in Italy for bribing judges of the figure skating competitions in the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics that year. In a press conference after the arrest, James Comey — now the director of the FBI at a time when the bureau is investigating the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, who at the time was the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, announced Tokhtakhounov's arrest.
"The complaint alleges that the long arm of Russian organized crime reached across the globe this past February and into Salt Lake City with a pair of fixes for the Winter Olympics," Comey said at the press conference. The accusations were based on recorded conversations that Tokhtakhounov conducted.
Italy refused the U.S. extradition request, and Tokhtakhounov returned to Moscow, where he continues to be a presence in local social scene, boasting of friendships with local athletes and celebrities such as the pop singer Philip Kirkorov, appearing in documentaries and voicing his support for the government of President Vladimir Putin.
In interviews, Tokhtakhounov has expressed sadness over losing the opportunity to travel and live abroad, especially in France and Italy. In the Israeli documentary "Thieves in Law" (2010), Tokhtakhounov recalled his life in Israel in the early 1990s. “I understood that it's hard to live with a Russian passport, 'cause you have to renew the visa all the time. I had a Jewish lover so we went to Israel. We got married, moved to Israel and I got the papers. I lived in Israel for six months. Then I realized it's not for me. My wife dies, we buried her and I moved to Paris,” he said in the movie.
While Tokhtakhounov was hiding in Russia, his associate, according to the court documents, was running a crime operation from Trump Tower. Vadim Trincher, an emigrant from the former Soviet Union who holds American and Israeli citizenship, moved to Trump Tower in 2009.
According to the sealed indictment issued by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York in 2013 as a result of the surveillance operation, “VADIM TRINCHER, a/k/a 'Dima,' was a participant in the enterprise, the Taiwanchik-Trincher Organization, and was a leader of it. In that capacity, TRINCHER participated in and profited from various crimes, which he committed along with other members and associates of the Taiwanchik-Trincher Organization. Among other things, TRINCHER oversaw a high-stakes illegal sports gambling business that catered almost exclusively to oligarchs living in Ukraine and the Russian Federation. Members and associates of the Taiwanchik-Trincher Organization and their co-conspirators employed a sophisticated money laundering scheme to move tens of millions of dollars in proceeds from the gambling operation from the former Soviet Union through shell companies in Cyprus into various investments and other shell companies in the United States.”
The organization laundered millions of dollars, with $10 million paid to Tokhtakhounov himself. Trincher pled guilty to conspiracy to commit racketeering, and was sentenced to five years in prison.
Another part of the scheme was operated by the organization's younger generation. According to court documents, Trincher’s son Ilya and Hillel "Helly" Nahmad, a prominent art dealer who lived on the 51st floor of Trump Tower, ran an “illegal international gambling business that catered to multi-millionaires and billionaires”.
Nahmad is the scion of a family of Jewish bankers from Syria. He owns Helly Nahmad Gallery, in Manhattan, which has exhibited works by Picasso, Modigliani and Kandinsky. Nahmad pled guilty to gambling charges and received a one-year prison sentence. Having served his sentence, Nahmad continues to be a prominent figure in the art world and to live in his Trump Tower residence.
In 2013, a few months after the arrests of members of the Russian crime ring that worked out of his eponymous midtown tower, Donald Trump flew to Moscow for the Miss Universe contest. Among the guests spotted on the red carpet was Tokhtakhounov, who has been accused of rigging beauty contests in the past. According to a report in Mother Jones, he was invited as a VIP guest to the show, but journalists couldn’t confirm if the two met at the event. After returning to the United States, Donald Trump boasted to the New York Post, "Almost all of the oligarchs were in the room”.