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A birthday video call captures a telling moment in Trump's Russia connections

Several businessmen and celebrities from the former Soviet Union gathered on the Turkish Riviera in June 2005 to celebrate the grand opening of what was billed then as the country's most luxurious hotel.

The owners were from Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan, and it was the birthday of one of them, Tofik Arifov, a former Soviet official turned real estate developer with offices in Manhattan's Trump Tower.

There was food, drink and song. There was also a video conference call from a well-wisher from America who couldn't attend but who, according to a Russian news account, urged the celebrants to raise their glasses.

"Tofik is my friend!" Donald Trump said through the phone. "Let's toast Tofik!"

That moment, revealed in sealed documents obtained by McClatchy that were part of a British lawsuit involving several Russians, captures Trump in a milieu that has since cast a cloud over his presidency. The court documents focused on what law enforcement calls Russian "OCGs" – organized criminal groups.

Among those court papers was also a story about the birthday party that appeared in Izvestia, the Russian news agency, on June 20, 2005. It was written by Bozhena Rynska, a lingerie-model-turned-columnist who is followed by millions of Russians, drawn to her insider tales of Russia's rich and powerful.

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Arifov and at least two others at the party, Alexander Mashkevich and Tamir Sapir, both billionaires with roots in the former Soviet Union, have been linked to allegations of illegal activities, according to court documents, diplomatic cables and news accounts. Mashkevich has been linked to allegations of money laundering. He and Arifov have been alleged to have associations with organized crime. Sapir has been accused of nonpayment of loans for his New York real estate empire, as well as illegally importing rare animal parts.

All three were also involved in a Lower Manhattan real estate project known as Trump SoHo, developed by the Bayrock Group, once headquartered in Trump Tower and which partnered with the Trump Organization. The result would be bankruptcy and a tangle of lawsuits, some still unresolved.

The White House referred questions to the Trump Organization. Its attorney, Alan Garten, did not respond to three requests for comment.

Trump has denied having any "dealings" with Russia, but he has dealt with oligarchs, the uber-rich industrialists who emerged — with the Kremlin's blessing — after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Any due diligence would have shown the Trump Organization that the backgrounds of some of the guests at the Turkish hotel birthday party would have raised questions.

"The normal constraints of reputational risk . . . just don't apply to him," said Jack Blum, a former Senate investigator and expert on money laundering. "And that is one of the reasons I think the Russians liked him so much. What they understood was he didn't care. He didn't see them as a reputational risk."

If there has been one persistent question about Trump's stunning odyssey over the past two years, from media and business mogul to party nominee to president, it is: What exactly is his relationship with Russia?

It dogged his campaign and now looms over his presidency. FBI Director James Comey has testified that his agency is investigating whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to affect the outcome of the U.S. presidential election.

Two top-ranking administration officials have acknowledged contacts with Russia during the campaign and afterward. One — former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn — was forced to resign as a result of being less than forthcoming about those contacts. The other — Attorney General Jeff Sessions — had to recuse himself from his Justice Department's own investigation.

Several Trump political associates will reportedly be called to Capitol Hill to talk about Russian involvement. Trump's son-in-law, White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, also is supposed to appear.

Besides a previously known meeting with the Russian ambassador during the transition, Kushner met with officials of a Russian development bank under U.S. economic sanctions resulting from President Vladimir Putin's invasion of Crimea.

Even as Trump labels anything having to do with him and Russia as "fake news," Comey told the House Intelligence Committee that the FBI would pursue the investigation "no matter how long that takes."

"The normal constraints of reputational risk . . . just don't apply to him. And that is one of the reasons I think the Russians liked him so much. He didn't see them as a reputational risk." -Jack Blum, former Senate aide and expert on money laundering, on Trump

For Trump, the year of the Turkish birthday party had been good. In 2005, he had married his current — and third — wife, Melania. He was becoming a hit TV star as a result of "The Apprentice," a show on which he played himself, a bombastic tycoon who immortalized the phrase, "You're fired!"

And in 2005 he reported taxable income of $150 million and paid $38 million in federal income taxes, according to a leaked copy of the first pages of his IRS filing for that tax year.

It was also the year his Atlantic City casino empire emerged from bankruptcy again and when he established Trump University, a private, non-credit school touted as the place to learn the secrets to his real estate success. It closed in 2010. Trump settled lawsuits alleging fraud last year for $25 million.

The video from the "Access Hollywood" set that surfaced during the campaign and showed the future president of the United States lewdly boasting about assaulting women also was shot in 2005.

Here's a closer look at three men mentioned in the Izvestia column as attending the birthday party who were involved with Trump.

Tofik Arifov of Kazakhstan

Known in the U.S. as Tevfik Arif, he was born in Kazakhstan and had been an official in the Soviet Ministry of Commerce and Trade. He co-founded Bayrock in the early 2000s, the development group headquartered in Trump Tower.

A spokeswoman for Bayrock declined to comment about the 2005 birthday party in Turkey for Arif, Trump's telephone call and his celebratory toast, as reported by Izvestia and cited in British court documents.

Bayrock was the driving force behind a Trump-branded luxury residential and hotel project in Lower Manhattan called Trump SoHo. Trump had sold the rights to use his name and had been given an ownership portion in the project.

Arif partnered in Bayrock with Felix Sater, a Russian-American from New York once imprisoned after stabbing a man with a broken margarita glass during a bar brawl in 1993. Sater became an FBI informant in the late 1990s as a result of his involvement in a securities fraud scheme involving the Mafia and some Russians.

That raises questions about Sater's role with Bayrock, with its intertwining threads of Trump's brand and Russian money, while he, presumably, was still on the FBI's payroll. Even after he left Bayrock, Sater remained in the Trump orbit, according to various accounts. Trump has said he barely remembered him.

Trump engaged with the Bayrock SoHo project around 2001-02, according to Sater, quoting from his deposition in a lawsuit filed in 2010 by former Bayrock Chief Financial Officer Jody Kriss.

Kriss sued Arif and Sater in 2010, painstakingly spelling out in a 165-page complaint how the pair allegedly used loans from Bayrock to pay themselves and avoid tax obligations. He alleged money laundering and that cash was skimmed off as it came in from investors in the United States, Russia and Kazakhstan. He claimed the company had received money from Russia through Arif's brother, "who had access to cash accounts at a chromium refinery in Kazakhstan."

Kriss also alleged that Sater had threatened to kill him.

The lawsuit went through two more versions after Kriss' attorney was sanctioned for using stolen information. In Kriss' latest suit, which dropped some of his original claims against Arif, Sater and others, a judge ruled that his revised allegations, which include fraud and racketeering, could go forward.

Arif, through a Bayrock spokeswoman, declined to comment. But he and the other defendants denied the allegations in Bayrock's response to Kriss' most recent filing.

Kriss also declined to comment.

More recently, Sater, along with Trump's personal attorney, Michael Cohen, was involved in an effort to deliver a proposed peace plan for Ukraine and Russia to Trump that would have removed U.S. economic sanctions.

Arif was connected, the British court document suggests, with Gafur Rakhimov. A 2006 State Department cable from Jon R. Purnell, U.S. ambassador to Uzbekistan at the time, calls Rakhimov one of that nation's two "top mobsters."

The Treasury Department blacklisted Rakhimov from the U.S. financial system on Feb. 23, 2012, for his alleged participation in organized crime. The agency listed an address for him in Dubai, but efforts to reach him there were unsuccessful.

"Tofik is my friend! Let's toast Tofik!" -An 2005 Izvestia story quoting Trump, speaking about Tofik Arifov, a former Soviet Union trade official turned real estate development partner, with alleged underworld ties

Arif made headlines in 2010 when Turkish authorities, dropping down from helicopters, arrested him on the Savarona, a yacht built for the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Attaturk. He was charged with running an international prostitution ring amid allegations of minors aboard, but was acquitted in 2012.

Mashkevich, of the Kazakh Trio

One of three men who collectively became known as the Kazakh Trio, together they made their fortunes in minerals and mining following the collapse of the Soviet Union when government-controlled industries were privatized.

He is on the Forbes magazine list of billionaires, with a net worth in March of more than $1.9 billion. He also holds Israeli citizenship and is known as a philanthropist for Jewish causes.

At the time of Trump's birthday call to Arif at the seaside Turkish hotel, Mashkevich and his partners — Alijan Ibragimov and Patokh Chodiev — were facing money-laundering allegations from the1990s in a long-running Belgian court case. It was settled in 2011 without an admission of guilt.

Bayrock's marketing materials listed Mashkevich and his deep pockets as a strategic partner. By the time the Trump SoHo project was unveiled in 2007, the mining oligarch was already a serious concern to the U.S. State Department.

McClatchy has learned he was eventually denied a visa to visit the United States. Attempts to reach Mashkevich via his companies were unsuccessful.

A former top U.S. diplomat in the region, speaking on the condition that his name not be published because of the sensitivity of the matter, said that "all-source information at that time linked Mashkevich to organized crime, and that was the reason for his visa refusal."

Mashkevich's mining companies were also linked to official corruption in Congo, a country infamous for the illicit diamond trade.

The Kazakh Trio's company, Eurasian Natural Resources Corp., also appears in the Panama Papers, the trove of 11.5 million documents about secret offshore companies that became public last April 3.

The documents show that the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca took pains to continue working with international pariahs, such as relatives of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. They drew the line in 2015, however, with Chodiev, one of Mashkevich's partners.

Oligarchs like Mashkevich enjoy their wealth at the tolerance of the Kremlin and allied leaders in the region.

"When Putin came to power in 2000, it's pretty well documented that he made deals with the oligarchs," said Evelyn Farkas, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia in the Obama administration. "He would let them continue doing their deals, but they would support the state. To keep what you have, you are mindful of what it is the state requires."

Tamir Sapir of Georgia

Originally from Tbilisi, capital of the former Soviet republic of Georgia, the man who headed the Sapir Organization owned a castle-like estate on Long Island Sound and maintained a residence in Trump Tower. He, too, would become a major player in a Bayrock project.

His son Alex would be photographed next to Ivanka Trump during the SoHo project's grand opening. They touted themselves at the time as the next generation of their respective families' luxury development business.

The 2005 Izvestia column about Arif's birthday party in Turkey describes Sapir arriving aboard his 150-foot, five-deck yacht, presumed to be the M/Y Mystere, known at the time as one of the world's most luxurious.

His was a rags-to-riches story; he drove a cab in New York, plowed his earnings into distressed real estate and then struck it big investing in the Russian energy sector. He eventually built a commercial development empire in New York.

A top lieutenant, allegedly involved with the Gambino and Genovese crime families, pleaded guilty to charges of fraud and extortion in connection with a Sapir project for New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Sapir also got mixed up in charges against his offshore company of illegally importing wildlife parts when authorities found the heads of a Bengal tiger and a zebra, as well as elephant tusks and numerous pelts, on his yacht. Sapir, who died in 2014, reached a plea deal with the federal prosecutor at the time — Alexander Acosta — Trump's choice now to head the Labor Department.

"In the absence of knowledge about who has invested in Trump properties with close ties to the Russian government, Trump's disposition toward Russia always looks suspect," said Matthew Schmidt, an assistant professor at the University of New Haven who's an expert on Russia and national security. "It may be that there's nothing there, but no one can be sure, given where those funds come from."

Stone is a McClatchy special correspondent.