The Five Weirdest Trump-Russia Ties to South Florida

Donald Trump's alleged ties to Russian spies are outlined in a secret dossier published by BuzzFeed last night.
Donald Trump's alleged ties to Russian spies are outlined in a secret dossier published by BuzzFeed last night. Photos by Gage Skidmore and Jordi Escuer
Special Counsel Robert Mueller has submitted to the Justice Department his report about alleged Russian interference in the 2016 elections. Very few people know what Mueller has been up to for the past two-odd years — maybe he's proven that Donald Trump met Vladimir Putin at a Cheesecake Factory in Volgograd, where they traded state secrets over Cajun jambalaya pasta. (Not likely.) Maybe Mueller spent the entire Trump era alone in his office teaching himself the Orange Justice dance. (Also not likely.)

Though little is known about the final contents of the Mueller report, we do know this: Some very weird stuff happened in Florida during the 2016 campaigns. Here's a rundown of what we knew from previous Mueller filings:

1. The Putin-allied billionaires at the center of this thing owned Miami real estate and once rented out the Versace mansion with musician Lou Bega:

Earlier today, Donald Trump Jr. released astonishing email correspondence with Rob Goldstone, a Russia-tied PR magnate who brokered a secret meeting with the elder Trump's presidential campaign to hand over documents that were "part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump."

The messages contain the most explosive information so far: Goldstone emailed Trump Jr. to tell him that the Russian crown prosecutor had met with an Azerbaijani-Russian billionaire and close friend of the Trump family, Aras Agalarov, and that Agalarov's pop-star son, Emin, wanted to pass information to the Trumps. According to the email chain, the "crown prosecutor of Russia met with... Aras this morning and in their meeting offered to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate [Democratic presidential candidate] Hillary [Clinton] and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father."

Miami readers likely know what's coming: Of course, of course, of course Aras Agalarov owns multiple multimillion-dollar condos on Fisher Island, the ritziest area of the Magic City and one of the most expensive zip codes in America.

The Agalarovs, a family of real-estate developers, also knew of "compromising" information about Trump, according to the famed Christopher Steele "dossier" published by BuzzFeed.

As first reported by the Real Deal South Florida last year, the elder Agalarov plunked down $10.7 million for a condo on Fisher Island in April 2016. According to county property records, Agalarov purchased a 4,738-square-foot unit at Palazzo del Sol on Fisher Island Drive.

Curbed Miami last year posted some renderings of the building: It's fancy enough to make a person consider committing some "light" treason.

County property records also show Agalarov owns a 2,861-square-foot unit steps away, in the equally exclusive Oceanside. His company Saffron Management bought the property for $3.6 million in 2012 and transferred it to Agalarov personally for $100 the next year.

Fisher Island has long been a hot spot for shady Russian investors: A New Times investigation in 2011 showed that Russian oligarchs were battling over property valued between $2 billion and $8 billion.

The Agalarovs have been rumored to be at the center of Trump's meddling with Russian officials. Aras Agalarov was the Russian businessman who brought Trump's 2013 Miss Universe Pageant to Moscow after brokering a $20 million deal. According to the New York Times, the Agalarovs, their publicist Goldstone, and the Trumps developed some sort of relationship during the pageant that later led to the famed June 2016 meeting. (Trump later starred in a music video for Emin Agalarov that centered on the 2013 Miss Universe Pageant.)

But it seems the Agalarovs have long frequented Trump's South Florida stomping grounds. In fact, the family rented out Versace's former mansion on Ocean Drive in 2014 to throw a bash that celebrated the birthday of Agalarov's daughter-in-law Irina Agalarova and New Year's Eve. 

2. Mueller alleged in an indictment that an unnamed Florida lawmaker requested stolen emails from Guccifer 2.0, a hacker prosecutors say worked for the Russian government:

From Politico:

The new indictment of Russian military officials who hacked Democrats during the 2016 presidential elections has Florida written all over it.

Two Florida Republicans and possibly a third — Rep. Brian Mast — play starring roles in the indictment, although none is named.

Unlike President Donald Trump‘s former political adviser Roger Stone and political operative Aaron Nevins, Mast’s identity is the least certain of any of the Florida Republicans hinted at in the indictment. The indictment released Friday details how a dozen Russian military officers used an online persona called “Guccifer 2.0” to disseminate information they stole from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic National Committee, which was led at the time by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.).

Almost as soon as the indictment was released Friday, Florida Republicans, Democrats and even allies of Mast speculated that the congressman’s campaign was likely implicated — in great part because a former campaign consultant for Mast admitted last year to The Wall Street Journal and then to POLITICO that he used some of the hacked information in 2016.

Mast, through a spokesman, denied a link.

“Even prostitutes are embarrassed by how dirty political consultants are. It’s become a business that’s 100 percent zero-sum. It’s all about the results,” said Jacob Perry, a former consultant for Mast who worked on local issues in Florida’s 18th Congressional District, which sits on the northern edge of Southeast Florida.

“If this is true, I think Brian is absolutely a victim of trusting the wrong people,” Perry said. “If this happened, it happened without his knowledge or approval. He is one of the most ethical people you will ever meet. He has zero tolerance for unethical behavior.”

The indictment is vague concerning the unnamed congressional campaign, saying only: “On or about August 15, 2016, the Conspirators, posing as Guccifer 2.0, received a request for stolen documents from a candidate for U.S. Congress. The Conspirators responded using the Guccifer 2.0 persona and sent the candidate stolen documents related to the candidate's opponent.”

At that point in the 2016 election cycle, first-time candidate Mast was embroiled in a six-way GOP primary, which he won Aug. 30 with 38 percent of the vote. He then defeated Democrat Randy Perkins in the general election.

3. The Russians allegedly helped organize a random pro-Trump rally in Miami:

A federal grand jury filed charges against 13 Russian nationals Friday for allegedly stealing identities, wiring money overseas, and staging a small series of flash mobs to help tip the 2016 election in Donald Trump's favor. It's unclear whether the social media campaign had any actual impact on voting, but the FBI alleges Russian money indeed affected one small group of Miamians who unknowingly used Russian cash to pay for supplies for an unnamed rally the September before the presidential election.

There still seem to be online traces of that Moscow-funded rally.

Only one publicized, pro-Trump rally appears to have taken place in the Miami area — #LatinosConTrump in Doral at 1 p.m September 11, 2016. The event was pitched as an "anti-media" protest outside the town's Univision offices. The national group Latinos With Trump created flyers for the rally and noted that virtually all of Miami's most prominent pro-Trump groups — Cubans 4 Trump, Hispanas for Trump, Latinas for Trump, and the official Miami Trump Volunteers — would attend. The official Facebook pages for Latinas for Trump and the Miami Trump Volunteers even shared the flyer.

The event's details seem to match the description in the federal indictment, because Latinas for Trump shared the event flyer September 8, 2016. The indictment alleges a Russian national sent one of the campaign organizers (neither person is named) money the next day, September 9, for supplies. The Russian agent allegedly used a fake or stolen U.S. identity. Here's the full passage from the indictment:

On or about August 31, 2016, Defendants and their co-conspirators, using a U.S persona, spoke by telephone with a real U.S person affiliated with a grassroots group in Florida. That individual requested assistance in organizing a rally in Miami, Florida. On or about September 9, 2016, Defendants and their co-conspirators sent the group an interstate wire to pay for materials needed for the Florida rally on or about September 11, 2016. 

The indictment does not allege that any Americans involved in planning the rally broke the law or knew they were dealing with Russian agents. According to the legal filings, Russian agents with the troll farm Internet Research Agency staged multiple flash mobs and rallies across Florida during the 2016 campaign, including other events in Coral Springs and Fort Lauderdale. The FBI also says Russian agents wired money to multiple pro-Trump organizers in the state.

4. A Florida rally allegedly tied to Russian hackers included Hillary Clinton in a prison uniform:

The FBI today revealed the biggest news yet in the ongoing investigation of Donald Trump's alleged ties to Russian agents: A grand jury charged 14 Russian nationals with interfering in the U.S. electoral system beginning in 2013 or earlier.

How'd they do it? The bureau contends Russians used false identities and tried to stage pro-Trump rallies — and even flash mobs — in multiple undisclosed Florida counties. The feds say the Russian agents allegedly fooled the real "Trump for Florida" campaign into working with them. Russian agents also allegedly paid for rally organizers to hire an actress to play Hillary Clinton wearing a prison uniform.

The FBI says the Russians also wired a Miami pro-Trump activist money to set up a Trump rally September 11, 2016. That activist is not named in the indictment.

"On or about August 2, 2016, Defendants and their co-conspirators used the false U.S. persona 'Matt Skiber' Facebook account to send a private message to a real Facebook account, 'Florida for Trump,' set up to assist then-candidate Trump in the state of Florida," the indictment reads.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein today said that the actions alleged in the indictment did not appear to have swung the election for Trump. In any case, the indictment shows that Russian agents had a startling amount of access to Florida political activists.

The information is not technically new: The Daily Beast first reported in September that one since-deleted Russian account in question, called "Being Patriotic," staged "Florida Goes Trump" rallies in Fort Lauderdale and Coral Springs.
5. A Fort Lauderdale-based web-hosting firm might have helped facilitate Russian hackers:

For months, one of the most explosive court cases in the world has been playing out in Miami's federal courthouse. Aleksej Gubarev, a tech entrepreneur from Cyprus, sued BuzzFeed News for defamation after the news outlet published the infamous "Steele Dossier" outlining alleged Russian government efforts to sway the 2016 election in favor of Donald Trump. The dossier claims Russian spies somehow used Gubarev's Fort Lauderdale web-hosting company, Webzilla, to hack into Democratic National Committee email accounts, among other charges.

Gubarev maintains those allegations are untrue and sued BuzzFeed to prove his case. U.S. District Court Judge Ursula Ungaro threw out the lawsuit this past December, arguing BuzzFeed had a legal right to publish the unconfirmed dossier. Documents in the case were sealed, but the New York Times intervened, requesting they be unsealed. Today Ungaro agreed to unseal them. And it turns out that another cybersecurity expert also believes Webzilla's servers were likely gamed by Russian spies.

That expert is former FBI analyst Anthony Ferrante, whom BuzzFeed hired to investigate the Steele Dossier's claims. Gubarev had long fought to keep Ferrante's statements sealed.

Specifically, the dossier from former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele claimed Gubarev's companies had used “botnets and porn traffic to transmit viruses, plant bugs, steal data, and conduct ‘altering operations’ against the Democratic Party leadership.” In the newly unsealed court filings, Ferrante appears to confirm some of Steele's conclusions.

As the Times first reported this afternoon, Ferrante stated in his own report and deposition that Webzilla (and Webzilla's parent company, XBT) had been used by Russian operatives in the leadup to the November 2016 election. Ferrante also said "substantial evidence" existed that Gubarev's networks had been used to conduct other major cyber-attacks, including one that crippled Ukraine's power grid in 2015. But Ferrante could not confirm Gubarev or Webzilla knew what was going on.
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.