Trumpian PR Campaign Whitewashes Russia

— Who’s behind the secretive PR campaign to whitewash Donald Trump’s Russian biz ties?

The months-long campaign, which launched in November amid the federal investigation into alleged election meddling, centres around two Soviet-born businessmen who masterminded the Trump SoHo hotel in Lower Manhattan.

Utilising dozens of fake Twitter accounts and paid articles, the campaign has sought to whitewash Trump’s relationships with Russian-born ex-con Felix Sater and former Soviet trade minister Tevfik Arif, whose real estate development and investment company Bayrock Group was the driving force behind the recently renamed hotel.

From left: Trump, Arif, and Sater (source)

As first reported on this blog and subsequently covered by The Daily Beast and The New York Times, in November the HuffPost deleted a paid article about Sater by Pakistani content marketer Waqas KH.

Via “Who Paid for the HuffPost Puff Piece on Trump’s Felonious Friend?” by Lachlan Markay, The Daily Beast, January 11, 2018:

HuffPost scrubbed the article, written in December, from its website after a blogger in Northern Ireland, Dean Sterling Jones, inquired about the piece, which hailed the dismissal last year of a $250 million tax fraud case against Felix Sater, a Russian-born former Trump Organization executive.

The article’s author, listed on HuffPost’s website under the name Waqas KH, runs a Pakistani company called Steve SEO Services. That company offers to ghostwrite articles and organize internet commenting campaigns for paying clients. On the freelancer website Fiverr, Waqas goes by the username “nico_seo” and offers to place articles on HuffPost for an $80 fee. For an extra $50, he will write the article himself.

Waqas confirmed to The Daily Beast that he placed the article hailing the dismissal of tax charges against Sater, and said that his client had written the actual text. He said Sater himself did not pay to place the article, but would not say who had compensated him for it.

The article is just one of dozens of recent puff pieces about Sater’s relationship with Trump.

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One article on business website Be Easy claims that, although “Sater plead [sic] guilty to stock racketeering and fraud as a part of a U.S.–Russian mafia scheme in 1998…there has been no evidence showing that Trump took any part in this, or knew anything about what was going on during their split time together.”

Several of the Trump-touting websites openly accept payments to publish articles.

The business marketing website Octopuzz, which claims that “Trump was not informed of Sater’s criminal past when Arif and Sater suggested partnering with the Trump Organization [and] would not have considered working with Sater and his organization for the Trump SoHo project if he was aware of the allegations against Sater,” explicitly states in its disclosure policy that it “accepts forms of cash advertising, sponsorship, paid insertions or other forms of compensation.”

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Another business marketing website, whose write-up about Sater states that “[now] Trump is President of the United States, there is not likely to be any further implications for him in this case,” includes a message soliciting prospective clients to hire the article’s author, Abhishek Chatterjee, who owns a content writing service in Kolkata.

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Meanwhile, dozens of fake Twitter accounts are attempting to burnish Sater’s reputation by linking to articles about the $250 million dismissal which they claim helps vindicate Trump.

This fake tweet, for example, states: “It looks like another case involving Russia connections to the president [has been] dismissed for lacking any legal merits.”

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Many of the fake accounts have also tweeted about Arif’s own relationship with Trump, including one garbled tweet which states that “Arif and trump is the best friend so they are very talent man.”

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All link to a mostly favourable online bio about Arif titled “Team Russia [Красная Машина] story” by Andy French, founder of the Trump & Russia blog. However, none appear to have attracted the attention of other Twitter users, except for a few comment threads consisting entirely of fake users interacting with each other.

It’s unclear who is behind the largely ineffective promotional campaign.

Sater, who was interviewed by House Intelligence Committee staffers last month, in an e-mail denied knowing about efforts to covertly alter the Trump-Russia narrative.

I was unable to reach Arif for comment.

Whoever the culprit is, it’s likely they used the same PR service as controversial Nigerian pastor Chris Oyakhilome, who preaches against homosexuality and claims he can perform miracles. That’s because most of the websites, online profiles, and Twitter accounts promoting Trump’s Bayrock buddies have also promoted Oyakhilome.

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Twitter Trolls Tout Trump

— Fake Twitter accounts have launched a PR campaign to burnish the reputation of Moscow-born former Donald Trump advisor Felix Sater ahead of his interview with House Intelligence Committee staffers

Sater is likely to testify about his role during the Trump campaign, including a 2015 proposal for the construction of a Trump Tower in Moscow involving Russian president Vladimir Putin, which Sater said would help Trump win the presidency.

Felix Sater with Donald Trump (source)

Meanwhile, dozens of fake Twitter accounts are attempting to burnish the reputation of the twice-convicted Bayrock Group co-founder and self-described “Senior Advisor to Donald Trump.”

The campaign centres around a Business Insider UK article by Natasha Bertrand about the recent dismissal of a $250 million civil tax fraud case against Sater.

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It appears that the purpose of the campaign, which launched shortly before news broke about Sater’s upcoming interview, is to attempt to re-contextualise his relationship with the president.

Take for example this tweet, which characterised the dismissal of the case against Sater as “another victory for our great president Trump reputation”:

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Another fake tweet characterised the dismissal as a “great win for President too”:

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It’s unclear who is behind the covert campaign.

When asked to comment, Sater said it was his “first time hearing about this.”

Whoever the culprit is, it seems likely that they used the same PR service as controversial Nigerian pastor Chris Oyakhilome, who preaches against homosexuality and claims he can perform miracles – that’s because the majority of the accounts promoting Sater have also promoted Oyakhilome.

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If anyone thinks they know the answer to this one, feel free to leave a comment.

Update, December 14, 2017: The Wall Street Journal is reporting that the House Intelligence Committee has scheduled staff interviews with Sater to take place in New York next week.