It was the deal that made it official, Donald J. Trump was a New York City “big shot.”
Before he somehow secured a 1976 $400 million tax abatement from New York City to turn the faded Commodore Hotel — next door to Grand Central Station — into a luxurious Grand Hyatt, “the Donald” was just “Fred’s boy,” the son of a mobbed-up, politically connected developer whose developments were all in Brooklyn and Queens – “outer” boroughs of big corruption, but not celebrity “big shots.”
The transformation of the Manhattan Commodore involved turning 2000 smallish guest rooms into 1000 larger ones and wrapping the old concrete building in a glittering glass box. Among the furnishings in almost all of the Grand Hyatt’s 1000 new rooms was a television set. Which is one of the curious elements of a business deal Trump made for his new hotel.
He bought 200 TVs from an unusual source, Joy-Lud Electronics whose usual clientele were visiting Russians, about to go home. Some of these folks were tourists, buying state-of-the-art American consumer goods to take back to Russia as family gifts, or for very profitable resale.
This part of the Joy-Lud story was featured in a colorful 1989 report in the New York Times. What the Times missed was that the heart of Joy-Lud’s business wasn’t tourists, but Russian diplomats and spies whose bosses let them cash out at the end of their American assignments with a TV, stereo, video player or camera, domestic appliance NYC buying spree. This was a bonus whose value could dwarf their official salaries.
And what made Joy-Lud the place for Russian officials to buy stuff? According to the former KGB agent Yuri Shvets, his colleagues in intelligence and diplomacy were confident, anything they bought from Joy-Lud was a clean machine, with no CIA spyware inside.
And Shvets told our guest today, investigative reporter and author Craig Unger, Semyon Kislin, one of Joy-Lud’s co-owners, offered another valuable clandestine service. He was a “spotter” who recommended potential American sources of influence and information to the KGB.
So, did the fact that a man who needed at least 1000 TV sets broke up his order to take 200 from the New York outpost of a kind of KGB international electronics laundry mean that the spotter was spot on that Donald Trump could be turned into a KGB asset?
Craig Unger, in his new book, American Kompromat: How the KGB Cultivated Donald Trump, and Related Tales of Sex, Greed, Power and Treachery, says the answer is yes.
Craig Unger is the author of six books, including the New York Times bestsellers House of Bush, House of Saud, and House of Trump, House of Putin. For fifteen years he was a contributing editor for Vanity Fair, where he covered national security, the Middle East, and other political issues. A frequent analyst on MSNBC and other broadcast outlets, he was a longtime staffer at New York Magazine, has served as editor-in-chief of Boston magazine, and has contributed to Esquire, The New Yorker, and many other publications. He also appears frequently as analyst on MSNBC, CNN, and other broadcast outlets. Unger has written about the Trump-Russia scandal for The New Republic, Vanity Fair, and The Washington Post. He is a graduate of Harvard University and lives in Brooklyn, New York.