In April 2013, a little more than two years before Trump rode the escalator to the ground floor of Trump Tower to kick off his presidential campaign, police burst into Unit 63A of the high-rise and rounded up 29 suspects in two gambling rings. The operation, which prosecutors called “the world’s largest sports book,” was run out of condos in Trump Tower—including the entire fifty-first floor of the building. In addition, unit 63A—a condo directly below one owned by Trump—served as the headquarters for a “sophisticated money-laundering scheme” that moved an estimated $100 million out of the former Soviet Union, through shell companies in Cyprus, and into investments in the United States. The entire operation, prosecutors say, was working under the protection of Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov, whom the FBI identified as a top Russian vor closely allied with Semion Mogilevich. In a single two-month stretch, according to the federal indictment, the money launderers paid Tokhtakhounov $10 million.

Tokhtakhounov, who had been indicted a decade earlier for conspiring to fix the ice-skating competition at the 2002 Winter Olympics, was the only suspect to elude arrest. For the next seven months, the Russian crime boss fell off the radar of Interpol, which had issued a red alert. Then, in November 2013, he suddenly appeared live on international television—sitting in the audience at the Miss Universe pageant in Moscow. Tokhtakhounov was in the VIP section, just a few seats away from the pageant owner, Donald Trump.

After the pageant, Trump bragged about all the powerful Russians who had turned out that night, just to see him. “Almost all of the oligarchs were in the room,” he told Real Estate Weekly. Contacted by Mother Jones,Tokhtakhounov insisted that he had bought his own ticket and was not a VIP. He also denied being a mobster, telling The New York Times that he had been indicted in the gambling ring because FBI agents “misinterpreted his Russian slang” on their Trump Tower wiretaps, when he was merely placing $20,000 bets on soccer games.

Both the White House and the Trump Organization declined to respond to questions for this story. On the few occasions he has been questioned about his business entanglements with Russians, however, Trump has offered broad denials. “I tweeted out that I have no dealings with Russia,” he said at a press conference in January, when asked if Russia has any “leverage” over him, financial or otherwise. “I have no deals that could happen in Russia, because we’ve stayed away. And I have no loans with Russia. I have no loans with Russia at all.” In May, when he was interviewed by NBC’s Lester Holt, Trump seemed hard-pressed to think of a single connection he had with Russia. “I have had dealings over the years where I sold a house to a very wealthy Russian many years ago,” he said. “I had the Miss Universe pageant—which I owned for quite a while—I had it in Moscow a long time ago. But other than that, I have nothing to do with Russia.”

But even if Trump has no memory of the many deals that he and his business made with Russian investors, he certainly did not “stay away” from Russia. For decades, he and his organization have aggressively promoted his business there, seeking to entice investors and buyers for some of his most high-profile developments. Whether Trump knew it or not, Russian mobsters and corrupt oligarchs used his properties not only to launder vast sums of money from extortion, drugs, gambling, and racketeering, but even as a base of operations for their criminal activities. In the process, they propped up Trump’s business and enabled him to reinvent his image. Without the Russian mafia, it is fair to say, Donald Trump would not be president of the United States.

Semion Mogilevich, the Russian mob’s “boss of bosses,” also declined to respond to questions from the New Republic. “My ideas are not important to anybody,” Mogilevich said in a statement provided by his attorney. “Whatever I know, I am a private person.” Mogilevich, the attorney added, “has nothing to do with President Trump. He doesn’t believe that anybody associated with him lives in Trump Tower. He has no ties to America or American citizens.”

Back in 1999, the year before Trump staged his first run for president, Mogilevich gave a rare interview to the BBC. Living up to his reputation for cleverness, the mafia boss mostly joked and double-spoke his way around his criminal activities. (Q: “Why did you set up companies in the Channel Islands?” A: “The problem was that I didn’t know any other islands. When they taught us geography at school, I was sick that day.”) But when the exasperated interviewer asked, “Do you believe there is any Russian organized crime?” the “brainy don” turned half-serious.

“How can you say that there is a Russian mafia in America?” he demanded. “The word mafia, as far as I understand the word, means a criminal group that is connected with the political organs, the police and the administration. I don’t know of a single Russian in the U.S. Senate, a single Russian in the U.S. Congress, a single Russian in the U.S. government. Where are the connections with the Russians? How can there be a Russian mafia in America? Where are their connections?”

Two decades later, we finally have an answer to Mogilevich’s question.