Remember, Trump's Russian collusion has always been true, and now it's a legal and criminal fact.
A Republican political strategist was convicted of illegally helping a Russian businessman contribute to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016.
Jesse Benton, 44, was pardoned by Trump in 2020 for a different campaign finance crime, months before he was indicted again on six counts related to facilitating an illegal foreign campaign donation. He was found guilty Thursday on all six counts.
Elections “reflect the values and the priorities and the beliefs of American citizens,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Michelle Parikh said in her closing argument this week. “Jesse Benton by his actions did damage to those principles.”
The evidence at trial showed that Benton bought a $25,000 ticket to a September 2016 Republican National Committee (RNC) event on behalf of Roman Vasilenko, a Russian naval officer turned multilevel marketer. (Vasilenko is under investigation in Russia for allegedly running a pyramid scheme, according to the Kommersant newspaper; he could not be reached for comment.) The donation got Vasilenko a picture with Trump and entrance to a “business roundtable” with the future president.
Vasilenko connected with Benton through Doug Wead, an evangelical ally of the Bush family who was also involved in multilevel marketing. Vasilenko sent $100,000 to Benton, who was working for a pro-Trump super PAC at the time, supposedly for consulting services. Benton subsequently donated $25,000 to the RNC by credit card to cover the ticket.
Witnesses from the RNC and the firm hired to organize the event said they weren’t told Vasilenko was a Russian citizen. Benton said in an email to his RNC contact that Vasilenko was “a friend who spends most of his time in the Caribbean”; he described Vasilenko’s interpreter as “a body gal.” In fact, according to the testimony, Benton and Vasilenko had never met.
Benton argued that he followed the advice of his previous counsel, David A. Warrington, who has also represented Trump. Warrington testified that Benton contacted him at the time to ask if he could give a ticket to a political fundraiser to a Russian citizen. Warrington said he told Benton “there is no prohibition on a Russian citizen receiving a ticket to an event” and that “you can give your ticket that you purchased to a fundraiser to anybody.”
Prosecutors said Benton failed to tell Warrington that he was getting reimbursed by the Russian citizen for the donation. Benton asked for the advice only “to cover his tracks,” Parikh said.
Benton also claimed that he earned the $100,000 acting as a tour guide in Washington for Vasilenko, whose interest was not politics but self-promotion.
Wead — who died at age 75 last December after he was indicted with Benton — had previously discussed with Vasilenko the possibility of a photograph with Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama or Steven Seagal before suggesting Trump.
“If Oprah was available,” defense attorney Brian Stolarz said in his closing argument, “we wouldn’t even be here.”