Meet GOP Operative Jesse Benton, Convicted Felon
Long time sleaze bag and crooked operative, Jesse Benton, a retainer of the Ron/Rand Paul family, was convicted Thursday for illegally funneling Russian money into Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. He was also complicit in another case— laundering cash from a Chinese billionaire into Trump’s campaign.
In 2016 we noted that The Telegraph did an investigation of how the Trump campaign was illegally soliciting campaign contributions from foreigners. It was done through Trump's Great America PAC, which assured a "Chinese billionaire" that he would have White House influence in return for a 2 million dollar donation to the Trump campaign. The Telegraph had "undercover reporters posing as consultants acting for a Chinese benefactor" approach both Trump and Clinton PACs with a proposal to circumvent the law by funneling foreign donations into the campaigns. The Clinton campaign ignored the approaches but the Trumpists, of course, did not. The Telegraph reported, "an undercover reporter spoke by telephone to Eric Beach, co-chairman of the pro-Trump Great America PAC, which has the backing of Rudy Giuliani, one of Mr Trump’s most senior advisers, as well as the billionaire's son Eric." The undercover reporter told Beach a Chinese client would give the campaign $2 million. Beach came up with a strategy about putting the money through one of the GOP fake "social welfare" organizations that are just a big loophole for dark money. A former higher up in Guiliani's PAC, Jesse Benton, (the Ron and Rand Paul operative who was convicted last spring for arranging bribes for endorsements) told the reporter he would be the go-between so that there would be no "paper trail" linking the Chinese contribution to Trump, to Eric Trump or to Giuliani. Benton, a notorious sleaze-bag and crook, "proposed channelling the donation through his own company to mask its origin. It would then be passed on to two C4s before being donated by them to the PAC, or simply used to fund projects the PAC had already planned. Benton said the $2 million, for which he would submit an invoice for 'appearances' would 'definitely allow us to spend two million more dollars on digital and television advertising for Trump.' The Chinese benefactor's generosity would be 'whispered into Mr Trump’s ear.' He said he had previously helped US donors conceal donations."
Earlier, Benton had worked as Mitch McConnell’s campaign manager In 2014 McConnell fired him. McConnell didn't like him much anyway, since Benton has been quoted and requoted telling Kentucky libertarians that he was "sort of holding my nose for two years because what we're doing here is going to be a big benefit for Rand in 2016." Benton, a longtime Paul family retainer, is married to Ron Paul's granddaughter, Valori Pyeatt (Rand's niece). Before remaking himself into a Paulista, though, he worked for Louisiana sleaze bag David "Diapers" Vitter. He was Rand Paul's campaign manager-- and tenant, living in Rand's basement-- when he ran for Senate against McConnell's handpicked candidate. And then he was Ron Paul's very well-compensated presidential campaign manager two years later.
As soon as McConnell won his anti-Tea Party primary battle against Matt Bevin, he no longer really needed Benton and as soon as it started becoming clear that Benton was likely to be arrested and indicted at some point, McConnell fired his ass, which was called, in typically dishonest political jargon, "reluctantly accepting his resignation."
The following year, Benton was blamed for imploding Rand Paul’s pathetic presidential campaign. In the middle of it, he was indicted-- along with two other operatives from Rand's superPAC-- on several felony bribery charges. The federal charges against Benton marked “a jarring, high-profile flameout for the long-serving Rand Paul adviser and top-flight Republican operative who was hailed until recently as a rising star in the party… Benton’s indictment was cited as evidence of deeply rooted problems in Rand Paul’s campaign, from organizational dysfunction, to personal failures of judgment by the candidate himself.”
Benton, who ran Rand Paul superPAC, was indicted for concealing payments to an Iowa state senator in exchange for the senator’s endorsing Ron Paul in 2012. One of the senator’s aides called the situation “a total mess” and added, “I don’t think there’s any coming back from this.” A fundraiser and personal friend of the candidate, meanwhile, said the Benton episode has convinced him that Paul is “not running a campaign worthy of the presidency of the United States.” Another friend and informal adviser said of the candidate’s presidential bid, “It’s over.” … One question came up repeatedly: Why was Benton entrusted with such a vital position-- to raise the big-dollar donations at the super PAC-- when he was still being investigated by the FBI, and at serious risk of an indictment?
That’s the way Republicans were back then— which has gotten much worse with the rise of Trump. And on now Benton is in more trouble than ever and very likely headed to prison-- unless Trump gets elected and pardons him again. Rachel Weiner reported on Thursday that Benton “was convicted of illegally helping a Russian businessman contribute to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016.” In 2020 Trump pardoned Benton 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.”
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 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.”
Vasilenko posted the photograph of himself with Trump on Instagram with a banner that said “Two Presidents” and advertised his own company. He said Benton “delivered on what he was asked to do,” which was “get him in a picture with a celebrity” so Vasilenko “could brag on Instagram.” To Vasilenko, he said, Trump was not a politician but “the guy who used to be on The Apprentice.” At the roundtable, he said Trump appeared only briefly and “just talked about polls.”
Stolarz emphasized that there was no evidence Vasilenko ever engaged with Trump outside the single event, and no evidence the RNC ever returned the donation. Witnesses from the RNC said they were in the dark about the origin of the funds.
“He wants to be an influencer,” Stolarz said. “This is just shameless self-promotion from a guy who can afford to take this picture.”
But prosecutors said that once it was offered, Vasilenko saw the value of an introduction to Trump. He was running for parliament in Russia at the time, according to the Justice Department, and after Trump’s election was invited on Russian television.
“He’s sophisticated,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Michelle Wasserman told jurors. “He got access to someone he helped elect.”
Benton’s defense downplayed the $25,000 as “nothing” in an election that cost billions.
“This is not some nefarious backroom scheme to funnel millions of dollars from Russia,” he said.
Prosecutors argued that every dollar counted in a race where Democrat Hillary Clinton was far ahead in fundraising, and that Benton knew Trump needed money at the time.
Stolarz said Benton was also paid to organize a charity dinner Vasilenko attended on his U.S. trip, which prosecutors dismissed as a cheap meal at a chain restaurant.
“They may try to downplay it, but Maggiano’s is good,” Stolarz said.
…“He knew the law,” Wasserman said. “He knew the rules.”
After the verdict, Stolarz said Benton “maintains his innocence and plans to appeal.”
Don’t they all!