How a mysterious Russian businessman had his picture taken with Donald Trump – Mother Jones

Donald Trump campaigns in Aston, Pa., Near Philadelphia, on September 22, 2016.Evan Vucci / AP

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Monday, the Ministry of Justice announced the indictment of two Republican agents for allegedly funneling $ 25,000 from a Russian citizen to Donald Trump’s campaign and the Republican National Committee in 2016. By laying the charges, the federal government has generated a mystery: Who was the Russian? The indictment charged Jesse Benton and Doug Wead, who have ties to Trump and Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.), But it did not identify the person who originally provided the money, which he simply called it “Foreign National 1.” But publicly available evidence suggests the man is likely Roman Vasilenko, a retired Russian naval officer and now a businessman based in St. Petersburg, Russia, who operates a multi-level marketing company.

According to federal authorities, Wead and Benton’s plan began in September 2016, when Wead contacted a Ukrainian translator and offered to help Foreign National 1 meet with Trump. In the indictment, Foreign National 1 is described as “Wead’s business associate living outside the United States”. Benton is said to have arranged for Wead, Foreign National 1 and the translator, to attend a September 22 fundraising “roundtable” with Trump at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Philadelphia. The indictment indicates that Foreign National 1 wired $ 100,000 to Benton’s company and that Benton then used $ 25,000 of that money to pay for the Russian’s ticket while keeping the remaining $ 75,000. The indictment does not charge the foreigner 1 or the translator with any wrongdoing, and they have not been charged. The indictment adds that the Trump campaign and the RNC were unaware of the alleged scheme.

In an email to event organizers, Benton stressed that their Russian guest wanted their photo taken with the contestant. “The[] the photo is important to him, ”Benton wrote, according to the indictment. And he made his wish come true: Foreign National 1, the translator, and Wead all took official photos with Trump, and Wead took a photo of the Russian man posing with Trump on his personal camera, the indictment notes.

These photos provide the apparent link between the indictment and Vasilenko, who was first reported through Medico-legal news, a nonprofit investigative journalism publication.

Vasilenko has documented his foray into US politics on his social media accounts, which include details that appear to match the government’s claims perfectly. His company, Life Is Good, not to be confused with the American t-shirt company, created a video that shows Vasilenko and his entourage, all dressed in shirts bearing the company logo, being hackneyed around. from Washington by Wead in September 2016. This included a stop by Paul’s Senate office and Wead’s house. The video also features footage of Wead and Vasilenko at an event where Trump can be seen addressing a small group of people behind them.

And, it shows Vasilenko meeting Trump, with the Pennsylvania flag in the background.

Vasilenko and Life Is Good did not respond to requests for comment. But according to the caption and the narration of the video, he met Trump on September 22, the same day as Trump’s fundraiser in Philadelphia, during a multi-day trip to the United States.

Vasilenko is a character – a former Russian naval officer who boldly claims that his tiered marketing business will help clients learn how to thrive the way he did. His social networks are full of photos of him appearing to succeed in the manner of Vladimir Putin. There are pictures of Vasilenko looking at reflexive, standing on army tanks, sign papers, kiss a private jet, and enjoy the outdoors in a performative way. And there is the photo of him posing with Trump, under the big caption (in Russian): “Two presidents”.

Vasilenko also posted a photo of himself in a table meeting with then-candidate Trump. Both photos appear to be from the same event that featured in the Life is Good video.

Wead’s attorney declined to confirm that Vasilenko was Wead’s guest at the event, but in press service photos of Trump’s multi-stop campaign trip to Philadelphia that day, Trump was wearing the same red, white and gray striped tie that he was wearing in the photo with Vasilenko.

The indictment alleges that Benton did not pay the RNC and the Trump campaign until well after the September 22 event, but when he finally did, he used his personal credit card and explicitly told campaign officials that the donation came from him. He then paid his credit card bill from the same account the Russian national had deposited $ 100,000 into, according to the DOJ.

Giving money on behalf of someone else is illegal – this is called a straw donation system – and is an even more serious violation of the law if the true source of the funds is a foreign national.

This is the latest in a series of recent cases in which the Justice Department has accused U.S. political agents of arrange straw donation to funnel money for American political candidates. While some cases have involved contributions to Democratic politicians, a number of them have focused on Trump’s 2016 campaign. In 2016 and 2017, furthermore, opportunistic DC lobbyists with real or perceived connections to Trump charged strangers surprisingly high fees for arranging access to Trump or simply having a photo with him. It’s legal as long as foreigners don’t secretly donate to lawmakers.

While the new indictment accuses Benton, a longtime political consultant married to Ron Paul’s granddaughter, of leading the Trump campaign contribution, it also alleges Wead’s deep involvement.

Wead is often described as a “presidential historian” in his numerous television appearances, including a number in which he mocked and minimized the idea of ​​Russian involvement in the 2016 Trump campaign. He also had a concert next door. According to social media and Vasilenko’s company website, he and Wead were business associates or collaborators for years, Wead having traveled to Russia and appeared at events for Life Is Good.

In an exaggerated approval video for Vasilenko’s company, Wead exclaims, “What is success and how do you get it? For me, success has often been the one you know, which reminds me of Life Is Good and Roman Vasilenko. He is young and strong. He’s a leader. He is full of imagination and good ideas. He exceeded the competition, he exceeded the time… I think back to my life and the things that I regret [are] the things I didn’t do, the decisions I didn’t make. I made this decision. I work with Roman Vasilenko. I work with Life is Good.

Wead has been in GOP circles for years. He was the President’s Special Assistant in the White House to George HW Bush. He informed Ron Paul’s presidential campaign in 2012 and then the presidential campaign 2016 of Rand Paul, Ron’s son. Along the way he wrote a series of books, some on presidents and others with titles like “DREAM BIG: Ninety-nine Steps to Network Marketing Success. “Wead has written several books featuring the Bush family. But in 2005 he released a series of recordings he had made of George W. Bush without Bush’s knowledge, causing a breakup with the family. Wead recently allied with Trump World, publishing a 2017 “insider” account of the 2016 presidential campaign and a 2019 book on the inner workings of the Trump White House. Both books were portraits Trump sympathies written with the full cooperation of the president, who interviewed and then tweeted his endorsements.

In April, Wead visited Trump in Mar-a-Lago, where Trump called him “my favorite historian.”

Wead appeared in federal court in Washington, DC on Monday, represented by Jay Sekulow, who also represented Trump in the Robert Mueller inquiry. Sekulow said in a statement that Wead is “a respected author and supporter of charitable causes. He has pleaded not guilty and will continue to respond appropriately in court. “

Benton also pleaded not guilty. He did not respond to a text message requesting comment on this story, and his attorney did not respond to a request for comment.

Benton already had a tangled history with campaign finance law. While working on Ron Paul’s presidential campaign, Benton and several other Paul aides agreed to funnel $ 73,000 to a then-Iowa state senator who transferred his support from Michelle. Bachmann to Paul. Benton was sentenced in 2016 on four counts in connection with the scandal. He was sentenced to six months home confinement and two years of probation on September 20, 2016, two days before the Trump fundraiser at the center of Monday’s indictment, according to court records.

Benton did not attend the fundraiser and does not appear to appear in any of Vasilenko’s social media posts about the event. According to the indictment, Benton and Wead began work on their plan on September 12, eight days before Benton was sentenced on the previous charges. And the DOJ alleges that Foreign National 1 – presumably Vasilenko – landed in the United States on September 20, around the time Benton was sentenced in an Iowa courtroom.

A few weeks later, Benton was caught in an infiltration investigation by the Telegraph, a London newspaper that sent journalists posing as representatives of a wealthy Chinese man to meet him. Benton reportedly told undercover reporters he could have their funds funneled through black money groups and spent on pro-Trump political activities, according to the newspaper. (At the time, Benton refuse he had done something “immoral”.)

Benton, who was still in home confinement at the time of the incident with the Telegraph journalists, was reprimanded by his probation officer for going without permission to New York, where the injection took place, according to court documents referring to the newspaper’s investigation. In December 2020, Benton received a pardon from then President Trump, erasing his 2016 conviction record.

Wead and Benton now face six counts, including conspiracy, operating a straw donation program and helping a foreign national to donate politically.

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