Despite President Trump’s irrational denials, there have been a lot of credible revelations about how the Russian government interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election with the intent to hurt the campaign of Secretary Hillary Clinton and help Trump.
All of those efforts, whether direct or through affiliates in the east bloc and elsewhere, are clearly illegal under U.S. law, but a new report sheds light on other methods the Russians appear to have used to influence American elections – through donations that may fall into a legal gray area.
However, if it is proven that these activities actually link back to Russian President Vladimir Putin, they could turn out to be criminal acts which American law enforcement and Special Counsel Robert Muller will find of interest – if they aren’t already on that trail.
The revelations concern often sizable political contributions made in recent years by U.S. citizens or wealthy individuals living in the U.S. legally who continue to have close ties to Russia – many of whom were born in Russia before coming to America.
The potential that this is another way Russia used its money to interfere in the election is laid out in a lengthy article titled, “How Putin’s Proxies Helped Funnel Millions Into GOP Campaigns,” published in the Dallas Morning News.
The “commentary” is written by contributor Ruth May, who is described as a “business professor at the University of Dallas and an expert on the economies of Russia and Ukraine.”
According to May, as Muller and his team get deeper into potential collusion between Trump and the Russian government, “investigators are taking a closer look at political contributions made by U.S. citizens with close ties to Russia.”
“Buried in the campaign finance reports available to the public,” write May, “are some troubling connections between a group of wealthy donors with ties to Russia and their political contributions to President Donald Trump and a number of top Republican leaders.”
According to May, what opened “the floodgates” to this kind of political greasing of the wheels were court decisions since 2010 when the U.S. Supreme Court in the Citizens United decision allowed corporations and individuals to make unlimited donations to political campaigns, skirting the existing rules that limited contributions.
“We have allowed our campaign finance laws to become a strategic threat to our country,” warns May ominously.
At issue is the federal law which holds that foreign nationals may not contribute directly or indirectly to American political campaigns in state, local or federal elections.
The first foreigner who gets spotlighted by May is Len Blavatnik, who currently has dual citizenship in the U.S. and the U.K. and business interests worldwide, including in Russia.
Born in Ukraine and raised in Russia, Blavatnik came to the U.S. in 1978 to pursue his education and later returned to Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. Around 1986, Blavatnik and his associates acquired newly privatized businesses, specializing in oil, coal, plastics, chemicals, telecommunications, media, real estate and more.
Now living primaril8y in London, Blavatnik has been ranked as the richest man in the U.K., where he has been given a knighthood; and is said by Forbes magazine to be worth just over $20 billion.
In the U.S., Blavatnik’s business interests are also diverse, including a major footprint in the entertainment industry where he is a primary owner of Warner Music, and earlier this year bought out Australian billionaire James Packer’s interest in a joint venture that invests in movies made by Warner Bros., which Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin had been part of until he accepted his government position.
From about 2011 until 2014, Blavtnik gave political contributions to both Democrats and Republicans. Beginning in 2015, that changed dramatically when he began giving much larger amounts to Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky), House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc), Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fl) and Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.).
He also became a major contributor to Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign and afterward. Blavtnik gave a total of $7.4 million in 2015-2016, including $1 million to help pay for Trump’s inaugural celebration.
May doesn’t provide a direct link from Blavtnik to Putin in terms of the political river of money, but does link both of them to a series of other Russians. That includes Oleg Deripaska, who she describes as one of Putin’s “favorite oligarchs.”
Deripaska is majority shareholder in Rusal, the huge Russian aluminum company, in which Blavatnik also holds a sizable stake. Another four percent of Rusal is held by a state-owned Russian bank that Putin controls, which is currently under U.S. government sanctions after it was linked in the Panama Papers last year “for facilitating the flow of billions of dollars to offshore companies linked to Putin.”
Deripaska earlier this year was revealed by the Associated Press as having hired Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort as a consultant for $10 million a year “to advance Putin’s interests with Western governments.”
The Washington Post reported that an email handed over to Mueller’s team, which was sent two weeks before Trump officially became the Republican nominee revealed that Manafort “asked an overseas intermediary to pass on to Deripaska: “If he needs private briefings, tell him we can accommodate.”
May’s article also goes into detail about a number of other Russians connected to each other who are also either Republican donors or connected to those who have made large donations to Trump and other Republicans since 2015.
In total, Blavatnik and at least three others made $10.4 million in political contributions between 2015 and the 2016 election, reports May, who adds that “99 percent of their contributions went to Republicans.”
“Experts who follow the activities of Russian oligarchs told ABC News that they believe the contributions from Blavatnik (and others),” reports May, “warrant intense scrutiny because they have worked closely (with others who are now suspects).
Even if the donations were legal, May raises the question of why Republicans and Trump-controlled Political Action Committees took the money. “Yes, it was legal to accept their donations,” writes May, “but it was incredibly poor judgment.”
She singles out McConnell, who received top-secret intelligence briefings in 2016 that “our electoral process was under attack by the Russians,” and public revelations from Homeland Security that “the Russian government had directed the effort to interfere in our electoral process,” but his PAC still accepted a $1 million donation from a company controlled by Blavatnik.
“The PAC took another $1 million from Blavatnik’s Al-Altep Holdings on March 30, 2017, just 10 days after former FBI Director James Comey publicly testified before the House Intelligence Committee about Russia’s interference in the election.”
Poor judgment? Illegal activities? Mueller investigating? May never produces the ultimate smoking gun showing illegal activity, but she shows in words and a series of charts the kind of links that surely are under Mueller’s microscope right now.
“The changes to our campaign finance laws,” writes May, “created an avenue for Russia to try to influence our elections. There are holes in our firewall and they aren’t on the Internet.”
Even as Trump and Putin deny that Russia interfered in the election, the evidence mounts along with unanswered questions. What May’s article does is provide a roadmap that Mueller is now believed to be following that includes not just secret activities, but also this firehose of money that flooded the Republican coffers which may have come either directly from Putin, or was given at his behest.
Trump and his lawyers may think Muller’s probe is close to being finished, but this kind of report suggests there is a lot more to learn about what may well be the most corrupt election in American history thanks to foreign financial interest.