|It's always the dinner. Thomas Couture, Les Romains de la Décadence, 1847, Musée d'Orsay, via Wikipedia.|
Don't stop me if you've heard this one, or if you think you've heard it. We've all heard it, in fact, or rather most of us have heard most of its elements and been more or less scandalized, but I believe we haven't really heard it as story: I know I hadn't until this morning, when WNYC's Ilya Marritz showed up on the radio to give some publicity to the latest episode of the Trump Inc. podcast, produced by the radio station and Pro Publica, and he didn't exactly tell the story in the way I mean, and neither does the podcast, I think, but I felt I was hearing it for the first time.
So there's this Trump-related superPAC, America First Action, that's been involved in some pretty dodgy things, like the case of Randy Perkins, the founder of a company called AshBritt, who made a donation of half a million dollars to the group the day after he received a supplemental contract award worth about the same amount ($460,000), for cleaning up wildfire damage, to a contract he had with the Defense Department. Which may have been completely unrelated to the donation (Perkins said, "I actually think this administration cares deeply about children and mental health issues"), but was illegal all the same—federal contractors aren't allowed to contribute to political campaign organizations, and when a watchdog organization found out about it the money had to be returned. Or the way it may have illegally taken donations adding up to almost $2 million from a foreign company (Canadian) laundered through its US subsidiary. Or the way the Trump campaign may have illegally coordinated with America First Action and its dark-money sibling America First Policies, with Trump personally soliciting donations for them.
If there is anything wrong going on with these organizations, the Federal Elections Commission will be even less able to do anything about it than it traditionally has, because it hasn't had a quorum since vice chairman Matthew Petersen resigned in August, making it unable to even hold a meeting, and the Trump administration hasn't nominated anybody to replace him (the Bush and Obama administrations also failed to name new commissioners, and its backlog of unresolved cases goes back to 2012).
Anyhow, another dodgy association is the one with our friends Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, since a $325,000 donation to America First Action made in May 2018, a week or three after they attended a dinner at the White House, apparently laundering money from a Russian businessman known as Foreign National-1, is what got them busted in the first place, when it was flagged by the Campaign Legal Center.
We haven't got a tape of that 1 May White House dinner, at least not yet, but Parnas's falling-out with Big Donald has yielded Fruman's cell phone recording of 90 minutes another dinner, at the Trump International just down the street from the White House, just the night before, 30 April, where most of the guests were 6- or 7-figure donors to America First Action, telling the owner of the hotel, who is the president of the United States, about their hopes and aspirations and what they'd like the government to do to help them out. People like Wayne Hoovestol, owner of a big trucking firm who'd like to the construction of highways for self-driving trucks—a shell company associated with him donated $250,000 to America First Action that day. Or Barry Zekelman, of the Canadian steel company Zekelman Industries, asking among other things if it could be arranged to have Asian countries limit the amount of steel they export to the US. He didn't make a donation to the superPAC, but his company's US subsidiary, Wheatland Tube, did—$1.7 million, the first $1 million coming right before the dinner.
On May 31, 2018, Trump announced a cap on steel imports from South Korea, which compete with Zekelman’s steel, followed by a 50 percent tariff on steel from Turkey, another competitor. Less than a week later, Wheatland Tube gave another $250,000 to the pro-Trump super-PAC, America First Action Inc., run by former aides to the president, then another $500,000 in October.And so on.
At one point, Trump asks donors specifically how their businesses are doing and, at times, interrupts them by explaining what regulations his administration has rolled back to help that particular industry.
[Karen] Buchwald Wright, owner of Ariel Corp, and [her husband Thomas] Rastin gave America First Action a total of $750,000 in six installments in 2018. They also gave $13,500 directly to Trump’s campaign.
Donors involved in the natural gas compression industry, which Buchwald Wright and Rastin are part of, also had a candid dialogue with Trump about what changes are best for their bottom line, like relying less on renewable energy sources, lowering emission regulations and the need for new refineries. In response, Trump told them his administration is planning to roll back emission standards.This is obviously completely illegal coordination between the superPAC and the candidate, and you can see why. Prohibition of corporate donations and size limits on individual donations to campaigns are meant, with frail optimism, to work as a brake on the influence of the super-wealthy on our elected officials, and keeping the campaign separate from the superPAC (which can accept corporate donations, thanks Citizens United) is little better than a figleaf over a way of getting around that, but this dinner, Trump's presence (and he's collecting his outsize margin on the food and beverage consumption too, of course), and the drumbeat of enormous donations in and around it rips the figleaf off. There has to be a pretty good impeachment article right there.
But this was also the dinner where Trump first heard about Ukraine as someplace you could make some money out of ("They have oil?") and the US ambassador to Ukraine, from Parnas, and you can hear that on Fruman's recording too:
Is there a connection between this and Foreign National-1, the Russian source of the $325K, and Parnas's and Fruman's and DiGenova's and Toensing's exiled Ukrainian client Dmytro Firtash, who "got his start in business with the permission of a notorious Russian crime lord, according to a classified State Department cable", and who had particularly strong reasons for wanting to get rid of Ambassador Yovanovitch (she had backed the Ukrainian anti-corruption gas magnate Andriy Kobolyev in a dispute with Firtash over $2 billion Firtash seemed to have stolen from Kobolyev's company)? Speculators gonna speculate:
David Corn has some more sober-minded ideas, based on the Parnas and Fruman indictment.Yes, however I think he's like a shell company for this guy. pic.twitter.com/0nFz3dw6kJ— Jake 🇺🇲🔭 (@Jake_McQ) October 11, 2019
Trump certainly didn't leap to fire Yovanovitch in any event; in fact, it took him a good year and plenty of prodding from Rudolph Giuliani and his team. Oh, incidentally, another of the dinner guests was Charles Gucciardi, the Long Island lawyer who introduced Parnas to his friend Rudolph Giuliani later that summer, and invested $500,000 in a company owned by Parnas and Giuliani, Fraud Guarantee, which paid Giuliani the whole $500K for services the exact nature of which remains unclear:
In an interview last month before he was arrested, Mr. Parnas said Mr. Giuliani “offered some advice on” Fraud Guarantee. He said his efforts to help Mr. Trump in Ukraine were self-funded and “have nothing to do with our business.”There is literally no record of Fraud Guarantee ever doing any business other than passing money to Rudolph Giuliani.
So there you pretty much have it: President Donald Trump holds pay-to-play dinners at his restaurant where he illegally invites donors to the superPAC associated with him and listens to their requests on policy, and by the way you know how he pockets campaign money through the campaign staging events at his properties. (And you don't believe this was the only such dinner, right? They're surely happening at the White House and the alarmingly named BLT Prime in the hotel and Mar-a-Lago on winter weekends as well.)
The Ukraine adventure grew out of one such dinner, with our boys Lev and Igor asking for the favor of "taking out" the ambassador and eventually offering a laundered Russian donation of $325K, the thing at the core of what Giuliani developed into a quest to punish Joe Biden and push that stupid CrowdStrike myth, presumably to make the ambassador firing more palatable to Big Donald, who didn't fully join in until Zelenskyy's surprise election (and Rudy's instant disappointment with Zelenskyy that led him to cancel his May 2019 trip because "There was a great fear that the new [Ukrainian] president would be surrounded by, literally, enemies of the president [of the United States] who were involved in that and people who are involved with other Democratic operatives"). It was very bad in its own right, as the impeachment debate showed, but it's completely within a web of corruption of the most commonplace kind but on a mind-boggling scale.
That's the story that's not quite getting told, or heard, it seems to me, and it's the story, or the essential context of the story, that I wish the impeachment managers had managed to tell.
Update: I did listen to that podcast. It's very good, too, I mean very good radio, well produced and well scripted and well paced, but no, it's doesn't do this job. Not that the team is afraid to talk about Trump corruption, but they don't make a lot of room for it in this story, which is mostly about the watchdog group doing the work, and Lev and Igor in the foreground.