Longtime GOP operatives charged with funneling Russian national's money to Trump, RNC

Two veteran Republican campaign operatives — including one who got a pardon from then-President Donald Trump one month before he left office — are charged in a new federal indictment with funneling $25,000 from a Russian national into the Trump campaign in 2016.

© Evan Vucci/AP Photo There is no indication in the indictment that former President Donald Trump or his campaign aides were aware that the money originated with the Russian donor.

Jesse Benton, 43, and Doug Wead, 75, made brief appearances Monday at a video hearing in U.S. District Court in Washington, pleading not guilty to six felony charges, including facilitating a campaign contribution by a foreign national, acting as a straw donor and causing the filing of false campaign finance reports.

The grand jury indictment alleges that Benton and Wead worked together to accept $100,000 from an unidentified Russian national in order to get the foreigner a meeting with then-candidate Trump at a fundraiser in Philadelphia on Sept. 22, 2016.

Neither Trump nor his campaign are mentioned by name in the indictment, but details in the 19-page document make clear that the scheme involved seeking the donation in connection with the Trump event and an opportunity to get face to face with him.

For example, the indictment’s reference to a $25,000 donation on Oct. 27, 2016, to a political committee by Benton — allegedly to cover up the foreign source of the money — lines up with a donation of the same size and date to Trump’s political committee attributed to a “Jesse Bentor,” which prosecutors said is a garbling of Benton’s name.

There is no indication in the indictment that Trump or his campaign aides were aware that the money originated with the Russian donor. The charges say that Benton and Wead “concealed” the arrangement from Trump, and that part of the scheme involved getting the political committees to “unwittingly” file reports indicating that Benton was actually the source of the funds.

The indictment suggests that Benton and Wead hoped to make money from the scheme and did — taking $100,000 from the Russian, but paying only $25,000 to Trump Victory, a joint venture between the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee.

Benton, a veteran of Kentucky and presidential politics, had previously faced federal campaign finance charges for payments to a key Iowa state lawmaker who switched endorsements from Michelle Bachman to Ron Paul in the 2012 presidential GOP primary. Trump, just before leaving office, pardoned Benton for the crimes he was convicted of. Benton is also an in-law and former adviser to Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who is Ron Paul’s son. Benton previously led Sen. Mitch McConnell’s 2014 reelection campaign before stepping down amid legal scrutiny.

In pardoning Benton and another associate, Trump indicated that the move had the support of Rand Paul and former FEC Chairman Lee Goodman.

The new indictment alleges that Benton was carrying out the foreign-donation scheme in the days just before and after he was sentenced to two years’ probation on the Iowa-related campaign finance case.

Wead is a conservative commentator and activist who co-authored a book with Vice President George H.W. Bush, published just before Bush became president in 1989. Wead also enjoyed close access to the Trump White House during his presidency.

Wead is represented in the case by two former attorneys for Trump when he was president, Jay Sekulow and Jane Raskin.

Asked about the charges, Sekulow said in a statement: “Doug Wead is a respected author and supporter of charitable causes. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges and will continue to respond appropriately in court.”

The case against Benton and Wead has been assigned to Judge Trevor McFadden, a Trump appointee.

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