The landmark Citizens United case and related campaign finance laws may be facilitating Russia’s attempt to subvert U.S. democracy, the Dallas News reports.
According to an analysis of public campaign finance reports, a group of Russian-linked political donors with ties to Vladimir Putin funnel money to Donald Trump and the GOP through legal campaign contributions that have, thus far, faced little-to-no scrutiny by the federal government.
That could be changing. In September, it was reported that special counsel Robert Mueller is investigating three donors with ties to Russia who contributed a combined total of $2 million to funds controlled by Trump. All three of the men have financial and business ties to Russian oligarchs who are intricately linked with Putin.
As the Dallas News explains, one of those men is Ukrainian-born billionaire Leonard Blavatnik, who holds dual American and British citizenship. Blavatnik at one time offered political donations on a bipartisan basis, giving small contributions to both parties from 2009 to 2014.
From 2015 to 2016, Blavatnik stopped donating to both political parties, and instead contributed $6.35 million to GOP political action committees. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Blavatnik and two other Russian-linked donors began pumping donations to the Republican National Committee “just as Trump was on the verge of securing the Republican nomination.”
Since April 2016, Blavatnik has donated $383,000 to the RNC, with $12,700 going to the RNC legal fund. That account paid Trump’s legal bills in the Russia investigation until November. Blavatnik also donated $1 million to Trump’s inauguration fund, ABC reports.
By all accounts, Blavatnik is a success story. Having grown up in the U.S.S.R, he moved to the United States in the ’70s, then returned just before the fall of the Soviet Union, amassing his fortune in oil, gas and heavy industry in Putin’s Russia.
He also has extensive ties to Russian oligarchs that are directly linked to Putin. Blavatnik holds a stake in Rusal, which was founded by Russian aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska. As the Dallas News notes, Putin's state-controlled bank owns “nearly 4 percent of Deripaska's stake in Rusal.”
Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort—who’s been indicted on money laundering and conspiracy charges as part of Mueller’s probe—had a $10 million annual contract with Deripaska through his lobbying firm. He reportedly offered the Russian oligarch “private briefings” two weeks before Trump secured the Republican nomination.
Blavatnik is also publicly associated with Viktor Vekselberg, a Putin ally who owns part of the Bank of Cyprus—which handed over Manafort’s bank records to Mueller in November, Bloomberg reports. Blavatnik and Vekselberg are co-founders of the Renova Group.
Along with Blavatnik, Mueller is also reportedly scrutinizing $285,000 in donations from U.S. citizen Andrew Intrater, the head of Columbus Nova—which a subsidiary of Renova Group. Intrater is Vekselberg's cousin.
The third identified as a possible target of Mueller’s investigation is oil magnate Simon Kukes, a Russian-born American chemist who Open Secrets reports “contributed more than $150,000 to Trump's campaign and joint fundraising committee, Trump Victory.”
Dallas News identifies a fourth major donor with known ties to the Russian government as IMG Artists chief executive Alexander Shustorovich. In total, those four men “made $10.4 million in political contributions from the start of the 2015-16 election cycle through September 2017, and 99 percent of their contributions went to Republicans,” according to the report.
Perhaps the most insidious connection, however, is the one to Trump’s campaign and Citizens United. U.S. corporations and individuals can donate as much money as they want to political campaigns through political action committees and non-profit organizations thanks to David Bossie, chairman of the conservative group Citizens United. Bossie led the effort to remove limits on campaign finance laws. He was also deputy campaign manager to the Trump presidential campaign.
The Dallas News notes that many of Trump’s most prominent backers, including Robert and Rebekah Mercer and Erik Prince, benefit immensely from the Citizens United ruling. Dan Backer, and Russian-born emigre and the general counsel for three pro-Trump political action committees, was also the lead attorney for the 2014 Supreme Court case that removed a cap on the number of candidates and political parties wealthy donors can contribute to.
The campaign finance laws currently in place mean the donations from these Russia-linked businessmen fall within our current framework. As House intelligence committee ranking member (D-CA) Adam Schiff explained to ABC News, “unless the contributions were directed by a foreigner, they would be legal.”
Still, Schiff argued, they could “be of interest to investigators examining allegations of Russian influence on the 2016 campaign.”
“Obviously, if there were those that had associations with the Kremlin that were contributing, that would be of keen concern,” Schiff added. “… The oligarchs are really part and parcel of service to the Kremlin. They can be called upon at basically Putin’s will to do what he needs done. It gives them some distance from the Kremlin, it gives them some plausible deniability.”