It’s a minor story relative to all the sturm und drang of the 2022 midterm elections, congressional leadership battles, Donald Trump’s third presidential campaign, and the implosion of Twitter, but the conviction of Jesse Benton is still worth discussing.
It’s been a while (2013 and 2014) since I wrote about Benton. He first got in trouble during the 2012 presidential campaign when he paid Michele Bachmann’s Iowa campaign chairman to switch his allegiance to Ron Paul. That earned him his first conviction, for filing false records with the Federal Elections Commission. Donald Trump gave him a clean slate during his pre-Christmas pardons of 2020.
That was a favor to Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. You see, Benton is married to Valerie Pyeatt who is Ron Paul’s granddaughter, which makes her Rand’s niece. Prior to that, in 2010, Benton was the successful campaign manager of Rand’s campaign for U.S. Senate in Kentucky. They had to overcome Mitch McConnell’s preference for Trey Grayson in the primaries, so there was initially some bad blood between the two Kentucky senators.
When McConnell sought reelection in 2014, he had the bright idea of hiring Benton as his campaign manager. It was his way of making peace with the Paul camp and their supporters. But, as I explained in 2014, it didn’t go well for a couple of reasons. First, Benton’s illegal scheme to steal Bachmann’s Iowa campaign chairman came to light. Second, a former aide to Ron Paul named Dennis Fusaro released a recorded phone conversation in which Benton said he was “sort of holding my nose for two years” while he worked for McConnell “because what we’re doing here is going to be a big benefit for Rand in 2016.” The idea being that Rand would run for president in 2016, which he did without much success.
After a surprising bit of hesitation, McConnell sacked Benton, and not much was heard from him until it was revealed, as the Washington Post details, that he’d bought a $25,000 ticket to “a September 2016 Republican National Committee (RNC) event on behalf of Roman Vasilenko, a Russian naval officer turned multilevel marketer.” This is what Benton was convicted for on Thursday.
Vasilenko connected with Benton through Doug Wead, an evangelical ally of the Bush family who was also involved in multilevel marketing. Vasilenko sent $100,000 to Benton, who was working for a pro-Trump super PAC at the time, supposedly for consulting services. Benton subsequently donated $25,000 to the RNC by credit card to cover the ticket.
It’s rare to see a nexus between the establishment Bush family, the libertarian Pauls and MAGA Trump, let alone one also tangentially involving McConnell, but Benton had all these bases covered. Of course, proponents of #RussiaGate are gleefully pointing at headlines reading “GOP operative found guilty of funneling Russian money to Donald Trump,” but while this is technically true it’s not really evidence in support of the theory that Trump knowingly accepted help from Vladimir Putin.
It appears, rather, that Vasilenko was initially interested in making contact with any celebrity who might help him promote himself and his company. Oprah Winfrey was high on his list, but so was Trump because of his television fame from The Apprentice. For Benton’s part, he was looking for both personal enrichment and to show some success at raising money for a political action committee helping the Trump campaign. The fact that Vasilenko was Russian was probably irrelevant to Benton, and the entire arrangement was unknown to Trump or his staff.
Of course, once Valilenko succeeded in getting a picture with the soon-to-be Republican Party nominee for president, he knew how to leverage it for other purposes.
But prosecutors said that once it was offered, Vasilenko saw the value of an introduction to Trump. He was running for parliament in Russia at the time, according to the Justice Department, and after Trump’s election was invited on Russian television.
“He’s sophisticated,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Michelle Wasserman told jurors. “He got access to someone he helped elect.”
So, a Russian politician gave $25,000 to Trump and then used his access as both a political and business asset. It’s not some huge scandal and it adds basically nothing to overall question of Russia/Trump collaboration during the 2016 campaign. But it does showcase the ugly and cynical underbelly of how Republicans operate. If you think people like Benton are considered aberrations and embarrassments, consider that Trump made sure to pardon him right before he, unwillingly, left office.
There’s so much cynicism involved here, from how bribes were paid in the Iowa Caucuses, to how Benton used McConnell even as McConnell was using Benton, to a religious right figure teaming up with a Russian naval officer and politician to promote their multilayer marketing schemes, to Benton’s greedy scam with the Russian, to Benton’s corrupt last-second pardon which Sen. Paul pulled out of Trump. It might seem that the Bushes, Pauls, McConnells and Trumps stand for distinct things within America’s conservative movement, but underneath it all is a through line of corruption and criminality. That’s why Benton’s conviction is worth discussion.