Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is facing a fundraising scandal after a Telegraph investigation exposed how key supporters were prepared to accept illicit donations from foreign backers.
Senior figures involved with the Great America PAC, one of the leading “independent” groups organising television advertisements and grassroots support for the Republican nominee, sought to channel $2 million from a Chinese donor into the campaign to elect the billionaire despite laws prohibiting donations from foreigners.
In return, undercover reporters purporting to represent the fictitious donor were assured that he would obtain “influence” if Mr Trump made it to the White House.
Last week Eric Beach, the PAC’s co-chairman, confirmed to the reporters at an event in Las Vegas that their client’s support would be “remembered” if Mr Trump became president.
The disclosure raises questions about the origins of money being ploughed into supporting Mr Trump’s candidacy.
The PAC “consultant” who brokered the deal proposed using as a conduit a type of organisation he admitted is seen as being responsible for the “’dark money’ in politics”.
The revelations also highlight the apparent desperation of Mr Trump’s supporters to finance the final weeks of his campaign amid a series of controversies and polls showing him losing in key states.
Mr Trump once labelled Super PACs a “disaster” that have “total control of the candidates”, and has criticised Mrs Clinton for relying on outside groups.
Undercover reporters posing as consultants acting for a Chinese benefactor approached specific pro-Trump and pro-Clinton fundraisers and groups after receiving information that individuals were involved in hiding foreign donations.
Sources also said PACs, “independent” organisations that can raise unlimited sums of money to lobby for or against particular candidates, were being used to circumvent rules.
The pro-Clinton organisations did not respond to initial approaches. But earlier this month an undercover reporter spoke by telephone to Eric Beach, co-chairman of the pro-Trump Great America PAC, which has the backing of Rudy Giuliani, one of Mr Trump’s most senior advisers, as well as the billionaire’s son Eric.
The reporter said a Chinese client wished to donate to the PAC to support Mr Trump’s campaign.
Mr Beach appeared interested despite raising concerns about his nationality and saying he would need to know the donor’s identity.
He suggested the donation could be put through a social welfare organisation called a 501(c)(4) – or C4 – , which unlike a PAC is not subject to a blanket ban on receiving foreign money, and not required to name donors. He stressed in an email that “any path we recommend is legal”.
The reporter then received an email from Jesse Benton, a senior figure at the PAC until being convicted in May in connection with buying a senator’s endorsement on a prior campaign. He said he was a “consultant” and that Mr Beach had not wanted a “paper trail” of contact. He and the PAC later denied that he had worked for it at all since May.
Mr Benton proposed channelling the donation through his own company to mask its origin. It would then be passed on to two C4s before being donated by them to the PAC, or simply used to fund projects the PAC had already planned.
Mr Benton said the $2 million, for which he would submit an invoice for “appearances” would “definitely allow us to spend two million more dollars on digital and television advertising for Trump.” The Chinese benefactor’s generosity would be “whispered into Mr Trump’s ear.” He said he had previously helped US donors conceal donations.
Mr Beach then said at the Vegas event last Wednesday: “Trump knows that you know, people have stuck with him … I’m not gonna twist your arm or anything, I just think that there’s no way that this group, and you guys have been participating indirectly or directly, won’t be remembered.”
Mr Benton denied any “unethical” behaviour. He claimed he spoke to the reporters after a “business referral” from Mr Beach and proposed a “public affairs contract” with his firm “having determined money could not go into a 501(c)4”.
Dan Backer, counsel to the PAC, denied that Mr Beach asked Mr Benton to act for him and said Mr Benton “has not had a role with the PAC since May and does not speak for it”. The “professional referral” for “Mr Benton’s own benefit” was so that “Mr Benton could explore legal options for your reporters’ alleged client”.
He continued: “Mr Benton has not solicited any contributions to the PAC that I am aware of, nor has he been asked to do so.”
He suggested Mr Benton had simply engaged in “puffery and self-promotion”, adding that “the conduct of the PAC and Mr. Beach’s conduct was appropriate, ethical and legal at all times.”
Mr Backer added that “The PAC has never … solicited or accepted contributions from a foreign national or entity” and said Mr Beach had been suggesting how “a US company with a foreign parent company could potentially engage in legal political activity”.
Asked if Mr Trump’s campaign was aware of the scheme suggested by Mr Benton, his spokeswoman said: ” We publicly disavowed this group back in April. This is public via Federal Election Commission filings.
How it unfolded: Pro-Trump fundraisers agree to accept illicit foreign donation
Taking to a podium in Colorado last week, Donald Trump resumed a line of attack he had long used against his opponent: “Her international donors control her every move”.
Yet fundraisers supporting his bid for the White House were in the process of finalising the details of a $2 million donation from a Chinese benefactor seeking unspecified future “influence” under a Trump presidency. Under US law it is illegal for a foreign national to make any contribution in connection with an election.
But when an undercover reporter telephoned Eric Beach, the co-chairman of the Great America PAC, one of the leading “independent” groups financing campaign work for Mr Trump, to convey his fictitious Chinese client’s desire to make such a donation, his approach did not appear unwelcome.
In an initial call on October 4 the reporter explained that the benefactor wanted to donate to support Mr Trump’s campaign, “but he’s not a US national.”
Mr Beach agreed that making such a donation to the PAC could be difficult. But he did, however, have a suggestion involving a 501(c)(4) – a tax-exempt “social welfare organisation” – which he described as a “non-disclose entity” through which the client could make a contribution for a “specific purpose”.
Mr Beach’s response, along with his later statements on the matter, appeared ambivalent for someone who was clearly aware of the ban on foreign nationals making donations in connection with US elections.
Despite warning about the need to know the origins of the money, he was already aware that the donor was a foreign national who would naturally be banned from donating for his stated purpose.
Political observers and campaign groups have raised concerns about 501(c)(4)s, labelling them “dark money” groups because, unlike PACs, they are not required to name donors.
A PAC with a “sister” 501(c)(4) could therefore encourage donors to give to that body. The 501(c)(4) could then contribute to the PAC, or simply spend the money on a project that the group would otherwise have funded.
That scheme was subsequently laid out to two reporters at a meeting in a New York hotel by Jesse Benton, a long-time Republican strategist, who emailed the reporter with the subject “From Eric Beach” and the opening line: “Eric Beach asked me to reach out”.
Mr Benton was a senior figure at the PAC until he was convicted in May in connection with buying a senator’s endorsement for Ron Paul’s presidential campaign in 2012.
At the meeting on October 13, he explained that Mr Beach, 38, needed to maintain a “deliberate disengagement”.
Mr Benton’s proposal was for the Chinese client to pay his $2 million, via the reporters’ Singapore-based communications consultancy, to Mr Benton’s own public affairs firm, Titan Strategies LLC, in order to mask the fact that the money was coming from abroad.
He set out the scheme in writing in an email on October 5 in which he said he had “checked with our attorney, and there is no prohibition on what I propose”, although “he is giving one final review for full legal vetting.”
At the meeting more than a week later, he explained how he would direct the funds evenly to two 501(c)(4)s which could donate the money to the Great America PAC in their name, or spend it on activities the PAC would otherwise have funded. One of the organisations was Vision for America, which is run by Mr Beach.
“I’ll send money from my company to both,” Mr Benton said.
Mr Benton said: “I don’t know if you ever hear journalists wring their hands about ‘dark money’ in politics – they’re talking about 501(c)(4)s.”
He told the reporters: “There’s no prohibition against what we’re doing, but you could argue that the letter of the law says that it is originating from a foreign source and even though it can legally go into a 501(c)(4) then it shouldn’t be done”.
Discussing how the money would be spent on pro-Trump grassroots campaigning as well as television advertising, he warned: “You shouldn’t put any of this on paper.”
He suggested that the $2 million paid to his firm could be billed simply as “a large retainer” for consulting work. He then sent a $2 million invoice, for the sake of “appearances”, for his services providing “analysis of the American political and business landscape”.
In one of a series of telephone conversations over a two-week period, he explained that the work, which “doesn’t cost any money” apart from a “couple hours of my time” would be reports on the spending of the 501(c)(4)s and PAC.
“It would be one more way … for your client to have an assurance that quality work’s being done with his money. You know, it would give you a window into what the c4s and the super PAC are doing.”
And the fictitious Chinese benefactor’s generosity would not go unrewarded should the donor a require a line of communication to Mr Trump if he became president.
“We can have that whispered into Mr Trump’s ear whenever your client feels it’s appropriate,” he said. After a telephone conversation with Mr Beach, Mr Benton said that the PAC wished to invite the reporters to a party the group was hosting in Vegas on October 19, the night of the final presidential debate.
He later passed on a briefing on the event prepared by Mr Beach. Mr Benton warned that he would have to stay away from Vegas because “everything that we’re doing is legal by the book but there’s perceptions and some grey areas.”
Mr Beach also needed to be kept deliberately ignorant of the exact arrangements. But at the event the PAC’s co-chairman clearly understood their client’s apparent request for an assurance that Mr Trump would remember his contribution.
One thing he has to understand is, what you guys have to understand is: you can get credit, but don’t overdo it with the influence, he said. The particular sticking point was the highly discreet method by which the client would be donating.
I would just manage your expectations, say: you’re going to get credit but your ‘non-disclosed’ [donation] is not disclosed. Not just for your benefit, but for everyone’s benefit.
Then Mr Beach’s ambivalence, or possibly confusion, about the proposal appeared to return. I would never let you guys give to the PAC, to give to the C4, because that’s illegal,” he added. “See the C4 is technically not illegal, but it’s not – it’s just not the best way to go.
Lawrence Noble, who was general counsel at the US Federal Election Commission for 13 years and is now at the Campaign Legal Centre, a DC-based advocacy group, said: If there is evidence that representatives of a super PAC were soliciting or knowingly accepting foreign national money and helping arrange for it to get into the super PAC through a 501(c)(4) organisation, then it should be investigated by the FEC and by the Department of Justice as a criminal violation.
Mr Benton denied any unethical behaviour and said he was not an agent of Great America PAC”, while Dan Backer, counsel to the PAC said Mr Benton has not had a role with the PAC since May and does not speak for it. Mr Backer added that the conduct of the PAC and Mr. Beach’s conduct was appropriate, ethical and legal at all times.