[THE SOUNDS OF CHITCHAT AT A DINNER ENTER]
MARRITZ: April 30, 2018. It’s a small gathering in a private dining room, in The Trump International Hotel, in Washington.
VOICE: Some people may not want their pictures taken.
MARRITZ: It’s a collection of mostly wealthy, well-connected people. They’ve pledged financial support for a group that's promoting Trump’s reelection.
VOICE: Hi, everybody. Mr. President, thank you for being here. [APPLAUSE]
MARRITZ: People take their seats. Drinks are poured. Dinner is served.
The phone that’s recording all of this must be pretty close to the President.
Trump talks about what he wants to talk about. [TRUMP TALKS UNDER MARRITZ’S NARRATION] Golf. Politics. The intersection of golf and politics.
TRUMP: You know that Kim Jong Un is a great golfer. You know that, right? [CHATTER AND LAUGHTER]
MARRITZ: And a lot of the guests here want things from the President: [LAUGHTER] One guy who says he’s in the steel business is talking steel tariffs. Another guy wants a new highway for self-driving vehicles. Someone else suggests holding a summit with North Korea to be held in this brand new city in South Korea that they have a stake in.
[LIGHT MUSIC PLAYS]
MARRITZ: A lot of the people at this dinner are regulars at this kind of event — established business executives who give big to politicians and political causes. But two of the guests are basically newcomers: Igor Fruman and Lev Parnas.
PARNAS: Well, we’re in the process of purchasing a energy company in Ukraine that should help cut off … [FADES UNDER NARRATION]
MARRITZ: Parnas and Fruman. Yeah, those guys.
Parnas and Fruman are two entrepreneurs who say they’re purchasing an energy company in Ukraine. Fruman is mostly quiet. Parnas is the chatty one. You can hear him over and over again laughing at every joke the President makes.
TRUMP: How’s Ukraine doing? Don’t ask.
PARNAS: [LAUGHS] They — they love you, though. I can tell you that much. They love you.
TRUMP: Great — I can tell you, they’re great fighters.
MARRITZ: Both men are Americans who were born in the Soviet Union. They still do business in that part of the world. They’re telling the president about a deal they’re working in Ukraine.
PARNAS: [AUDIO SLOWLY COMES UP] ‘Cause all the pipeline goes through Ukraine. So, Poland …
TRUMP: [INCREDULOUS] Ukraine has oil?
PARNAS: A lot.
SPEAKER: Number one in Europe.
[SEVERAL PEOPLE TALK OVER EACH OTHER, AFFIRMING UKRAINE HAVING OIL]
TRUMP: [IN SHOCK] Ukraine? How come they … don't have any money?
MARRITZ: “Ukraine has oil? How come they don't have any money?”
Trump’s genuine surprise is just part of this bigger, mind-bending moment.
Here is the President of the United States, on his best behavior, taking suggestions from people who’ve made political donations in order to share his table.
And even though the committee that’s hosting the dinner is legally barred from coordinating with the Trump campaign, here’s the candidate.
And he owns the hotel. So he’s profiting, personally.
Having captured Trump’s attention, Parnas seizes the moment to ask for something he wants.
PARNAS: The biggest problem there … I think where you need to start is, we’ve got to get rid of the ambassador. She’s still left over from the Clinton administration.
TRUMP: Where? The ambassador where? Ukraine?
MARRITZ: They’re talking about Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, a career diplomat who joined the State Department under Reagan. This is the earliest record we have of the campaign to remove her. It's so early no one remembers her name.
PARNAS: I don’t have a name off back.
MARRITZ: And just like that, without learning her name, Trump makes a decision.
TRUMP: Get rid of her. Get her out tomorrow. I don’t care, get her out tomorrow. [LIGHT LAUGHTER] Take her out, okay?
INDISTINCT VOICE: Excellent.
TRUMP: Do it.
MARRITZ: “Get her out tomorrow. Take her out. Do it.”
In the course of one dinner, Parnas and Fruman had an enormous influence on the President, sending him down a path that would eventually lead to his impeachment. And all it took to get in the door was a pledge to donate.
They hadn’t even sent the money yet.
[TRUMP INC. THEME PLAYS, WITH LAUGHTER AND “TAKE HER OUT. DO IT.” MIXED IN]
Hello, and welcome to Trump Inc., an open investigation from ProPublica and WNYC into the business of Trump. I’m Ilya Marritz.
As we’re recording this show, the US Senate is preparing to acquit the president, having called no witnesses in an impeachment inquiry into abuse of power and obstruction of Congress — a case that began with President Trump’s interactions with Ukraine.
We’re going to look carefully at one thing the Ukraine affair clearly shows: the guardrails have come off political giving in Trump’s America. We got to see it because of this series of incredibly unlikely events.
At the center of it, Parnas and Fruman. Bit players who wandered onto center stage.
MAGUIRE: The only reason that we know about Parnas and Fruman is that they weren't sophisticated donors.
MARRITZ: They wrote big checks, concealed the real source of the money, and got access to the President, and the people around him. They also, according to federal prosecutors, were acting on behalf of one or more Ukrainian politicians. Secretly.
Parnas and Fruman now face criminal charges for, among other things, allegedly funneling foreign money into U.S. politics, and for trying to hide it. They’ve pleaded not guilty.
[MUSIC GOES OUT, THEN SOFTLY COMES BACK IN]
This case wasn’t first brought to light by prosecutors. Or the federal agency that was set up specifically to catch money in politics violations. It was independent watchdogs.
FISCHER: At that early stage, we had no real idea what this was going to lead to.
MARRITZ: Ukraine. A pressure campaign. Impeachment.
All enabled by a system that is increasingly ripe for abuse by the rich.
WEINTRAUB: And when they give, they give in large amounts and whether the super PACs disclose their names or their giving through some shell corporation, the American people may or may not know who they are. But I can guarantee you the candidates know who is putting that money into the system in order to advance their interests.
[MUSIC CHANGES TO BECOME MORE EXPLORATORY]
MARRITZ: Since the 1970s, US law has required campaigns and political groups to carefully account for the money they raise, and the money they spend, from printer paper, to polling, to private planes. It’s an enormous amount of data. In 2018, there were over 140 million separate transactions.
And only a small number of people make it their business to sift through through those filings looking for evidence of wrongdoing. Like this guy:
FISCHER: I'm Brendan Fisher, the director of the federal reform program at the Campaign Legal Center.
ILYA: What is the CLC?
FISCHER: Uh, Campaign Legal Center is an organization founded about 16 years ago by Trevor Potter, a former Republican chair of the Federal Election Commission. And we work across all areas of democracy reform: campaign finance, voting super-rights, ethics, redistricting.
MARRITZ: Fischer is a lawyer, but he could be mistaken for a mixologist, with impressive hair, a fashion-y blazer and a pocket square.
Almost exactly ten years ago, the Campaign Legal Center’s work became vastly more complex. A Supreme Court decision you may have heard of, known as Citizens United, said for the first time that corporations could spend unlimited sums of money to influence elections. It was like a hard-reset on the system. The volume of money in politics surged. A lot of that money went into committees called “super PACs.”
Unlike campaigns, there’s no limit on the size of the donations they can take.
The only checks on super PACs are, they’re are not allowed to coordinate with campaigns and candidates, and they’re required to disclose their donors.
Fischer’s job, in part, is to track super PAC cash. One day in the summer of 2018, something caught his attention.
FISCHER: Lachlan Markay, at The Daily Beast newsletter, flagged this mysterious donation.
MARRITZ: It was to “America First Action,” a political group supporting Trump for President, for $325,000. And it came from an entity with a big-sounding name: “Global Energy Producers.”
FISCHER: The newsletter said there’s no information whatsoever about this group. I mean, when was this? When was the corporation formed? If anybody has any more information, then let us know.
MARRITZ: Fischer’s view is that secret political giving is inherently bad for democracy, because people should know who’s trying to influence elections.
This particular donation, from Global Energy Producers, was big enough to get noticed. It was 6.5% of America First Action’s total receipts that quarter. But at first glance, that was all Fischer knew.
FISCHER: Is there any evidence that this LLC could have generated the sort of income necessary to cover the six figure donation? So I flagged it for Maggie and said, “What can …” you know, “Can we figure anything out about this group?” And then she took it from there.
CRIST: The first thing I did was check the corporate records, and it had formed in Delaware just about five weeks before it showed up on the — the super PAC report. And that was an immediate red flag.
MARRITZ: That’s Maggie Crist.
CRIST: I'm the campaign finance researcher at the Campaign Legal Center.
MARRITZ: And Crist noticed that Global Energy Producers had recently posted an item online, looking for a website designer. It didn’t sound at all like an established business. She kept digging.
Global Energy Producers had a corporate registration in Delaware that didn’t lead anywhere.
CRIST: But, helpfully for us, on the super PAC report itself, there was a different address of a residential address in Florida.
MARRITZ: Which led her to Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman. At that time, two complete unknowns.
CRIST: Fruman and Parnas, at that point, had basically no public footprints. We couldn't find a single mention of them in any US news sources.
Eventually, as we started pulling at a few more threads, we did find some Russian-language news coverage in Ukraine from that year, where they had been bragging about their connections to President Trump, uh, and had been showing some pictures that they had snapped with him at — uh, at some fundraising.
ILYA: That's hardcore. You were just browsing some Russian-language publications in Ukraine. [LAUGHTER]
CRIST: [LAUGHING] Well, it — it involved some uses of Google Translate and, uh, some creative uses of — of that. Um, but yes, it's not the typical sources I would immediately go to.
MARRITZ: One Russian language article describes Fruman as a, quote, “channel of direct communication between the Jewish community of Kiev and the President of the United States.”
It goes on to detail the donor dinner at the Trump Hotel — the one where Parnas said Ambassador Yovanovitch had been speaking ill of Trump.
The article also included a photo of Fruman with Trump, at Mar-a-Lago. Fruman is making a thumbs-up.
FISCHER: You know, it's exceedingly rare that you can find little information about a big donation in US press, but you find a lot of information about the donation and the donors behind it in Russian-language Ukrainian press.
MARRITZ: Fischer saw this as worrying. The Campaign Legal Center filed a complaint, alleging that Global Energy Producers was making a political donation on someone else’s behalf.
FISCHER: Global Energy Producers, LLC, was being used to facilitate a straw donation. That GEP was not the true source of the funds that Parnas, Fruman, or some other source, actually provided the money that went to America first action. Um, and we filed the complaint, alleging that — and it later turned out, that we were right.
MARRITZ: Following the Citizens United decision, watchdog groups like the Campaign Legal Center started noticing hard-to-trace LLC’s giving money to political groups.
They saw this in 2012, in 2014, in 2016. They wrote to the Federal Election Commission, demanding action.
FISCHER: And the FEC sat on those complaints for years — eventually dismissed them — but said that moving forward, when there is evidence that a LLC was created for the purpose of hiding the identity of the donor, then it would enforce the law. So, when we saw Global Energy Producers show up on the America First Action campaign finance report, it seemed to fit that profile.
MARRITZ: So here was a test case of the new doctrine: Large political donation — check. Anonymous shell corporation — check. Donors with mysterious motives — check.
Then it got weirder. CLC heard from a lawyer representing a family that invested in a film with the working title “Anatomy of an Assassin.” The movie never got made, the family sued the guy who got them involved. His name? Lev Parnas.
FISCHER: That lawyer then was able to subpoena bank records and wire transfer records and made some of those records public in his Florida case, which we looked at.
MARRITZ: And they saw something they did not expect.
The big donation from Global Energy Producers did not come from Global Energy Producers. A different LLC, controlled by Parnas and his wife, wired the money. And then, Fischer says …
FISCHER: For whatever reason, the super PAC agreed to falsely attribute the donation to Global Energy Producers, despite the fact that it knew that the money actually came from some other source.
MARRITZ: I should note, America First Action was not charged alongside Parnas and Fruman. The group did not respond to our questions about the donation.
If this feels confusing … Well, confusion can be helpful if you’re trying to hide something about a big donation.
[MUSIC FADES OUT, PAUSE, THEN MUTED VOICES PLAY IN THE BACKGROUND]
A few months after the gift to America First Action, after that April 2018 dinner at the Trump Hotel, the disinformation campaign in Ukraine really got rolling.
By August, Parnas and Rudy Giuliani had linked up. By the start of the following year, 2019, they were having conversations with corrupt Ukrainian prosecutors. That spring, Parnas and Fruman’s names started to appear in the American news.
Parnas kept up ties with the America First Action super PAC. He exchanged WhatsApp messages with America First Action’s finance director, Joseph Ahearn. Parnas sent an interview with one of the prosecutors to Ahearn, and wrote “Have jr retweet it.”
“Sent,” Ahearn replied.
(We know this, by the way, because Parnas has been releasing evidence gathered by prosecutors for his upcoming trial, including the audio you heard at the beginning of this story.)
Then, in October, Parnas and Fruman were arrested at Dulles Airport, carrying one-way tickets to Vienna. They were charged with four counts in Federal Court in the Southern District of New York.
According to the indictment, the defendants attended fundraising events, quote, “with the purpose of enhancing their influence in political circles and gaining access to politicians.” By itself, that’s not illegal. Their alleged crime was disguising their identities.
Quote, “in order to conceal from third parties, including creditors, their sources of funding and capital, PARNAS and FRUMAN created a limited-liability corporation, Global Energy Producers, and then intentionally caused certain large contributions to be reported in the name of GEP instead of in their own names.“
Parnas and Fruman, again, have pleaded not guilty. Their lawyers did not comment.
FISCHER: The first count of the SDNY indictment is effectively our complaint, that the Global Energy Producers donation was a straw donation.
MARRITZ: How many times before in your career, doing this kind of stuff, has a … uh, have you filed a civil complaint that led to criminal charges?
FISCHER: [LAUGHING] Um, I don't know that I can think of a time that it's happened before.
MARRITZ: The indictment points to a possible motive.
Quote, “PARNAS’ efforts to remove the Ambassador were conducted, at least in part, at the request of one or more Ukrainian government officials.”
One more thing Fischer did not see coming — but it could tell us a lot, when this goes to trial. Prosecutors say they can prove that Parnas and Fruman routed foreign money into the US political system. The cash, they say, came from a Russian businessman who was backing a legal pot enterprise they wanted to start together in Nevada, and went straight back to two local campaigns.
MARRITZ: Uh, I don't think any of us had any inkling of that beforehand.
FISCHER: No, that was — that was count four. And that was something we had not known about.
MARRITZ: Foreign money directly injected into an American election.
WEINTRAUB: At the most basic level, one is not allowed to solicit, accept, or receive any foreign money in connection with a US election at the state, federal, or local level.
MARRITZ: Ellen Weintraub, a member of the Federal Election Commission. It’s an independent regulator and law enforcement agency created after the Watergate scandal.
Weintraub is from Queens, and she doesn’t mince words.
WEINTRAUB: I am not a fan of the Citizens United decision.
[LIGHTLY PERCUSSIVE MUSIC PLAYS IN THE BACKGROUND]
MARRITZ: Before the decision, only real, identifiable, human beings were allowed to fund political groups. They could give only modest amounts. But Citizens United invited businesses into politics, allowing them to give unlimited amounts of money to super PACS.
The High Court said everything would be fine because, by law, super PACs are required to disclose their donors.
WEINTRAUB: The problem with that is that corporations can — and have been — a shield against disclosure. It can be through business corporations, but more typically in this context, uh, we see it happening through 501(c)(4) organizations, nonprofit organizations, LLCs … uh, and other entities that are explicitly shell corporations.
MARRITZ: Um, so, let's say I wanted to test this out, and I set up “Acme, LLC” in my home state of New York, and I fund it with my own dollars, from my paycheck from WNYC Radio, where I work, and I give to a political campaign or some kind of political organization. Is that legal?
WEINTRAUB: If you put that money in “Acme” for the specific purpose of moving it, then, to a campaign, I think everyone on the FEC would agree that that is illegal.
MARRITZ: Full disclosure, my employment contract strictly forbids this kind of thing.
Regardless, Weintraub says it gets stickier if my hypothetical LLC is a real business, with real business income.
WEINTRAUB: I would say that your name should still be on — on the contribution. I'm not sure they would be unanimity on that question, uh, on the FEC.
MARRITZ: I asked Weintraub what kind obligations super PACs have to vet their own donors. Remember, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman were able to attend that dinner with the President at the hotel he owns after making a pledge to America First Action, a Trump-supporting super PAC.
So, sticking with my hypothetical company, Acme, LLC. If it gave to a group like America First Action …
MARRITZ: … would they have some obligation to, at the very least, Google and see if that's a real corporation with, like, real sources of income?
WEINTRAUB: If there's nothing on the face of the donation that raises suspicions, then probably not. If Acme, LLC is, um, uh — which we'll have to give them it’s address at the addresses in St. Petersburg, then they probably need to ask some more questions.
MARRITZ: St. Petersburg, Russia.
WEINTRAUB: Yes. Yes. Not Florida.
MARRITZ: Okay. So, actually, that gives campaigns and political groups pretty wide latitude to look the other way.
WEINTRAUB: Well, it depends on whether there's something to look the other way from. If they’re — as I said, if there is an indication that there's something suspicious about this donation and — and most big campaigns —
MARRITZ: But just being an LLC alone cannot — would not be considered an indication.
WEINTRAUB: [LONG PAUSE] I think it depends on the circumstances.
MARRITZ: We now know that America First Action made an incorrect filing in their disclosure forms about the source of Parnas and Fruman’s donation, which is a subject of the Campaign Legal Center’s complaint to the Federal Election Commission.
MARRITZ: Can you tell me anything about the status of that?
MARRITZ: Why not?
WEINTRAUB: [LAUGHING] Because it is illegal for me to discuss any complaints that may be, uh, before the Agency.
[MUSIC BECOMES LIGHT AND BOUNCY]
MARRITZ: In its history, the FEC has never imposed a penalty for a shell corporation acting as a straw donor.
Two years ago, the Federal Election Commission moved to a new space, an immaculate glass box near Union Station. Around 300 people work here, taking in filings, posting them for the public to read, doing investigations. This floor, the 12th floor, is for the Commissioners. The people who actually decide matters, like the Parnas and Fruman complaint. It was a weekday afternoon and it just felt weirdly empty.
WEINTRAUB: There were 10 or 13 —
MARRITZ: The lights just went out.
WEINTRAUB: Yeah. We’re — we’re …
MARRITZ: Do I need to, like, wave my arm?
WEINTRAUB: Yeah. If we — if we move around, maybe it'll come back down again. This is really ridiculous. [MARRITZ LAUGHS] I’m sorry, I apologize.
MARRITZ: That’s okay. It’s funny.
WEINTRAUB: We’re sitting too quietly in here. Sorry.
MARRITZ: Where were we?
MARRITZ: They have timers, to save electricity. The FEC is not running out of money. But still, it felt like a metaphor for something. Weintraub says the Federal Election Commission is in trouble.
WEINTRAUB: So, we have had, in almost every split vote that we've had over the last 11 or 12 years, it has been Republican commissioners opposed to enforcing the law, and Democratic commissioners voting in favor of enforcing the law — in favor of launching an investigation or, uh, imposing a stronger penalty. And it doesn't matter whether it's a Democrat or Republican who was in the box.
[MUSIC BECOMES MORE DRIVING]
MARRITZ: It used to be the FEC had a partisan split, which sounds worse than it was. To get anything done, either a Democratic commissioner or a Republican commissioner would have to vote with the other side. And often, they did.
Then, about a dozen years ago, the split became ideological. Between those who believe campaign finance laws are essential to democracy, and those who don’t. With a deadlocked commission, penalties fell 90%. By the way, one of the Republican commissioners at this time was Don McGahn, who went on to become Trump’s White House Counsel.
WEINTRAUB: So, Republicans have voted over and over again to, uh, not to enforce the law, not to investigate, not to pursue allegations against Democrats. And Democratic commissioners have, on the other hand, voted to pursue them. So most — most recently, we had a case alleging a multimillion dollar coordination scheme between a super PAC and the Hillary Clinton campaign. And I voted to pursue the investigation and the Republicans blocked it. And this has happened — this — this scenario, has happened over and over and over again.
MARRITZ: That's remarkable.
WEINTRAUB: It is, kind of.
MARRITZ: Then, things got worse. The Senate stopped confirming new FEC commissioners.
The FEC is supposed to have six members. But by last summer, the number dropped to just three. So the FEC lost its quorum, the four-person minimum required to approve investigations, issue new regulations, impose penalties, or even just publish guidance.
Which would seem to leave the commission without much to actually do.
MARRITZ: So, like, you can't do your work as a commissioner cause you don't have the quorum. So what's your day like?
WEINTRAUB: Well, actually, I'm incredibly busy.
MARRITZ: She’s still reviewing documents. And in the absence of a functioning enforcement system, Weintraub has resorted to public speaking, and Twitter. She responded, over the summer, after President Trump told ABC he’d accept dirt on his opponents from foreign powers ...
TRUMP: I know there’s nothing wrong with listening. if somebody called from a country — Norway — “We have information on your opponent.” Oh, I think I’d want to hear it.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULUS: You want that kind of interference in our elections?
TRUMP: It’s not an interference. It’s information. I think I’d take it.
MARRITZ: That day, Weintraub wrote a statement and posted it to Twitter, quote, “It is illegal for any person to solicit, accept, or receive anything of value from a foreign national in connection with a US election. This is not a novel concept.”
WEINTRAUB: That was not addressed to anyone in particular, but, uh, I read the newspapers like everybody else, and, when it seems to me that there may be some confusion out there as to what the law is, then I — if I feel that I can play a productive role in helping to provide clarity on that — my ultimate goal is for everyone to follow the law. That's really what I'm concerned about.
So if I see an area that is in the news and people seem to be debating what the limits of the law are, or whether there is law, and I happen to know there is law, then I feel an obligation to put it out there and make sure that everybody knows what the law is.
MARRITZ: Obviously you represent a particular view here, and there's two other commissioners. Are — are either of them around? Uh, I — I'd like eventually to request an interview. Maybe you could make an introduction?
WEINTRAUB: You should feel free to reach out to my colleagues and, um, I would be, um, [PAUSE] happy if you could get them to grant an interview. But I — I don't really have any, um, persuasive ability to get them to show up for an interview. So you ask them and see if they'll show up.
MARRITZ: I see. [LAUGHING] So you knocking on the door and saying, “You should talk to this guy!” is not going to help.
WEINTRAUB: Not necessarily.
MARRITZ: We requested interviews with Chair Caroline Hunter and vice-chair Steven Walther. They did not respond.
MARRITZ: Is it possible that we will make it through the 2020 election cycle without a full FEC, or even a quorum at the FEC?
WEINTRAUB: It's possible. That's entirely out of my hands. I — I think that would be very unfortunate. Um, there have been, um, bipartisan calls for the quorum to be restored here. We'll just have to wait and see.
[BRIEF MUSICAL FLOURISH]
MARRITZ: We’ll be right back.
MARRITZ: We’re back.
TRUMP: I'll tell you what, this whole super PAC, it's a scam deal, and it's a horrible thing that's going on. Like tens of millions of dollars is being poured into these super PACs. [AUDIO FADES DOWN] In the case of Bush, in the case of Carson, the super PACs are literally running their campaigns.
MARRITZ: Early in his first campaign for President, Donald Trump pitched himself as a guy who was so rich, he didn’t need other people’s money. He derided his rivals for being tools of the super-wealthy, controlled through super PACs that aren’t supposed to coordinate with campaigns. Here’s Trump on Morning Joe in 2015:
TRUMP: Super PACs are a total scam [HOST COUGHING] and we have disassociated ourself from all of the super PACs.
MARRITZ: Trump soon embraced super PACs anyway. It’s all part of what has become essentially a permanent campaign.
[ELECTRONIC MUSIC PLAYS]
MARRITZ: On the day of his swearing-in, he registered with the Federal Election Commission to run for a second term.
Then, America First Action super PAC got going, staffed with people from Trump’s inner circle. So in 2018, when Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman decided they wanted to get close to Trump, they knew where to send the check.
And in the meantime, the Federal Election Commission, the cop on this beat, was allowed to lose its quorum.
MARRITZ: How you been?
MAGUIRE: Uh, I have been overwhelmed ...
MARRITZ: While I was in DC, I stopped by the office of someone who’s been on the show before — Robert Maguire, from CREW, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. He’d also been thinking about the lessons of Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman.
MAGUIRE: in so many cases in the Trump era, you have this sort of immediate access, just very quick access from people who have never been on anyone's radar. And it often sort of corresponds with the President's personal financial interests.
MARRITZ: Maguire has a big red beard, and on the weekends, he likes to tweet homemade cat videos. He says Parnas and Fruman are simultaneously outliers, and totally typical.
MAGUIRE: Parnas and Fruman are not the first people that we've seen sort of fit this mold of — someone with deep foreign connections suddenly starts giving large amounts of political contributions and then shows up at exclusive events.
MARRITZ: So Maguire thought, “What if we treat this as a pattern?” Big, anonymous, first-time gifts.
[MUSIC BECOMES LESS ELECTRONIC, MORE PERCUSSIVE]
MAGUIRE: So what we started doing was looking, um, seeing if we could find instances where a particular person had given an aggregate amount of more than, say, $50 thousand, and that — that those contributions in that particular cycle where the first time that they'd ever given money,
MARRITZ: Today, Maguire is working through this database of big new donors since 2016.
MAGUIRE: You know, I'm seeing some “Secure America, LLC,” uh, “Cathexis Holdings,” uh, “Delavaco Group.”
MARRITZ: “Don McGill, Toyota of Katy.” [BOTH LAUGH] I guess that's a Toyota dealership.
MAGUIRE: Right? Right. So some of it is — is — is, you know, self-explanatory.
MARRITZ: There are more than more than 700 individuals in the database, and more than 800 businesses, giving big money all of a sudden.
Giving not only to Trump, or Republican causes, but Democrats, too.
MAGUIRE: We just said, “We want everything. We want a way to dive into this where we at least have a starting point.”
MARRITZ: How much money have they given in aggregate?
MAGUIRE: Ah, that's a good question. Uh, let's see. [TYPING SOUNDS] It's a — it's a big number.
MARRITZ: Big first-time individual and corporate donors have given more than $400 million since 2016.
CREW is just beginning to dig in. But they’ve already found one donor who fits the pattern. He has apparent ties to Turkish dissidents and gave a quarter million dollars to the Republican National Committee. The donor’s listed surname means “anonymous” in Turkish.
When I left DC, there was a big filing deadline coming up for super PACs and other political groups to report their year-end fundraising totals. So —
MARRITZ: Hey Robert!
MAGUIRE: Hey! What’s — how’s it going?
MARRITZ: Robert Maguire and I talked again.
MAGUIRE: Pretty good. Uh, it's Monday. [LAUGHS]
MARRITZ: Maguire told me America First Action brought in more than $10 million in the last six months of 2019.
There were a lot of familiar names from the donor class, and some new names, including a California man.
MAGUIRE: So he gave $100,000 on December 2nd. Um, I just Googled his name with the word Trump, and the first thing that came up were Facebook posts of his from 10 days after, uh, he gave the contribution with him in the White House with President Trump, with Vice President Pence, with Jared Cushner, with, uh, HUD Secretary Ben Carson for the White House's holiday party.
MARRITZ: The latest filing also includes some donors that are hard-to-trace LLCs.
MAGUIRE: It looks like there's about half a dozen new donors that are not human beings. They are LLCs giving, you know, in the range of $25,000, up to, um, you know, $145,000. And these are the kinds of contributions that are going to get somebody noticed.
MARRITZ: So this is, in a way, sort of our first view of political giving as the campaign season is ramping up. Is there anything that you can say about just the amount of money coming in? Like, is this definitely going to be the most expensive election?
MAGUIRE: [SIGHING] I … Here’s what I would say. I will say that we are not in the same space we were in in 2016. If you remember, big donors — big Republican donors — shied away from Donald Trump in a big way in 2016, um … and that is not happening now. They've come around.
What I do know is that, uh, we have a President who has no qualms about, uh, raising money from — from big donors, um, and doesn't seem to sort of vet, uh, major donors in the way that Republican and Democratic candidates have done in the past. Um, and so, there’s — there's plenty of opportunity for the people who are getting access through these contributions, um, to be the kind of people that could come back and bite him and the … and in the future, um, in the way that we are now seeing, uh, Lev Parnas with these recordings.
[MUTED LAUGHER AND CONVERSATION PLAY UP, THEN BECOME CLEARER, THEN LESS CLEAR]
SWEENEY: Campaign finance laws exist for a reason. The American people expect and deserve an election process that has not been corrupted by the influence of foreign interest, and the public has the right to know the true source of campaign contributions.
MARRITZ: This is FBI Assistant Director William F. Sweeney Jr., speaking on the day Parnas and Fruman were arrested.
SWEENEY: Laws make up the fabric of who we are as a nation. These allegations are not about some technicality, a civil violation, or an error on a form. This investigation is about corrupt behavior — deliberate law-breaking.
[TALKING FADES OUT, THEN BECOMES A PIANO-DRIVEN TRACK]
MARRITZ: Money in politics has been a thing for so long that lots of Americans are cynical about our system. But the case of Parnas and Fruman shows we’re in a new era.
There are so few controls today that it’s perfectly legal for someone to give unlimited amounts of money, often in ways that are difficult to track. And illegal campaign donations are increasingly unlikely to be detected and prosecuted at all.
That dinner at the Trump Hotel shows it’s shockingly simple to buy the ear of the President, no matter who you are.
Listeners, if all this story got you interested in doing a little sleuthing yourself, we’re releasing a reporting guide with tips for digging into campaign finance data. We’ve got a link to it in the show notes at TrumpIncPodcast.org. While you’re there, sign up for our newsletter — every two weeks, we’ll send you the latest on our reporting, plus photos, documents, and other cool stuff.
Lastly, a correction. An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified FEC vice-chair Steven Walther as a Republican. He’s an Independent.
[MUSIC PLAYS FOR A MOMENT, THEN BREAKS, THEN COMES BACK FULL-FORCE]
This episode was produced by Alice Wilder and Katherine Sullivan, with editing by Eric Umansky and Nick Varchaver. Jared Paul does our sound design and original scoring. Hannis Brown wrote our theme and additional music. Matt Collette is the Executive Producer of Trump, Inc.
Emily Botein is the Vice President for Original Programming at WNYC, and Stephen Engelberg is the Editor-in-Chief of ProPublica.
I’m Ilya Marritz, thank you for listening.
[MUSIC PLAYS OUT, THEN, AFTER A BEAT, DINNERTIME SOUNDS REENTER]
PARNAS: Have you thought about allowing [CLEARS THROAT] banking in some of these, uh, states that allow cannabis? [PAUSE] From the banking, allow them to bank the money?
TRUMP: Yeah, well, with cannabis, look — you — you’re talking about marijuana, right?