Robert Mueller investigating $150,000 payment to Trump by Ukrainian businessman for 20-minute campaign appearance

Payment 'is curious because it comes during a campaign and is from a foreigner and looks like an effort to buy influence'

Michael S. Schmidt,Maggie Haberman
Tuesday 10 April 2018 18:11 BST
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Getty Images

The special counsel is investigating a payment made to President Donald Trump’s foundation by a Ukrainian steel magnate for a talk during the campaign, according to three people briefed on the matter, as part of a broader examination of streams of foreign money to Trump and his associates in the years leading up to the election.

Investigators subpoenaed the Trump Organisation this year for an array of records about business with foreign nationals. In response, the company handed over documents about a $150,000 (£121,000) donation that the Ukrainian billionaire, Victor Pinchuk, made in September 2015 to the Donald J. Trump Foundation in exchange for a 20-minute appearance by Mr Trump that month through a video link to a conference in Kiev.

Michael D. Cohen, the president’s personal lawyer whose office and hotel room were raided n an apparently unrelated case, solicited the donation. The contribution from Mr Pinchuk, who has sought closer ties for Ukraine to the West, was the largest the foundation received in 2015 from anyone besides Mr Trump himself.

The subpoena is among signs in recent months that the special counsel, Robert Mueller, is interested in interactions that Mr Trump or his associates had with countries beyond Russia, though it is not clear what other payments he is scrutinising.

Mr Mueller also ordered the Trump Organization to turn over documents, emails and other communications about several Russians, including some whose names have not been publicly tied to Mr Trump, according to the three people, who would not be named discussing the ongoing investigation. The identities of the Russians were unclear.

The payment from Mr Pinchuk “is curious because it comes during a campaign and is from a foreigner and looks like an effort to buy influence,” said Marcus S. Owens, a former head of the IRS division that oversees tax-exempt organisations. He called the donation “an unusual amount of money for such a short speech.”

Cohen did not respond to a request for comment. Jay Sekulow, a lawyer for the president, did not return several messages seeking comment, nor did a lawyer for the Trump Organisation. When The New York Times revealed the existence of the subpoena in March, Mr Trump’s associates played it down as a routine court order to ensure the Trump Organisation had handed over all the documents Mueller had demanded.

Mr Trump assailed the special counsel investigation on Monday as a “witch hunt,” reaching for a favoured insult in response to the seizure of Mr Cohen’s records. He complained that he had cooperated with the inquiry and viewed the warrant for the raid, obtained by federal prosecutors in Manhattan after a referral from Mr Mueller, as an extreme step.

“It’s a disgraceful situation,” he told reporters at the White House. “It’s a total witch hunt. I’ve been saying it for a long time. I’ve wanted to keep it down. I’ve given over a million pages in documents to the special counsel.”

Mr Mueller has also examined a deal Mr Cohen was putting together with Mr Trump to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. Mr Trump said last summer that Mr Mueller should not look at his or his family’s finances beyond issues related directly to Russia.

But the special counsel’s investigators have questioned witnesses about whether money from the Persian Gulf had been used to finance Mr Trump’s political efforts and asked for information on Mr Pinchuk.

The inquiry into the Trump Organization’s payments from foreign nationals underscores how diffuse Mr Trump’s sources of income have been over many years. And the destination of Mr Pinchuk’s donation — the Trump Foundation instead of the president’s personal coffers — raised fresh questions about how the president handled the entity he set up to deal with charitable giving.

Mr Pinchuk is the son-in-law of a former president of Ukraine, Leonid Kuchma, who from 1994 to 2005 led a government criticised for corruption, nepotism and the murder of dissident journalists. Mr Pinchuk, who has been accused by steel-makers in the United States of illegally dumping steel on the American market at artificially low prices, drew more scrutiny during the campaign for his ties to Hillary Clinton and her family foundation. He has donated more than $13m (10.5m) to that organisation since 2006.

Mr Trump’s appearance was broadcast at the Yalta European Strategy conference, which promotes pro-European Union policies for Ukraine. Through his own foundation, Mr Pinchuk sponsors the affair, which typically attracts well-known former Western leaders like former Prime Minister Tony Blair and former President Bill Clinton. It was moved to Kiev after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

The event, Mr Trump’s first foray into global politics during the campaign, was set up by Doug Schoen, a veteran political consultant and pollster who works with Mr Pinchuk, according to a person familiar with how the speech was arranged. Mr Schoen, a frequent Fox News guest, has known Mr Trump for years and contacted him personally to set it up at the end of August 2015, according to the person.

Mr Trump did not raise the prospect of any payment. But the next day, Mr Cohen called Mr Schoen to solicit the $150,000 as an honorarium, the person briefed on the matter said. Mr Schoen, who had gotten to know Mr Cohen by running into him in the green room at Fox News, dealt with him and not Mr Trump directly, according to another person briefed on the exchange.

The Kiev talk received little attention, with the scant coverage focused on the awkward nature of Mr Trump’s delivery. He repeatedly stopped speaking, apparently believing he had to pause to give translators time to relay what he was saying.

“You need not wait for any translation,” Schoen finally told him.

The New York Times

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