Exclusive: Trump Staffer Says He Recruited Lobbyists for Russian Oligarch
08.15.18 9:00 PM ET
PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY ELIZABETH BROCKWAY/THE DAILY BEAST
In the time since the election, a little-known Trump campaign staffer named Daniel Gelbinovich reached out to a number of Washington lobbyists with an eyebrow-raising ask: to shield a Putin ally from U.S. sanctions.
Two lobbyists—speaking anonymously because of the sensitivity of the matter—told The Daily Beast that Gelbinovich approached them and told them he was trying to help Roman Abramovich, a Russian oligarch worth more than $11 billion, find a lobbyist to help keep him from being added to the Treasury Department’s sanctions list.
Gelbinovich confirmed this reporting.
“I approached the lobbyists on behalf of a private equity firm that requested outreach for this type of work,” he said in an email to The Daily Beast. “The firm claimed that this outreach was on behalf of the individual you mentioned. I do not have a direct connection to Mr. Abramovich myself.”
Gelbinovich’s claims to have worked on behalf of Abramovich, if true, are another piece of the web of connections between Trump World and powerful Russians. And that web is already thick: Besides President Trump’s much-vaunted personal friendliness with Russian President Vladimir Putin himself, Trump and his allies have a long history of doing business with Russian power players. His daughter is longtime friends with Abramovich’s former partner; his commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, invested in a shipping firm linked to Putin’s judo partner, who is under U.S. sanctions, according to The New York Times; and Trump himself teamed up with oligarch Aras Agalarov to put on the Miss Universe pageant in Moscow in 2013.
“I approached the lobbyists on behalf of a private equity firm that requested outreach for this type of work. The firm claimed that this outreach was on behalf of the individual you mentioned. I do not have a direct connection to Mr. Abramovich myself.”
— Daniel Gelbinovich
The revelation of Gelbinovich’s claim to have worked on behalf of Abramovich also comes as a jury begins deliberations on the fate of another Trump campaign alum, Paul Manafort—who faces criminal charges related to his work for a Putin ally in Ukraine.
Evelyn Farkas, an Atlantic Council senior fellow, said the Gelbinovich effort highlights the growing consternation in Moscow about U.S. sanctions.
“That just tells you how much nervousness there is in Russia about being put on the sanctions list,” said Farkas, who worked on Russia matters at the Pentagon during the Obama administration. “The thing is, if he’s put on the U.S. sanctions list, then he’s in effect—because we do everything still in close coordination with the EU—then he’ll be put on the EU sanctions list, which is the bigger impact on him because of the fact that he owns property in the U.K., which is still in the EU.”
Gelbinovich was a low-level staffer on the Trump campaign, according to campaign sources, frequently booking travel for senior staff. He was on the campaign in its very early days. A picture published by the Daily Mail on Aug. 27, 2015, shows him sitting alone at a long, bare table in Trump campaign headquarters, cradling a phone and flanked by “Trump Make America Great Again!” signs.
After the campaign, he did a stint at the lobbying firm Williams & Jensen, according to a public lobbying disclosure filing, working for Coca-Cola. Gelbinovich told The Daily Beast he is now self-employed and consulting, and that his work regarding Abramovich had nothing to do with Williams & Jensen.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former Russian magnate who spent years in prison and is now a Kremlin critic, told Bloomberg that Abramovich is a close ally of Putin.
“There’s no oligarch among those still accepted in the West who’s closer and more trusted by Putin than Abramovich,” he said.
A May 2018 story in The Independent described Abramovich as “very close to the Kremlin” but “not quite in Vladimir Putin’s inner circle.” And Luke Harding wrote in the Guardian that Abramovich was one of Putin’s early boosters, recommending that Boris Yeltsin bring him on.
In response to The Daily Beast’s queries, John Mann, a spokesperson for Abramovich, said the oligarch did not sign off on any outreach to D.C. lobbyists.
“We have instructed our attorneys to draft a cease-and-desist letter regarding the representations reportedly made by Mr. Gelbinovich, whom we had never heard of before today.”
— Spokesperson for Roman Abramovich
“At no time has Mr. Abramovich, or anyone authorized to act on his behalf, engaged any individual or company to lobby on his behalf in the United States,” he said in an email to The Daily Beast. “We have instructed our attorneys to draft a cease-and-desist letter regarding the representations reportedly made by Mr. Gelbinovich, whom we had never heard of before today.”
Gelbinovich, for his part, claimed that none of the lobbyists he contacted agreed to represent Abramovich.
But Gelbinovich is not the only Trump associate to claim an affiliation with the Russian oligarch. Ivanka Trump has been friends with Dasha Zhukova, who has two children with Abramovich, for more than a decade, according to Bloomberg. Zhukova and Abramovich announced they would split in August 2017. The president’s daughter has posted multiple pictures with Zhukova on her Instagram. Bloomberg also noted that Jared Kushner and Abramovich have had several social encounters, which the president’s son-in-law revealed when applying for a security clearance.
Despite his powerful social circle, Abramovich has faced legal challenges this past year. The BBC reported in June that he withdrew his application for a visa to the U.K. after his investor visa expired in May. The BBC pointed to exacerbated diplomatic tensions between the U.K. and Russia over the chemical weapon attack on retired Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia as a possible explanation for Abramovich’s visa troubles. In the wake of his visa troubles, Abramovich took up Israeli citizenship, according to the Guardian.
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Some of Putin’s oligarch allies have been iced out of the American financial system under the Trump administration as the Treasury Department has implemented sanctions retaliating against the Kremlin for meddling in the 2016 presidential election. In April of this year, Treasury announced a new round of sanctions targeting Russian entities and oligarchs, including Oleg Deripaska, the Putin ally who put millions into the pocket of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort.
Pushing back against these sanctions has been a key focus of Russian foreign policy for years. When Kremlin-linked Russians met with Trump campaign bosses at Trump Tower in June 2016, participants claimed the group just discussed adoptions—likely Putin’s decision to bar Americans from adopting Russian children, a move retaliating against American sanctions.
And when alleged Russian operative Maria Butina questioned then-candidate Trump on July 22, 2015, she asked him about sanctions.
“I know Putin, and I’ll tell you what, we’ll get along with Putin,” Trump told her. “I would get along very nicely with Putin, I mean, where we have the strength. I don’t think you’d need the sanctions. I think we would get along very, very well.”
The sanctions list hasn’t just survived the Trump administration; it’s grown. And it’s generated plenty of potential leads for Trump allies like Gelbinovich looking to cash in on their influence in Washington.