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Trump Staffer Says He Recruited Lobbyists for Wealthy Russians
It’s another strand in the web of connections between Trump World and Russia.
A little-known former Trump campaign staffer named Daniel Gelbinovich reached out to a number of Washington lobbyists since the election with an eyebrow-raising ask: to shield well-heeled Russians from U.S. sanctions.
Two lobbyists—speaking anonymously—told The Daily Beast that Gelbinovich approached them and said he was working on behalf of a private equity firm.
Gelbinovich confirmed the approach but initially declined to disclose the name of the firm. He later disclosed that it was GCap Holdings, located in a Brooklyn neighborhood with a booming Russian population, and GCap also confirmed it had retained Gelbinovich “to explore potential lobbying initiatives” on behalf of unnamed clients based in Russia.
Gelbinovich’s activities form another strand of the web of connections between Trump World and wealthy 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 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. Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, received a six-figure payment from a firm with ties to sanctioned Russian billionaire Viktor Vekselberg; and Trump himself teamed up with oligarch Aras Agalarov to put on the Miss Universe pageant in Moscow in 2013.
The revelation about Gelbinovich 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.
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 for GCap had nothing to do with Williams & Jensen.
When the Daily Beast first asked Gelbinovich about outreach, he said in a written statement that he understood he was approaching lobbyists on behalf Roman Abramovich, one of Russia’s wealthiest men.
“The firm claimed that this outreach was on behalf of the individual you mentioned,” Gelbinovich said in an email. “I do not have a direct connection to Mr. Abramovich myself.”
The lobbyists who spoke to the Daily Beast said Gelbinovich also told them he was looking for someone to help Abramovich in the sanctions arena.
But two days after the initial publication of this article, Gelbinovich backtracked and said his statement was inaccurate and “probably should have been clearer that Abramovich was NOT a client (but rather was among a group of well-known Russians that they might later seek to target for work).’’
GCap also said it was not doing any work for Abramovich, noting that it “retained Mr. Gelbinovich to explore potential lobbying initiatives on behalf of completely different Russia-based clients.”
“At no point was my firm or Mr. Gelbinovich ever retained to undertake any work on behalf of Mr. Abramovich, his representatives, or any of his business interests. Nor did we ever communicate to lobbyists that we represent Mr. Abramovich in any respect,” GCap’s CEO said in an email.
John Mann, a spokesperson for Abramovich, said the oligarch did not sign off on any outreach to D.C. lobbyists.
“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.”
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. Abramovich then took up Israeli citizenship, according to the Guardian.
Some Russia’s wealthiest people 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 economic 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.
This story has been updated to reflect a statement from GCap Holdings, which denies that it represents Abramovich, and a revised statement from Gelbinovich in which he says his earlier confirmation that Abramovich is a current GCap client was incorrect.