Why Did Donald Trump Take Money From This Sketchy Ukrainian Oligarch?
When a Ukrainian oligarch gave to the Clinton Foundation, Trump called it ‘crooked.’ When the same billionaire gave to his charity, Trump buttered him up.
Almost $600,000 per hour.
That’s the fee Donald Trump’s charity got for recording a video on behalf of a Ukrainian oligarch.
It’s a payment that could be in violation of tax laws, legal experts told The Daily Beast. When Hillary Clinton’s foundation received money from the very same billionaire, Donald Trump blasted her as “crooked.”
Ukrainian steel magnate Victor Pinchuk’s foundation was the single largest outside donor to Donald Trump’s private charity in 2015, according to new IRS filings filed by the organization. The $150,000 gift amounted to 20 percent of the foundation’s total donations during that time, the documents showed. The filings also affirmed Trump violated tax laws by using his private foundation to self-deal, or enrich himself and his businesses instead of fulfilling a charitable mission.
Pinchuk’s gift was given in conjunction with a short video Trump made for the Yalta European Strategy annual meeting, held in Kiev in September of 2015, according to The Washington Post.
In a haphazard 21-minute video—eventually posted to YouTube—Trump answers a series of questions from Doug Schoen, a one-time Clinton advisor and Fox News personality. He was hired by Pinchuk in 2011 to advance the steel magnate’s interests in the United States. (Around the same time, Newsweek reports, Pinchuk sold millions of dollars’ worth of oil and gas equipment to Iran.)
For every minute that Trump participated, he earned over $7,000.
Lawrence Noble, general counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, found the deal surprising, especially given Trump’s criticism of Clinton during the campaign.
“This is at the time that he’s making a big deal about the Clinton Foundation getting money from foreign sources,” Noble noted in an interview with The Daily Beast. “I don’t know how he explains that his attacks on Clinton doing it were fair.”
Noble added that because the video is not remarkably substantive, it raises red flags as to whether it was used as an opportunity to explain away a gift.
“If it’s hard to assess the purpose of the video, why are they giving his foundation $150,000,” Noble wondered. “Was this just a way that they were giving his foundation some money?”
The question and answer session, billed as “How New Ukraine’s Fate Affects Europe and the World,” was given at a time when Trump was already a presidential candidate and in it, he reflects on a personal meeting he had with Pinchuk and his positive relationship with the billionaire.
“Victor I have known for a long time and he is a tremendous guy, a tremendous guy so it is a great honor to be with everybody,” Trump said as he struggled to hear the intermittent audio feed.
In the video, Trump also seemed to suggest that Ukraine fell subject to aggression from Russia because President Barack Obama was not a strong enough leader. “Putin does not respect our president whatsoever,” Trump said at one point. “The fact is that Ukraine is an amazing place. You know, I’ve known so many people, so many years in the Ukraine. These are people that want what’s good. They want what’s right. And they’re not being treated right by the United States. And also by the way, and I hate to say this, they’re not being treated right by Europe itself.”
His comments at the conference represent some of Trump’s most sympathetic remarks about Ukraine throughout the entirety of his campaign—a sentiment which notably shifted once he brought on Paul Manafort as campaign chairman, who advised the pro-Russian Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. He went from saying that Ukrainians were not “getting the support they need,” during the September conference to saying he might recognize Crimea as Russian territory and lift U.S. sanctions against Russia.
Pinchuk has been linked to another controversial figure in Trump’s orbit: adviser Carter Page, whose ties to the Kremlin were probed by U.S. intelligence officials. According to a Bloomberg report, Page told a colleague at Merrill Lynch, where he worked in the early 2000s that he had a relationship with Pinchuk. Shortly thereafter, Page was sent to help the firm open up its Moscow office in 2004.
While the Trump Foundation’s 2015 return seems clearly focused on accounting for the self-dealing and years of questionable accounting practices reported by David Fahrenthold in The Washington Post over the last year, the Pinchuk donation of $150,000—reportedly for Trump’s video appearance at the Yalta European Strategy conference—still raises questions about whether Trump is diverting personal income to his tax-exempt foundation.
What tax experts know as the “assignment of income” issue came up in September, when The Washington Post reported a $400,000 donation from Comedy Central in exchange for Trump’s appearance at a 2011 roast and another of nearly $2 million from Richard Ebers, ticket scalper to the stars, who bought goods and service from Trump over the years. Both probably should have been reported as income to Donald Trump the man, not the foundation.
“I think we’re in the same world,” Philip Hackney, an associate professor of law at Louisiana State University’s Paul M. Hebert Law Center, and a former employee in the IRS’s Exempt Organizations unit, said of the payment from Pinchuk.
“Assuming Trump was giving the speech in his capacity as an individual, the payment would be income to Trump. Then Trump should have made the contribution to the foundation. The Clintons had problems with this as well. They reported money from speeches as contributions rather than income,” Hackney told The Daily Beast.
In other words, Trump’s speech was work, and should have been paid, and taxed, as such, instead of being routed through his tax-exempt foundation. If Hackney is right, this was income dressed up like a charitable donation.
Pinchuk’s previously unreported donation to Trump’s foundation is especially noteworthy, given the criticism leveled at then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton after emails obtained by a conservative advocacy group, Citizens United, revealed she had hosted the Ukrainian oligarch—who had donated $8.6 million to the Clinton Foundation while she held the post—at a private dinner party at the her home in 2012.
The day both the Citizens United emails were released and the Associated Press reported on State Department calendars that implied Clinton Foundation donors received special access to Secretary Clinton, Donald Trump released a statement, calling for the democratic nominee’s foundation to be shuttered:
“Hillary Clinton is the defender of the corrupt and rigged status quo. The Clintons have spent decades as insiders lining their own pockets and taking care of donors instead of the American people. It is now clear that the Clinton Foundation is the most corrupt enterprise in political history. What they were doing during Crooked Hillary’s time as Secretary of State was wrong then, and it is wrong now. It must be shut down immediately.”
Now, as Trump prepares to transition to the White House, he faces an onslaught of allegations that his business interests are overlapping with his governmental responsibilities, including stories about foreign business developers currying favor with him in meetings as well as diplomats seeking to stay at his Washington, D.C., property to get on his good side.
And it’s not entirely clear that Trump is willing to address these concerns, as he told The New York Times in a meeting on Tuesday that “the president can’t have a conflict of interest.”
The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment for this story, even though much of the video was little more than Trump riffing on some of his favorite mantras of the Republican primary. He promised that the U.S. “military under my presidency would be very greatly enhanced. Hopefully to a point where we wouldn’t have to use it. The military would be strengthened tremendously.” Trump then repeated this point, while also promising to “take care of the vets.”
And he devoted some time to discussing one his favorite subjects during the campaign: his rise in the polls.
“New polls have just come in today and they’ve been amazing,” Trump asserted before awkwardly going silent again as the audio cut out. “The sound system is terrible because there’s a huge delay and there’s also a lot of feedback but I think everybody understands what I’m saying. I hope.”
He also include a rare note of humility during his $150,000, 21-minute discussion.
“I know many people that live in the Ukraine. They’re friends of mine. They’re fantastic people. Victor is an example. Victor by the way is a very very special man a special entrepreneur,” Trump said. “And when he was up seeing me I said, ‘I think I could learn more from you than you could from me.’”