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Operative sentenced after funneling Russian money to Team Trump

GOP operative Jesse Benton was pardoned by Donald Trump for one crime, only to get busted again soon after for a similar crime. Now, he's headed to prison.


Jesse Benton’s name might not be immediately familiar to national audiences, so the fact that he was sentenced last week to 18 months in prison might not seem especially notable. But stick with me for a minute because Benton’s career trajectory makes this story interesting. The Hill reported:

A GOP political operative was sentenced to 18 months in prison on Friday for his involvement in transferring illegal campaign contributions from a Russian national to former President Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. A Justice Department release states that Jesse Benton planned with another political adviser to send political contributions from the Russian national, who wanted to meet with and take a picture with Trump, to the campaign.

Revisiting our earlier coverage, at first blush, this might seem like a controversy related to Donald Trump, his campaign, and their many Russian connections. It’s not. To be sure, that is a controversy, but it’s not this controversy. In fact, as best as I can tell, it’s not even clear if the Trump campaign knew anything about the effort to funnel illegal Russian funds into its coffers.

Instead, what makes this story so notable is the political personalities behind it.

As The Washington Post reported a couple of years ago, Benton’s career trajectory is a sight to behold. It began in earnest roughly 15 years ago, when the GOP operative worked on then-Rep. Ron Paul’s 2008 presidential campaign. Two years later, Benton took the next logical step and ran Rand Paul’s Senate campaign in Kentucky.

Two years after that, Benton went back to the other Paul, running the Texas congressman’s 2012 presidential campaign before agreeing to return to Kentucky in order run Sen. Mitch McConnell’s 2014 campaign, all while preparing to run the younger Paul’s 2016 presidential campaign.

In 2013, however, a problem arose: Benton was caught up in a scandal involving an attempt to buy an endorsement. He was later indicted as part of the fiasco, but that didn’t stop a pro-Trump super PAC from hiring Benton anyway in March 2016.

In September 2016, Benton was convicted as part of the previous bribery scheme, but he avoided a prison sentence and was ordered to serve two years of probation. He later picked up a pardon from Trump, who had an unfortunate habit of handing out pardons to Republicans accused of corruption.

But Benton was then indicted again, not for the 2013 campaign-finance violation, but instead for a 2016 campaign-finance violation: He was charged with helping funnel illegal money to Team Trump from a Russian national. The operative was convicted in November and sentenced to prison late last week.

In other words, Benton was pardoned by Trump for one crime, only to get busted again soon after for a similar crime.

If he’s waiting for another presidential pardon, I have a hunch Benton is going to be disappointed.

This post revises our related earlier coverage.