However long the Trump chronicles last, there might never be a more satisfying occasion of just deserts than those served up this week by Trevor Potter. On Thursday, Potter’s work led directly to the arrest of two associates of Rudy Giuliani at Dulles Airport, propelling the Ukraine scandal into a new chapter. The indictment from the U.S. Attorney’s Office was made possible by a complaint filed by the Campaign Legal Center, the watchdog group founded and led by Potter.
Potter is a former Chairman of the Federal Election Commission, during a time when Republicans not only believed in such agencies, but ran them well. He has since established himself as one of conservative Washington’s most talented lawyers and public communicators—including a brief stint on television as Stephen Colbert’s SuperPAC advisor.
In Potter’s case, however, the irony is thicker: He is a consummate “Never Trump” Republican (though he objects to that term), a role he has taken up in fighting to enforce what remains of the country’s crumbling campaign finance laws. While not nearly as vocal as George Conway’s Twitter feed, Potter has been outspoken against Trump’s abuses in office. In an Op-Ed last year co-written with Conway, Potter linked Trump’s actions to “a deterioration in respect for the rule of law in this country,” with the two men “united in the view that our country comes first and our political parties second.” He is a supporter of Bill Weld, the long-shot candidate challenging Trump in the Republican Primary.
Adding insult to injury is Potter’s loyalty to John McCain, to whom he twice served as chief campaign lawyer, and George H.W. Bush, the man who first appointed Potter to the FEC. A conservative in the mold thoroughly despised by ‘America First’ culture warriors, Potter is precisely the kind of Republican whose once-considerable stature has been marginalized in the post-Trump ecosystem.
In an interview edited for length and clarity, Potter discussed why he believes the organization’s complaint led to the arrest of Giuliani’s henchmen, whether campaign finance laws can really be saved, and the where impeachment might go next.
Washingtonian: First of all, how did these completely unknown figures—Parnas and Fruman—come to your attention? Was there a tip involved?
Potter: This is not a tip world—it’s not something people slip under our door. We saw a reference in a blog by Lachlan Markay of The Daily Beast about a large contribution to the Trump SuperPAC from an “unknown” company. We were reviewing the reports filed by the Trump SuperPAC, and noticed the very large contribution—$325,000. That was big enough to catch our eye. We went into the public records database to try to figure out what the heck GEP [Global Energy Products] is, because it’s not something we’d ever heard of. The first thing that jumped off the records page was that it was founded three weeks before the contribution. Then the bells go off.
We had no idea this had anything to do with Giuliani at all. All we saw was that it was a contribution to the Trump SuperPAC, by people who appeared to be hiding the sources of the money, because it didn’t sound like it came from the entity they said it came from.
Our role was to turn these facts into a formal complaint, explain why it’s a violation of law, do more research, which is what we did in this case, and give to the Commission [the FEC] wrapped up in a bow. Then we filed a supplemental complaint in June of 2019 with more information that had become public. We did that as a way of prodding the FEC to do something.
What was the new information? And how did you connect the dots?
We were following the shell company, GEP. We had already put what we discovered in a letter to the commission: GEP was brand new, it doesn’t appear to have any business presence, doesn’t seem to have a website, it was created only a couple days before this contribution, and so we think it’s really just a shell company.
Then we followed the company. Our staff paid attention to what was happening in Florida: Newly available records made public through civil action against Parnas in the Southern District of Florida establishes that GEP was not, in fact, the source of these contributions. According to these records, in May of 2018, when the company was established, a real estate attorney—someone who specializes in navigating rules for foreign buyers to launder money using shell companies through US real estate—transferred $1.2 million from a client trust account to an LLC managed by Parnas and his wife. Which was the shell company! Two days later the contribution was made to America First [Trump’s PAC].
So we were able to see $1.2 million had suddenly ended up in [Parnas’] pocket at the same time he was making these large contributions. That’s what we told FEC in the supplemental complaint. And that information is what ended up in the indictment.
So you sent all this to FEC—”in a bow” as you say. But even the FEC chair has warned that they are hopelessly deadlocked. They don’t have enough people to vote. Did you really think anyone was going to read this complaint? Were you trying to get someone’s attention?
When we file a complaint, we almost always issue a press release. It’s perfectly possible that public statement was read by the Justice Department at that moment. If it wasn’t, it would have been searchable online when the Justice Department took an interest in these two people, perhaps for other reasons. They would have looked to see what’s out there on them, and they would have seen our complaint.
When a complaint is filed at the FEC the law requires them to send it to the parties who were accused of violating the law. Under the statute, they [the accused] are allowed to respond, and explain their version of events. So, that simple process seems to have been exactly what triggered the eventual Department of Justice indictment.
The FEC can’t deadlock on whether to send that complaint to the respondents—the people we said had broken the law. The Commission would have automatically sent that to the perpetrators.
To Parnas and Fruman.
Right. We now know that they got it. And they responded to the government in sworn statements in which they lied. That’s exactly what [the indictment] says: They told the government that this [Global Energy Products] was legitimate company, not a shell company.
Well, the Justice Department now knows that’s false, and has laid out in the indictment the extraordinary facts that not only did the company have no money, but it didn’t even make the contribution through its accounts. It just lied, and said it had come from the company, when it didn’t.
So how the Justice Department got that, we do not know exactly. But one way or another, they responded to the FEC complaint we filed. That’s what was the rope that hanged them.
So when Giuliani’s guys were caught lying, they’re lying about your complaint, in other words.
We laid the trap, and they leapt into it, by filing these false statements. So there is a value to filing FEC complaints, because other people read them. I don’t just mean the Justice Department. Other people who are out acting in this area think, Well, somebody is paying attention to this, somebody is complaining. That means that there’s not a total free-for-all zone. I think that is important.
Is this the future of the FEC, of how we enforce campaign laws? Outside groups trying to generate public outrage until some other branch of the justice system intervenes?
First of all, we’re at a very low spot in the FEC’s history. And I’m enough of an optimist to think that you don’t stay in a low point forever. It used to be much more effective—it simply wasn’t polarized and deadlocked when I was a commissioner. There was a real push, unfortunately, by Senator McConnell and people who don’t believe in the FEC, to populate it with people who would essentially put sand in the gears and stop it from doing anything.
But that’ll change someday. So partly, I have hope that in the future, that it will perform its intended role in a way that it’s not doing right now. And beyond that, there really are opportunities to use the structure we have through the courts, through the press, by filing complaints and providing information.
But it is absolutely true that we have seen an increase in criminal actions brought by the Department of Justice—and often they are cases where the FEC has done nothing. Another criminal case this year came from a complaint of ours, which the FEC had dismissed. The DOJ ended up investigating, and discovered there was a criminal violation and there was foreign money involved. [The DOJ announced in May that $1 million donated to an Obama SuperPAC had been laundered through a shell corporation that had also come from a foreign fugitive.]
You would think the FEC would be embarrassed by that. But they weren’t.
Are there more complaints CLC is leading that we don’t know about?
At the moment, we have between one and two dozen complaints pending. There’s a major complaint we have against the NRA. We think there is plentiful evidence of illegal coordination involving the Trump campaign in 2016, and a bunch of Senate races in 2014, and in 2018.
The commission has done nothing publicly. We think they ought to be resolved before the 2020 election so that the NRA doesn’t keep doing the same. But now with no quorum, even if the commission staff had been doing investigation, there is no way to finish those.
[The CLC also filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Gabby Giffords against the FEC over the NRA complaint. This week, a court declared that FEC staff could be deposed.]
It’s hard not to view this indictment of Giuliani’s guys as cosmically satisfying. Given your stance on the Republican party, that is. Can you see why that might be?
It’s not a personal thing. As I pointed out, we didn’t even know of Giuliani’s involvement when we filed the complaint. But you’re right in flagging something. There are plenty of Republicans in Washington, who served in the Reagan and the [first] Bush administrations as I did, who actually believe in the rule of law, who are unhappy with the campaign finance system that has developed, with billions of dollars of secret money. People far more conservative than I am, or libertarian, who are still very concerned and unhappy about the conduct of this administration. All of that has caused people like me to say that there are rules and standards that need to be followed if our democracy is going to be successful. And if that isn’t done, then the American public is, in fact, going to believe Washington is a corrupt swamp. That’s bad for the country.
Do you consider yourself a Never Trump Republican?
I object to what Trump did in office. ‘Never Trump’ refers to people who worked to defeat him in the 2016 campaign. I didn’t do that, because I run a non-profit that’s nonpartisan. I think the Never Trump people are a different group of people that I have overlapped with in terms of their critique of Trump once in office. But I think of them as a political movement.
The Democrats’ impeachment inquiry against the White House—is it appropriate in your view?
It was appropriate as soon as the whistleblower raised his flag and the White House released its transcript, because it was clear from the basis of that call there was something here to look at. We’re learning more every day. Why was the US ambassador recalled?
Now we learn, again in the indictment, that these two US-Ukrainian people were working with Giuliani in the Ukraine, they were his conduits to the prosecutors he was trying to reach to get information from, and they were working to get the US ambassador to Ukraine recalled. The indictment says pretty mysteriously that they were doing so at the bequest of a Ukrainian government official.
Wow! What is all that? And what’s Giuliani’s role? Who’s side is Giuliani on? Who’s paying for this? These people are referred to as his clients? But then they were working for him in the Ukraine? I don’t know what all this is about. It raises lots of questions, which I think it is necessary for the House committees to explore.
Campaign finance has never been so sexy.
That’s the thing. You read this stuff and you can’t make it up.