How much trouble is Tony Podesta in?
Posted October 31, 2017 10:49 a.m. EDT
(CNN) — "The biggest story yesterday, the one that has the Dems in a dither, is Podesta running from his firm," tweeted the President of the United States on Tuesday morning. "What he know about Crooked Dems is earth shattering. He and his brother could Drain The Swamp, which would be yet another campaign promise fulfilled. Fake News weak!"
What, exactly, is President Donald Trump talking about? Podesta! Wait, isn't that the guy who ran Hillary Clinton's campaign? Is this controversy as big a deal as Trump says it is?
Start here: Tony Podesta, the guy with the lobbying firm, is the brother of John Podesta, who was chairman of Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign, chief of staff to then-President Bill Clinton and a major player in Democratic political and policy circles for decades.
As John rose up the ranks of Democratic politics, Tony was following a similar ascent in the world of political influence -- emerging as one of the most powerful Democratic lobbyists (and biggest party donors) in Washington.
Here's how a 2010 New York Times profile described him:
"Mr. Podesta, a garrulous, gravelly voiced man known for his bold neckwear, is part of the elite group of lobbyists atop the industry who move easily between black-tie fund-raisers on Embassy Row and closed meetings on Capitol Hill. Despite the recession, lobbying scandals and frequent denunciation from President Obama about their outsize influence, lobbyists are more in demand than ever."
Podesta founded the eponymous Podesta Group in 1988 along with his brother, John, although John left in the mid-90s. So far in 2017, the Podesta Group has raked in almost $16 million in lobbying fees, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
On Monday, Podesta -- Tony, that is -- announced he was leaving the firm to concentrate full-time on his ties to special counsel Bob Mueller's investigation into Russia's attempt to influence the 2016 election.
How did a prominent Democratic lobbyist get wrapped up in an investigation of Russia's efforts to help Trump and hurt Clinton in the 2016 race? By working with none other than Paul Manafort, the one-time campaign chairman for Trump, who now faces a 12-count indictment linked to his work in the Ukraine.
The Podesta Group, along with Manafort's firm, were tasked with leading an PR effort on behalf of a group called the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine.
The ECFMU was a non-profit group whose true goal was allegedly to soften the Obama administration's opposition to the pro-Russian Ukrainian government in power at the time. (Several Ukrainian leaders were facing public condemnation from the American government for their treatment of political opponents.) The Podesta Group, along with Manafort's firm, were tasked with leading that effort on behalf of the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine. (In the indictment of Manafort unsealed on Monday, the Podesta Group appears to be referred to as "Company B" but never referred to specifically by name.)
The Podesta Group didn't properly file disclosure forms detailing the 32 meetings it had with government officials at the State Department and the Vice President's office on behalf of the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine, according to CNN reporting.
The Podesta Group has repeatedly insisted that it was unaware that Manafort was using the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine to improve the image of then-Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych.
"The Podesta Group has fully cooperated with the special counsel's office and taken every possible step to provide documentation that confirms compliance with the law," the company said in a statement. "Based on our due diligence and on the recommendation of definitive legal experts, the firm immediately filed the appropriate public disclosures of its representation of the ECFMU over five years ago, and in eight subsequent public filings. The Podesta Group's work for ECFMU, a nonprofit think tank, was in support of Ukraine's admission to the EU, a position supported by foreign policy experts at the time. The ECFMU provided formal certification that it was neither funded by nor directed by a government or political party."
Beyond being mentioned in the Manafort indictment, it's not clear how large a role the Podesta Group -- or Tony Podesta himself -- will play in Mueller's investigation going forward.
What Trump seems to be doing in his tweets is trying to wrap Manafort, Tony Podesta and John Podesta into one big ball of corruption. (Worth noting: While John Podesta helped found the Podesta Group, he is not currently affiliated with it.)
John Podesta is fighting back. "Not bad enough that I was the victim of a massive cyber crime directed by the Russian President," he tweeted on Tuesday morning. "Now I'm the victim of a big lie campaign by the American President."
How much trouble is Tony Podesta in? The truth is, we don't know. The Podesta Group insists it was under the impression that it was doing work for a nonprofit to educate American government types about the Ukraine, not engaging in a stealth image rehab effort for Yanukovych and his party.
There's no evidence yet to disprove that fact.