The wildest trial in America got wackier Tuesday when the defendant, former Fugees’ rapper Pras Michel, unexpectedly took the stand to defend himself against campaign finance and illegal foreign lobbying charges—hard on the heels of testimony by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Michel said he decided to testify, “after consulting with my attorneys and the universe.” His testimony included celebrity name-dropping, freewheeling asides—”I want to send a prayer to my friend Jamie Foxx”—and an apparent admission to some of the campaign finances charges against him.
The juxtaposition of Sessions (former senator from Alabama, early Donald Trump supporter) and Michel (musician, Barack Obama fan) highlights the collision of celebrity and DC culture on display at a proceeding that has also featured testimony from Leonardo DiCaprio and disgraced Trump moneyman Elliott Broidy—and failed attempts by the defense to call Obama and Trump to testify.
The glue that connects these disparate figures is money. The key figure in the scandal, Malaysian financier Jho Taek Low, used his wealth to throw parties and fund movies, including DiCaprio’s The Wolf of Wall Street, which allowed him to make celebrity friends. But according to the Justice Department, his fortune was largely the product of a kleptocratic heist—the plundering of a state development fund by Malaysia’s former Prime Minister and his allies. Low, the feds have charged, was laundering the money though high-profile investments.
Michel on Tuesday described an extensive 2012 effort in which he attempted to help Low, who is not a US citizen, score a photograph with Obama. Despite “all the money and resources that he had, he had no one that could get him a way in,” Michel said. Michel had met Obama and backed his first campaign, so “I was the best person to help him get that photo.”
For his help, Michel said, “I basically requested or asked for a million dollars.” Low paid the fee, and Michel worked with a top Obama fundraiser named Frank White to try to get Low his photo. Michel set about this task by donating aggressively to the Obama campaign and working to get Low into fundraisers where he could meet Obama.
Prosecutors contend that Low gave Michel $ 20 million to disperse to the Obama campaign—and that Michel spent less than $ 2 million of it on donations. Michel testified that he used $ 800,000 to reimburse men he referred to as “Haitian friends” for $ 40,000 donations they paid to attend a June 2012 fundraiser in Miami co-hosted by the singer Marc Anthony—and another one in September at White’s home. Michel had a contract stipulating his payment for helping Low with the photo, he said, and he spent the $ 20 million “at my discretion.”
Michel claimed he did not think there was anything wrong with paying for friends to attend these events. “I had all this money,” he explained. “Everyone was excited to meet President Obama.” He compared his conduct to “the Apple Store,” where people sometimes pay friends to buy them new iPhones when Apple limits purchases to three at a time. “I look at it as free money,” Michel said later.
Low didn’t get his coveted photograph at first. White, Michel said, told him the Obama campaign had decided that having a wealthy foreign national at a fundraiser was bad optics. “He was too hot, in the sense of like the party type,” Michel said. “It was not a good look because of his playboy ways.”
He, White, and Low later revived the photo effort, Michel testified: Low paid White another $ 20 million to help him attend a White House holiday party, where Low finally got his picture. Michel said White paid him $ 1 million more from that pot of money as a finder’s fee. (He argued that this payment, too, resulted from a legal contract.)
This testimony was part of an effort by Michel’s attorney, David Kenner, to suggest that White—who had asserted his Fifth Amendment right to avoid testifying—had pressured Michel to donate to the Obama campaign. Kenner cited grand jury testimony in which White said he told Michel, who White said wanted to become a diplomat, that raising big money was best way to impress the Obama team: “Raise a lot of money, you raise your profile and you have a better chance.”
Michel helped Low again in 2017. Low wanted access to the new Trump administration in the hope that political insiders could persuade the DOJ to drop an asset forfeiture case against him. His entertainment industry friend Nickie Lum Davis was a GOP fundraiser and a friend of Broidy, who was then the Republican National Committee’s Vice Chairman for Finance. For a series of large payments, Broidy agreed to lobby Trump directly to try to get Low off the hook. (It didn’t work. Low was indicted in multiple cases, including as a co-defendant with Michel. He remains a fugitive. The DOJ believes he is living in China.)
Michel, Davis, and Broidy later took on another task: to help China lobby for the extradition of Guo Wengui, a Chinese billionaire who fled to the US in early 2015 to escape fraud, corruption, and rape charges. Guo sought political asylum, claiming China was targeting him due to his opposition to the Communist Party. Broidy and former RNC Finance Chair Steve Wynn lobbied Trump directly in 2017 to send Guo back to China. Broidy also tried to arrange for a Chinese minister to meet with Sessions about Guo, and composed a memo arguing that the extradition would help US-Chinese relations.
Sessions testified Tuesday, vaguely, that this memo “got to me or got to my office.” But Sessions said he didn’t talk to Broidy or his allies. He recalled only a few normal official meetings related to China’s requests for Guo’s deportation. He also said he had never met Michel.
Broidy, Lum Davis, and another conspirator pleaded guilty to illegal foreign lobbying charges. (Pardoned by Trump, Broidy showed up to testify against Michel last week.) Low, who remains at large, was charged alongside Michel and has been convicted of additional crimes related to the Malaysia heist.
Still, Michel’s defense seems aimed at asserting that his conduct was no worse than some who took Low’s money but haven’t faced charges. Indeed, when the Justice Department seized his assets in 2015, Low bought help from the likes of Chris Christie, Marc Kasowitz, Bobby Burchfield—an ethics adviser to Trump—and GOP lobbyist Ed Rogers. As Mother Jones previously reported, Low told associates in 2017 that he paid Rudy Giuliani $ 8 million to lobby for him. (Giuliani has denied receiving any payment from Low, and no record has emerged of it.)
“That’s what everyone does,” Michel said in his testimony. “Everyone who has a situation tries to get the best lawyer with the best connections.”
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