BRISTOL, England — On Aug. 19, 2016, Arron Banks, a wealthy British businessman, sat down at the palatial residence of the Russian ambassador to London for a lunch of wild halibut and Belevskaya pastila apple sweets accompanied by Russian white wine.
Banks had just scored a huge win. From relative obscurity, he had become the largest political donor in British history by pouring millions into Brexit, the campaign to disentangle the United Kingdom from the European Union that earned a jaw-dropping victory at the polls two months earlier.
Now he had something else that bolstered his standing as he sat down with his new Russian friend, Ambassador Alexander Yakovenko: his team’s deepening ties to Donald Trump’s insurgent presidential bid in the United States. A major Brexit supporter, Stephen K. Bannon, had just been installed as chief executive officer of Trump’s campaign. And Banks and his fellow Brexiteers had been invited to attend a fundraiser with Trump in Mississippi.
Less than a week after the meeting with the Russian envoy, Banks and firebrand Brexit politician Nigel Farage — by then a cult hero among some anti-establishment Trump supporters — were huddling privately with the Republican nominee in Jackson, Miss., where Farage wowed a foot-stomping crowd at a Trump rally.
Banks’s journey from a lavish meal with a Russian diplomat in London to the raucous heart of Trump country was part of an unusual intercontinental charm offensive by the wealthy British donor and his associates, a hard-partying lot who dubbed themselves the “Bad Boys of Brexit.” Their efforts to simultaneously cultivate ties to Russian officials and Trump’s campaign have captured the interest of investigators in the United Kingdom and the United States, including special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
Both inquiries center on questions of Russia’s involvement in seismic political events that have shaken the world order, with the European Union losing a key member and U.S. voters electing a president critical of Washington’s traditional alliances.
In the U.K., recent revelations about Banks’s Russian contacts have triggered scrutiny of whether the Russians sought to bolster the Brexit effort. In the U.S., congressional Democrats who recently obtained a trove of Banks’s communications have begun exploring a different question: Did the Brexit leaders serve as a conduit between the Kremlin and Trump’s operation?
Banks rejected the notion that he was a go-between, insisting his contacts were routine business and diplomatic exchanges — and that the investigations are a “witch hunt.” But he acknowledged that the interactions raised reasonable questions about whether the Brexiteers were “a back channel to the Russians,” as he put it.
“The only problem with all of that is that not one shred of evidence has been produced. . . . It doesn’t go anywhere,” Banks said in one of two interviews with The Washington Post in Bristol, England, this week.
Asked whether Russians had been probing them or seeking to win influence or intelligence, Banks conceded, “They may have. But if so, it wasn’t a very good probe.”
Throughout the 2016 campaign, the wealthy insurance executive built a first-name rapport with the Russian ambassador as Banks briefed him on the breakaway campaign — exchanging frequent, chummy texts and emails and meeting with him in person four times in about 12 months, according to Banks. At the same time, he and other Brexit backers also intently pursued entree to Trump’s world, according to interviews and dozens of emails and text messages Banks provided to The Post. continue