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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky. walks into the Senate Chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington on Jan. 25, 2019 (AP) Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky. walks into the Senate Chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington on Jan. 25, 2019 (AP)

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky. walks into the Senate Chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington on Jan. 25, 2019 (AP)

Samantha Putterman
By Samantha Putterman February 14, 2019

Fact-checking claim that Mitch McConnell's 'biggest donor' is sanctioned Russian oligarch

A screenshot of a tweet spreading online accuses Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., of receiving donations from a Russian oligarch who the GOP-controlled Congress recently lifted sanctions on.

The tweet reads: "Ready for this? It turns out that the biggest donor for Mitch McConnell (R. Moscow) is none other than the Russian oligarch that the GOP just lifted sanctions on."

The same post links to a Jan. 28 Medium post by the Democratic Coalition, a super PAC founded in 2016 in opposition of Donald Trump.

This post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)

According to the Democratic Coalition’s story, Len Blavatnik, a dual U.S.-U.K. citizen, donated millions to McConnell’s campaign and Senate Leadership Fund in recent years via his company Access Holdings.

The story also claims Blavatnik is a long-term business partner of Kremlin-linked Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, of the aluminum company RuSal, "in which (Blavatnik) is a major investor." It then says McConnell led Republicans in January to vote against a resolution to maintain sanctions on Deripaska.

We found that this isn’t all false, but the claim exaggerates Blavatnik’s contributions to McConnell as being his "biggest" donor, and makes it look as if Blavatnik is the Russian oligarch affected by sanctions. In fact, it was another Russian with whom he conducted business.

Who is Len Blavatnik and how much did he donate to McConnell?

Blavatnik emigrated to the United States with his family in the late 1970s and returned to Russia in the late ’80s as the Soviet Union began to collapse. His U.S.-based holding companies — Access Industries Inc. and AI-Altep Holdings Inc. — are conduits for his largest political contributions, according to Federal Election Commission records.

In 2015-16, Blavatnik’s contributions went to GOP PACs and top Republican leaders, including McConnell, according to FEC records.

In that cycle, his companies contributed over $6.3 million, with $2.5 million going to McConnell’s Senate Leadership Fund. In 2017, Blavatnik donated another $1 million to the committee, records show, bringing the total to $3.5 million.

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While Blavatnik certainly donated a lot of money to McConnell’s committee, he is nowhere near the majority leader’s highest contributor. In the 2017-18 cycle alone, at least two other donors, Sheldon D. Adelson and Miriam Adelson, gave $25 million (a piece) to his leadership fund.

The sanctions and Blavatnik’s connection

In April 2018, the Trump administration announced sanctions on multiple Russian oligarchs and their companies, including Deripaska and his aluminum company Rusal, the second-largest aluminium company in the world. Deripaska is known to be closely allied with the Kremlin, and his name has come up in emails turned over to the Mueller investigation.  

Then, in December, the administration agreed to lift the sanctions on Deripaska’s companies in exchange for him giving up majority ownership, along with other concessions.

About a month later, McConnell led Senate Republicans and blocked a Democratic effort to keep the sanctions on Deripaska’s companies.

Now that we are all caught up, how are Blavatnik and Deripaska connected?

As two of the richest Russian men in the United Kingdom, it’s not entirely surprising they have had business dealings. According to a report by the Dallas News, Blavatnik and business partner Viktor Vekselburg hold a 20.5 percent stake in Rusal.

(Vekselberg made news in May 2018 after it was revealed that a U.S. firm he invests in wired $500,000 to a company owned by Michael Cohen, Trump’s former attorney.)

Our ruling

A post says McConnell’s "biggest donor" is a Russian oligarch who was released from U.S. sanctions.

Blavatnik is involved in Deripaska’s businesses, on which sanctions were lifted recently, but it is inaccurate to call him the Russian oligarch "that the GOP just lifted sanctions on."

Blavatnik also donated money to McConnell’s Senate Leadership Fund, but he wasn’t the highest donor, records show. He also contributed to other Republican leaders and GOP-affiliated PACs.

The attack on McConnell gets a lot of the details wrong. So we rate it False.

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Says Mitch McConnell's "biggest donor" is a "Russian oligarch that the GOP just lifted sanctions on."
Thursday, January 31, 2019

Our Sources

Facebook post, Jan. 31, 2019

Twitter post, Jan. 28, 2019

Medium via the Democratic Coalition, Mitch McConnell’s Ties to Russian Oil Money, Jan. 28, 2019

Forbes, Len Blavatnik profile, Accessed Feb. 13, 2019

The Dallas Morning News, How Putin's oligarchs funneled millions into GOP campaigns, May 8, 2018

CNN,  Senate Democrats' effort to block Trump move on Russia sanctions fails, Jan. 16, 2019

Federal Election Commission, AI Altep Holdings Inc.; Access Industries Inc. contributions 2015-16, Accessed Feb. 13, 2019

Federal Election Commission, Senate Leadership Fund 2017-18 receipts, Accessed Feb. 13, 2019

OpenSecrets, Ai Altep Holdings: Donor Detail, Accessed Feb. 13, 2019

Forbes, The Four Horsemen Of Russia's Economic Apocalypse, Jan. 21, 2015

New York Times, Deripaska and Allies Could Benefit From Sanctions Deal, Document Shows, Jan. 21, 2019

New York Times, Trump Administration to Lift Sanctions on Russian Oligarch’s Companies, Dec. 19, 2018

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