During a debate on Monday, former Rep. Michael Grimm leveled a stunning charge against his primary opponent and successor in office, fellow Republican Dan Donovan — one that would be a potential ethical violation if true.
Grimm, who pleaded guilty to federal tax evasion charges in 2014 and spent seven months in prison, claimed Donovan offered to seek a presidential pardon for him if he would forgo a challenge to Donovan in the Republican primary this year. Donovan has acknowledged raising the issue of a pardon for Grimm with President Donald Trump during a trip on Air Force One last summer.
“You were offering pardons because you didn’t want me to run against you. You offered to help,” Grimm claimed at one point in the contentious debate in Manhattan.
The accusation landed like a grenade in the middle of one of the most heated Republican primaries of 2018. Grimm, the ex-congressman forced to resign his seat in 2015, is now trying to reclaim his old job from Donovan. GOP leaders want no part of Grimm, and the president is backing Donovan despite Grimm’s attempt to portray himself as the true Trump loyalist in the race.
POLITICO sought interviews with three key people in the imbroglio in an attempt to discern the veracity of Grimm’s claim and its backstory. Only Donovan would talk, and he hotly denied the accusation.
“The guy is a confessed liar,” Donovan told POLITICO. “My opponent is trying to interpret that I think he deserves a pardon. But I was a doing a favor for someone who used to be a friend of mine.” He was referring to Guy Molinari, a former Republican congressman from Staten Island, who was close to both Donovan and Grimm, at least until this campaign, when he sided with Grimm.
What in many ways is an episode that showcases the incestuous world of New York politics — the quartet of Donovan, Grimm, Molinari and Trump have personal relationships that go back decades — now has become an issue of national import. It involves the president, as well as a House seat Democrats think they can flip this fall, especially if Grimm is the Republican nominee.
Donovan cut off all contact with Molinari, his onetime boss and political patron, after he backed Grimm in the race. In the interview, Donovan said he didn’t know “Guy Molinari was going to stab me in the back and support Grimm.”
Yet the issue of what exactly Donovan said to Trump raises serious issues. If Donovan offered to intervene on Grimm’s behalf with Trump with the express purpose of keeping Grimm out of the race, that could prove problematic for the second-term lawmaker. Congressional ethics rules bar lawmakers from using their position for personal gain.
Donovan insisted such a thought never occurred to him: All he was trying to do was help Molinari, he said.
“Anyone can run against me, I don’t care,” Donovan said.
In a statement, Grimm seemed to back away from his accusation against Donovan. Grimm attacked Donovan for not being sufficiently loyal to Trump’s “America First” agenda, despite Trump’s endorsement of Donovan. But Grimm didn’t repeat the charge he hurled against Donovan on Monday.
“This just exemplifies Dan’s rampant hypocrisy,” Grimm said. “Before I became a political threat, he agreed that I had wrongfully prosecuted — just like he supported amnesty for illegal immigrants and opposed repealing Obamacare.”
Grimm added: “Since I entered the race, however, all [Donovan] has done is distort the facts to distract voters from his record of consistently opposing the America First agenda.”
The 89-year-old Molinari did not respond to requests for comment.
Donovan is leaning heavily on Trump’s endorsement, as well as the backing of Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and the rest of the House GOP leadership, to help pull him through in the June 26 primary. House GOP leaders have made clear they have no interest in seeing Grimm return to Congress.
Yet Grimm, who remains popular in Staten Island, was beating Donovan handily in a recent NY1-Siena College poll. If Grimm were to defeat Donovan and go on to triumph in November, it would represent a spectacular comeback. And thanks to a Supreme Court ruling in the 1960s, the House would have to seat Grimm, despite his felony record.
The controversy goes back to mid-summer 2017, as Grimm and Molinari began exploring a possible presidential pardon for Grimm’s tax evasion conviction.
Grimm — a former Marine and FBI undercover agent — wasn’t yet in the race against Donovan, although there had been rumors for months that he could jump in. Donovan’s lackluster fundraising, relatively weak poll numbers and Grimm’s continued popularity in Staten Island had already begun to worry GOP leaders, who pressed Donovan to step up his fundraising efforts.
Molinari and Trump have a personal relationship dating at least to the early 1980s, when Molinari was a GOP lawmaker representing Staten Island and Trump was making a name for himself as a real estate developer and gossip-page regular.
In the mid-1990s, according to Donovan, Molinari sought out Trump’s advice about what to do with an old U.S. Navy base in Staten Island that the Pentagon had shuttered. By that time, Molinari had left Congress — his daughter Susan took his seat — and become Staten Island borough president.
“I met Donald Trump through Guy Molinari 20 years ago. I was Guy Molinari’s chief of staff,” Donovan said. Donovan worked for Molinari in Staten Island.
So when Molinari approached Donovan last summer about intervening with Trump on Grimm’s behalf, Donovan said he didn’t hesitate to relay the request to the president.
Despite the rumors about Grimm’s possible run for Congress, Donovan said he believed Grimm might be more interested in becoming Staten Island borough president, following Molinari’s example. Grimm’s camp asserts that was never under consideration.
Donovan was supposed to fly with Trump on Air Force One to New York on July 28, 2017. According to Donovan, Molinari asked him to use that private time to sound out the president about whether he would be open to considering a pardon for Grimm.
Donovan insists he raised the issue with Trump only as a favor to Molinari.
“I told the president that Guy may reach out to you about a pardon for somebody,” Donovan said in the interview. “The president was talking, just in general conversation — ‘How is Guy? What’s he doing? Did he support me?’” Donovan said in recounting his conversation with Trump.
According to Donovan, he told Trump that, “Honestly, [Molinari] was a ‘never Trumper.’’ He told people to disavow your candidacy.”
At that point, White House aides intervened and said Molinari “should go through the pardon office” at the Justice Department with his request, Donovan said.
The Trump-Donovan conversation took place before Grimm had entered the race, both men acknowledge.
After Donovan’s Air Force One conversation with Trump, Grimm pressed Molinari to find out what happened, and eventually a one-on-one meeting between Grimm and Donovan was arranged, Donovan said. A source close to Grimm said the conversation likely took place on July 30, two days after the flight. Both camps indicated the discussion was supposed to be about what information Donovan had gleaned from the president.
“It was a Sunday morning. Guy Molinari calls me. ‘Michael wants to speak to you,’” Donovan said. Grimm eventually came over to Donovan’s house, and they stood in driveway and discussed the pardon.
Donovan told Grimm he had raised the matter with Trump, and Trump’s staff said DOJ should handle it. “Guy asked me about this stuff, here’s the pardon office information,” Donovan said he told Grimm.
“Then he tells me he wants to run against me,” Donovan claimed.
At Monday’s debate, Grimm described this exchange very differently.
“You hugged me, you kissed me," Grimm said. "You even had a piece of paper and said, ‘I spoke to [Trump’s] staff.’”
Donovan countered that he simply gave Grimm contact information for the pardon office.
"So you weren’t trying to help me?" Grimm asked Donovan.
"No, I gave you the pardon office," Donovan replied.
"I’ll let everybody else decide," Grimm responded. "Danny, you look like a fool right now."
When asked why he would intervene with Trump on Grimm’s behalf — especially when he now blasts Grimm as a “liar,” and “admitted felon” — Donovan asserted it was all about his loyalty to Molinari.
“My opponent [Grimm] is trying to interpret that I think he deserved a pardon,” Donovan said. “I was trying to do a favor for someone who used to be a friend of mine. Or I was giving the president a heads-up that someone who used to be a friend of mine, Guy Molinari — who no longer is a friend of mine — may reach out … That was the extent of it.“
The second Donovan-Grimm debate is on Thursday night.