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Trump confidant lobbying to free U.S. citizen Paul Whelan from Russia

Paul Whelan
Paul Whelan stands inside a defendants' cage during a hearing at a court in Moscow. Photo: Kirill Kudryavutsev/AFP/Getty Images

Axios has obtained a lobbying disclosure form showing President Trump's former Pennsylvania campaign director, David Urban, will be working to free Paul Whelan, an American who has been detained in Russia since December 2018. A source with direct knowledge said Urban will be working pro-bono for Whelan's family.

Why this matters: Russian authorities have accused Whelan of espionage — a charge he denies. Whelan could be sentenced to between 10 and 20 years in a Russian jail, according to the New York Times.

  • Whelan, a former U.S. Marine, has described himself as the victim of "an absurd political kidnapping." Trump's former national security adviser John Bolton seemed to echo that sentiment when he tweeted in June that "Russia has provided no evidence of any wrongdoing."
  • Whelan's family is deeply concerned about his health. They are trying to press the Trump administration to prioritize his case in the midst of a diplomatic vacuum following the departure of U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman on Oct. 3.

Between the lines: In Urban, the Whelan family now has one of the best-connected advocates in Trumpworld. Urban is a confidant of President Trump's and has longstanding friendships with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper. Urban, Pompeo and Esper graduated from the same West Point class in 1986 and Trump frequently calls on him for advice.

  • "We're grateful Mr. Urban has volunteered to throw his considerable influence and strategic thinking behind the effort to free Paul," said David Whelan, the brother of Paul Whelan. "His support means a great deal to us and we hope it will spur U.S. officials to further prioritize Paul's release."
  • "Paul is isolated and ill, deprived of any norms of due process and basic human rights. He's done nothing wrong and he should come home now," Whelan added.