It has been fascinating — in the grotesque sort of way that a slow-motion train wreck is fascinating — to watch the Russia scandal unfold. From the first intimations in late 2016 that the dark hand of Vladimir Putin was at work to elect Donald Trump to our dawning realization that the Trump campaign colluded in that effort to our astonishment at how enormous and successful the effort was, there has been one revelation after another. And so prepare your addled self for the possibility of another jaw dropper: The Kremlin may have sent Paul Manafort into a campaign he was soon to manage to insure that Trump insiders helped Putin play his game.
That would have seemed preposterous even a few weeks ago, but now seems increasingly possible.
For openers, Manafort’s entire career has been one exercise in evil after another. He lobbied on behalf of a rogue’s gallery of corrupt foreign leaders, including Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, Mobutu Sese Seiko in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angolan guerrilla heavyweight Jonas Savimbi, and his penultimate act prior to joining the Trump campaign was to engineer a social media-based disinformation campaign for Putin’s puppet president in Ukraine that anticipated what Russia and its army of trolls did in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Add to that the fact it was Manafort who lobbied Trump to join his campaign, that there was a spike in campaign contacts with Moscow almost immediately after he joined the campaign and a further uptick when he was named campaign manager, and you have a pretty strong circumstantial case.
This is further bolstered by Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner’s assertion, later picked up by others in defense of Trump, that the campaign was too chaotic and incompetent to collude, but Manafort was a competent inside player with experience in the collusion game.
The distance between circumstantial and provable can be substantial. But if the Russia scandal has taught us nothing else beyond the fact that virtually every key Trump player is a bad actor, it is that if something looks like a coincidence, it almost certainly is not.
That is the big takeaway from a blockbuster April 5 story by veteran Russia investigative reporter Luke Harding in The Guardian.
Harding’s lede paragraphs:
Donald Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort authorized a secret media operation on behalf of Ukraine’s former president featuring “black ops,” “placed” articles in the Wall Street Journal and U.S. websites and anonymous briefings against Hillary Clinton.
The project was designed to boost the reputation of Ukraine’s then leader, Viktor Yanukovych. It was part of a multimillion-dollar lobbying effort carried out by Manafort on behalf of Yanukovych’s embattled government, emails and documents reveal.
The strategies included:
* Proposing to rewrite Wikipedia entries to smear a key opponent of the then Ukrainian president.
* Setting up a fake thinktank in Vienna to disseminate viewpoints supporting Yanukovych.
* A social media blitz “aimed at targeted audiences in Europe and the U.S.”
* Briefing journalists from the rightwing website Breitbart to attack Clinton when she was U.S. secretary of state.
Manafort’s Ukraine strategy anticipated later efforts by the Kremlin and its troll factory to use Twitter and Facebook to discredit Clinton and to help Trump win the 2016 US election.
In fact, what Manafort did in Ukraine and what Russia would do three years later in the U.S. are carbon copies.
“We will utilize specially crafted social media campaigns to target users interested and ideologically in favor of the content to engage them,” wrote Manafort of the strategy behind his Ukraine campaign. “[We will] bring them into the circle of allegiance allowing us to organically flow into outer spheres of social participants that don’t necessarily have the same strong views but are guided by the thought leaders they respect.”
When it came time to target Clinton with cyber-espionage attacks in 2016, Russia had a field-tested accomplice in Manafort, who was close to Oleg Deripaska and other members of Putin’s inner circle and traveled to Moscow at least 18 times from late 2004 through 2015.
Aluminum magnate Deripaska is on the list of Russian oligarchs on whom the Trump administration belatedly imposed sanctions last Friday. (As opposed to enforcingsanctions, which are another matter altogether given the president’s unwavering personal support for Putin, which persists although Russian-U.S. relations otherwise are at their lowest point since the Cold War.)
Deripaska has longtime ties to Konstantin Kilimnik, the Kiev office manager for the lobbying business run by Manafort and Rick Gates and a sometimes translator for them for many years. Kilimnik, in turn, worked for the Main Intelligence Directorate — or GRU — the shadowiest of the Kremlin’s spy agencies and a major player in Russia’s cyber-espionage of the Clinton campaign.
Manafort was the target of a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court warrant allowing the FBI to wiretap him when he reached out to Trump on February 26, 2016 with a five-page, single-spaced proposal in which he touted his expertise in assisting political leaders, whom he took pains to mention included Russian oligarchs.
He also was in dire financial straits, yet he offered to work for free. He was hired by the campaign on March 26 and became campaign manager on June 20. Gates was named his deputy.
Meanwhile, Manafort met with Kilimnik in New York in April 2016 and again on August 2, the later meeting at Trump Tower 16 days before he was fired as campaign manager following a Washington Post report on the millions of dollars he received from Yanukovych.
Court filings by Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller last week and in March indicate that he has tacked away from investigating Manafort’s financial crimes and is now focusing on Manafort’s role in the campaign.
The filings hint at Manafort and Gates being cutouts to convey information between the campaign and Putin’s cyberwarriors, with GRU spy Kilimnik being the conduit. AfterGates agreed to cooperate, Mueller also obtained a new search warrant for five sets of phone records and bank account information pertaining to Manafort. The phone records may be what are called “historical cell site information” in investigative parlance, meaning that Mueller is endeavoring to track the timing of Manafort’s previous movements.
Returning to the grotesquery of watching the scandal unfold that I mentioned at the top of this post, there is the Steele dossier, which seems like so much ancient history at this point.
It is anything but.
Perhaps the biggest lesson from the dossier in the here and now is that what Steele’s confidential sources said was happening and predicted would happen were stunningly accurate.
It was the view of these sources that Manafort managed the stateside arm of the Kremlin’s conspiracy to exploit hacked emails and other documents embarrassing to Clinton, worked with the Kremlin regarding how to take maximum advantage of the hacked materials, made cash payments to some of the hackers, and worked to “sideline” Ukraine as a campaign issue, which is exactly what happened after Manafort assisted the Trump campaign in strong arming the anti-Russia Republican Party establishment and rewriting the GOP’s convention platform on Ukraine to reflect a pro-Putin view.
Meanwhile, Manafort also was in touch with Deripaska during the summer of 2016, at one point offering to give him back-channel briefings on the campaign before he got the boot.
Among his creditors is Deripaska, to whom he still owes almost $20 million.
Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared on April 9, 2018 on Kiko’s House, a website featuring commentary by journalist and author, Shaun Mullen. It was reproduced here with the consent of Mr. Mullen.