The White House is going to great lengths to put distance between President Donald Trump and his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, as a series of explosive news reports emerge detailing the millions of dollars he received from a Russian oligarch with close ties to the Kremlin and a pro-Russia political party in Ukraine.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Monday that Manafort, a key member of the Trump campaign for six months, played “a very limited role for a very limited amount of time.” By Wednesday morning, Spicer was refusing to even say Manafort’s name, telling NBC News that “it would be inappropriate for us to comment on a person who is not a White House employee.”
Yet Trump’s ties to Manafort predate the 2016 campaign, and appear to have stretched well into the post-election transition period. FBI Director James Comey confirmed this week that the bureau is investigating ties between Trump’s associates and Russian officials, including whether there was any “cooperation” between the two, casting a cloud over the administration as it tries to shepherd the GOP’s long-promised Obamacare repeal bill through Congress. Manafort is reportedly at the heart of this probe.
Manafort, a longtime GOP operative who worked for years as a consultant to ousted pro-Russia Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, has owned an apartment on the forty-third floor of Trump Tower since 2006.
He joined the Trump campaign in March 2016 to help prepare for what was expected to be a tough convention fight, and his role dramatically expanded a month later to include serving as a liaison to wary Republicans in Congress and wrangling uncommitted Republican National Convention delegates. Manafort ultimately elbowed Corey Lewandowski out of his role as campaign manager in June, formally securing the most senior spot on the team. While he never quite managed to get Trump to pivot toward a more conventional campaign, Manafort was widely credited with helping him shore up the GOP nomination.
His unpaid tenure on the campaign was ultimately cut short by his activities in Ukrainian politics, which the Trump team said had become “a distraction.” Manafort resigned in August, days after the New York Times reported that $12.7 million in cash payments were earmarked for him in a secret ledger kept by Yanukovych’s political party (A Ukrainian politician this week released documents that he said proved the ledger was accurate and show that Manafort laundered those secret payments into offshore accounts).
Despite the messy nature of the departure, which came as Trump was facing increasing scrutiny for his staffers’ ties to Russia, Trump apparently maintained his relationship with Manafort. In the weeks after the election, a flurry of articles reported that Manafort was exerting his influence on the transition.
Bloomberg reported that Manafort was in frequent touch with then-Vice President-elect Mike Pence and then-Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), while senior Republicans told CNN at the time that he was a “player in the fight to shape the new administration.” Anonymous sources with knowledge of the transition told the Daily Beast that Manafort had been offering input on staff picks and Cabinet nominees, keeping a close eye on staffing decisions that could affect the lobbying industry.
Those sources told the Daily Beast that Manafort was “weighing in on everything.”
Adding to this personal influence, key Manafort allies were also pulling strings during the transition process. Manafort protege Matthew Freedman was assigned to head the transition’s National Security Council team until a mass staffing shakeup in mid-November, according to the Washington Post. CNN reported that Rick Gates, the campaign’s former liaison to the Republican National Committee who left at the same time as Manafort, coordinated inauguration planning behind the scenes, while Bloomberg reported that Manafort was close with Inaugural Committee chairman Tom Barrack as well.
Though the Trump team said at the time that Manafort had no formal transition role, he was spotted coming in and out of Trump Tower in Manhattan with other campaign allies, including Lewandowski.
A Wednesday report from the Associated Press is likely to give the Trump team even more headaches on the Manafort front. The AP obtained memos and records of international wire transfers documenting the millions of dollars Manafort received from a Russian oligarch for developing a political and business strategy intended to “greatly benefit the Putin Government.”