[ed.note: I wrote this post last night, prior to Paul Manafort’s resignation from the Trump campaign. His departure doesn’t change the story, if anything it tends to confirm it. But the rapidity and totality of his departure looks to me much more tied to his mounting legal trouble and efforts to protect Trump from those troubles than anything tied to the ‘pivot’ to Breitbartism or last night’s regrets speech. There’s also a big store of new information in this tour de force piece by Ken Vogel out this morning from Politico – particularly Manafort’s connection to a man named Konstantin Kilimnik, with an apparent background in Russian intelligence, and Manafort’s on-going and quite recent effort to get paid money he believes he’s owed by the party of ouster pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych. All the new information tends to confirm me in my belief that Manafort’s ‘business’ in Ukraine is hardly unprecedented for a US political operative on the make. But it’s the kind of stuff that seldom gets bright light investigative media attention or the kind of sustained legal attention it’s now getting. That will likely end badly for at least Manafort.]
I wanted to provide some context for this new AP report outlining Manafort and company’s influence campaign in the US on behalf of a now-deposed pro-Russian President of Ukraine. It’s both more and less than it seems.
On the one hand, what’s described here is more or less what we knew or should have known Manafort was doing for Viktor Yanukovych. We knew he was working as a political operative buffing up Yanukovych’s image as he tried to reclaim power in the country. Part of this was making him look more acceptable abroad. Knowing a bit about how this line of work operates, it’s almost inconceivable that this wouldn’t involve trying to set up meetings and get good press for Yanukovych in the US. Even the modalities are very par for the course. Set up a non-profit – a think tank or “center” – which serves as the pass through for foreign money into the US political system. Not in the sense of campaign contributions which is of course strictly illegal but lobbyists, PR people, consultants, symposia and so forth.
Again, this sort of thing is not uncommon. He also had two lobbying groups, one Democrat, one Republican, nominally working on behalf of the “center” which was a tool to spread the word about Yanukovych’s glories. Just how much Manafort clued the lobbyists into just where the money was coming from is what the new story was about. Again, totally par for the course.
What’s different here is that this is clearly work that should fall under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. But they didn’t file. That’s a problem.
Yet, as someone who used to spend a lot of time at the FARA office in DC trying to find things that make good stories I could write, what you need to know is that FARA is almost totally a joke. I used to talk to the lawyers there when I thought I’d found someone not complying with the law, and the FARA lawyers were really hard to distinguish from defense lawyers for the folks I was trying to write stories about. It is for better or worse not an office that is terribly interested in enforcement. No one wants to register because it shows your opinions what you’re doing and it’s actually housed within the Department of Justice. You’re registering as a “foreign agent.” It sounds bad. But people who want to go by the books do. Some of the stuff you find if you go through the filing is super sleazy. But there’s also a lot that’s totally non-confrontational and boring – huge firms providing counsel and technical assistance for how allies structure loan guarantees and other aspects of bilateral relations with the US.
But here’s the thing. First, most of this stuff only usually ever gets attention from a few dozen DC journalists who follow this stuff. By and large no one cares. But now Manafort is under a super hot spotlight. There’s ugly stuff under this rock. And it’s in the process of getting turned over. That’s a big, big difference.
I think Manafort will rue the day he signed on with Trump. He’s made huge amounts of money and has tons of dirty laundry to show for it. But probably no one would have paid much attention. Now it’s a huge, huge, huge story.
Second, Manafort is sleazy. I know that’s not a technical term. You don’t get into this kind of work unless you want to make big money. But I’ve been looking into this story. And I have the strong impression Manafort didn’t do any of this by the books. A whole lot of stuff went on. Not good stuff. Most of this happened before Manafort knew that Ukraine would become a literal battlefield and an international flashpoint or before a government hostile to the one Manafort worked for would gain possession of the files of the folks Manafort worked for. It was certainly before he realized he’d be a top media story in the US because of his work for Trump.
All of which is to say that what Manafort was doing is far from unprecedented, just a bit dirtier than most, not toeing some ethical line but slapping it around, having some goons rough it up and then leaving it in a ditch somewhere to die. But with Manafort’s current notoriety it’s all going to get a close look. People almost never get indicted for FARA violations. But this looks so clear cut. And there’s going to be so much attention that prosecutors might not feel they have much choice.
Then there’s a possible other level of unfortunateness.
In other contexts I’ve discussed Trump’s reliance on Russian capital over the last decade-plus as most domestic banks and investors soured on his track record of bankruptcies. Whatever relevance that may have to Russian political circles, there’s another dimension of the story. The current Ukraine government, which is of course fiercely anti-Yanukovych, is trying to locate and recoup money Yanukovych pilfered during his rule. They appear to believe that some chunk of that money may have been invested in real estate in New York City. They even seem to be focusing some of their attention on Bayrock, the shady Russian real estate firm Trump went heavy into business with for much of the aughts.
It is important to remember that we shouldn’t assume that the current government of Ukraine is any less corrupt than the previous one. When big money, ballots and heavy weaponry are mixed together, you don’t find a lot of good government types rising to the top. These are hall of mirrors worlds where it can be impossible to distinguish witch hunts from investigations and corruption is endemic. But Manafort’s political fixer work in Ukraine and Trump’s business dealings in New York seem bump up against each other a bit, even well before Manafort took over Trump’s campaign. That could prove to be a big, big problem.