Manafort, The Cinematic Arc of History And The Wildest Coincidence

Douliery Olivier/Sipa USA USA

I mentioned last week that a cluster of new revelations had given us a fresh and deeper view of Paul Manafort’s dire financial straits and desperate personal situation in the months and weeks leading up to his entry into the Trump campaign in March 2016. Today we have another report from Bloomberg which paints a similar picture and adds some additional details, specifically just how recently before he went to work for Trump that Manafort was working for the shell of the Russia-aligned party in Ukraine.

As we’ve learned last night, when Jared Kushner became the top advisor of the President-Elect Trump, his precarious financial situation and need for money appeared as a point of opportunity and leverage for a number of foreign governments who had critical interests at stake with the United States. This is unsurprising. It’s why security reviews always look at business interests and especially debts and secrets that can be used to pressure, manipulate or threaten. Manafort fit that bill in spades, far more than Kushner, whose family finances were perilous.

But what deserves more focus, even though it’s by no means hidden or at all secret, is the sheer historic sweep of Manafort’s involvement, his central place in so many aspects of the big, big story.

Let’s start with one key point: The main deliverable Vladimir Putin wanted from the Trump administration, whatever role he played in the latter’s election, was an end to the punitive sanctions imposed by the US and Europe after the Russian seizure of the Crimean Peninsula and incursions into eastern Ukraine in February 2014. There are many parts of the package Putin wanted and Trump seemed to want to provide, from things as limited as the late 2016 sanctions imposed by President Obama to as maximal and aspirational as the disruption of the NATO alliance. But the end of the 2014 sanctions and the acceptance of Russian sovereignty in Crimea was the core deliverable at the heart of a broader rapprochement or even global US-Russian partnership. That was the big thing Russia wanted and indeed still wants.

Manafort wasn’t simply at the heart of the 2016 election story, he was at the center of this origination point story as well. Manafort’s meal ticket and main client was Viktor Yanukovych, the Russia-aligned President of Ukraine. Yanukovych was driven from power by his inability to manage the cross-cutting fissures in Ukraine, the pulls of Russia and the EU, specifically his decision to reject a deeper association with the EU and swing around to a redoubled bond with Russia. It was Yanukovych’s fall from power and subsequent flight to Russia which at least triggered the annexation of Crimea and Russia’s shadow war in the east. In other words, the fall of Manafort’s client in Ukraine was the triggering event which led to the punitive sanctions the removal of which was the core thing Vladimir Putin was hoping to receive from Donald Trump. That Manafort, who’d been Yanukovych’s political advisor and fixer for a decade would end up running Trump’s campaign is, to put it mildly, remarkable. Whether this is a great historical irony or something more planned and sinister is the great question about which we are in the throes of writing the first draft of history.

After Yanukovych was driven from power, Manafort tried to scrounge together business, rebranding the remnants of Yanukovych’s political movement as an opposition to the new regime. But the money paled to what it had been before Yanukovych’s fall and Manafort didn’t get paid a bunch of what he claimed to be owed. Just as ominously, the new government was digging into Yanukovych’s corruption, which was prodigious, and of which Manafort was if not complicit than at least a beneficiary.

Then two things happened in late 2014.

Manafort’s family discovers he’s been carrying on an affair, adding personal crisis to his financial woes. Back in the US, something else was happening. I’ve noted many times that Adrien Chen wrote about the Internet Research Agency well before the 2016 campaign and before Donald Trump seemed to have any part of it. In Chen’s June 2015 New York Times Magazine article he notes that the IRA operatives appeared to get started in the US in late 2014. There were efforts to create social media-driven panics about hoax natural disasters. (They seemed to be trial runs. A fascinating hoax Chen writes about was a purported industrial accident in St. Mary Parish, Louisiana.) These operatives also got into the mix amplifying fears and spreading misinformation about the Ebola mini-outbreak in late 2014. We don’t know whether these first efforts had any connection to or foreknowledge of Trump’s eventual run for President. But it’s clear that the more aggressive posture was spurred by the deep freeze in relations after the crisis in Ukraine.

Through 2015, Manafort’s life appeared to spiral out of control. As Frank Foer notes, Manafort was apparently so desperate and perhaps depressed that he told one of his daughters he was contemplating suicide. By the close of 2015, Manafort had checked himself into some sort of in-patient treatment facility in Arizona for what his daughter describes as an emotional collapse. Weeks later he was asking his friend Tom Barrack to help him get an unpaid job working for Donald Trump’s campaign.

This does sound like a highly suspicious and improbable turn of events. But it’s important to remember there is a sleazy but not quite sinister explanation that is plausible if not quite probable. Manafort had every reason to believe at this point that his Ukraine-based fortune was at an end. He hadn’t been a player in the US for years. So he was in no kind of demand for the US political work or influence peddling he’d originally made his name at. But there was a presidential candidate who looked like he might win the nomination but who lots of legit consultants wouldn’t touch. But that wasn’t a problem for Manafort. Working for untouchable strongmen was his line of work. If Manafort could have a strong run with Trump, he could recharge his influence batteries and go back into business stateside. If Trump managed to win, he might have more juice than ever. If this theory is true, it’s a perfectly adequate explanation of why he was happy to work for free. It wasn’t about a six-month salary. It was about building back a reputation and gaining influence to peddle to support his extravagant lifestyle.

This is possible.

But we can’t ignore the context. As noted, Russia appears to have begun testing out information warfare possibilities in mid-to-late 2014. We don’t know when Donald Trump came into focus as a possible tool – witting or otherwise – of Russia. But events were clearly coming together. Russian operatives began hacking into DNC servers in late 2015 and continued these efforts into the spring. It was in March that Russian operatives successfully hacked John Podesta’s email. It was also in March that Trump announced Carter Page, George Papadopoulos, and three others as his foreign policy advisory team. Papadopoulos had learned earlier in March that he’d be working for Trump. He’d already attracted the attention of Russian intelligence operatives in London who would tell him about Russia’s dirt on Hillary Clinton.

All of this is coming together in February and March of 2016. And it’s right then that Manafort shows up eager to work for Donald Trump – to ‘get back in the game’. It was in late January or early February when Manafort reached out to Barrack, February 29th when Manafort’s memos were passed on to Trump by Barrack and March 28th when Trump hired Manafort to join the campaign. Two months later he’s running the whole operation.

Life is messy and filled with coincidences. But it is well to remember a key fact. Part of the work Manafort did for Yanukovych was helping him run campaigns and political operations in Ukraine. But a big, big part of his work was influencing politics in the US on behalf of Yanukovych and the Russian interests who backed him. He was literally in the business of acting as a foreign agent in the US representing the interests of the then-pro-Russian government of Ukraine. That’s actually one of the things Mueller charged him with doing – not the representation itself but failing to properly register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).

Manafort’s a guy who had a lot of experience doing this. You can make a decent argument – though it’s admittedly muddy – that he’d spent a decade doing it specifically for the players who in 2016 were authorizing the disruption campaign which was coming together right as Manafort entered the Trump campaign. It is, to put it mildly, a helluva coincidence.