The Washington Post reported yesterday that amongst the tens of thousands of documents Paul Manafort has turned over to congressional investigators and the Special Counsel’s offers were emails between Manafort and his Ukrainian deputy Konstantin Kilimnik. In one of those emails he tells Kilimnik to pass on word to a top Russian oligarch named Oleg Deripaska that he could provide briefings on the state of the presidential campaign.
“If he needs private briefings we can accommodate,” wrote Manafort.
Manafort has a long and complicated business relationship with Deripaska (as Seinfeld would say, not that there’s anything wrong with that). But the date of this email is interesting. Deripaska is reputed to be very close to Russian President Vladimir Putin. A US diplomatic cable which Chelsea Manning gave to Wikileaks described him in 2006 as “among the 2-3 oligarchs Putin turns to on a regular basis.” The date of the email is July 7th 2016. That’s just four days before the Trump campaign intervened to soften the language of the GOP platform about providing lethal military assistance to Ukraine – an oddity that has never been fully explained or really explained in any clear way.
According to the Post, there’s no evidence that the kind of briefing Manafort offered ever took place. Did Manafort and Deripaska actually connect up and have a conversation that led to the platform shenanigans? Who knows? Anything’s possible. But one of the mysteries of that weird incident is that at the end of the day the minutiae of a party platform really doesn’t matter very much. Even given the lack of ‘local’ knowledge a Russian might have about American politics, that’s probably pretty clear. So what was the point?
That gets us to an important way to think about how this whole drama may have really unfolded. The emails reviewed by the Post strongly suggest that Manafort saw his top perch in the Trump campaign as a way to make money – either to drum up new business in what used to be the USSR or to collect on debts he thought various ex-clients owed him. The Post referenced one email where Manafort asked his colleague “How do we use [this] to get whole?” That is to say, how do we capitalize on this new-found opportunity to get financially sound again, to make a bunch of money?
I don’t think we should dismiss the possibility that Manafort didn’t need direction. Or to put it another way, Manafort – sensing an opportunity for the big, big money – might have found opportunities to be helpful or clearly friendly as a way to facilitate that expressed desire to cash in on Trump. This seems not only possible but quite likely.
Nor is this so odd from the point of view of whoever was behind the curtains in Russia. Intelligence operations or efforts to ‘turn’ or compromise someone don’t usually begin with a straight-up ask. Often they begin with efforts to test someone’s receptivity to committing bad acts. That’s the best read of what was happening in that Trump Tower approach to Donald Trump Jr. It can also be as simple as putting a pot of money in front of someone like Manafort and seeing what he comes up with on his own. Let’s also remember this was almost exactly a month after Manafort sat in on that Trump Tower meeting Donald Trump Jr scheduled with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya. A lot was happening during this critical period. They’re likely connected. Just not necessarily in the most obvious or literal ways.