A couple days ago, before yesterday’s grand jury revelations, I got an email from TPM Reader RV flagging a story on Paul Manafort in a Kentucky alt-weekly by Kurt X. Metzmeier, a law librarian at the University of Louisville Brandeis School of Law. The article is builds off Metzmeier’s earlier life as a graduate student and researcher interested in the late 20th century superpower confrontation in Africa and some of the unlovelier dimensions of US foreign policy.
Needless to say, this brought Paul Manafort across his radar, a man who long before the Trump era had developed a reputation as a go-to lobbyist and advisor for some of the world’s most rancid dictators and war criminals. Read the piece for that part of the story. But there’s a dimension of the story which got my attention. It’s a dimension so obvious that I genuinely do not know why it hadn’t clicked with me earlier. It’s quite possible this was obvious to everyone but me and somehow I was the only one who missed this or failed to fully grasp the significance. But however that may be, here goes.
This passage in Metzmeier’s piece comes after regaling readers with some highlights of the Manafort story which includes rubbing shoulders with and working with some of the nastiest characters of the late 20th century and crossing paths with and working with spooks of all sorts – particularly those of the US and those of the former Soviet Union and its successor states.
Which returns me to the Trump Tower meeting in June 2016. While Don Jr. could be described charitably as an upper-class twit, and Jared Kushner as an overconfident political novice, Manafort has been in so many shady meetings like this it would take IBM’s Watson to keep up with them. In fact, he could dictate the “Petersen’s Field Guide to Bag Men, Contract Spies, Cutouts, and Other Shadowy Figures” to a secretary over a long weekend — with enough spare time to draft a script treatment for a “House of Cards” story arc.
So, while Don Jr. and the Russian lawyer set up the crowded meeting, the real principals were likely campaign manager Manafort and Rinat Akhmetshin, a pro-Russian lobbyist with ties to Putin’s intelligence apparatus. Some stories suggest Manafort was fiddling with his smartphone all meeting — maybe texting LOLs to Akhmetshin? (Although perhaps he was taking the meeting notes he reportedly has turned over to the Senate.)
Whether the speculation in the second paragraph is in any way accurate I have no idea. But the observation in the first is just unquestionably the case. Indeed, it is so obviously so that I still don’t know why it hit me only when I read this piece. Don Jr. is a moron. Kushner may not be a moron but certainly a year ago he was altogether new to this world of spycraft and international intrigue. While even a fool as big as Don Jr. could not have missed the plain words of Goldstone’s letter in which he says he is speaking as an intermediary of a Russian government effort to elect his father, certainly other aspects of the approach could have eluded him. Same with Kushner. But this was literally Manafort’s world. Not just working in and around spies for years but for more than a decade doing so in the lands of the former Soviet Union. It is simply not possible that the nature of what was happening and what was being discussed wasn’t immediately clear to Manafort.
And yet, so far as we know, he made no effort to cut the meeting short or the larger line of communication off. There was no note to file written to protect himself or the campaign later. And we appear to know to close to a certainty that he made no effort to contact US intelligence authorities or the Secret Service or even notify the campaign’s own lawyers of what was happening.
Again, this should have been completely obvious to me from the start. I’m not sure why it wasn’t. But Manafort is really the key person in the meeting. That is not simply because he was the campaign manager but because he – not simply unique in the Trump campaign but uniquely for almost anyone involved in any way in any part of the 2016 presidential campaign, among operatives, journalists, anyone – had the experience and background to essentially guarantee he knew what that meeting was about.
And yet, he seems to have done nothing – at least nothing to block or stymie what the Russians on the other side of the approach were trying to achieve.