In mid-August 2016, the Trump campaign was hit with a New York Times story revealing a secret ledger with $12.7 million in planned payments from a Ukrainian political party to Paul Manafort, the Trump campaign chairman at the time.
The Trump campaign already appeared to be in turmoil at the end of the summer, with Trump itching for a staff shakeup and the Republican National Committee facing pressure to pull funding for Trump. The Times’ story laying out Manafort’s ties to former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych only added to the list of the Trump campaign’s woes, and Manafort was fired a few days later.
At the time of Manafort’s ouster, the staff shakeup was seen in part as another sign of the chaos in Trump’s campaign — reports on Manafort’s resignation noted that Trump and Manafort had been butting heads over the direction of the campaign for weeks.
However, the latest revelations in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s charges against Manafort and his associates that dropped last month reveal that the New York Times report sent Manafort and his team scrambling to cover their tracks as the Justice Department narrowed in on their lobbying work. Manafort and Gates allegedly engaged in a coverup while still working for the Trump campaign, and several of the charges handed down in the indictments cover conduct during the span of Trump’s presidential run.
Trump tried to dismiss Manafort’s indictment back in October by claiming that the conduct occurred only before he joined the campaign.
Sorry, but this is years ago, before Paul Manafort was part of the Trump campaign. But why aren't Crooked Hillary & the Dems the focus?????
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 30, 2017
However, while Manafort and Gates ended their lobbying work for Yanukovych’s political party in 2014, they were accused by Mueller of defrauding the U.S. and lying to government officials through 2017 and laundering money through 2016. Their alleged coverup began in August 2016 while still working for the campaign, and Gates continued to try to cover his tracks as he remained on the campaign through the election, court documents show.
In the days following the Times’ initial report, several outlets detailed that Manafort and his right-hand man, Rick Gates, who also worked for the Trump campaign, organized lobbying efforts for the Party of Regions, Yanukovych’s pro-Russia Ukrainian political party, and funneled money from the Party of Regions to those lobbying groups through a so-called think tank, the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine. Manafort and Gates carried out those efforts without registering as lobbyists for a foreign power, as the Associated Press reported at the time.
Top Trump aides initially defended Manafort from the Times report, and the campaign chair was merely sidelined initially by Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway. But further reporting on Manafort and Gates’ lobbying scheme angered Trump, according to a Washington Post report from the time, and Manafort was asked to resign on Aug. 19.
Though Manafort was sacrificed, Gates flew further under the radar and merely moved to a new role as the liaison to the Republican National Committee. Gates worked for Trump through the end of the campaign and then joined the Presidential Inaugural Committee, even as the Justice Department heightened its scrutiny of Gates and Manafort.
The reports in August about the lobbying efforts run by Manafort and Gates prompted the two to engage in a coverup and try to distance themselves from the lobbying efforts they had orchestrated, the indictments would later allege. At the same time, the Justice Department started to home in on their failure to disclose their foreign lobbying, laying the groundwork for Mueller’s indictments in the fall of 2017 and winter of 2018.
Just two days after the New York Times published its report on the secret ledger, on Aug. 16, 2016, Manafort and Gates reached out to the two lobbying firms in the U.S. they allegedly engaged to conduct work for the Party of Regions with “false and misleading,” talking points, according to the initial federal grand jury indictment against the two former Trump campaign aides. In those talking points, Manafort and Gates distanced themselves from the lobbying work that they allegedly oversaw closely. At this time, both men were still employed by the Trump campaign.
After several additional news reports linked Manafort and Gates to the lobbying work for the Party of Regions in Ukraine, the Justice Department reached out to Manafort and Gates in September 2016 to ask whether they acted as agents of a foreign principal, according to Mueller’s initial indictment.
Manafort and Gates scrambled to cover their tracks, the indictments alleged, eventually sending letters with “false and misleading” claims to the Justice Department in November 2016 and again in February 2017, which included talking points similar to those sent to the lobbying firm. In those letters, they claimed that they did not conduct outreach or meetings in the United States for the Party of Regions and did not reach out to U.S. officials or media outlets for the work, according to Mueller’s initial indictment.
Gates also created a fake email retention policy for Manafort’s firm, claiming that the firm did not retain emails past 30 days, in order to “create the misleading appearance” that they did not have documents that the Justice Department was looking for, Gates’ guilty plea revealed late last month. Gates provided the fake policy to his lawyer, who in turn sent it to the DOJ, per Gates’ guilty plea.
The two former Trump aides also grew concerned about facing criminal charges in Ukraine in September, according to the guilty plea from Alex van der Zwaan, a lawyer who worked for the firm Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom LLC at the time. The firm had previously been recruited by Manafort to craft a report about the Ukrainian government’s prosecution of Yulia Tymoshenko, a political rival to Yanukovych.
Gates called van der Zwaan in early September 2016 and asked him to get in touch with an unnamed individual called “Person A” and followed up by sending van der Zwaan a copy of a draft criminal complaint in Ukraine through an encrypted app, according to van der Zwaan’s plea agreement. Van der Zwaan then called “Person A” and made a separate call to a senior partner at Skadden, before later calling Gates back. Van der Zwaan also received an email from “Person A” on Sept. 12, 2016, asking van der Zwaan to contact “Person A” through an encrypted app, and van der Zwaan initially failed to disclose that email to Mueller’s team.
Despite Trump’s insistence that Manafort and Gates’ wrongdoing took place well before they were campaign staffers, both engaged in criminal activity to either further or cover up their scheme while they worked for Trump. The coverup appears to only overlap with Manafort’s time on the campaign for a few days, but Gates remained as a Trump staffer while trying to cover his tracks through the Inauguration. Gates also pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators about his conduct as late as February 2018, when he gave an inaccurate description of a meeting Manafort attended with a congressman in 2013.