The AP's Jeff Horowitz and Chad Day have reported on a major story regarding Donald Trump's former campaign chair Paul Manafort, who has long been at the center of questions about ties to Russia. I strongly encourage you to read the entire thing, as I'm just going to focus on a few pieces of the much more comprehensive article.
This is the central piece of the reporting:
Trump's former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, secretly worked for a Russian billionaire to advance the interests of Russian President Vladimir Putin a decade ago and proposed an ambitious political strategy to undermine anti-Russian opposition across former Soviet republics, The Associated Press has learned. The work appears to contradict assertions by the Trump administration and Manafort himself that he never worked for Russian interests.Okay. So, three important notes.
Manafort proposed in a confidential strategy plan as early as June 2005 that he would influence politics, business dealings, and news coverage inside the United States, Europe, and the former Soviet republics to benefit the Putin government, even as U.S.-Russia relations under Republican President George W. Bush grew worse. Manafort pitched the plans to Russian aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska, a close Putin ally with whom Manafort eventually signed a $10 million annual contract beginning in 2006, according to interviews with several people familiar with payments to Manafort and business records obtained by the AP. Manafort and Deripaska maintained a business relationship until at least 2009, according to one person familiar with the work.
"We are now of the belief that this model can greatly benefit the Putin Government if employed at the correct levels with the appropriate commitment to success," Manafort wrote in the 2005 memo to Deripaska. The effort, Manafort wrote, "will be offering a great service that can re-focus, both internally and externally, the policies of the Putin government."
First, this is indeed a contradiction of Manafort's previous claims that he never worked for Russian interests. Manafort needs to be questioned about his ties to Russia, under oath, in Congressional hearings immediately.
Secondly, 2006, the year Manafort signed the $10 million annual contract, was also the year that Manafort started living in Trump Tower.
Third, Deripaska was a supporter and financial backer of Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Putin then-prime minister of Ukraine, for whom Manafort also worked for nearly a decade. Yesterday, as I mentioned, the Washington Post's Andrew Roth reported on new documents reportedly showing that Manafort "laundered payments from the party of a disgraced ex-leader of Ukraine using offshore accounts in Belize and Kyrgyzstan." That disgraced ex-leader is Viktor Yanukovych.
(I'll come back to that.)
Naturally, Manafort continues to deny that his work for Deripaska had to do with anything but some business and personal consulting.
In a statement to the AP, Manafort confirmed that he worked for Deripaska in various countries but said the work was being unfairly cast as "inappropriate or nefarious" as part of a "smear campaign."Except. As the AP story also notes, "One strategy memo to Deripaska was written by Manafort and Rick Davis, his business partner at the time. In written responses to the AP, Davis said he did not know that his firm had proposed a plan to covertly promote the interests of the Russian government. ...He took a leave of absence from the firm in late 2006 to work on John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign."
"I worked with Oleg Deripaska almost a decade ago representing him on business and personal matters in countries where he had investments," Manafort said. "My work for Mr. Deripaska did not involve representing Russia's political interests."
Which brings us to something about which I wrote last July:
In April, Franklin Foer wrote an extensive profile of Manafort, in which Foer details Manafort's decades-long relationship with Trump, which has spanned the former's career of advising some of the most despicable tyrants around the globe. In the piece, he recalls the time that Manafort "snookered" John McCain into aiding him in "undermining American policy."The first point in recounting this history is to underline that Manafort's claim his "work for Mr. Deripaska did not involve representing Russia's political interests" is utterly false.
Manafort's business partner, lobbyist Rick Davis, was one of McCain's top advisers. Manafort's and Davis' work in Ukraine was so concerning that, in 2008, a staffer on the National Security Council called McCain to ask him to help "dial back" Manafort and Davis, because: "By promoting enemies of the Orange Revolution, they were undermining American policy." But McCain had already been taken in by them.
That year, the pair had consulted on behalf of pro-independence forces in the tiny principality of Montenegro, which wanted to exit Serbia and become its own sovereign republic. On the surface, this sounded noble enough, so noble that McCain called Montenegro's independence the "greatest European democracy project since the end of the Cold War."Got that? Manafort and Davis (who was running McCain's campaign) manipulated the Republican nominee to lend his support, under the auspices of "yay freedom," to a geopolitical event designed to enrich Putin and his allies.
A report in the Nation, however, showed that the Montenegrin campaign wasn't remotely what McCain described. The independence initiative was championed by a fantastically wealthy Russian mogul called Oleg Deripaska. Deripaska had parochial reasons for promoting independence. He had just purchased Montenegro's aluminum industry and intended to buy broader swaths of its economy. But he was also doing the bidding of Vladimir Putin, on whose good graces the fate of all Russian business ultimately hangs. The Nation quoted Deripaska boasting that "the Kremlin wanted an area of influence in the Mediterranean."
And that was hardly the end of it.
Manafort and Davis didn't just snooker McCain into trumpeting their client's cause; they endangered him politically, by arranging a series of meetings with Deripaska, who the U.S. had barred from entering the country because of his ties to organized crime. In 2006, they steered McCain to attend a dinner with the oligarch at a chalet near Davos, where Deripaska speechified for the 40 or so guests. (The Washington Post reported that the oligarch sent Davis and Manafort a thank-you note for arranging to see the senator in "such an intimate setting.") Seven months later, Manafort and Davis took McCain to celebrate his 70th birthday with Deripaska on a yacht moored in the Adriatic.And now, two presidential cycles later, Manafort is running Donald Trump's campaign.
The second point is to note that the 2016 cycle was not even the first time Manafort has tried to entangle a U.S. presidential candidate in pro-Russian policy. He tried it before, with John McCain, way back in 2006.
When, I will note, it was presumed that the Democratic nominee that year would be—you guessed it—Hillary Clinton.
Vladimir Putin's hatred of Hillary Clinton is well-known. As I've previously observed:
Russia's meddling wasn't just intended to try to install Trump as a puppet, but also to seek vengeance on Hillary Clinton:Much of Putin's animosity toward Clinton stems from her time as Secretary of State—but his animus extends back beyond her tenure at State, for the same reasons Obama wanted her as his Secretary of State. By that time, she was already well-established as a diplomatic powerhouse, having, for example, played a crucial role in the Irish peace process.
When mass protests against Russian President Vladimir Putin erupted in Moscow in December 2011, Putin made clear who he thought was really behind them: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.That history is important—because it explains why Putin orchestrated election interference on behalf of Clinton's opponent, even if Trump himself wasn't aware of it. (He was aware of it.)
With the protesters accusing Putin of having rigged recent elections, the Russian leader pointed an angry finger at Clinton, who had issued a statement sharply critical of the voting results. "She said they were dishonest and unfair," Putin fumed in public remarks, saying that Clinton gave "a signal" to demonstrators working "with the support of the U.S. State Department" to undermine his power. "We need to safeguard ourselves from this interference in our internal affairs," Putin declared.
Putin had good reason not to want Hillary Clinton as the United States president, because she was a clear threat to his empiric aspirations. Further, Putin believes the Bill Clinton administration exploited the political weakness that resulted from the fall of the Soviet Union. That grudge is as old as Kosovo. As a result, he almost certainly wanted to prevent a second Clinton presidency.
That is not to suggest that Putin wasn't motivated by the oft-cited subversion of U.S. democracy to destabilize a key player on the global stage, keen to keep him in check. To the absolute contrary, Putin's campaign against Hillary Clinton was a central part of that.
After all, Putin knows she's the most qualified candidate ever to run for the U.S. presidency, too.
Earlier this week, FBI James Comey and Admiral Mike Rogers both confirmed during Congressional testimony that Putin's goal was not just to undermine faith in our democracy, and not just to help Trump win, but to hurt Clinton. Here is Comey explicitly confirming that:
Here's Comey on video explicitly confirming Russia wanted to hurt Clinton & help Trump pic.twitter.com/66lyRhTugq— T. R. Ramachandran (@yottapoint) March 20, 2017
REP. MIKE CONAWAY: The conclusion that active measures were taken specifically to help [Donald] Trump's campaign—you had that by early December? You already had that conclusion?One of their chief strategies was hacking. According to the assessment of U.S. intelligence, Russians were responsible for hacking the Democratic National Committee, and for dissimating hacked DNC emails via WikiLeaks. U.S. intelligence agencies and cybersecurity experts also believe that Russian intelligence was behind the hacking and release of Clinton campaign chair John Podesta's emails.
COMEY: Correct. That they wanted to hurt our democracy, hurt her, help him. I think all three we were confident in, at least as early as December.
A second primary strategy was propaganda: "Russia's increasingly sophisticated propaganda machinery—including thousands of botnets, teams of paid human 'trolls,' and networks of websites and social-media accounts—echoed and amplified right-wing sites across the Internet as they portrayed Clinton as a criminal hiding potentially fatal health problems and preparing to hand control of the nation to a shadowy cabal of global financiers."
The anti-Clinton propaganda that proliferated social media during the campaign was not just pro-Trump, but also pro-Bernie Sanders.
Just 11 days ago, Ryan Grim and Jason Cherkis at the Huffington Post detailed the "fake news tsunami" that infected pro-Sanders Facebook groups.
Bev Cowling, 64, saw a sudden deluge of requests to join the Sanders Facebook groups she administered from her home in Toney, Alabama. All of a sudden, they were getting 80 to 100 requests to join each day. She and the other administrators couldn't vet everyone, and the posts started getting bizarre. "It came in like a wave, like a tsunami," she said. "It was like a flood of misinformation."There were countless people who were primed by three decades of right-wing attacks on Clinton (and of course the all-too familiar misogyny incessantly wielded against her) to hate her, and they ate up every crumb of the avalanche of mendacious garbage being served up by Russian ratfuckers.
Cowling, a retired postal worker, said some of her Facebook group members were ready to believe the bogus news links. "People were so anti-Hillary that no matter what you said, they were willing to share it and spread it," she said. "At first I would just laugh about it. I would say, 'C'mon, this is beyond ridiculous.' I created a word called 'ridiculosity.' I would say, 'This reeks of ridiculosity.'"
But Cowling got pushback. She was called a "Hillbot" and a Trump supporter. She ended up removing dozens of members who refused to stop pushing conspiracy theories. "I lost quite a few friends," she said.
Now, this is where things get even more complicated, and I want to just state plainly that I am not trying to insinuate anything. If I intend to say something, I will state it plainly. The information that follows are facts, about which I have questions, but not conclusions.
Donald Trump was not Clinton's only 2016 opponent whose campaign was being run by a former adviser to the pro-Putin former Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovych.
At the same time Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort was working for Yanukovych, so was Sanders chief strategist Tad Devine. In fact, Devine and Manafort were collaborating, including during the period were Manafort's aforementioned money-laundering for Yanukovych took place. (To be abundantly clear: Devine is not implicated in that at all.)
Devine, who convinced Sanders to run as a Democrat, reached out to Manafort at least once that we know of during the 2016 U.S. presidential election: To try to arrange the ill-fated debate proposed between Trump and Sanders.
Devine knows campaign chairman Paul Manafort from, among other things, their collaboration on the campaign of ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. According to campaign aides, the morning after Trump was on Jimmy Kimmel Live, Weaver asked Devine to give Manafort a call to see if they could actually make the debate happen. They were already fielding offers from most of the networks—including a producer for Stephen Colbert, who wanted to host the debate on his own late night show.To be clear, as I noted at the time, the entire charade was an exercise in trying to make Hillary Clinton look bad, because she refused to agree to a debate with Sanders in California. So, the one time we know that Devine and Manafort communicated, it was to orchestrate something that was explicitly to harm Clinton.
Manafort laughed, said it was a joke, but then again, Trump was on his plane, and he had no idea what the candidate would do. The answer turned out to be a statement killing the speculation. Manafort left a voicemail for Devine saying he'd won over Trump. Devine never called him back.
At this point, I expect some people are wondering if I'm going to acknowledge that the Podesta Group, a lobbying and public affairs firm founded by brothers Anthony Podesta and John Podesta—the latter of whom was, as mentioned above, Clinton's campaign chair—also did work for Yanukovych. They did indeed. But: John Podesta was working for the Obama administration at that time, not as a consultant.
Notably, there was another member of the Clinton campaign who did consulting in Ukraine: Chief strategist Joel Benenson. Except he did not work for Yanukovych, but Yanukovych's rival, former Parliament speaker Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who became Prime Minister of Ukraine after Yanukovych was ousted in 2014.
To recap: Both Paul Manafort, Trump's campaign chair, and Tad Devine, Sanders' chief strategist, worked for the pro-Putin Viktor Yanukovych. Joel Benenson, Clinton's chief strategist, worked for Yanukovych's anti-Putin rival Arseniy Yatsenyuk. Yanukovych was ousted in 2014, at which time Yatsenyuk became Prime Minister, the same year that Devine goes to work for Sanders. (Manafort onboarded with the Trump campaign later.)
So, two U.S. strategists worked for a pro-Putin Ukrainian, then each went to work for U.S. presidential campaigns whose chief opponent, in both cases, was Hillary Clinton, who is virulently hated by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Then both of those campaigns are given a huge assist by Russian hacking and a massive disinformation campaign orchestrated by Russian intelligence.
Now, just to be extremely clear that I'm not suggesting a straight-up equivalence between the two campaigns, let me point out a couple of major differences.
1. Tad Devine has not been accused of any illegal activities in association with his work for Yanukovych, unlike Paul Manafort.
2. Bernie Sanders, who has visited Russia, has not been, to my knowledge, suspected of being vulnerable by Russian kompromat cultivated on his visits, unlike Donald Trump.
But, as I said above, if I intend to say something, I will state it plainly, and here I am plainly stating that I do believe these connections warrant more scrutiny.
Manafort is one piece of a bigger puzzle. Maybe there is nothing more to find, but the only way to know that with certainty is to look.
I am concerned by the questions that are raised by a long-time target of Putin's ire facing two opponents whose key campaign staff both worked for a Putin ally, and whose campaigns were given a direct assist by Russian interference that intelligence agencies have concluded was, in part, explicitly to derail her.
I am concerned that both of those opponents ran on major-party tickets that were a departure from their previous party affiliations. Sanders was elected as an independent, and identified as an independent for 26 years in Congress, then ran as a Democrat at Devine's urging, and immediately returned to being an independent after the election. Trump used to be a Democrat, but switched to donating heavily to Republicans after Obama was elected—in that same election in which Manafort convinced McCain to sing the praises of Oleg Deripaska's independence initiative in Montenegro.
I am concerned that the facts compiled here make me suspicious that something much bigger than we've even begun to comprehend went on during the 2016 presidential election, and that I don't have enough insight into what happened to quell those suspicions, because the people ostensibly tasked with protecting the integrity of our elections and democratic institutions aren't interested in meaningful investigation of what happened. Or didn't.
I don't want to be suspicious. I don't want to sound or feel like a conspiracy theorist, just for compiling and reporting facts. What I want is answers.
[My thanks to the other contributors who offered valuable input on this piece.]