Letters From an American

Paul Manafort in the Spotlight Again

Paul Manafort in the Spotlight Again

Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort listens to Ivanka Trump speak at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on July 21, 2016. (Photo by Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

September 7, 2020

I have been holding off for a calm news day to examine exactly what the fifth volume of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s bipartisan report on Russia’s attempts to influence the 2016 election said, and why it is important. The report came out on August 18 and, in the storm of other news, has gotten less attention than it should have.

While Special Counsel Robert Mueller marshaled a team to look into potential crimes committed by members of the Trump campaign and by Russian actors in the 2016 election, the Senate Intelligence Committee also conducted an investigation. The Senate committee was not limited, as Mueller was, by a directive from the acting Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. It looked more widely at the contacts between members of the 2016 Trump campaign and Russian operatives. Because Republicans control the Senate, the Senate Intelligence Committee is chaired by a Republican, first by Richard Burr (R-NC) and then, after Burr stepped down under allegations of insider trading, by Marco Rubio (R-FL).

The first volume of the committee’s report established that Russians successfully breached US election systems in 2016. According to the Intelligence Community, “Russian intelligence obtained and maintained access to elements of multiple US state or local electoral boards,” but the Department of Homeland Security “assesses that the types of systems Russian actors targeted or compromised were not involved in vote tallying.” Interestingly, the section on Russian attacks on voting machines is almost entirely redacted.

The second volume explained that Russian operatives “sought to influence the 2016 US presidential election by harming Hillary Clinton’s chances of success and supporting Donald Trump at the direction of the Kremlin.” It concluded that “in 2016, Russian operatives… used social media to conduct an information warfare campaign designed to spread disinformation and societal division in the United States. Masquerading as Americans, these operatives used targeted advertisements, intentionally falsified news articles, self-generated content, and social media platform tools to interact with and attempt to deceive tens of millions of social media users in the United States. This campaign sought to polarize Americans on the basis of societal, ideological, and racial differences, provoked real world events, and was part of a foreign government’s covert support of Russia’s favored candidate in the US presidential election.”

The third volume examined how the US government responded to the Russian attacks. The fourth reviewed and defended the methods and findings of the Intelligence Community.

And, on August 18, the committee released the fifth volume. The committee reviewed about a million documents and interviewed more than 200 witnesses. Its 966 pages establish extensive connections between Russian operatives and Trump campaign officials in 2016.

They established that Trump’s campaign chairman Paul Manafort worked closely during the campaign with his longtime business associate in Ukraine, Konstantin Kilimnik, whom the report identifies as a “Russian intelligence officer.”

This means that, according to Republicans—as well as the Democrats on the committee—in 2016, Trump’s campaign manager was actively working with a Russian intelligence officer.

Paul Manafort’s backstory matters.

Manafort cut his political teeth in Richard Nixon’s 1972 campaign, along with his friend Roger Stone, whom he had met in the Young Republicans organization, a social and political network of young professionals. Manafort worked for Ronald Reagan in 1980 and George H. W. Bush in 1988. In 1980, he and Roger Stone were two of the three principals who formed a lobbying firm in Washington, D.C., that brought under one roof lobbying and political consulting as well as public relations. Bundling these functions was groundbreaking: they would get their clients elected, and then help clients lobby them. One of their first clients was a friend of Stone’s: Donald J. Trump.

Quickly, Manafort began to look to foreign countries for his clients. He took advantage of the anti-communist focus of foreign policy after Reagan, cleaning up shady clients to look good enough to US lawmakers that they could get US dollars to shore up their political interests. Touting his connections to the Reagan and Bush administrations, Manafort racked up clients. He backed so many dictatorial governments—Nigeria, Kenya, Zaire, Equatorial Guinea, Saudi Arabia, and Somalia, among others—that a 1992 report from the Center for Public Integrity called his firm “The Torturers’ Lobby.”

In 1995, Manafort started his own firm and, a decade later, he began working for a young Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska, who was eager to prove useful to Vladimir Putin. At the time, Putin was trying to consolidate power in Russia, where oligarchs were rising to replace the region’s communist leaders and were monopolizing formerly publicly held industries. In 2004, American journalist Paul Klebnikov, the chief editor of Forbes in Russia, was murdered as he tried to call attention to what the oligarchs were doing.

In 1991, Ukraine had declared its independence from the USSR, and threats of Ukrainian freedom soon worried Deripaska, who had business interests there. In 2004, it appeared at first that a Russian-backed politician, Viktor Yanukovych, was elected president of Ukraine. But Yanukovych was rumored to have ties to organized crime, and the election was so full of fraud—including the poisoning of a key rival who wanted to break ties with Russia and align Ukraine with Europe—the government voided the election and called for a do-over. Yanukovych needed a makeover fast, and for that he called on a political consultant with a reputation for making unsavory characters palatable to the media: Deripaska’s friend Paul Manafort.

For ten years, from 2004 to 2014, Manafort worked for Yanukovych and his party, trying to make what the US State Department called a party of “mobsters and oligarchs” look legitimate. He made a fortune thanks to his new friends, especially Deripaska. In 2010, Yanukovych finally won the presidency on a platform of rejecting NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization through which Europe joined together to oppose first the USSR, and then the rising threat of Russia. Immediately, Yanukovych turned Ukraine toward Russia. In 2014, after months of popular protests, Ukrainians ousted Yanukovych from power in what is known as the Revolution of Dignity. Yanukovych fled to Russia.

Shortly after Yanukovych’s ouster, Russia invaded Ukraine’s Crimea and annexed it, prompting the United States and the European Union to impose economic sanctions on Russia itself and also on specific Russian businesses and oligarchs, prohibiting them from doing business in United States territories. These sanctions crippled Russia and froze the assets of key Russian oligarchs.

Now without his main source of income, Manafort owed about $17 million to Deripaska. By 2016, his longtime friend and business partner Roger Stone was advising Trump’s floundering presidential campaign, and Manafort was happy to step in to help remake it. He did not take a salary, but reached out to Deripaska through one of his Ukrainian business partners, Konstantin Kilimnik, immediately after landing the job, asking him “How do we use to get whole? Has OVD [Oleg Vladimirovich Deripaska] operation seen?”

Manafort began as a campaign advisor in March 2016, and became the chairman in late June, after the June 9 meeting between Don Jr., Jared Kushner, and Manafort with a number of people, including a Russian lawyer associated with Putin’s intelligence services, in Trump Tower. (Remember that Trump tried to explain away that meeting as being about “adoptions,” because the Russian response to sanctions was to shut down American adoptions of Russian children.)

The fifth volume of the Senate Intelligence Report establishes that Kilimnik is a “Russian intelligence officer,” and that he acted as a liaison between Manafort and Deripaska while Manafort ran Trump’s campaign. On several occasions, Manafort passed the campaign’s sensitive internal polling data to Kilimnik, although because their communications were encrypted, the committee could not determine what became of the information. (Such polling might well dovetail with the information in volume 2.)

The report says Kilimnik may have been directly involved in hacking Democratic National Committee emails and handing the stolen files to WikiLeaks. The committee also found “significant evidence” that WikiLeaks was “knowingly collaborating with Russian government officials.” The report also establishes that Trump repeatedly discussed the WikiLeaks document dumps with operative Roger Stone, then lied about those discussions with investigators.

The report says Manafort lied consistently about his interactions with Kilimnik, and has chosen to go to jail rather than change his story. It also notes that it is Kilimnik who launched the story that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the U. election.

According to the report: “Taken as a whole, Manafort’s high level access and willingness to share information with individuals closely affiliated with the Russian intelligence services, particularly Kilimnik and associates of Oleg Deripaska, represented a grave counterintelligence threat.”

The report also established that the White House “significantly hampered” the investigation.

The Manafort story is only one of the issues covered in Volume 5.

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Heather Cox Richardson

Heather Cox Richardson teaches American history at Boston College. She is the author of a number of books, most recently, How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America. She writes the popular nightly newsletter Letters from an American. Follow her on Twitter: @HC_Richardson.