Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation about Russian collusion has increasingly appeared to zero in on one particular Trump associate: Paul Manafort.
In July, we learned that Manafort — Trump’s former campaign manager — attended a meeting Donald Trump Jr. set up with a Russian lawyer last year to get dirt on Hillary Clinton. Later that month, the FBI raided Manafort’s house for documents. His business associates, from PR firms to his former lawyer and his current spokesperson, are being slammed with subpoenas from Mueller’s team. Manafort’s son-in-law has reportedly been approached and asked to cooperate with the investigation.
And the latest is that we’ve learned that that Manafort was wiretapped, that Mueller’s team has told him to expect an indictment, and that he tried to set up private briefings for a Russian billionaire while chairing Trump’s campaign.
“If I represented Paul Manafort, I would conclude that my client has significant criminal liability,” Renato Mariotti, a partner at Thompson Coburn and a former prosecutor for a US Attorney’s office in Illinois, told me in August.
Now, though Manafort’s history of pro-Russia consulting work and experience with international skullduggery have long made him a prime suspect for potential collusion, public evidence on that front remains thin.
There’s the Trump Jr. meeting, which all parties are claiming led nowhere. And there are emails from the summer of 2016 in which Manafort tells a business associate to offer a Russian billionaire a private briefing on the campaign — but he says no briefing ever happened.
But we haven’t yet seen specific and substantiated claims that Manafort was involved in any sort of improper collusion effort during the presidential campaign. (And of course, he maintains that none occurred.)
The catch is that Mueller’s team is also investigating what Manafort was up to before the campaign. Specifically, they’re looking into whether Manafort appropriately disclosed his foreign work, and whether he was involved in illegal money laundering or other financial crimes.
If Mueller’s team finds damaging evidence here, they’re reportedly hoping they can use the threat of charges to get Manafort to give them more information on the collusion matter (if he has any). That is: They’d like him to flip against Trump, other Trump associates, or potentially Russians.
So if we zoom out, we can frame Manafort’s importance to the larger scandal in terms of two major questions.
First, was Manafort involved in, or does he know about, any collusion between Trump’s team and the Russian government during the campaign?
Second — if Manafort does have any useful information, can Mueller’s team convince or compel him to share that information?
1) Who is Paul Manafort?
Over a decades-long career as a Republican operative and lobbyist, Paul Manafort distinguished himself by working on several GOP presidential campaigns (Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole) and representing several controversial dictators (Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, Mobutu Sese Seko of the Democratic Republic of the Congo). He was also a longtime business partner of Roger Stone, with whom he founded a famous lobbying firm.
But in the mid-2000s, Manafort’s career took a turn. He “all but vanished from the Washington scene” and began focusing on business activities in Eastern Europe, as Politico later reported. This began with advising work for the Russian oligarch and aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska and for the Ukrainian oligarch and steel magnate Rinat Akhmetov.
Then, in 2005, Manafort moved back into the political realm by advising the Party of Regions — the pro-Russian political party that Akhmetov was involved with. The party was led by Viktor Yanukovych, who had recently lost a presidential election, and Manafort’s team helped them formulate a strategy for a comeback. The two men became friendly — they went to saunas and played tennis together, the Wall Street Journal recently reported. Then, in 2010, Yanukovych won Ukraine’s presidency.
Manafort had other dealings with wealthy people in the region, too — for instance, he tried to develop a luxury apartment project in Manhattan with Ukrainian energy oligarch Dmitry Firtash, who was later charged with money laundering and bribery.
But in 2014, these business ventures went awry. President Yanukovych was forced to flee Ukraine due to protests and clashes over his pro-Russian policies. Manafort and Deripaska, meanwhile, had a falling out that ended in a lawsuit, with Deripaska claiming Manafort cheated him of millions.
2) What did Paul Manafort do for Donald Trump?
With a scandal over potential collusion with Russia now raging, it may seem rather bizarre and suspicious that Donald Trump appointed an operative who had done so much pro-Putin work as his campaign chair even though he had been out of domestic US politics for years.
But if we remind ourselves of the Trump campaign’s internal and external conflicts at the time, Manafort’s hiring in March 2016 does appear to make sense without the help of any conspiracy theories.
The major problem facing Trump’s campaign at this point was that he had won several flashy victories in early primary elections, but his rival Ted Cruz’s operation was proving adept at locking down delegates even in states Trump won, like Louisiana. And it is delegates, after all, who technically determine who the nominee will be.
Trump became convinced that he needed an expert who understood the byzantine party rules that actually govern delegate selection and the convention, or else he could lose. Manafort was genuinely experienced at this, since he had helped Gerald Ford lock down delegates in 1976, and managed Bob Dole’s GOP convention in 1996.
Importantly, Manafort was also the former business partner of Trump’s longtime adviser Roger Stone — a connection that helped put him on Trump’s radar. “Roger was one of the two or three people who strongly recommended me [to Trump],” Manafort says in a Netflix documentary on Stone. Though Stone had been pushed out of the Trump campaign some time ago, he continued to advise Trump informally, and to intrigue against campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, who he despised.
On March 28, 2016, Trump announced he’d hired Manafort, and at first, his job was merely to lead a delegate-wrangling operation. But around that time, Lewandowski became enmeshed in scandal when he was charged with battery for grabbing reporter Michelle Fields at a campaign event. So Manafort’s portfolio gradually expanded until he was effectively running the campaign. In mid-May he was officially named campaign chair and chief strategist, and Lewandowski was fired the following month.
Manafort was in charge through the last few primary elections and the Republican convention. But by mid-August, Trump had sunk in the polls, and Manafort himself was dogged by damaging news reports about his past foreign work. So Trump brought in Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway to take over, and Manafort was forced to resign.
3) Why has Manafort become a focus in the collusion investigation?
Though Manafort’s time on the Trump campaign ended up lasting fewer than five months (from late March to mid-August 2016), it was both an eventful period and a crucial one for Trump/Russia activity.
- This was when the campaign pivoted from the primary election to the general, in which finding a way to defeat Hillary Clinton would be the top priority.
- In early June, Donald Trump Jr. received an email in which his acquaintance Rob Goldstone offered to set up a meeting in which he’d receive incriminating information on Hillary Clinton “as part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”
- Trump Jr. forwarded along the email thread about the meeting to Manafort and Jared Kushner, and invited them to it. That meeting with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya and potential spy Rinat Akhmetshin took place on June 9, 2016, with Manafort (and Kushner) in attendance. The parties involved have claimed the meeting was a dud that led nowhere. Per NBC News, Manafort’s notes on the meeting included a reference to donations “near a reference to the Republican National Committee,’” though the full context there remains unclear.
- In July, Manafort oversaw the Republican National Convention. As the party platform was being put together the week before, some controversy spilled out into the press over whether Trump staffers pushed to water down an aggressive anti-Russia amendment calling for the arming of Ukraine. But there hasn’t been any indication that Manafort was personally involved, and this whole controversy seems to have been somewhat exaggerated. (The preexisting platform wasn’t changed, but a Cruz supporter’s proposed amendment was modified before being added to it.)
- In late July, WikiLeaks posted thousands of hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee. The dumps, which showed certain DNC staffers saying unfriendly things about Bernie Sanders, were perfectly timed to cause chaos at the Democratic convention the following week. US intelligence agencies later said the DNC hack was the work of the Russian government.
So one obvious question Mueller is pursuing is whether there was any follow-up to the meeting Trump Jr. set up. (He’s said there wasn’t.) Given the timeline, another question that comes to mind is whether Manafort had any knowledge about the email hackings (something he has denied).
There are also questions about Manafort’s emails with a Ukrainian business associate of his named Konstantin Kilimnik about his old client, the Russian billionaire and aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska. While chairing the Trump campaign on July 7, Manafort emailed Kilimnik about Deripaska and said, “If he needs private briefings we can accommodate,” according to the Washington Post.
Kilimnik wrote back a few weeks later and seemingly spoke in code about Deripaska, saying he’d met with the person “who gave you the biggest black caviar jar several years ago,” and that it would take time to explain this “long caviar story.” He and Manafort then set up a meeting in New York, which took place a few days later.
Additionally, CNN reported in September that at some point after June 2016, investigators got a secret court order to surveil Manafort. Per CNN, this surveillance continued after Trump was sworn in as president, during a period when Manafort was known to be in contact with him.
Beyond all this, though, another reason Manafort may be a major focus of the investigation now is that he appears to be in legal jeopardy on a whole other set of matters that actually took place before the Trump campaign even began — meaning Mueller could potentially have powerful leverage to get Manafort to cooperate.
4) What are Manafort’s preexisting legal problems?
Federal investigators have been sniffing around all that work Manafort did for Eastern European politicians and oligarchs, and looking into whether he’s run afoul of
In fact, CNN’s Evan Perez, Shimon Prokupecz, and Pamela Brown reported in September that federal investigators first got secret court orders to wiretap Manafort before the 2016 campaign, as part of an investigation into “work done by a group of Washington consulting firms for Ukraine’s former ruling party.” But, they write, the surveillance produced little evidence and was ended.
Then there’s the money. Manafort has invested many of the millions of dollars he made from his foreign work in real estate in a way that, per experts interviewed by WNYC, “follow a pattern used by money launderers: buying properties with all cash through shell companies, then using the properties to obtain “clean” money through bank loans.” The FBI is also scrutinizing some real estate investments Manafort made with his son-in-law Jeffrey Yohai, according to the New York Times.
There’s also the matter of the mysterious ledgers. The Times reported last year that handwritten ledgers found in Ukraine “show $12.7 million in undisclosed cash payments” designated for Manafort from the Party of Regions. But Manafort has denied ever receiving the money, and Ukrainian prosecutors said in June that there was no evidence the money ever went to him.
At first, these matters were being investigated separately from the larger Russia investigation. But by June of this year, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team took over the Manafort criminal probe.
Mueller’s main goal, of course, is to investigate the matter of potential collusion between Trump associates and Russia, so he likely sees other potential criminal charges against Manafort as a means to this end. The stronger the evidence he has against Manafort, the more pressure he can exert to get him to cooperate in the collusion probe. And indeed, Reuters reported in July that this was in fact Mueller’s aim.
5) What’s the latest on the investigation?
The FBI’s early morning raid of Manafort’s house for documents in late July underscored that he is facing very serious legal jeopardy.
“It suggests to me that the investigation as to Manafort is far along at this stage,” says Mariotti, the former prosecutor. “The fact that a search warrant was issued tells us that a judge has probable cause to believe that a crime was committed and that evidence for that crime would be located at the home of Paul Manafort.”
And in recent weeks, there have been reports that Mueller’s team has been sending out subpoena after subpoena to people tied to Manafort — from PR firms that Manafort has worked with, to his former lawyer, and even to his current spokesperson.
It is possible, of course, that Mueller could come away from all this empty handed. But reading the tea leaves, it seems more likely now that we are headed toward one of two outcomes — either Mueller will recommend charges be filed against Manafort, or Manafort will strike a cooperation deal with Mueller’s team.
Now, much will come down to the specifics. How strong is the evidence Mueller has gathered against Manafort? Does Manafort even have useful information to offer Mueller on the collusion matter?
Or might Manafort prefer not to give up any incriminating information about the president of the United States or people close to him — perhaps in hopes of a presidential pardon?
It’s not clear, though, that even that would get Manafort off the hook. Politico has reported that Mueller’s team has begun working with New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who had been conducting his own investigation of Manafort’s finances.
The significance of that is that President Trump would theoretically be able to pardon Manafort for any federal offense — but not state offenses. So as long as the prospect of state charges are hanging over Manafort’s head, he could well have a powerful incentive to cooperate.