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President Trump’s former campaign chairman and former lawyer worked with, between them, a deposed authoritarian president, a bevy of oligarchs, Russia-oriented politicians and alleged Russian spies.
Though Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine is just days old, Russia has been working for years to influence and undermine the independence of its smaller neighbor. As it happens, some Americans have played a role in that effort.
One was former President Donald Trump’s campaign chairman Paul Manafort. Another was Trump’s then-lawyer Rudy Giuliani.
It’s all detailed in a wide array of public documents, particularly a bipartisan 2020 Senate report on Trump and Russia. I was one of the journalists who dug into all the connections, as part of the Trump, Inc. podcast with ProPublica and WNYC. (I was in Kyiv, retracing Manafort’s steps, when Trump’s infamous call with Ukraine’s president was revealed in September 2019.)
Given recent events, I thought it’d be helpful to put all the tidbits together, showing what happened step by step.
Americans Making Money Abroad. What’s the Problem?
Paul Manafort was a longtime Republican consultant and lobbyist who’d developed a speciality working with unsavory, undemocratic clients. In 2004, he was hired by oligarchs supporting a pro-Russian party in Ukraine. It was a tough assignment: The Party of Regions needed an image makeover. A recent election had been marred by allegations that fraud had been committed in favor of the party’s candidate, prompting a popular revolt that became known as the Orange Revolution.
In a memo for Ukraine’s reportedly richest man, Rinat Akhmetov, Manafort summed up the polling: Many respondents said they associated the Party of Regions with corruption and considered it the “party of oligarchs.”
Manafort set to work rebranding the party with poll-tested messaging and improved stagecraft. Before long, the Party of Regions was in power in Kyiv. One of his key aides in Ukraine was, allegedly, a Russian spy. The Senate Intelligence Committee report on Trump and Russia said Konstantin Kilimnik was both “a Russian intelligence officer” and “an integral part of Manafort’s operations in Ukraine and Russia.”
Kilimnik has denied he is a Russian spy. He was indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller for obstruction of justice for allegedly trying to get witnesses to lie in testimony to prosecutors in the Manafort case. Kilimnik, who reportedly lives in Moscow, has not been arrested. In an email to The Washington Post, Kilimnik distanced himself from Manafort’s legal woes and wrote, “I am still confused as to why I was pulled into this mess.”
Manafort did quite well during his time in Ukraine. He was paid tens of millions of dollars by pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych and other clients, stashing much of the money in undeclared bank accounts in Cyprus and the Caribbean. He used the hidden income to enjoy some of the finer things in life, such as a $15,000 ostrich jacket. Manafort was convicted in 2018 of wide-ranging financial crimes.
“We Are Going to Have So Much Fun, and Change the World in the Process”
In 2014, Manafort’s plum assignment in Ukraine came to an abrupt end. In February of that year, Yanukovych was deposed in Ukraine’s second uprising in a decade, known as the Maidan Revolution, in which more than a hundred protesters were killed in Kyiv. He fled to Russia, leaving behind a vast, opulent estate (now a museum) with gold-plated bathroom fixtures, a galleon on a lake and a 100-car garage.
With big bills and no more big checks coming in, Manafort soon found himself deep in debt, including to a Russian oligarch. He eventually pitched himself for a new gig in American politics as a convention manager, wrangling delegates for an iconoclastic reality-TV star and real estate developer.
“I am not looking for a paid job,” he wrote to the Trump campaign in early 2016. Manafort was hired that spring, working for free.
According to the Senate report, in mid-May 2016 he emailed top Trump fundraiser Tom Barrack, “We are going to have so much fun, and change the world in the process.” (Barrack was charged last year with failing to register as a foreign agent, involving his work for the United Arab Emirates. He has pleaded not guilty. The case has not yet gone to trial.)
A few months later, the Trump campaign put the kibosh on proposed language in the Republican Party platform that expressed support for arming Ukraine with defensive weapons.
One Trump campaign aide told Mueller that Trump’s view was that “the Europeans should take primary responsibility for any assistance to Ukraine, that there should be improved U.S.-Russia relations, and that he did not want to start World War III over that region.”
According to the Senate report, Manafort met Kilimnik twice in person while working on the Trump campaign, messaged with him electronically and shared “sensitive campaign polling data” with him.
Senate investigators wrote in their report that they suspected Kilimnik served as “a channel for coordination” on the Russian military intelligence operation to hack into Democratic emails and leak them.
The Senate intel report notes that in about a dozen interviews with Special Counsel Robert Mueller, Manafort “lied consistently” about “one issue in particular: his interactions with Kilimnik.”
Manafort’s attorney did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Manafort didn’t make it to Election Day on the Trump campaign. In August 2016, The New York Times revealed that handwritten ledgers recovered from Yanukovych’s estate showed nearly $13 million in previously undisclosed payments to Manafort from Yanukovych and his pro-Russian party. Manafort was pushed out of his job as Trump’s campaign chairman less than a week later.
After Trump won the election, the Senate report says, Manafort and Kilimnik worked together on a proposed “plan” for Ukraine that would create an Autonomous Republic of Donbas in separatist-run southeast Ukraine, on the Russian border. Manafort went so far as to work with a pollster on a survey on public attitudes to Yanukovych, the deposed president. The plan only would need a “wink” from the new U.S. president, Kilimnik wrote to Manafort in an email.
Manafort continued to work on the “plan” even after he had been indicted on charges of bank fraud and conspiracy, according to the Senate report. It’s not clear what became of the effort, if anything.