So the big story in The New York Times this morning is that Donald Trump’s campaign chairman, long-time Republican operative Paul Manafort, was apparently very well-compensated for all the political consulting he did for former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych a few years back:
And Mr. Manafort’s presence remains elsewhere here in the capital, where government investigators examining secret records have found his name, as well as companies he sought business with, as they try to untangle a corrupt network they say was used to loot Ukrainian assets and influence elections during the administration of Mr. Manafort’s main client, former President Viktor F. Yanukovych.
Handwritten ledgers show $12.7 million in undisclosed cash payments designated for Mr. Manafort from Mr. Yanukovych’s pro-Russian political party from 2007 to 2012, according to Ukraine’s newly formed National Anti-Corruption Bureau. Investigators assert that the disbursements were part of an illegal off-the-books system whose recipients also included election officials.
In addition, criminal prosecutors are investigating a group of offshore shell companies that helped members of Mr. Yanukovych’s inner circle finance their lavish lifestyles, including a palatial presidential residence with a private zoo, golf course and tennis court. Among the hundreds of murky transactions these companies engaged in was an $18 million deal to sell Ukrainian cable television assets to a partnership put together by Mr. Manafort and a Russian oligarch, Oleg Deripaska, a close ally of President Vladimir V. Putin.
There’s some seamy stuff in there for which Manafort may have to answer some uncomfortable questions, like whether he knowingly participated in efforts to funnel public money out of Ukraine’s treasury and into the pockets of foreign oligarchs, whether he paid taxes on whatever Yanukovych paid him, whether or not he properly registered with the DOJ as a foreign agent while this was all going on, and, for that matter, whether or not he’s still working for elements of Yanukovych’s old Party of Regions (which reorganized into a couple of opposition parties after Yanukovych was ousted) even now while he’s chairing Trump’s campaign. Manafort denies that he received any of these payments, which I guess means that Yanukovych’s accountant was just fond of scribbling his name into ledgers for shits and giggles. And, to be fair, nobody has video of Manafort accepting a big burlap sack from Boris Badenov with a giant dollar sign printed on the side, so there’s no conclusive proof that he got that money. Manafort also says that his involvement with Party of Regions ended in 2014, when the party broke up.
It’s getting harder to simply dismiss the conspiracy theory about Trump’s campaign having some connection, unwitting or otherwise, to Putin. I was all set to downplay this report, particularly insofar as most of the people citing it keep referring to Yanukovych as “pro-Russian” in order to maximize how sinister it all seems, when that’s really an unhelpful oversimplification of the policies he tried to pursue while in office (if Yanukovych were simply “pro-Russian,” he wouldn’t have spent three years, give or take, trying to negotiate an economic relationship with the EU at the risk of pissing Putin off). Manafort, now that you mention it, has been saying that his work in Ukraine was intended to bring Kiev closer to the EU, which, if true (a big if, granted), would hardly have been the work of a guy on Putin’s payroll. But the link to Deripaska, a billionaire who’s been suggested on multiple occasions of having ties to Russian organized crime and who definitely has ties to Putin, is a big deal. Deripaska seems to have put a lot of money into an investment fund that Manafort co-founded, and that was linked to a shell company allegedly used by Yanukovych and his pals to pilfer money from the Ukrainian treasury:
The network comprised shell companies whose ultimate owners were shielded by the secrecy laws of the offshore jurisdictions where they were registered, including the British Virgin Islands, Belize and the Seychelles.
In a recent interview, Serhiy V. Gorbatyuk, Ukraine’s special prosecutor for high-level corruption cases, pointed to an open file on his desk containing paperwork for one of the shell companies, Milltown Corporate Services Ltd., which played a central role in the state’s purchase of two oil derricks for $785 million, or about double what they were said to be worth.
“This,” he said, “was an offshore used often by Mr. Yanukovych’s entourage.”
The role of the offshore companies in business dealings involving Mr. Manafort came to light because of court filings in the Cayman Islands and in a federal court in Virginia related to an investment fund, Pericles Emerging Markets. Mr. Manafort and several partners started the fund in 2007, and its major backer was Mr. Deripaska, the Russian mogul, to whom the State Department has refused to issue a visa, apparently because of allegations linking him to Russian organized crime, a charge he has denied.
Mr. Deripaska agreed to commit as much as $100 million to Pericles so it could buy assets in Ukraine and Eastern Europe, including a regional cable television and communications company called Black Sea Cable. But corporate records and court filings show that it was hardly a straightforward transaction.
The Black Sea Cable assets were controlled by a rotating cast of offshore companies that led back to the Yanukovych network, including, at various times, Milltown Corporate Services and two other companies well known to law enforcement officials, Monohold A.G. and Intrahold A.G. Those two companies won inflated contracts with a state-run agricultural company, and also acquired a business center in Kiev with a helicopter pad on the roof that would ease Mr. Yanukovych’s commute from his country estate to the presidential offices.
So, yeah, this might require some explaining.
The case for Trump as some kind of Putin mole remains highly circumstantial, but we might be approaching a “where there’s smoke” point particularly with respect to Manafort. It’s hard not to notice, although again it’s circumstantial, that Trump started singing a significantly different tune about Russia and Ukraine right around the time Manafort and Carter Page, the Trump energy adviser who has ties to Russia’s Gazprom energy behemoth, came on board the campaign. I still think, however, that people need to be very careful about how they talk about this story. It is a huge thing to accuse a presidential candidate and/or campaign of operating at the behest of a foreign government, and not something that should be done on the basis of circumstantial evidence alone. And while this does seem to be a unique situation, isn’t it possible that a quick trek through the Clinton Foundation’s files, say by a motivated foreign hacker, could piece together something that at least creates the appearance of impropriety? If that were to happen, people who are shouting the loudest about this story now may wind up wishing they’d played it cooler.