Nine months after Paul Manafort’s ouster as Donald Trump’s campaign chief and almost a half year after the elections, Kiev is once again the locus of accusations and suspicions in the evolving scandal over the Trump administration’s possible collusion with Russian authorities. A pair of newly minted and linked scandals involving Manafort broke out this week, exponentially compounding the Trump administration’s Russia-related problems and further complicating relations between Washington, Kiev, and Moscow. White House spokesman Sean Spicer was forced to deny that Manafort had ever done anything important or had much to do with Trump’s presidential campaign, which he headed in the run-up to the Republican National Convention.
On Friday, Manafort volunteered to be interviewed by the House Intelligence Committee’s inquiry into allegations of connections between members of the Trump campaign team and Russia. He was likely cornered into having done so by the threat of a subpoena, which would have compelled him to testify. His testimony will come in the wake of FBI Director James Comey’s submission to Congress that the FBI had found evidence of contacts between the Trump campaign and individuals linked to the Russian state. Comey has declined to specify whether Manafort was a target of the FBI’s investigation.
Much of the information now being revealed to Congress and causing so much excitement on social media was, in fact, made public in whole or in part during the final weeks of last year’s presidential campaign. The Manafort revelations are no exception. Last summer, it emerged that Manafort’s name had appeared next to an entry for a $12.7 million cash payment from former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions slush fund. The infamous “Black Ledger” had allegedly been left behind in a bank vault after Yanukovych, a majority of his ministers and his political circle had fled to Russia in the wake of the successful Maidan “revolution of dignity.” The ledger detailed the secret cash payments that knit Yanukovych’s corrupt political regime together, and it cost Manafort the chairmanship of Trump’s campaign.
The latest accusations from the Ukrainian side are an extension of last year’s revelations. They were given to and broken by The New York Times’ Andrew E. Kramer. Last Monday, Sergii Leshchenko, a dogged anti-corruption activist and rock-star journalist, who had entered parliament as a member of President Petro Poroshenko’s faction (and since left it to become a harsh critic of the president), released documents that purported to demonstrate that Manafort had taken steps to hide secret payments from Yanukovych.
As The New York Times reported:
A handwritten accounting document for the fund, known in Ukraine as the Black Ledger, showed entries for Mr. Manafort’s advisory work. Mr. Manafort has dismissed the ledger as fraudulent.
On Monday, Sergii Leshchenko released an invoice that he said was recovered from a safe in Mr. Manafort’s former office in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, that seems to corroborate one of the 22 entries in the ledger from 2009. The invoice billed a shell company in Belize, Neocom Systems Limited, for $750,000 for the sale of 501 computers which were tied to Mr. Manafort’s work for former President Viktor F. Yanukovych. The documents included an invoice that appeared to show $750,000 funneled through an offshore account and disguised as payment for computers.
Manafort has denied the allegations and last month hit back at Leshchenko with allegations of attempted blackmail, which were also detailed in The New York Times piece. Leshchenko vigorously denied these accusations in the press and in his Ukrainian Facebook posts, which appear to have been launched to discredit his own accusations.
Though a panicked Ukrainian government initially dropped the investigations against Manafort two days after Trump’s election, Kiev has since requested that Manafort respond to depositions in Kiev at least half a dozen times. And while no charges have been filed—and it’s unlikely that they would come after Manafort personally—the American government would certainly not extradite him, even if Kiev chose to proceed with a trial in absentia.
There is no question that Manafort worked for Yanukovych, just as there can be no question about the corrupt nature of the regime that Yanukovych ran—or of its ties to the Kremlin. At the same time, it is critically important to understand the sources and internal context of the accusations and documents now being leaked, as well as the role that internecine Ukrainian politics has had in shaping the timing of their appearance. To accept these documents at face value because they support a larger narrative about Trump that was fashioned by his opponents in both parties for overtly political purposes, and which may contain many elements of falsehood mixed in with truth, is likely to further inflame the political mess that Trump helped to create, rather than to heal it.
Unlike the authoritarian Russian state, the democratic Ukrainian state is weak, fragmented and has historically suffered from a byzantine political culture, and is made up of various independent actors. Ukraine’s General Prosecutor’s Office (GPO) is in the midst of waging a war against the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU), a recently created and ostensibly independent anti-corruption body formed under the auspices of Western technical assistance to Ukraine. NABU had been created as a special anti-corruption investigative force to get the job done when the prosecutor’s office would not touch certain politicized cases or powerful individuals. There has been concerted friction between the two bodies as elements of the political old regime in Ukraine’s entrenched political elites have resisted allowing the new structure to have full independence, lest they and their allies find themselves being the ones being investigated next. Having failed to get rid of NABU or to neuter its independent chief prosecutor, the Ukrainian parliament is now in the midst of a bruising battle to determine the composition of the auditing board of NABU, thus deciding on who will control it.
With the Ukrainian political context, the newest leaks on Manafort’s role are almost certainly a sideshow to the political skirmishing that is now taking place between representatives of the young pro-Western reformers and the parliamentary old guard, which does not wish to relinquish its power. Leschenko was the source of the documents handed over to The New York Times (as he was also last summer, with the cache that cost Manafort his leadership role in the Trump campaign): The deeper question is whether or not the latest batch of documents was handed over at the instigation of the government or elements of the intelligence agencies. It is most likely (but not certain) that the leaker to Leschenko was a senior source within NABU, which would mean that this was not done at the instigation of the Ukrainian government.
The ever-expanding litany of scandals connecting Trump and his team to Russia has great strategic value for Ukraine, as it has made forging a deal deleterious to the Ukrainians almost impossible in the current climate. Still, the Ukrainian state remains hypersensitive about relations with Washington after having backed the wrong candidate in November’s elections. (They sent a delegation of almost 50 MPs to Trump’s inauguration.) Going after Manafort to preempt Russian machinations is, from the standpoint of Ukrainian strategy, risky enough to warrant being referred to as “suicidal.” The backlash from an enraged Trump might very well be catastrophic.
However, the set of allegations against Manafont that came from Kiev this week may turn out to be an even bigger deal than the similar accusations last summer, as they appear to show a money trail that in the current climate may prompt accusations of treason. An incendiary AP investigation revealed that, in addition to his work for Yanukovych, Manafort had also secretly worked a decade ago for the Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska, who is considered to be personally closely linked to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The accusation, which sounds like something from a bad spy novel, is that, in the summer of 2005, Manafort had proposed a concerted political strategy to undermine anti-Russian opposition across the former Soviet republics in which he would influence “politics, business dealings, and news coverage inside the United States, Europe, and the former Soviet republics to benefit the Putin government” in favor of Russian policy. Having engaged in that sort of work would mean that Manafort had lied in the many instances that he insisted that he’d had never worked directly for Russian interests. A $10 million annual contract was eventually signed between the two parties at the beginning of 2006.
The 2008 lawsuit that Deripaska filed against Manafort in the Cayman Islands, asking Manafort and an associate to account for $19 million intended for “investments” (and which may have been a concerted payoff for services rendered), remains a subject of mirth in Ukrainian political and business circles.
The open question here is how much Manafort actually did for either the Russians or for Yanukovych—and how much of his representations and proposals were the hot air of a consultant-for-hire. In Kiev, most political and journalistic insiders remain highly skeptical of the idea that Manafort was the all-powerful puppet master of Ukrainian politics during the Yanukovych era. Peter Dickinson, who edits the Business Ukraine magazine, explained that he “found all these attempts to portray Manafort as the evil genius behind the Yanukovych regime as a bit far-fetched. He may well have been useful to Yanukovych for his contacts within the American establishment, but in terms of his role in Ukraine, most people regarded him as mere window-dresser whose chief accomplishments were teaching Yanukovych to wear a shirt and tie and encouraging him to stop scowling in public—[Yanukovych] used to dress like a Mafia don. Claims that Manafort was the brains behind Yanukovych’s efforts to use language and history to divide Ukraine are particularly absurd—these have been textbook Kremlin tactics since Stalin’s time and hardly needed any prompting from an American spin doctor.”
So what actually motivated the release of the new Manafort documents? A well-connected political operative in Ukrainian intelligence circles, who asked to remain anonymous, explained that ‘’there is talk in Kiev that some of the new accusations had been planted by Russian FSB officers to discredit the Ukraine reformers and thus to destabilize Kiev’s position by setting Trump up against the Ukrainian Government. But I doubt that theory,” he continued, pointing out that all the proceedings laid out in the documents seemed odd. “The Russians were holding huge amounts of money offshore, so why would they not just pay Manafort directly” instead of using complex cutouts?
Off the record, several figures pointed out that the idea that Manafort would leave compromising documents in a safe to be slightly ridiculous. Skepticism is called for, as both the FSB and the Ukrainian intelligence apparatus have been known to plant fake stories for the consumption of the Western press. One should not forget, for example, the infamous—and preposterous—2015 “dirty bomb” story that appeared in Newsweek of a nuclear weapon purportedly being assembled with homemade radioactive isotopes in a Donetsk bunker by Russian-backed separatists who were being aided by Russian nuclear scientists.
It is also true that we are now applying the standards of 2017 to what Deripaska, Trump, Manafort and many others were doing 10 years ago, when the Russian regime existed in an entirely different form, and it was hardly a crime to meet with the Russian ambassador or to do business with oligarchs tied to the Kremlin.
Perhaps what is most shocking in these stories is Manafort’s lack of political self-awareness in accepting the position of Trump’s campaign chairman after decades of taking cash payouts from some of the world’s most unsavory characters. Did Manafort think that his decades of political work on behalf of African and Asian dictators, Russian oligarchs, and Moscow’s Ukrainian political proxies would be overlooked when he took over a presidential campaign? Perhaps he took the candidate himself as his model: Trump had likewise spent those same decades leading a dissolute life, having done hundreds of unseemly, semi-legal, and utterly vulgar things, any of which would have disqualified him from the presidency under normative circumstances. Indeed, Trump had also done business with shady Russians and Ukrainian oligarchs and Kazakh billionaires, who all lived together in perfect post-Soviet harmony with Manafort in Trump’s gilded gold tower in the middle of Manhattan.
In the Atlantic, Julia Ioffe’s interpretation of the Manafort story is that nothing he did was particularly special within the context of the outrageous behavior typical in Russia in that time and place. Having spent years living in Moscow, she is underwhelmed. It also seems likely that most of his lobbying activities were borderline legal because he was and remains a very savvy operator who was careful to not leave tracks. If Manafort ever broke the law, he certainly never would have expected any of this to come out into the public sphere.
An American journalist in Kiev told me that “among political consultants in the former Soviet Union there exists a persistent attitude of ‘what happens in Vegas, or Ukraine, or Kazakhstan stays in Kazakhstan.’ Even if Manafort was the most corrupt bastard who had ever come through Kiev and broke a lot of rules, which is not to say that I am saying that he was, he is up against some very stiff competition in that department.”
So was Paul Manafort really a Russian agent? Well, he certainly overpromised his clients and told them what they had wanted to hear. It is certain that his great skills, myriad relationships, total lack of ethics and unique willingness to work for cash made him a figure of primary interest to Russia and its intelligence agencies. After he became a senior Trump adviser, all of those machinations and promises and relationships became issues of national security that were serious enough to get him kicked off the campaign, and now to plunge the administration into a morass of scandal.
The democratic mechanisms, traditional norms of political propriety, and institutional checks and balances, in fact, worked to keep Manafort away from the White House. Yet they did nothing to stop the even more reckless and flagrant Trump from himself taking political power: If indeed Manafort broke the Foreign Agents Registration Act, the man who is now president of the United States may be guilty of the same crimes or worse.
This is the soul of today’s crisis: The social and business decisions that Manafort, Trump, and the various figures that had accreted around them had taken many years before the 2016 campaign, to forge associations with Russian authorities, oligarchs, and intelligence agents will continue to haunt them, because they were dirty to begin with. The president and his staff behave as if they were guilty even if they are not—which, as everyone knows, in the realm of politics only exacerbates and amplifies the original crime, prompting all the more speculation based on evidence that is often circumstantial or sketchy.
The Trump administration is quickly taking all of us into new realms of specialized civics by teaching us skills that we never had before—like knowing how to tell the outrageously sordid from the totally illegal and teasing out the lies from the half-truths of anonymous intelligence sources, who are playing their own power games. The new administration is inculcating in its constituents the ability to tell which of our many different political norms and traditions are breakable, and which can be flirted with if one has enough impudence. It is teaching us the technical specifications by which one might separate improper communication from outright collusion.
The Russian scandals—real and imagined—will doubtless continue to reverberate and build upon themselves. Even if they do not bring down the Trump government, they will have essentially tarnished it beyond any possibility of repair, if not also crippling its legislative capacity. Even if none of the specific accusations is of impeachment grade, the cumulative effect of all these accusations will be to further the Trump administration’s systematic de-legitimization, which rests on its own actions and is being fueled by partisan political operatives who hand weaponized “scoops” to their pet members of the press. One undoubted result of these ongoing scandals is the further decay of democratic norms and safeguards that Americans formerly took for granted. Another consequence is that Trump’s hands have been shackled in dealing with the main geopolitical issue facing the United States of America at this moment in history: Russia.
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Vladislav Davidzon is Tablet’s European culture correspondent and a Russian-American writer, translator, and critic. He is the Chief Editor of The Odessa Review and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and lives in Paris.