President Trump has nice things to say about Paul Manafort. “I’ve always found Paul Manafort to be a very decent man.” Manafort, says Trump, makes money all over the place. “He’s like a lot of other people, probably makes consultant fees from all over the place, who knows, I don’t know.” And the pre-dawn FBI raid that busted into Manafort’s home in Alexandria, Virginia, on July 26? “I thought it was pretty tough stuff to wake him up. Perhaps his family was there. I think that’s pretty tough stuff.” And he concluded: “I thought it was a very, very strong signal, or whatever.”
The FBI raid on Manafort, which scooped up documents, records, electronic devices, and more, was indeed a signal. It signified a radical escalation of Robert Mueller’s special-counsel investigation of Russiagate in all of its dimensions, starting with the meeting on June 16, 2016, in Trump Tower and spreading unchecked into the entire universe of Donald Trump’s financial and real-estate empire, his family’s investments, and the shenanigans of his motley crew of advisers, relatives, and hangers-on—including Gen. Mike Flynn, Carter Page, Roger Stone, Ivanka and Jared, his sons, and the rest of Trump World.
But it’s looking increasingly like Paul Manafort is low-hanging fruit.
And that raid? The same sort of raid that’s carried out countless times a year by the FBI and other law-enforcement agencies against drug dealers, mafiosi, and other no-goodniks? Why, it’s like—Russia! So says John Dowd, Trump’s personal lawyer. “The search warrant here was obtained by a gross abuse of the judicial process by the special counsel’s office. In addition, given the obvious unlawful deficiencies, this extraordinary invasive tool was employed for its shock value to try to intimidate Mr. Manafort,” squawked Dowd, in an e-mail to The Wall Street Journal. “These methods are normally found and employed in Russia not America.” The irony of comparing Russia’s heavy-handed, Fourth Amendment–lacking police thuggery to a constitutionally approved, legal, and aboveboard judge-sanctioned search warrant—and one carried out in an investigation of the target’s potentially illegal connections to Russia—stretches the bounds of irony nearly to the breaking point.
The reason Manafort is the first and most overt target of Mueller’s high-powered inquiry is that he sits atop a massive tangle of ties to Russia, pro-Russian Ukrainians, and shady New York real-estate deals. Any one of those could pop up like a jack-in-the-box in Mueller’s offices, leading to criminal charges against Manafort—who, you’ll recall, was campaign manager for Donald Trump last year. And, were that to happen, it’s possible that Manafort—who isn’t really part of Trump’s inner circle, which consists of his sons, his daughter, and his son-in-law—would “flip,” telling what he knows about Trump’s Russia connections in exchange for immunity. So far, at least, Manafort’s spokesman says that Manafort is not a “cooperating witness”—that is, that he is not providing testimony to Mueller and the FBI against others, only that he is cooperating with the special counsel. So far.
No wonder, on the one hand, that Trump is careful to be nice to him.
On the other hand, perhaps fearing that Manafort would, as TV district attorneys say, “turn state’s evidence” and bring the whole White House down, some not-so-nice Trump supporters appear to be on the job, too. Just hours after news broke about the raid on Manafort’s home, the Trump-allied scandal rag National Enquirer ran a lurid story claiming that Manafort had had an extramarital affair. “Trump Adviser Sex Scandal—Paul Manafort’s Sick Affair,” blared the Enquirer. The subhead, complete with an exclamation point, read: “Target in FBI-Russia probe also cheated with woman half his age!” And why is this interesting? Because Enquirer CEO David Pecker is a decades-long friend of Trump’s, who guided the weekly into a high-profile endorsement of Trump last year—and he dutifully ran a fake-news story claiming that the father of Ted Cruz, then Trump’s last-standing rival for the GOP nomination, had been with Lee Harvey Oswald not long before the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
Although what the Enquirer reported so breathlessly about Manafort wasn’t really new news, the timing of its headline, coming hours after The Washington Post broke the news of the FBI raid, could have been a “signal” of another sort: namely, that Trump World isn’t afraid of playing hardball to discredit Manafort should he decide to cooperate with Mueller. (Not only that, but to add another curious wrinkle to the story, according to the Krypt3ia report in March about Manafort’s alleged paramour, the woman in question was the daughter of one of Manafort’s Russian friends.)
So who is Paul Manafort?
Veteran of more than four decades of political chicanery, going back to Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan, Manafort helped found the legendary lobbying firm Black Manafort Stone & Kelly. (The third principal in that firm was Roger Stone, the pro-Trump provocateur who is himself a person of interest for Mueller’s inquiry, and who admitted that he was in regular contact with WikiLeaks and Guccifer 2.0, the Russian-intelligence-linked hacker.) During those years, Manafort compiled a track record of working on behalf of some the world’s most reviled butchers and autocrats, including Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko, Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, and Jonas Savimbi, an anti-communist rebel in Angola who was supported by the South African apartheid regime.
Most relevant to Russiagate, from the mid-2000s through 2015 Manafort was deeply involved with pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine and in financial dealings with Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch and a close ally of Vladimir Putin’s, and Dmitry Firtash, a Ukrainian oligarch. As early as 2014, Manafort was the subject of an FBI investigation stemming from his work in Ukraine. All of this, of course, was well known when Trump brought him on in 2016 to manage his presidential campaign.
Manafort’s Ukraine ties began in 2004, when he started work on behalf of the Russian-backed Ukrainian politician Viktor Yanukovych and his Party of Regions, following the pro-Western Orange Revolution that had been sparked by widespread belief that the election that year had been rigged in favor of Yanukovych, whose political base was in eastern Ukraine, which is largely Russian-speaking. Guided by Manafort, Yanukovych made a comeback, working to subvert the spirit of the Orange Revolution, and won the presidency in 2010. Four years later, Yanukovych was toppled by the Euromaidan street protests and a widespread, anti-Russian revolt sparked by Yanukovych’s decision to cancel an agreement between Ukraine and the European Union, one that was bitterly opposed by Putin.
In a particularly ugly accusation, Manafort was described by his daughter—whose iPhone texts were hacked and released publicly on a Ukrainian website—as having helped to engineer the February 20, 2014, massacre in which at least 50 Ukrainians were killed by pro-Yanukovych police. “You know he has killed people in Ukraine? Knowingly,” Manafort’s daughter, Andrea, reportedly wrote to her sister, Jessica, a year later. “Do you know whose strategy that was to cause that, to send those people out and get them slaughtered.” (According to Politico, Manafort confirmed the authenticity of at least some of the text messages, while his daughters have not responded to reporters’ requests for comment.)
After the fall of Yanukovych, who fled to Russia, Manafort returned to Ukraine. He organized a partially successful effort to recreate the pro-Yanukovych, pro-Russian political forces in a formation called the Oppo Bloc. As The New York Times reported: “The new bloc would woo everyone in the country angry at the new Western-backed government.” In the midst of all this, of course, Russia invaded and occupied the Crimean peninsula and fostered a pro-Russian military revolt in eastern Ukraine, triggering a crisis in relations between Russia and the United States.
Manafort’s deep ties to Ukraine, to Ukrainian gas interests and other firms, and to pro-Yanukovych forces are all grist for Mueller’s mill. Mueller’s investigation, of course, ranges far beyond Manafort. As reported in this column over the past few weeks, the targets of his inquiry into collusion between Trump and Russia in 2016 include: the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting at which Manafort, Donald Trump Jr., and Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, met with a team of Russians who had promised to deliver damaging information about Hillary Clinton derived from Russian intelligence via the Russian state prosecutor; the entire spectrum of the Trump-Kushner real estate and financial empire; Trump and Kushner links to Russian money-laundering; the pattern of obstruction of justice by Trump, starting with his firing of FBI Director James Comey; and the alleged irregularities attributed to former National Security Adviser Gen. Mike Flynn.
But in the end, Manafort could be the loose thread that unravels Russiagate. Besides the raid on Manafort’s home, Mueller has dispatched a series of subpoenas via his newly empaneled grand jury to collect documents from global financial institutions and banks involving Manafort and his partners. And, according to a May report in The Wall Street Journal:
The Justice Department last month requested banking records of Paul Manafort as part of a widening of probes related to President Donald Trump’s former campaign associates and whether they colluded with Russia in interfering with the 2016 election, according to people familiar with the matter.… Separately, investigators for New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman as well as Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. also have been examining real-estate transactions by Mr. Manafort, who has spent and borrowed tens of millions of dollars in connection with property across the U.S. over the past decade.
One fruitful avenue for Mueller’s investigation now is a series of payments allegedly made to Manafort by Yanukovych’s Party of Regions and its allies. Last summer, The New York Times broke the story that Manafort allegedly received millions of dollars in under-the-table and unreported payments from the Party of Regions between 2007 and 2012—a revelation that led Manafort to resign as chairman of Trump’s campaign. This year, in the midst of Russiagate, Manafort amended his disclosure filings, admitting that his firm, Davis Manafort International, had pocketed $17 million from Yanukovych and Co. But the complex filing raises more questions than it answers, including questions about alleged lobbying work in Washington on behalf of Ukraine, overseen by Richard Gates, Manafort’s deputy.
For Mueller, all this suggests possible lines of inquiry: Did Manafort violate US law by neglecting to register as a foreign agent? Did Manafort’s belated filings mean that his earlier disclosures improperly omitted crucial information? And, was Manafort—as reported below—involved in any activities that could be considered illegal money-laundering?
For Manafort’s daughter, though, these questions are subsumed by the larger moral ones. “Don’t fool yourself,” Andrea Manafort wrote to her sister, Jessica. “That money we have is blood money.”
The raid that targeted Manafort’s home came the very day that Manafort was scheduled to appear before Congress in connection with the June 2016 meeting with the Russians in Trump Tower, and day after he met with staff members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Manafort’s lawyers and his spokesman say their client is fully cooperating with Mueller and congressional investigators, but the very fact of the raid indicates that Mueller and the FBI have reason to believe otherwise. “This kind of raid—in the early morning hours with no advance notice—shows an astonishing and alarming distrust for the president’s former campaign chairman,” said Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal. “It seems to decimate his claim that he is cooperating with law enforcement.”
Just days after the raid, Manafort fired his lawyer, Reg Brown of the powerhouse firm WilmerHale, which by coincidence was the same firm that Robert Mueller and several of the prosecutors working for the special counsel came from. Brown was replaced by Kevin Downing, of the much smaller firm Miller & Chevalier. The reason for the switch isn’t clear, but a review by The Nation shows that Downing, who served for 15 years as a federal prosecutor, has wide experience in complex international finance cases. According to his firm, Downing “concentrates on criminal and civil tax matters [and] money laundering, white collar matters and the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.”
In a sign that Mueller and the FBI intend to squeeze Manafort even further, there’s an additional legal tangle involving Jeffrey Yohai, who is married to Manafort’s daughter, Jessica. The FBI reportedly approached Yohai to seek his cooperation in the probe, an action that widens the circle of inquiry into Manafort’s far-flung activities. According to an investigative report by Bloomberg:
With cash infusions from Manafort, Yohai formed real-estate partnerships that took in investor money in New York and Los Angeles. Some of the partnerships subsequently declared bankruptcy, court filings show. U.S. authorities are now looking into claims by an investor that Yohai operated a Ponzi scheme, the people explained. Yohai is contesting a civil lawsuit over one of the soured deals, having won an initial round challenging the jurisdiction.
Further, Bloomberg reports, another questionable deal involving Manafort is likely to come under Mueller’s scrutiny. This one involves Dmitry Firtash, the Ukrainian oligarch who reportedly invested $25 million in a Manafort real estate venture aimed at developing a Manhattan skyscraper in 2008. Yulia Tymoshenko, a former Ukrainian prime minister whose career was upended by Manafort’s client, Yanukovych, said that the purpose of the Manafort-Firtash alliance was to “launder money through the U.S. financial system that Firtash had obtained improperly by skimming sales of natural gas to Ukraine,” reported Bloomberg.
Mueller, to be sure, isn’t focusing only on Manafort. Last week, The New York Times reported that he’s likely to seek interviews from current and former top White House officials, including recently fired White House chief of staff Reince Priebus.
And the raid on Manafort’s home ought to be seen as a sign that other officials potentially caught up in Russiagate ought to worry about pre-dawn raids, too. Could Jared Kushner’s and Ivanka Trump’s posh Washington mansion be the next target of an FBI raiding party?