With slow but notable progress under way in Congress among Democrats and some Republicans to pass legislation protecting Robert Mueller’s Russiagate inquiry—I’ll have more on that below—it’s curious, to say the least, that a progressive Democrat who’s likely going to be a candidate for the US Senate in Rhode Island is signaling that, if elected in November, he’d be reluctant to step in on Mueller’s behalf.
Dig a little deeper, though, and you’ll find that the would-be candidate, Lincoln Chafee, a quixotic former Republican US senator who was then elected Rhode Island governor as an independent before becoming a Democrat, has ties to Paul Manafort’s pro-Russia friends in Ukraine.
Chafee, who says he’s probably going to mount a primary challenge to Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat, told reporters that he would not support bipartisan legislation aimed at protecting Mueller, the Russiagate special counsel, from the threat of dismissal by President Trump. Not only that, but Chafee added that he doesn’t believe the investigation will find anything. Sounding like a more grammatical version of one of Trump’s tweets, Chafee said last Friday, according to the Associated Press : “Unless there’s some evidence, it’s time to wrap this thing up. It’s not going anywhere. We’re wasting money.”
The AP notes that Chafee has been singing his skeptical tune since last summer, when he called the Russiagate inquiry part of a “mainstream media attack” on Trump. In an interview last week with The Providence Journal, Chafee went further, saying that he doesn’t believe the US intelligence-community conclusion that Russia was behind the theft of e-mails from the Democratic National Committee in 2016.
“I do have a healthy skepticism of the intelligence finding,” Chafee told The Nation in an interview. His tendency to take the skeptical view derives from the false 2003 claim that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, he said. But he reaffirmed that Mueller’s investigation is wasting taxpayers’ money, and that so far the special counsel has made little or no progress and has nothing to show for his yearlong inquiry. “Yes, it’s time to wrap it up,” he said. The constant drumbeat of the Russia inquiry is, for Democrats, a distraction from the need to rethink the party’s priorities, said the former Rhode Island governor.
Aren’t the indictments of a series of former senior Trump aides and associates, along with 13 Russians, a sign that Mueller is making progress? “Indictments,” said Chafee, “aren’t convictions.” Of course, several of those indicted have already pleaded guilty, and they’re cooperating with Mueller.
Chafee, however, has a connection of his own to one of the key figures in Russiagate. A decade ago, he joined the international advisory board of an organization known as the Foundation for Effective Governance (FEG), a Ukrainian operation set up and funded by Rinat Akhmetov, a friend and close associate of Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, who was indicted last fall by Mueller’s office. (Others on the FEG advisory board included former Canadian prime minister Kim Campbell and the president of Hungary’s national bank.)
Akhmetov, one of Ukraine’s wealthiest oligarchs, is a billionaire whose conglomerate has been involved in iron and steel, mining, banking, real estate, and telecom. From 2007 until 2012, Akhmetov served in Ukraine’s parliament, where he represented the pro-Russian Party of Regions, which is heavily backed by Akhmetov’s riches. Akhmetov has been dogged by persistent reports that since the 1980s he’s been associated with various underworld figures. In 2006, according to cables released by WikiLeaks, he was described as a “godfather.” As the Kyiv Post reported, “In a separate cable dated Feb. 3, 2006, then U.S. Ambassador [to Ukraine] John Herbst referred to the pro-presidential Party of Regions as ‘long a haven for Donetsk-based mobsters and oligarchs’ and called Akhmetov the ‘godfather’ of the Donetsk clan.” Indeed, as The Nation reported back in 2008, Akhmetov was forced to flee Ukraine after being named in a murder investigation.
In a story last fall about Manafort’s Ukraine connections, The Washington Post reported, “In 2005, Manafort was hired by Rinat Akhmetov, a Ukrainian steel magnate who wanted to burnish his international image.” And it was Akhmetov who served as the key intermediary for Manafort’s initial contacts in Ukraine, introducing him to the Party of Regions and to Viktor Yanukovych, who later became the Russian-leaning president of Ukraine before being ousted in a popular revolt in 2014. Soon joining Manafort and Akhmetov was Konstantin Kilimnik, who worked as a translator for Manafort’s efforts on behalf of Akhmetov. Kilimnik, who became Manafort’s business partner in Kiev and Moscow, has been linked—in legal documents filed by Mueller—to the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency, as recently as the summer of 2016. (For more on that connection, see my recent Nation report, “Is Paul Manafort the Colluder in Chief?”)
And Chafee was paid by Akhmetov’s foundation. As The Providence Journal reported in its interview last week, “Chafee has first-hand experience in a region where the tensions between Russia and the West have descended into violence: Before he became Rhode Island’s governor in 2010, he did work for the Foundation for Effective Government [sic] in Ukraine, a group backed by Ukrainian oligarch Rinat Akhmetov.” According to Chafee’s financial-disclosure file, as reported by the Journal in 2011, “Governor Chafee reported $61,000 to $135,000 in income from consultant work with the Foundation for Effective Governance in Ukraine, his 2009 state income tax refund, and rental income from Ledge, a Rhode Island–based limited liability company.”
Chafee insists that there was nothing untoward about FEG’s work. “Akhmetov asked me to join the board. I joined it. Its only mission was to support the Ukrainian economy,” he said. “I’d never heard of Paul Manafort.”
In what may or may not be a coincidence, The Nation has learned that two of the leading European figures reportedly hired by Manafort to lobby on behalf of pro-Russian Ukrainian interests spent time in Rhode Island, at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs. One of them, at least, overlapped in 2009 with a stint by Chafee as a “distinguished visiting fellow” at Watson.
Here’s the background: One of the codicils to Mueller’s recent indictment of Manafort mentioned a mysterious entity dubbed “the Hapsburg Group,” set up “in or about 2012” by Manafort to conduct covert, and illegal, pro-Russian lobbying in the United States. According to the indictment of Manafort and his partner, Rick Gates—who has pleaded guilty to financial fraud and lying to investigators and is now cooperating with Mueller—Manafort “secretly retained a group of former senior European politicians to take positions favorable to Ukraine, including by lobbying in the United States,” though “in fact they were paid lobbyists for Ukraine.” Manafort, the indictment said, wrote an “EYES ONLY” secret memo in which he promised to “assemble a small group of high-level European highly influencial [sic] champions and politically credible friends who can act informally and without any visible relationship with the Government of Ukraine.”
Among those hired by Manafort, according to The New York Times, were Romano Prodi, a former Italian prime minister, and Alfred Gusenbauer, an ex-chancellor of Austria. From January through December 2009, The Nation has found, Gusenbauer was a visiting fellow at the Watson Institute, and Chafee was affiliated with the institute through June 2009. Then, in 2011, when Chafee was governor of Rhode Island, both Prodi and Gusenbauer took part in a special Watson Institute forum. Gusenbauer was listed as a “Watson Institute Visiting Professor” at Brown University and Prodi as “Brown Professor at Large” (Prodi is still a member of Brown’s faculty). In his interview with The Nation, Chafee said that he didn’t know either Prodi or Gusenbauer. Prodi couldn’t be reached for comment.
There’s one last interesting piece to the puzzle involving Chafee and the Foundation for Effective Governance in Ukraine. According to FEG’s archived Wikipedia entry, in 2009 the organization co-hosted a conference in Moscow called “Ukraine: Challenges and Opportunities.” (This was during the period that Chafee, before being elected governor of Rhode Island, served on the board of FEG.) Among the high-level participants was Viktor Chernomyrdin, a top economic adviser to then–Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (as well as a former prime minister), along with executives from several top Russian banks, including Sberbank and Alfa. A key participant was Kirill Dmitriev, described in the entry as “Managing Partner and President of Icon Private Equity.”
Careful followers of the Trump-Russia story will remember that Dmitriev was the Russian finance chieftain who held a secret meeting with Erik Prince in the Seychelles in January 2017. That meeting was arranged on behalf of the United Arab Emirates by George Nader, a wheeler-dealer who was detained by the FBI earlier this year and who is now cooperating with federal investigators. According to The Washington Post, Mueller “has gathered evidence that a secret meeting in Seychelles just before the inauguration of Donald Trump was an effort to establish a back channel between the incoming administration and the Kremlin.”
Back to Chafee: If, indeed, he declares his candidacy in opposition to Senator Whitehouse in the September Democratic primary, it’s virtually certain that Whitehouse—himself a leading critic of Trump’s ties to the Russians—will challenge Chafee’s refusal, as reported by the AP, to support efforts to protect the special counsel from White House interference.
Last week, the Senate Judiciary Committee—with the support of four Republicans, Senators Charles Grassley, Lindsey Graham, Thom Tillis, and Jeff Flake—approved a bill designed to protect Mueller from being fired by Trump. It’s mostly a symbolic step, since majority leader Mitch McConnell has said that he won’t bring the bill up for a vote, and of course Trump would veto such a bill if it passed anyway. Still, it’s an important sign that influential Republicans are getting antsy about the political fallout that might follow a Saturday Night Massacre–style purge of the Justice Department and the special counsel’s office. During the committee’s debate on the legislation, according to The Washington Post, “every member of the committee who spoke” during the debate said that firing Mueller would result in a political disaster for the president. It would be, as Senator Ben Sasse—who voted against the measure—said, “politically suicidal.”
When pressed by The Nation in the interview, Chafee at first said he was unfamiliar with the content of Senate efforts to protect Mueller. Told that every Democrat on the Senate judiciary panel had voted in favor of the legislation, Chafee said, “I would have voted with the Democrats.” But since he’d already told the AP that he would not back such a bill, it seemed like an odd and tentative reversal, on an issue about which Chafee seemed surprisingly uninformed.