Paul Manafort arrives at a hearing at U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., January 16, 2018. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)He is a scoundrel, but he was never a Kremlin operative.
Paul Manafort, the clandestine agent of Russia at the heart of the Trump campaign’s “collusion” scand — oh, wait.
Have you ever noticed what Paul Manafort’s major crime was? After two years of investigation, after the predawn raid in which his wife was held at gunpoint, after months of solitary confinement that have left him a shell of his former self, have you noticed what drew the militant attention of the Obama Justice Department, the FBI, and, ultimately, a special counsel who made him the centerpiece of Russia-gate?
According to the indictment Robert Mueller filed against him, Manafort was an unregistered “agent of the Government of Ukraine.” He also functioned as an agent of Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s president from 2010 to 2014, and of two political parties, the Party of Regions and its successor, the Opposition Bloc.
Manafort was not an unregistered agent of Russia. Mueller never alleged that Manafort was a clandestine operative of the Kremlin. He worked for Ukraine, not Putin. Indeed, for much of his time in Ukraine, he pushed his clients against Putin’s interests.
Mueller’s prosecutors looked on glumly Thursday as Manafort was sentenced to a mere 47 months’ imprisonment by Judge T. S. Ellis III of the federal court in Alexandria, Va. After rescinding the cooperation agreement they had extended Manafort following his convictions at trial, Mueller’s team had pressed for a sentence of up to 24 years for the 70-year-old former Trump campaign chairman. The judge demurred, pointedly observing that Manafort was “not before this court for anything having to do with collusion with the Russian government to influence [the 2016] election.”
The prosecutors won’t be chagrined long, of course. Against Manafort, one case with a potential century of jail time was not enough. There’s a case in Washington, too. There, Manafort will be sentenced next week, by a different judge who will surely impose a sentence more to the special counsel’s liking. The knowledge of that, more than anything else, explains Judge Ellis’s comparative wrist-slap, which ignored sentencing guidelines that called for a severe prison term.
Those guidelines were driven by prodigious financial fraud, not espionage. No one has even alleged espionage — even though the investigation was aggressive, even though the two indictments charge numerous felonies, and even though Mueller has had as his star informant witness Manafort’s longtime sidekick, Richard Gates, a fellow fraudster who was deeply involved in his partner’s work for foreign governments.
Understand: Paul Manafort would never have been prosecuted if he had not joined Donald Trump’s campaign. He would not have been prosecuted if Hillary Clinton had won the 2016 election and spared Democrats the need to conjure up a reason to explain their defeat — something other than nominating a lousy candidate who stopped campaigning too early.
Manafort’s Ukrainian work was not a secret. By the time of the 2016 campaign, he’d been at it for over a dozen years. He wasn’t alone. Not even close. An array of American political consultants flocked to post-Soviet Ukraine because that’s where the money was. Manafort worked for the Party of Regions, led by Yanukovych. The Obama consultants worked for Yanukovych’s rival, Yulia Tymoshenko — the populist-socialist who sometimes colluded with Putin and other times posed as his opponent. The Clinton consultants lined up with Viktor Yuschenko, Putin’s generally pro-Western bête noire, who was nearly assassinated by Kremlin operatives and who navigated between east and west.
What you may already notice is that Ukraine is complicated. That collusion narrative you’ve been sold since November 8, 2016? It’s a caricature.
The people peddling it know that Americans are clueless about the intricacies of politics in a former Soviet satellite and the grubby bipartisan cesspool of international political consultancy. You are thus to believe that the Party of Regions was nothing but a cat’s paw of Moscow; that Manafort went to work for Yanukovych, the party’s Putin puppet; and that Manafort’s entrée into the Trump campaign was a Kremlin coup, a Russian plot to control of the White House.
Sure. But then . . . where’s the collusion charge? If that’s what happened, where is the special counsel’s big indictment of a Trump–Russia conspiracy, with Manafort at its core?
There is no such case because the collusion narrative distorts reality.
Manafort is not a good guy. He did business and made lots of money with Ukrainian and Russian oligarchs who, largely through their organized-crime connections, made their fortunes in the post-Soviet gangster-capitalism era, when the spoils of an empire were up for grabs.
Manafort got himself deeply in hock with some of these tycoons. He may owe over $25 million to Oleg Deripaska, a Russian aluminum magnate. Deripaska, you’ve repeatedly been told, is Putin’s oligarch. That may be true — they are close enough for Putin to have intervened on his behalf when the U.S. government imposed travel restrictions. But former senator Bob Dole intervened on Deripaska’s behalf, too. So did the FBI, when they thought Deripaska could help them rescue an agent detained in Iran. So did Christopher Steele, the former British spy of Steele-dossier infamy.
Having business with Deripaska did not make Manafort a Russian spy. No more than taking $500,000 from a Kremlin-tied bank made Bill Clinton a Russian spy. For a quarter century, the United States government encouraged commerce with Russia, notwithstanding that it is anti-American and run like a Mafia family. As secretary of state, Hillary Clinton worked with the Putin regime to develop Moscow’s version of Silicon Valley. Business with Russia was like what the Clintons used to tell us about lies about sex: Everybody does it.
Manafort’s business eventually soured. There is good reason to believe that, once he was installed as chairman of the Trump campaign — when Trump looked like a sure GOP-nomination winner and general-election loser — Manafort tried to monetize his position of influence. He hoped to make himself “whole,” as he put it, by demonstrating that he was once again a political force to be reckoned with — offering Deripaska briefings on the campaign, offering his Ukrainian oligarch benefactors polling data showing that Trump had a real chance to win.
Manafort likes the high life. Running with this crowd helped him live it, and helped him hide most of his money overseas, in accounts he could stealthily access without sharing his millions with the taxman.
But all that said, Manafort was not a Russian agent. Even Robert Mueller, who went after him hammer and tongs, never accused him of that.
When his Ukrainian oligarch sponsors asked him to take Yanukovych on as a client, Manafort was reluctant. Yanukovych was essentially a thug who grew up in the Soviet system. The corruption of the 2004 presidential election, which Yanukovych’s Kremlin-backed supporters tried to steal, ignited Kiev’s Orange Revolution. Manafort, a cold-blooded Republican operative who had cut his teeth fighting off the Reagan revolution in the 1976 Ford campaign, calculated that Yanukovych was damaged goods.
But in the shadowy world of international political consultancy, money talks and scruple walks. Manafort’s oligarch patrons made the Regions reconstruction project worth his while. He remade Yanukovych from the ground up: Learn English, warm to Europe, embrace integration in the European Union, endorse competitive democracy, be the candidate of both EU-leaning Kiev and Russia-leaning Donbas.
This was not a Putin agenda. It was an agenda for Ukraine, a country with a split personality that needs cordial relations with the neighborhood bully to the east as it fitfully lurches westward. Regions was a pro-Russia party, but that is not the same thing as being Russia. What the oligarchs want is autonomy so they can run their profitable fiefdoms independent of Kiev. They leverage Moscow against the EU . . . except when they talk up EU integration to ensure that they are not swallowed up by Moscow. What the oligarchs mainly are is corrupt, which suited Manafort fine.
The unsavory business was successful for a time. Regions returned to power. Yanukovych finally won the presidency and immediately announced that “integration with the EU remains our strategic aim.” It was a triumph for Manafort, but a short-lived one. While Yanukovych rhapsodized about rising to Western standards, he ran his administration in the Eastern authoritarian style, enriching his allies and imprisoning his rivals.
The latter included Tymoshenko, who was prosecuted over a gas deal she had entered when she was prime minister — with Putin. Russia bitterly criticized her prosecution, and when she was sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment, the Kremlin blasted Yanukovych’s government for pursuing her “exclusively for political motives.” Manafort, meanwhile, continued to airbrush Yanukovych’s image in the West, scheming with lobbyists and a law firm to help him defend the controversial Tymoshenko trial — a scheme abetted by lawyer Alex van der Zwaan, who eventually pled guilty to making false statements to Mueller’s investigators.
Yanukovych’s moment of truth came in late 2013. He was poised to sign the Association Agreement with the EU, a framework for integration. Putin furiously turned up the heat: blocking Ukrainian imports, drastically reducing Ukrainian exports, bleeding billions of trade dollars from Kiev’s economy, threatening to cut off all gas supplies and drive Ukraine into default. Manafort pleaded with his client to stick with the EU. Yanukovych caved, however, declining to enter the Association Agreement and making an alternative pact with Putin to assure gas supplies and financial aid.
It was over this decision that the Euromaidan protests erupted. Yanukovych fled the country in early 2014, given sanctuary in Moscow. Subsequently, Regions renounced Yanukovych, blaming him for the outbreak of violence and for looting the treasury. The party disbanded, with many of its members reemerging as the Opposition Bloc, the party to which Manafort gravitated — along with his partner, Konstantin Kilimnik, and his lobbyist associate, W. Samuel Patten. (Like Manafort, Patten has pled guilty to working as an unregistered agent of Ukraine; Kilimnik, who is in Russia, was indicted by Mueller for helping Manafort tamper with witnesses.)
Paul Manafort is a scoundrel. He was willing to do most anything for money — even offering to burnish Putin’s image as he burnished Yanukovych’s. But Manafort was never a Kremlin operative working against his own country, except in the fever dreams of the Clinton campaign’s Steele dossier. And his crimes notwithstanding, he’d be a free man today if Mrs. Clinton had won. Instead, he’ll be sentenced yet again next week. And this time, he’ll get slammed.