Donald Trump’s campaign for the presidency entered a new crisis at the end of this week with the resignation of Paul Manafort, his campaign manager, amid allegations of dirty money and Kremlin connections.
Manafort was brought into the campaign in late March to give the Trump campaign focus as it prepared for the Republican party convention. His predecessor, Corey Lewandowski, possessed limited political experience and had been managing a sandwich shop before he was hired to head up Trump’s presidential bid.
Although Manafort possessed ample political experience, not all of it was welcome. The veteran 67-year-old Republican consultant had helped to elect Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, then George H. W. Bush in 1988, but he had not worked on a Republican presidential campaign since Bob Dole’s failed bid in 1996.
Manafort instead spent ample time overseas, serving as a fixer for various foreign governments – not all of them savory or democratic. Among the regimes Manafort worked for include anti-communist rebels in Angola, Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, and Zaire’s notorious dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.
Some of Manafort’s clients were worse than unsavory. He spent four years in the early 1990s lobbying on behalf of a Kashmiri advocacy group that FBI investigation determined was actually a front group for Pakistani intelligence, the notorious ISI. For helping Pakistan’s ISI, which is infamous for its support to jihadist terrorism, Manafort’s firm received $700,000.
Connections to the ISI should have been sufficient to raise uncomfortable questions about Manafort, but the cause of his downfall this week is his open ties to corrupt oligarchs and Kremlin fronts in Ukraine. That he had spent several years in Kyiv lobbying for Viktor Yanukovych, who served as the country’s president from early 2010 to early 2014, was hardly a secret.
Indeed, Manafort was critical to Yanukovych’s rise to power, since the American fixer coached the colorless Communist functionary in modern politics. After losing elections in 2004 to the Western-oriented Orange Revolution, Yanukovych understood he needed to update his look and his message. That was what Manafort was for.
The Republican consultant taught Yanukovych how to present messages to different audiences and it paid off when his client won the presidency in January 2010. However, once in power, Yanukovych ruled in a distinctly pro-Moscow fashion. It was no secret that the new president and his Party of Regions were clients of Vladimir Putin, whose security services, above all the Federal Security Service or FSB, were allowed free reign in Ukraine as long as Yanukovych ruled in Kyiv.
Manafort was there every step of the way, and if he objected to his client’s thuggish and corrupt ways, there is no record of it. Everything was fine until Yanukovych fell in February 2014 when he was impeached by parliament and popular protests convulsed the country. When Yanukovych’s thugs attacked protestors in Kyiv, killing nearly a hundred – some of the shooting of unarmed protestors was done by FSB operatives sent to Kyiv to bolster the ailing regime – his position became untenable and he promptly fled to Russia, where he remains.
It was widely known that Manafort spent a decade advising Yanukovych, yet that did not deter Trump from appointing him his campaign manager. For Trump, who openly admires Putin, perhaps Moscow links were considered a plus. Whispers continued that Manafort’s role in Kyiv, between oligarchs and Kremlin connections, was worse than publicly acknowledged.
Nevertheless, Manafort guided his new client through the Republican convention in Cleveland last month, winning him the party’s nomination. He stood by Trump as, post-convention, the newly-anointed nominee engaged in a remarkable bout of self-immolation, between insulting the family of a dead American soldier to asking the Kremlin to find Hillary Clinton’s missing emails. As Trump committed political suicide before the cameras, Manafort remained loyal and upbeat.
That said, the convention raised questions. In Cleveland, Trump operatives rewrote the Republican party platform, watering it down from promising to provide Ukraine with “lethal defensive weapons” to merely “appropriate assistance.” Although the Trump campaign denied it had a hand in this rewrite, this was quickly proven false. While some saw Manafort behind this change, he weathered that storm, though he was hardly helped by Trump’s bizarre on-camera insistence that Putin is not “in” Ukraine – despite the presence of tens of thousands of Russian troops in Crimea and the Donbas.
Then everything unraveled this week. First came reports that Manafort had been the recipient of vast largess by the Party of Regions. Anti-fraud investigators in Kyiv discovered a ledger showing that between 2007 and 2012, Manafort was promised $12.7 million in off-the-books cash payments by Yanukovych’s ruling party. At a minimum, Manafort had served as a foreign agent without registering as one, as required by American law. The documents appear authentic and, given the lawyerly evasiveness of Manafort’s denials, there’s no reason to doubt this story.
The scandal had not yet died down – including awkward questions about where this vast sum of money really came from – when worse appeared. Now we have learned that, during his years in Kyiv, Manafort’s translator and sidekick was Konstantin Kilimnik, who had spent several years with Russian military intelligence or GRU. Although Kilimnik made no effort to hide his Kremlin affiliation, he and Manafort became fast friends.
To anybody familiar with Russian intelligence, Kilimnik was very likely Manafort’s spy-handler. At best, he was an access agent for GRU, assessing the American for possible espionage. “There are no former intelligence officers,” as Vladimir Putin has stated, and one can only imagine the glee in Moscow when Manafort was appointed Trump’s campaign manager.
That role has ended with Manafort’s resignation. A shake-up this week reduced the seasoned fixer’s role as Trump tried to re-brand his damaged campaign to take on Hillary Clinton in early November. The exposure of Manafort’s long relationship with GRU was the final straw. Even Trump, for all his overt “bromance” with Putin, could not be seen to have such an obvious Kremlin proxy heading his campaign for the White House.
It is nevertheless shocking that Manafort burrowed his way into the Trump campaign as deeply as he did. There are lessons here for Europe – and especially Germany. America is only now experiencing what Europe has already gone through – a world where parties on both the left and the right are wooed by the Kremlin, which brings cash and favors.
Germany, with its rich reservoirs of Russlandversteher, is especially vulnerable. On the left, Die Linke retains longstanding ties to Moscow, with whom it shares antipathy toward NATO and the Americans. On the rising right, where Merkel’s failed refugee policies provide fodder for Kremlin propaganda every day, the AfD and others more extreme court Russian favor and sponsorship as Germany looks towards national elections next year.
The case of Paul Manafort demonstrates how Moscow uses money and connections to influence Western politics – even in the United States. The West’s political class is vulnerable to Russian exploitation. Manafort’s demise this week is a rare case when the public gets to see this messy reality exposed. Germany is no different – and Germans who value their democracy will pay attention as 2017 approaches.
(This article appeared in German in BILD — you can read it here.)