One question hangs over Paul Manafort, Donald Trump’s former campaign chair

Former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort is on trial.
Former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort is on trial.
Image: Reuters/Rick Wilking
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Paul Manafort was not in a good place in early 2016.

The onetime advisor to presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush was just out of rehab, his family torn apart by his affair with a much younger woman. Powerful Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska—whom US authorities say has close ties to president Vladimir Putin and to the Russian mafia—had long been chasing him for $19 million. Manafort’s years of dealing with Ukraine’s wildly corrupt ex-president Viktor Yanukovych were under the FBI’s microscope. And he was so strapped for cash that he reportedly stopped his daughter ordering a supply of ice during her wedding weekend.

Then he did something bold. The move would reinvent his image and make Manafort a nationally recognized figure—if not quite in the way he expected.

He pitched himself for an unpaid job on Donald Trump’s insurgent presidential campaign. With the help of old friends Roger Stone and Tom Barrack, a close billionaire pal of Trump’s, he got it. Soon after, Manafort was promoted to campaign chair. It seemed quite a renaissance for the man who helped revolutionize political PR in the 1980s.

But according to Franklin Foer’s cover story for The Atlantic, people around Manafort warned him there was no way to come out of the 2016 campaign frenzy unscathed. They were right—becoming Trump’s campaign chairman now threatens to ruin Manafort’s life. Once at the center of political power in Reagan’s Washington and the eminence grise to Yanukovych in Kyiv, Manafort is now contemplating a long time in prison.

Today, July 31, Manafort is the defendant in the first major trial of Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election meddling. He is charged with undertaking a “conspiracy against the United States,” laundering foreign money, tax and bank fraud, and failing to register as a foreign agent.

A quirk of the court proceedings in Alexandria, Virginia, means only one incident directly related to the 2016 campaign will be explicitly discussed. But a big question still hangs over Manafort today: What motivated him to sign up for months of unremunerated work and unforgiving media exposure at the Trump campaign, when his cashflow had already run dry?

This trial is expected to last three weeks and will cover tax and bank fraud charges. A whole other case against Manafort is lined up in a DC court in September for the remaining charges.

Why did Manafort work for Trump for free?

Manafort reportedly offered to work for the Trump campaign for freea sensible ploy for a man in search of a job with the notoriously stingy Donald Trump, point out investigative journalists David Corn and Michael Isikoff in their book Russian Roulette. However, for a man with serious cash flow problems, it was a curious move. To tide himself over, Manafort allegedly offered a campaign position to a banker in exchange for loans.

From his experience working for Reagan’s 1980 presidential bid, Manafort knew that a role on a successful campaign was a surefire way to make a lot of cash. After Reagan was elected, he, Stone and another Republican operator used their contacts with the administration to set up a PR firm that made them all millionaires and helped define 1980s Washington. Presumably, Manafort saw a similar operation ahead when Trump came to the Beltway.

Manafort also may have seen his role on Trump’s campaign as way to settle his debts. Years earlier, Russian aluminum titan Oleg Deripaska ploughed $18.9 million into a telecoms venture in Ukraine run by Manafort and his number two, Rick Gates. When the 2008 financial crisis poleaxed Deripaska’s net worth, he asked Manafort and Gates to sell the firm and give him his cash back. But the two Americans never complied (and it’s not clear that they had even invested the cash in the company, either, Foer reports.)

After joining Trump’s team, Manafort reportedly instructed Konstantin Kilimnik, his number two in Kyiv who was deeply entwined in Kremlin politics, to send his positive press to Deripaska. “How do we use to get whole. Has OVD operation seen,” he asked Kilimnik, using Deripaska’s initials. He reportedly suggested offering the billionaire “private briefings” (paywall) about the Trump campaign.

There’s no evidence to show that Deripaska took the briefings, but the offer is a big deal: Deripaska, who travels on a Russian diplomatic passport, “does not separate himself from the Russian state” according to recent sanctions on him issued by the US Treasury. Briefing Deripaska would essentially mean briefing the Kremlin.

Did Manafort and Deripaska ever get “whole”? We don’t know. But letting a man so deep in debt run the operation to elect the next US president could have presented an extraordinary security risk; people with steep debt are obvious targets for bribery or blackmail, as they try to make ends meet. And Manafort’s debts went to the center of Russian political power.

What exactly were Manafort’s ties to Russia?

When Victoria Nuland, then-assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasia, heard that Trump had hired Manafort in 2016, she was alarmed by his relationship to Russia, report Corn and Isikoff.

Manafort’s ties to the Kremlin are longstanding. He was first hired in 2005 by Ukraine’s pro-Russia Party of the Regions, shortly after Viktor Yanukovych suffered a humiliating election loss to the country’s pro-European liberals. Manafort got the job through Deripaska, who introduced him to a series of wealthy Ukrainians leading to the Party of the Regions.

Manafort de-Sovietized Yanukovych’s image. He took the former Soviet coal transportation manager, dressed him in Italian suits and taught him to schmooze. With the liberal government proving disastrous, Yakunovych won the presidency in 2010—by which point Manafort had become essential to him, helping mastermind his successful campaign. The next year, Yanukovych locked up his defeated opponent, Yulia Tymoshenko, and Manafort ran a media and lobbying campaign to discredit her and boost Yanukovych’s image in the West.

Central to Manafort’s operations was Kilimnik. A shadowy figure, of whom only one blurry photo is bouncing around the internet, Kilimnik ran Manafort’s Kyiv office.

Who was Kilimnik? Gates allegedly told an interlocutor that Kilimnik was a Russian spy. Mueller told a US court that that Kilimnik had “active” ties to Russian intelligence through the 2016 election. And Corn and Isikoff report that Kilimnik himself used to tell people he had learned fluent English in Russia’s military intelligence, the GRU.

Kilimnik has denied being a Russian agent, but whatever his role, he was close to the Kremlin: a former State department official tells Quartz that during the 2014 Ukraine crisis, the US government used Kilimnik as an intermediary who could send messages both to the Kremlin-backed government in Kyiv and to Moscow itself.

Manafort appears to still be working with him; as recently as June, Kilimnik was indicted for allegedly helping Manafort obstruct justice by contacting witnesses involved in the Russia investigation.

Why is Manafort on trial today?

Special counsel Robert Mueller has an extraordinarily long list of charges (pdf) against Manafort. He has emails, bank transaction records, and 35 witnesses lined up to testify against the fallen spin doctor, including his longtime partner-in-alleged-crime, Rick Gates. Given all that, it’s “remarkable” that Manafort is taking this to trial, instead of taking a plea deal, says Stephen Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas.

Gates has already caved to government pressure and took a deal. Manafort likely had the same option, says Paul Rosenzweig, a senior fellow at the conservative R Street Institute think tank: “It would be malpractice of his lawyers not to have tried to find a deal for him.” So why is Manafort on trial, instead of quietly exchanging information for gentler treatment?

Perhaps Manafort genuinely doesn’t have much to tell the US government about Trump’s ties to Russia. Or perhaps he didn’t like the deal Mueller offered. If Manafort does have compromising information about Russia and the 2016 Trump presidential campaign, coughing it up could earn him dangerous enemies. Then again, he could also believe his former boss, Donald Trump, will pardon him regardless of the trial’s outcome.