How Donald Trump’s campaign chief became enmeshed with pro-Russian oligarchs

The guy behind the guy.
The guy behind the guy.
Image: Reuters/Carlo Allegri
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Paul Manafort, Donald Trump’s campaign chairman, is familiar with monomaniacal clients who can’t get out of their own way. After all, at least three of them have been deposed in coups.

Manafort is back in the news this week after the New York Times reported on a ledger found in Ukraine linking him to $12.7 million in cash payments from Ukraine’s pro-Russia political party, the Party of Regions. The account book was unearthed by Ukrainian anti-corruption investigators.

Manafort, who spent the prime of his career putting a sheen of American know-how on shady international figures, denied that he ever accepted cash payments, or payments from the Ukrainian and Russian governments. But though he has long acknowledged providing strategic advice to pro-Russia political parties in the country’s cash-fueled post-independence politics, he has only recently confirmed that his work continued long after Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014.

At the time the ledger was kept, Manafort was a top adviser to then-Ukrainian prime minister Viktor Yanukovych. He had originally come to the Kyiv in 2004 to work for Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man, but was soon detailed to add polish to the erratic politician Akhmetov backed.

“He behaved like a villager who came to the city first time,” one former Ukrainian government official told Quartz of Yanukovych. ”His language was awful, he expressed ideas that sometimes people could not even understand what he was saying. Manafort really did a huge job to transform the unpopular politician to kind of a stability, a politician that brings stability.”

This is exactly the job that Manafort was hired to do for Trump, though so far success seems further away. But his career in Ukraine shows that veteran operative is rarely working just one angle.

Looking out for number one

During his stint in Ukraine, Manafort appeared less interested in the nation’s politics than in striking business deals with Yanukovych’s deep-pocketed supporters. He became involved with Dmtry Firtash, who is currently fighting extradition to the US  to face bribery charges, and Oleg Deripaska, the Putin-friendly businessman alleged to have gained his fortune with an assist from the Russian mob.

Despite Manafort’s association with pro-Russia figures within Ukraine, he reportedly lobbied Yanukovych to sign an economic integration pact with the European Union, one that would put Manafort in a position to broker investment deals with western companies. Instead, pressured by Russia, Yanukovych ditched the deal. Pro-European protests in Ukraine’s main square, the Maidan, soon led him to flee the capital in February 2014.

But Manafort didn’t leave with Yanukovych; his real employer by then was Sergei Levochkin, Yanukovych’s former chief of staff and a key figure in the Party of Regions who opposed the economic agreement with the European Union. ”Putin was betrayed by our irresponsible leaders too many times, until he stopped taking Ukraine seriously,” Levochkin told the Daily Beast in 2014.

Levochkin helped reorganize the Russian-friendly political forces in Ukraine into a new coalition known as “the Opposition Bloc,” a name reportedly coined by Manafort himself. Even as Russia invaded Ukraine and pro-Russian separatists in the city of Donetsk tossed out the central government, the Oppo Bloc spoke in their favor. Financing was provided by Akhmetov, the oligarch who first hired Manafort and who is seen as sympathetic to separatists in Donetsk, his home region.

Bloc party

“The opposition bloc was always supporting the people [in Donetsk]—’we have to support Russia with sending humanitarian aid,’ etc. They called Ukrainian Army ‘killers.’ You don’t expect to hear such thing in Parliament,” the former Ukrainian official told Quartz. “They are playing a game without thinking of the future of Ukraine.”

Manafort brought modern political tactics to their effort to gain seats in parliament during elections in October 2014. Despite anger amidst the members of the party who didn’t agree with his approach, it paid off.

“They weren’t happy. But Levochkin came out and said: either we work Manafort’s way and we win, or we don’t get in at all. He was listened to, and we won,” one of the Opposition Bloc campaign workers told the Ukrainian newspaper NV in 2014.

Today, Levochkin and the Opposition Bloc in Parliament are pushing for Ukraine to re-integrate with Russia. Russia has lately been seen moving additional military forces toward Ukrainian border, and some analysts think that Putin is likely to escalate violence there ahead of fall elections in Ukraine, Russia and the US, not least because he expects Trump to lose.

American opposition

Manafort said “his work in Ukraine ceased” after he helped the Russian proxy party gain 43 seats in the 2014 election.

But it’s not clear whether he’s stopped working with his former clients. The Republican party’s previously gung-ho statement on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine suddenly became quite milquetoast at the Trump campaign’s request. And Trump’s advisory panels are studded with other pro-Russia figures, including retired General Michael Flynn, who was paid to attend a banquet with Vladimir Putin in 2015, and Gazprom lobbyist Carter Page.

Nor has Trump made a secret of his admiration for Putin’s violent autocracy, calling him a “better leader” than Barack Obama.

It’s easy to see Trump’s campaign as a continuation of Manafort’s modus operandi; one long-time CIA official wrote that Trump is an “unwitting agent of the Russian Federation.” It’s possible such messages have contributed to a wide swathe of college-educated Republicans turning toward Hillary Clinton in recent public opinion polls.

Manafort’s Russian connection has been seen as a distraction since he was brought on board in April; “Trump Just Hired His Next Scandal” read one headline. But even more damaging to Trump’s presidential aspirations is how the revelations take one major weapon against Hillary Clinton off the table.

Republicans would love nothing more than to focus the campaign conversation on whether there is evidence that Hillary Clinton acted to help foreign donors to her family foundation; so far, no clear sign of corruption has materialized among the flood of Clinton’s public e-mails. In his statement, Manafort accused the New York Times of failing to cover allegations of wrong-doing, which isn’t true, as shown by the number of time Trump’s campaign cited the paper as it tried to drum up interest in Clinton’s Russian connections.

But it is clear that any attacks on Clinton as potential foreign agent won’t amount to much while Manafort is running Trump’s campaign. Besides Trump’s continued refusal to release his tax returns, the campaign’s top operative is now saddled with the very baggage he had hoped to hang on Hillary Clinton.