Longtime lobbyist and Republican operative Paul Manafort was chairman of Donald Trump’s campaign for several critical months in 2016 — from March until mid-August 2016 — before he was forced to resign after the Associated Press revealed his previous lobbying efforts on behalf of Ukraine’s pro-Russian ruling party. The White House, however, has tried to downplay Manafort’s pivotal role in Trump’s campaign, with press secretary Sean Spicer insisting at a press briefing last week that Manafort “played a very limited role for a very limited amount of time.”
At the time of Manafort’s resignation, Trump had this to say: “I am very appreciative for his great work in helping to get us where we are today, and in particular his work guiding us through the delegate and convention process. Paul is a true professional and I wish him the greatest success.”
To put Manafort’s time at the helm in perspective, remember that Steve Bannon took charge of the campaign (along with Kellyanne Conway) just two days before Manafort’s resignation on August 19 and served as chairman until the election on November 8, for a total of 83 days. Manafort served as Trump’s campaign chairman for nearly twice as many days.
In fact, Trump first hired his downstairs neighbor in Trump Tower in late March to round up delegate votes at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland and secure the nomination for Trump. A veteran of the establishment, Manafort came highly recommended, having run delegate operations for several GOP nominees, including Gerald Ford’s campaign in 1976 and, twenty years later, for Bob Dole’s campaign in 1996. In 2008, the McCain campaign also considered Manafort to manage their Republican convention before dropping him because of his work for Ukraine and other shady relationships in his past.
Since last summer, we have learned quite a bit about Manafort and his secret lobbying efforts on behalf of murderous oligarchs and dictators the world over. For example, we now know that Manafort worked for Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine and Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines—two presidents run out of office by their own people. According to Bloomberg’s Eli Lake, Manafort also worked for Saudi Arabia, a Bahamanian president “suspected of narco-trafficking” and an Angolan rebel leader, Jonas Savimbi, “accused of torture.”
“We are now of the belief that this model can greatly benefit the Putin Government if employed at the correct levels with the appropriate commitment to success,” Manafort said in a 2005 memo to Russian oligarch and Putin ally Oleg Deripaska.
We also know, again thanks to excellent reporting by the AP, that a little over a decade ago, in 2005, Manafort hatched an ambitious plan to influence politics, business and news coverage and, together with Russian billionaire, Oleg Deripaska, began working to advance the interests of Russia and President Putin in the United States, Europe and former Soviet republics.
In 2006, Manafort and his partner, Rick Davis, signed a contract with Deripaska worth $10 million per year.
Their plan is further explained in a series of documents obtained by the AP, which include strategic memos and records of millions of dollars in international wire transfers. At the very least, this work clearly contradicts numerous claims by Manafort and the Trump administration that Manafort never worked for Russian interests.
Deripaska once was denied entry to the United States because of his alleged ties to organized crime, officials told NBC News, and has been described in U.S. diplomatic cables as “one of 2-3 oligarchs Putin turns to on a regular basis” and “a more-or-less permanent fixture on Putin’s trips abroad.”
Believe it or not, that’s not all we know. A recent investigation of Trump Tower by WNYC has revealed that Trump’s former campaign chairman has, for the last 11 years, “engaged in a series of puzzling real estate deals in New York City” using shell companies that real estate and law enforcement experts say fit a pattern typically used in money laundering operations.
Meanwhile, NBC News also reported on Tuesday that a Cyprus bank had investigated accounts associated with Manafort for possible money-laundering. Manafort was connected to at least 15 bank accounts from 10 companies dating back to 2007—say Aggelos Petropoulos and Richard Engel—the majority of which were held at the Cyprus Popular Bank, and according to court documents, at least one of these companies received millions of dollars from Deripaska. What’s more, in 2012, when the bank eventually questioned the account owners about some dubious transactions—in one instance, the same-day deposit and withdrawal of $1 million—the accounts were immediately closed.
Most of the assets of the Cyprus Popular Bank were taken over by the Bank of Cyprus in 2013 but in a recent statement, the Bank of Cyprus has denied having any relationship with “Manafort or any entities connected to him.”
You may recall, the White House was accused of withholding information from Congress about whether Trump or any of his campaign associates had ever received loans from the Bank of Cyprus in February, when the time the Senate was looking to confirm Trump’s nominee for commerce secretary, billionaire investor Wilbur Ross.
Ross, who has served as vice-chairman of the Bank of Cyprus since 2014, was asked a series of questions about possible links between the bank, Russian officials, and current and former Trump administration and campaign officials.
Ross was also asked about his own relationship with the bank’s previous and current Russian investors, “including Viktor Vekselberg, a longtime ally of the Russian president, and Vladimir Strzhalkovsky, the former vice-chairman of Bank of Cyprus who is also a former KGB agent with a close relationship to Putin,” reported The Guardian during his Senate confirmation hearing.
Nevertheless, Ross was confirmed by the Senate and his 2014 investment in the Bank of Cyprus has received little public or media attention since.
Manafort, of course, denies any wrongdoing and has agreed to appear before the House Intelligence Committee, which as of Tuesday, is purportedly still investigating ties between Russia and Trump campaign officials and Russia’s effort to influence the 2016 election despite a growing scandal involving the committee’s chairman and former member of Trump’s transition team, Republican Rep. Devin Nunes of California.
These blockbuster revelations about Trump’s campaign chairman come just a week after FBI Director James Comey confirmed to members of the House Intelligence Committee that his agency was “investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government, and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts.” Since last Monday’s public hearing, however, Chairman Nunes has been caught publicizing leaks and running interference for the White House and has essentially shut down his committee’s own investigation.
Is it any wonder that Paul Manafort and his former business partner, veteran Republican political operative Roger Stone, have volunteered to meet with this particular House oversight committee?
Both Manafort and Stone are wanted by prosecutors in Ukraine as well as by the Senate Intelligence Committee for questioning in ongoing investigations into corruption and the illegal influence of the Russian government in elections in the Ukraine and in the US. The Senate committee has specifically asked Stone, according to The New York Times on Saturday, to “preserve and retain all hard copies and electronically stored information as specified below in furtherance of the committee’s ongoing investigation into Russian actions targeting the 2016 U.S. elections and democratic processes globally.”
Stone told The Times, “I am willing to appear voluntarily if the committee isn’t looking for the headline of issuing a subpoena.” In other words, Stone is happy to talk to any committee as long as he does not have to testify under oath.
At that same press briefing last Monday, Spicer laughably described Stone, Trump’s longtime friend and business associate, and Carter Page, Trump’s former foreign policy adviser, as mere “hangers-on” who wanted “to be part of something that they never had an official role in.” Spicer even went so far as to say that the campaign had to send “them a series of cease-and-desist letters.”
But Spicer reserved perhaps his biggest revisionistic flourish for Trump’s former national security adviser, whom he quickly dismissed, in more ways than one, as “a volunteer of the campaign.” Judging from Spicer’s comments at the time, Flynn was the one who worried the Trump administration most. Until yesterday, that is.
[Ed. note: the day after this story was published, the Wall Street Journal broke the news that Michael Flynn was offering to testify before Congress and/or the FBI in exchange for immunity.]
Now, according to CNN, the President’s own son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has been asked to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee about his heretofore unreported meeting in December 2016 with the head of Russia’s economic development bank, Sergey N. Gorkov, at Ambassador Kislyak’s request. Gorkov is a well-known graduate of the Russian academy of Federal Security Service (formerly known as the KGB) and a well-connected Putin ally and appointee.
For Republicans, an overwhelming sense of “duty and obligation” to a Republican president seems so far to supersede a sense of duty and obligation to America and the preservation of our democracy. Chairman Nunes, House Speaker Paul Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the rest of GOP—with the notable exception of Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham—from the start have tried to ignore or downplay Trump’s ties to Russia and to dismiss any notion of possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government to swing the election in Trump’s favor. Even after news of Flynn’s illegal conversations with Ambassador Kislyak first broke back in February, GOP leaders have continued to actively minimize the implications, even as members of the White House are repeatedly caught lying about their own meetings with, and financial ties to, the Russian mobsters and oligarchs who make up Putin’s inner circle, and the intelligence operatives under Putin’s command.
At this point, any attempt to cover up the Trump-Russia calamity is doomed to fail. We can no longer kid ourselves. Members of Trump’s campaign, and possibly even the President himself, may have colluded with a foreign power to subvert the democratic process in this country and may be vulnerable to blackmail by Putin and the Russian government. Still. Republicans must abandon their efforts to normalize the thoroughly compromised 2016 presidential election. They must join Democrats immediately in authorizing a full, bipartisan investigation—independent of Congress and the White House—if they sincerely wish to protect our nation against further Russian attacks and if they hope to salvage any shred of personal and political credibility. House Democrats have the bill ready. It’s called the Protecting Our Democracy Act. We have no time to lose.
– Danielle Bizzarro