David Frum: Manafort Looks Like The Key To Unlocking Trump’s Russia Mystery
6 May, 2017
Photo: Policy Exchange

David Frum is a senior editor at the Atlantic magazine. He is a former speechwriter to former US President George Bush.

Frum is a conservative Republican, who before the last US presidential elections endorsed Hillary Clinton and is a strong critic of Donald Trump. Frum is well acquainted with life behind the scenes of the White House and in American politics.

Hromadske’s Nataliya Gumenyuk had a chance to talk to him and asked about the significance of Paul Manafort’s Ukraine connections for the US inner circle as well how to interpret conflicting orders in  Trump's foreign policy and what Europe and Eastern Europe in particular can expect from the US administration.

David Frum, archive

You said that Ukraine has become important all of a sudden. And why has the case of Manafort become so big in the US media?

Paul Manafort, who is important in American politics going back to 1980s, then vanished from the United States for a long time and worked in other countries, especially in Ukraine, emerged as Donald Trump’s campaign manager in the period from summer until early fall of 2016. He was a very surprising choice, because he had been away from US politics for so long, and US politics has changed so dramatically since the time he was active. When he was active there was no Facebook, where so many advertising dollars come from, and there were these question marks over him. What we are now discovering is the truth in this claim of the flow of money to Paul Manafort from Ukrainian sources - many millions of dollars and there’s a question, firstly of whether that’s proper, and a very immediate question in the US is: did he pay US federal taxes on that money? Because if he did not, then he could be in a lot of trouble. He could be in the centre of very dangerous prosecution. And when people in US are under criminal prosecution, they begin telling a lot of things they know in order to make prosecutors happy.

Paul Manafort. Photo: EPA, JUSTIN LANE

From Ukraine it looks like something big, but looking at how long he was Trump’s campaign manager for, it was pretty short term. So to what extent could he really influence Trump? Does he have any real impact or connections?

The Trump campaign is full of secrets. There are all kinds of strange people, who became close to the campaign, who had very strange ties to Putin’s Russia. One by one, those people are being pushed out of government. The most important was Michael Flynn, who was briefly National Security adviser. But there is this enduring mystery with the Donald Trump connection to Russia. Obviously, it’s very infatuated with Putin and the Russian political system. We don’t know why that is. Maybe, he sincerely admires Putin, maybe it’s something financial, maybe it’s something else. Paul Manafort looks like a key to unlock that mystery, and Manafort may soon be in trouble with the law. If he didn’t pay taxes on Ukrainian money – we don’t know that he didn’t – he could be in trouble in the law, and then he will have things to say.

What do  we really know about the Trump-Russia connections at the moment? There has been a lot of talk about this, and in the end, you  don’t really know what is real and what is not. Maybe Trump likes the way Putin runs Russia. But the question is always, if there was something serious, why can’t anyone, including US journalists and intelligence, find anything more substantial?

There is a famous detective story in English called ‘The Purloined Letter’, in which police search a man’s office looking for a letter and they never find it, and the reason is because he left it on the middle of his desk. That’s the one place they never thought to look. Everything we need to know about Trump and Russia, - well, not everything you need t0 know - so much of what is important is there in  plain sight. We’ve known it all along. What we have seen is Donald Trump’s enthusiastic admiration for Putin. That  is no secret. That he recruited for key positions in his campaign, people who admire Putin and were close to the Russians, and had  proper financial connections to Russia. Michael Flynn, who used to be National Security adviser took money, not only from RT media, but also from a number of other Russian companies. It’s not an enormous sum of money by Manafort standards, but enough for a man, who is in financial trouble - as he was - a few tens of thousands maybe, a hundred thousand. It mattered at that time for him, and other people too. We know all that. We know that Donald Trump campaigned about Wikileaks, and he constantly used Wikileaks as a weapon against Hillary Clinton, and he would praise them, at the time when everybody understood that Wikileaks had an improper connection to Russian intelligence work. Everybody knew that. That’s the whole story. Maybe there are some dramatic secrets, but i don’t know what is the thing people are looking for. It’s almost impossible to prove, with any human being, to a person that someone did an action for a specified reason. We never know exactly why people do things, but we see what they did.

What do you understand of the meeting of the State Secretary Tillerson with Russia? Because he says things that you would more or less expect from a Republican government, not including the recent meeting with Lavrov. He sounds critical enough, despite all the concerns. So somehow, when you talk to people from the Republican party, policy makers, analysts, they say, “you see, it’s not so bad we were expecting the worse”.

What we can see – and once again, this is not a claim here – you have giant demonstrations in Moscow, hundreds  of people arrested, suppression of the press. In the USA there is nothing to say about it, it’s not a comfort word, and not any indication the Russian government would be well advised not to use violence and, in particular, we have our eye on certain people, who represent opposition political force in Russia and it’s really important that people continue being in good health. That’s the kind of thing that the Germans, the British say, but the US say it louder than everybody else. Under a normal press, under George Bush and Barack Obama, the US would have said, “we care about Mr. Navalny’s health”. That’s important to us, and they didn’t do that.There may not be some big secret here, there may not be some dossier, because after all, after the recent Turkish referendum, in which the last Turkish democracy was snuffed out, Trump made a call of congratulations to Erdogan. Maybe he just instinctively sympathises with authoritarian rulers, and maybe he doesn’t need more of an explanation than that.

David Frum, archive

What impact may it have for Ukraine’s politics? Ukrainians are very cautious about the Trump administration, and we look closely at every single word that is said about his policies.

Here’s where the Trump administration really makes a difference. Helping Ukraine to become a normal European country is an extremely challenging project, and potentially an extremely important project. If Ukraine were to become a normal European country, it would be one of the largest, and one of the wealthiest countries in Europe. And also something that is not an absolute necessity in the US. The US has some options, it can afford not to care too much about Ukraine. You have a project which is important, which is difficult, but is optional. So, the attitude of the president matters a lot. A different president would make a different choice, and we’ll see the potential for what Ukraine could be, how that would make Europe stronger and better, and make peace with Eurasia stronger and better, and might choose to be involved. A president that is generally hostile to the European Union, who doesn’t like the European allies, he doesn’t have good relations with any of our important friends in Europe, and who is enthralled with Putin, he will make a different choice about Ukraine.

How would you then explain Trump’s Syrian move? Because I’ve mentioned this kind of visceral thinking, that finally, he looks more tough than Obama. Sending missiles to Syria – this is finally what some Republicans hoped.

The president of the US is so powerful to so many people. We all want to believe that he is more or less equal to the job. Even the people who hated George Bush, when I worked for him, they never doubted that George Bush went to work every day, and that he was listening to the CIA director, and that he was making good decisions. But, it never occurred to them that they had a president who would literally watch television for 5 hours a day.

Photo: Policy Exchange

How do we know that?

The Washington Post did a computation, they went through his tweets and looked at all the shows that he referenced within a certain period. How much TV would you have to watch to be aware of all these things? It’s hypothetical. They put together a hypothetical schedule of his TV watching, and with other references from people in the staff, he was seen watching TV at this time. And the guess is that it’s about 5 hours a day – a couple of hours in the morning, maybe an hour at lunchtime, and a couple of hours in the evening. That’s a lot of television. So when a president was a candidate and he said over and over again, “we must stay out of Syria, we want no opinion between Asad and is opponents, in fact we prefer one-on-one work with Russia on Syria” - when a candidate says that, then does the opposite, he pivots and strikes Asad, you want to believe that he has really thought about it. You don’t want to think that he just saw something on TV that he didn’t like and then asked the Pentagon if there was something he could do, and the Pentagon said that the cheapest option on the menu is a cruise-missile strike, and the president said, “let’s do that,” and then he’s forgotten about it, and he has no plan. There is no ongoing plan on what to do next in Syria.

To finalize, what is currently the biggest issue regarding Trump? Speaking in terms of his administration. We know there were issues during his campaign and in the first few weeks of his presidency, but at this stage, what are the things to watch out for?

The story has never changed. Follow the money. We have a presidential family. This will not be unfamiliar to people in other countries, including Ukraine, but a president that is using the Office to enrich themselves. Because we have a lot of habits and customs and some rules that get in their way, they will over time have to turn off those habits and customs. They have to break the institutions of the American government, which will otherwise inhibit or constrain their ability to enrich themselves on the scale they want to.

And the other advance, Donald Trump has a very few policy ideas, and any ideas he does have, he changes his mind about them overnight.

Do you think there will be a lot of other states trying to use backdoors to gain influence?

There aren't very many backdoors now because the government is not fully staffed. What would have happened in another administration? For a country like Ukraine you would have some, but little, of the president's attention. But, you would have a lot of the attention from the relevant offices in the State Department and the relevant officers at the National Security Council, and you would also have important ties with the Department of Defense, the Pentagon, the uniformed and the civilian military  And then, if there were a real crisis it would come to the president. Day in and day out, even the president of a country like Ukraine does not deal with the president of United States, he deals with the specialists. If those people are not there, if they have not been hired - we have actually quite good people for Eurasia now at the National Security Council - but if there's no connection between them and the president, it stops with the senior advisor at the National Security Council, then there is no back channel because channels don't work.

What do you think about the challenge to the US press? It prides itself on its neutrality and objectivity and the way it covers stories from all angles. Now there are these accusations against the US press, that they are biased against Trump, and are always trying to find a story against him, that they see all the bad things about him and the government.

Here's the problem, and it is a problem without a solution. The American press values objectivity and neutrality. What do you do when the president is a bad person, who does bad things? You can cover him objectively, you can't cover him neutrally. The trivial examples help this. On the Monday after Easter we have a tradition of big Easter egg event at the White House. Thousands of children come. Under president Obama, last year there were 35,000 people, most of them were children. And the president and the first lady and their children, there are acts, costumes, celebrities, there are tricks, activities. It's a very happy day. And everyone who comes gets a special souvenir egg, the things are really cherished by people.

This White House made a disaster, they didn't order the eggs in time, there weren't enough eggs. But what was striking is that the president came and he was so visibly uncomfortable with the children. He was sealed off, where president Obama would come in informal clothes, and would rough-house and tumble, and read with the children and was obviously delighted to be with them. President Trump would be there and he was there very briefly. He and the first lady were there for few minutes, and they were obviously unhappy to be there, they obviously did not enjoy the children. As a journalist,  how do you objectively and neutrally cover the fact that the president of US does not like children?

Trump's family were obviously unhappy to be at the White House event. Photo: Olivier Douliery/SIPA POOL/EPA

You can be objective about it? But then they say, “you're biased, can't you find something nice to say?” He likes his own children. Maybe. He likes some of his own children. How do you cover that? And we have things like that every day, where he says something that’s dishonest, right in front of you. And people say "you're unfair, because you cover all the times he lies, but you don't  point out all the time he doesn't lie". But we expect him not to lie.

That's a challenging thing, because that's what Ukrainian journalists were always accused of while we were covering the previous Ukrainian government. What if the president is stealing? That’s an issue, it’s not about whether journalists like him or not.

The demand you’re actually getting at there - and I think within the Ukrainian context you have exactly the same - it’s the people, as the consumers of media, and the citizens of the country, they make a commitment, a political commitment. Once that commitment is made, they care about it more after the fact than they did before. They want to be assured they didn't use their vote wrongly, and specially if the mistake was an obvious one. A lot of people who study a decision, it's very difficult, you do your best, it turns out not to be the correct one. But when somebody is obviously a crook beforehand, and you disregard the warning signs anyway, then you don't really want to be reminded that he is a crook, because those accurate news reports raise questions for you, about yourself.

Because nobody likes to admit their mistakes. People especially hate to admit that they have been misled and misused.

The thing that is remarkable about Donald Trump is that he lies about many things, but he does not lie about himself. He made it clear all the way through what he was. In fact, one of his favourite stories on the campaign trail was about a woman who brought home a poisonous snake. And the snake bit her, and as she was dying she said to snake, “I’ve been good to you, I’ve taken care of you, why did you bite me?” And the snake said, “You knew I was a snake when you took me in”. Donald Trump used that as a way of attacking Muslim immigration to United States. In his telling, the Muslims immigrants were the snake. But he was the snake. We knew what he was, we knew that he told lies all the time, we knew that he was an unreliable person. We knew he has made his money mostly through fraud and chicanery.

There was a lot of talk about how the Republican party could have stopped  Trump or somebody else could have, and that the US democracy is bigger than this. But really, at this stage, with this White House, how influential is Trump? You told us that, after the elections, the Republican part of the Congress would listen more to what Trump says, rather than complain.

That’s what has happened. They protect him. When people say that the democracy is strong enough, that can be true, but people have to make it true. When people say he'll be constrained by the democratic process, that depends on if you get off the couch. The democratic process is not a machine, it doesn't work automatically. It only works if people make it work.

Watch Hromadske interview made prior to the US Presidential Elections

Finally, can you explain the influence of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, and the whole dispute going on right now about them having more influence than Bannon.

There is an attempt to make it seem as though everything that is wrong with Trump's White House is the fault of one man - Steven Bannon, and his few close aides. And if only we can get rid of him everything will be normal. And it it is true that many of the weirder people at the White House were brought there by them. But even after you tidy up the weird people - and I am sure that will happen - and Bannon himself will probably see his role reduced and he will ultimately have to leave. The Trump White House will not be normal White House. And that's the problem in the Oval Office. Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner are not psychologically unbalanced people, and they don't say and do reckless things. They do not accept the normal ethical constraints that Americans expect, and that any democratic country should expect from its leaders. If I am correct, that the core problem of Trump's administration is the self-enrichment by the first member, then the political demise of Steve Bannon won't make a difference. Because the self-enrichment of the first family will continue as long the first family is allowed to wield the kind of power they are wielding now.