To the world outside Ukraine, it’s a story about US President Donald Trump and Russia’s involvement in the US 2016 presidential elections.
But the indictment of Paul Manafort — Trump’s former campaign chair and former consultant to Ukraine’s ousted president Viktor Yanukovych — has a very different meaning in Ukraine. Here, he is alleged to have laundered over $75 million through offshore accounts.
The investigation, conducted by US Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller, has revealed that millions of dollars flowed from the former Ukrainian government to Manafort. The head of that government, Yanukovych, is wanted in Ukraine in connection with over 100 murders during the Euromaidan protests in 2014.
Manafort has pleaded not guilty to twelve counts, including conspiracy and failure to register as a foreign agent. But he has admitted to one thing: earning at least $17 million for his so-called “political consultant work” in Ukraine.
According to Franklin Foer, a journalist at The Atlantic, Manafort’s indictment is more about Ukraine than anything else.
“It is not about the election and not about the campaign,” he said. “It's about Manafort's involvement in Ukraine essentially and about the money he received for his work for the Party of Regions and for other interests in Ukraine, and the way in which it was illegally laundered into the United States.”
Although Foer agrees that Manafort is “a villain in [this] story,” he emphasizes that it’s the whole system of people who worked for Ukraine’s former government, and not just Manafort.
“It's easy to focus just on [Manafort] and to forget that what we're talking about is a very systematic problem,” he says. “[Yanukovych] had a whole army in Washington working on his behalf.
According to Foer, the Manafort case will be a real litmus test for Trump’s administration.
“If Trump were to intervene for his own personal preservation, it would be among the greatest political crimes in American history,” he said.
Hromadske sat down with The Atlantic’s Franklin Foer to find out more about Manafort’s infamous business in Ukraine.
What new things have we found out? What is most significant about the whole story with the Manafort arrest and Mueller investigation?
Robert Mueller has been systematically trying to build a case against that gets to the center about whatever the scandal is about Russian influence, Russian collusion with the Trump campaign in this last election. And so, we see that he has gone for the central figure in the campaign, which was Paul Manafort, who was in charge of the campaign for five extremely important months. The indictment that he filed against Manafort isn't about the election, it's not about the campaign, it's about Manafort's involvement in Ukraine essentially, and about the money he received for his work for the Party of Regions and for other interests in Ukraine, and the way in which it was illegally laundered into the United States. And so, he's attacked Manafort. He's shown that Manafort himself is extremely vulnerable to prosecution, and the question is: where does this lead? How is he able to use this information, to use this devastating indictment of Manafort, in order to get more information that gets us closer to the center of the narrative of the election.
What’s new about that indictment and the whole story, because it was not a surprise for us that Manafort was dealing with Yanukovych?
No, of course. But, it's one thing to suspect somebody of laundering money, and to suspect that they were avoiding taxes, to suspect that they were operating through shell companies - we knew that - but we didn't know the scale, that there was $75 million that he was laundering that he had in these secretive accounts, that we've been able to account for. And we didn't know that he was technically guilty of breaking the law. So that's the most important thing - that he seems as though he's technically guilty of breaking, not just one law, but a whole series of violations that make him extremely vulnerable.
Where does Gates come into this? How are they connected?
Rick Gates was Paul Manafort's intern many years ago and Manafort brought him to Ukraine in order to invest money, to find out opportunities to leverage their political connections to do actual business in Ukraine. So Gates was - it seems like - the most essential person to his operation in Ukraine, the person who was most essential to collecting money, funneling it back here. And he was doing it the same for himself. The same things that Manafort was doing, Gates was doing on a much smaller scale.
How much do we know about Manafort’s real involvement Yanukovych’s activities? What can we really prove, he was a consultant, it could be different things? What do you know?
So this indictment didn't really reveal a whole lot about Manafort's place within the Yanukovych universe, but we don't need to know too much more than what is already established in the public record, which was that he became a central adviser to Yanukovych following the Orange Revolution, when Yanukovych was trying to reinvent himself as a politician, that Manafort was the chief architect of that reinvention. And then, when Yanukovych was president - I've talked to a lot of Parties of Regions insiders, who describe how Yanukovych only listened to Manafort at certain periods of time. I mean, he listened to members of his family, but when people within the Party of Regions wanted to make an argument to Yanukovych, to convince him, they oftentimes had to go through Manafort in order to get Yanukovych to pay attention because Manafort knew the language that could make Yanukovych understand a position.
Was he still there in the later years? We knew about Manafort’s role during the elections in 2010, during the Tymoshenko trial, but really, very little is known about the days of the revolution, in particular, in the cases where the people were killed. It's interesting that later there was mention of an indictment, the Opposition Bloc, which was created on basis of the Party of Regions after the revolution. How long was he involved in Ukraine?
We know that in the debate over the European Union, Manafort was intensely involved, and he claims he was trying to convince Yanukovych to sign the accession agreement, and it's obvious that he was spending a lot of time there in the run-up to the revolution. We don't know what Manafort's role was in the revolution itself, what he was telling Yanukovych. And then, certainly after the revolution, he kept coming back to Ukraine, he kept trying to create this Opposition Bloc party, that it seems like there were leaders of the Party of Regions, who were trying to reinvent themselves, yet again, who were relying extremely heavily on Manafort. In the indictment it says - I think - it was more than a dozen trips that he made back to Ukraine after the Maidan.
And what do people here, in America, understand about this case? I think it looks like a lot of people are looking for a direct connection to the Kremlin. What are your thoughts about that? It just sounds now that the Ukrainian government is involved in something without a clear reference to what kind of government involvement. How would you explain that? If there is no direct link between Putin, Manafort, and Trump, why is that relevant, if it even is?
We just know the broad outlines of the story. We know that Russia wanted to influence the election, we know that the Trump campaign was willing to let the Russians play some sort of role in the election, but we don't know much more than those basic facts, and that's what the prosecutors are trying to get at. We don't know if they will ever be able to prove that there was collusion because the evidentiary basis, the underlying narrative, these are things that are still very unclear. People like to make it seem that they know what's really going, what really happened, but I think that there are very, very, very few people who actually know what the core truth of the matter was during the campaign.
So, if there definitely isn't that link, what is important about the Manafort story? What has he brought to US politics in that regard?
I think that, for Ukraine, the significance of Manafort is incredibly obvious in terms of being an accomplice of a regime that stole so much money from the country, that was ultimately responsible for murder - that's obvious. But, Manafort, in the United States, is such an important character in Washington, he was so important to changing the nature of political consulting, of lobbying, and really of politics in this country. There were things that weren't acceptable, that Manafort made acceptable. So, it wasn't acceptable to have foreign dictators as your clients, but Manafort showed how you could make a lot of money doing that. Before Manafort, there was no firm that was helping candidates get elected and then lobbying them after they get elected - which is kind of a conflict of interest and a very dangerous business - and Manafort created that business. He's somebody who just was always changing the rules and making the system more accepting of less ethical behavior.
If you follow conservative media, or really - you need to pay attention there - the Podesta brothers' company was involved in that. They're also connected to the Democrats because Podesta was the head of Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Could you elaborate on that? There is an argument that this is how the debates have shifted, President Trump is saying: look at Podesta.
Yes, and actually it's important. I mean, it doesn't show anything about collusion between Trump and Russia, but it is important because it shows that the Yanukovych government wasn't just relying on one political consultant to try to improve his reputation and to protect his interests. He had a whole army in Washington, that was working on his behalf. So you had Podesta Group, you had the law firm Skadden-Arps, you had another important lobbying group called the Mercury Group, that was also implicated in the Manafort indictment. I think Manafort was so obviously a villain in the story, it's easy to focus just on him and to forget that what we're talking about is a very systematic problem.
How does it work, really? There are other pretty high-level people, it means that there is this world of the lobbying companies also working for foreign governments and murky regimes and maybe people. These are not just marginal characters.
No. Tony Podesta's brother - John Podesta - was the chairman of Hillary Clinton's campaign. He was the most powerful democratic lobbyist in Washington. He had the longest list of clients, he was somebody you couldn't avoid if you were really trying to have an influence on the democratic side. The same is true of the Mercury Group, which is run by a guy called Vin Weber, and they were one of the most powerful Republican firms. What you see is how Manafort hired them so that Manafort wouldn't have to file papers that showed that he was a representative agent of the Yanukovych government. And he wanted to keep himself out of the story, he didn't want to do lobbying because that would bring more scrutiny on his own efforts, so he was trying to use these cut-out organizations and they were happy to play a role.
What else can we expect from the Mueller investigation? I'm not talking about the speculation, you also speak of the criticism of the Mueller investigation, which there is a lot of in other media, even ones like the Wall Street Journal. I'm also asking this because, outside of the States, it seems like a big a story, like something big, is going to happen soon. But then, you see these headlines: Mueller - the bravest guy in Washington. Seeing that, you understand that there are different views on that story as well.
Listen, the biggest danger to me - and the thing that could kind of throw us into the middle of a major political crisis - is if Trump was to fire Robert Mueller, which is an entirely possible thing to do given his track record of firing James Comey and for complaining on Twitter about Robert Mueller. You can imagine it happening, that he decided that he was getting close to being prosecuted and you can imagine that he would fire him. I know that sounds like not necessarily the most plausible scenario at this moment, but it is a plausible scenario. And, if it were to happen, it would be an extremely large test of the Republican Party, to see how they would respond because this process was set up to be outside of politics, to be outside of the bureaucracy, to be a process that was very, very legalistic, and if Trump were to intervene for his own personal preservation, it would be among the greatest political crimes in American history.
Just to give us an understanding - how come there are criticisms of Mueller? It's not very clear why. What is the reason for that? Even the criticism of him, some collusion to the Russian dossier is not very clear to me.
No, I mean it's a lot of innuendoes. I think that it's funny, if you go back, if you replay, there are a lot of allies of Donald Trump who have had nice things to say about Robert Mueller over time, and those people are now critical of him because Trump is in danger. The goal of a lot of right-wing media isn't necessarily to say something true, it's to imply things about him that make him less credible. So if the moment were to ever come where Trump were to fire him, people would be prepared.