The connections between President Trump's campaign staff and the Russian government of Vladimir Putin are curiously widespread. Former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn had to resign for speaking with Russian officials before Trump took office, and then "misleading" Vice President Mike Pence about it. Add to that the F.B.I. investigations into some of Trump's campaign aides — Carter Page, Roger Stone — for their connections to Russia. And then there's former campaign chairman Paul Manafort. Though Trump's first campaign chair was known to have worked for pro-Putin Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, we now know the Russia love did not end there for Manafort. He also worked for Oleg Deripaska, a Russian billionaire who also happened to be one of Putin's biggest allies.
Shady people do shady things, sure. But the recently released findings of Manafort's work are particularly damning. For starters, he laid out his own vision for increasing the reputation and influence of "the Putin government" in 2005, written in a memo to Deripaska. That's a problem for various reasons, but especiallly one considering Manafort's November 2015 declaration that he "never had ties to Russian president Vladimir Putin, or had dealings with Putin and his government.” Manafort's contract with Deripaska, beginning in 2006, paid $10 million a year.
BREAKING: Trump's ex-campaign chairman Paul Manafort secretly worked for Russian billionaire to "benefit Putin government," files show pic.twitter.com/mIRg2LUrvb— The Associated Press (@AP) March 22, 2017
Cables from U.S. diplomats described Deripaska as "a more-or-less permanent fixture on Putin's trips abroad." The so-called oligarch grew stockpiles of wealth while Putin has been in power, and the closeness between the two is not considered a coincidence by those who study Russian political dealings.
A few details from the AP's report on Manafort's work with Deripaska are especially disconcerting. For starters, Manafort kept his lobbying on behalf of Putin-friendly policies from the Justice Department. That is potentially a felony-level crime. According to the Foreign Agents Registration Act, those "who lobby in the U.S. on behalf of foreign political leaders or political parties must provide detailed reports about their actions to the department." That Manafort kept his lobbying secret implies he either did not consider it work on behalf of a foreign party (that seems a stretch to this writer), or he did not want to disclose what his firm was involved in. This is troubling.
Further, one of Manafort's colleagues from that time, Rick Gates, is now invited to the White House and in charge of running a non-profit devoted to Trump's "America First" agenda. Gates worked for Manafort's lobbying firm from 2006 - 2016, and was specifically involved in "domestic U.S. lobbying and political consulting in Ukraine," as well as being Manafort's former "business partner in eastern Europe."
There's all kinds of proverbial smoke here. And with Washington, D.C. and the Ukraine now seeking Manafort's testimony, it's possible that whether or not actual fire exists will be discovered soon.