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Paul Manafort’s central role in the Trump-Russia investigation, explained

Trump’s former campaign chair is facing charges in Mueller’s investigation.

Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post via Getty
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Paul Manafort and Rick Gates — two top Trump staffers during the 2016 campaign — were indicted in federal court Monday as part of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. You can read the full indictment here.

The two men are facing a total of 12 charges that mostly focus on alleged money laundering, failure to disclose their financial assets, and false statements regarding their work for the government of Ukraine and a Ukrainian political party. The indictment alleges that Manafort laundered more than $18 million since 2006.

It’s been clear for some time that Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation has had Manafort in its crosshairs. In July, the FBI raided Manafort’s house for documents. Manafort’s son-in-law was reportedly approached and asked to cooperate with the investigation. Later, we learned that that Manafort had reportedly been wiretapped.

But though Manafort’s history of pro-Russia consulting work and experience with international skullduggery have long made him a prime suspect for potential collusion, Monday’s indictment does not actually have anything to do with the question of Russian interference in the 2016 campaign.

Instead, it largely relates to matters predating Manafort’s involvement in Trump’s campaign. It’s about whether Manafort and Gates appropriately disclosed about a decade of foreign work, and whether they were was involved in illegal money laundering.

It’s long been speculated that if Mueller’s team finds damaging evidence here, they’re reportedly hoping they can use charges to get Manafort to give them more information on the collusion matter (if he has any). That is: They may want him to flip against Trump, other Trump associates, or potentially Russians.

So, if we zoom out, we can frame Manafort’s importance to the larger scandal in terms of two major questions.

First, was Manafort involved in, or does he know about, any collusion between Trump’s team and the Russian government during the campaign?

Second — if Manafort does have any useful information, can Mueller’s team convince or compel him to share that information — perhaps through these other charges?

1) Who is Paul Manafort?

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Over a decades-long career as a Republican operative and lobbyist, Paul Manafort distinguished himself by working on several GOP presidential campaigns (Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole) and representing several controversial dictators (Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, Mobutu Sese Seko of the Democratic Republic of the Congo). He was also a longtime business partner of Roger Stone, with whom he founded a famous lobbying firm.

But in the mid-2000s, Manafort’s career took a turn. He “all but vanished from the Washington scene” and began focusing on business activities in Eastern Europe, as Politico later reported. This began with advising work for the Russian oligarch and aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska and for the Ukrainian oligarch and steel magnate Rinat Akhmetov.

Then, in 2005, Manafort moved back into the political realm by advising the Party of Regions — the pro-Russian political party that Akhmetov was involved with. The party was led by Viktor Yanukovych, who had recently lost a presidential election, and Manafort’s team helped them formulate a strategy for a comeback. The two men became friendly — they went to saunas and played tennis together, the Wall Street Journal recently reported. Then, in 2010, Yanukovych won Ukraine’s presidency.

Manafort had other dealings with wealthy people in the region, too — for instance, he tried to develop a luxury apartment project in Manhattan with Ukrainian energy oligarch Dmitry Firtash, who was later charged with money laundering and bribery.

But in 2014, these business ventures went awry. President Yanukovych was forced to flee Ukraine due to protests and clashes over his pro-Russian policies. Manafort and Deripaska, meanwhile, had a falling out that ended in a lawsuit, with Deripaska claiming Manafort cheated him of millions.

2) What did Paul Manafort do for Donald Trump?

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With a scandal over potential collusion with Russia now raging, it may seem rather bizarre that Donald Trump appointed an operative who had done so much pro-Putin work as his campaign chair even though he had been out of domestic US politics for years.

But it’s important to remember how Manafort’s hiring in March 2016 was perceived at the time.

The major problem facing Trump’s campaign at this point was that he had won several flashy victories in early primary elections, but his rival Ted Cruz’s operation was proving adept at locking down delegates even in states Trump won, like Louisiana. And it is delegates, after all, who technically determine who the nominee will be.

Trump became convinced that he needed an expert who understood the byzantine party rules that actually govern delegate selection and the convention, or else he could lose. Manafort was genuinely experienced at this, since he had helped Gerald Ford lock down delegates in 1976, and managed Bob Dole’s GOP convention in 1996.

Importantly, Manafort was also the former business partner of Trump’s longtime adviser Roger Stone — a connection that helped put him on Trump’s radar. “Roger was one of the two or three people who strongly recommended me [to Trump],” Manafort says in a Netflix documentary on Stone. Though Stone had been pushed out of the Trump campaign some time ago, he continued to advise Trump informally, and to intrigue against campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, who he despised.

On March 28, 2016, Trump announced he’d hired Manafort, and at first, his job was merely to lead a delegate-wrangling operation. But around that time, Lewandowski became enmeshed in scandal when he was charged with battery for grabbing reporter Michelle Fields at a campaign event. So Manafort’s portfolio gradually expanded until he was effectively running the campaign. In mid-May he was officially named campaign chair and chief strategist, and Lewandowski was fired the following month.

Manafort was in charge through the last few primary elections and the Republican convention. But by mid-August, Trump had sunk in the polls, and Manafort himself was dogged by damaging news reports about his past foreign work. So Trump brought in Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway to take over, and Manafort was forced to resign.

3) Why has Manafort become a focus in the collusion investigation?

A picture of Robert Mueller
Robert Mueller
Brooks Kraft/Getty Images

Though Manafort’s time on the Trump campaign ended up lasting fewer than five months (from late March to mid-August 2016), it was both an eventful period and a crucial one for Trump/Russia activity.

  • This was when the campaign pivoted from the primary election to the general, in which finding a way to defeat Hillary Clinton would be the top priority.
  • In early June, Donald Trump Jr. received an email in which his acquaintance Rob Goldstone offered to set up a meeting in which he’d receive incriminating information on Hillary Clinton “as part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”
  • Trump Jr. forwarded along the email thread about the meeting to Manafort and Jared Kushner, and invited them to it. That meeting with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya and potential spy Rinat Akhmetshin took place on June 9, 2016, with Manafort (and Kushner) in attendance. The parties involved have claimed the meeting was a dud that led nowhere. Per NBC News, Manafort’s notes on the meeting included a reference to donations “near a reference to the Republican National Committee,’” though the full context there remains unclear.
  • In July, Manafort oversaw the Republican National Convention. As the party platform was being put together the week before, some controversy spilled out into the press over whether Trump staffers pushed to water down an aggressive anti-Russia amendment calling for the arming of Ukraine. But there hasn’t been any indication that Manafort was personally involved, and this whole controversy seems to have been somewhat exaggerated. (The preexisting platform wasn’t changed, but a Cruz supporter’s proposed amendment was modified before being added to it.)
  • In late July, WikiLeaks posted thousands of hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee. The dumps, which showed certain DNC staffers saying unfriendly things about Bernie Sanders, were perfectly timed to cause chaos at the Democratic convention the following week. US intelligence agencies later said the DNC hack was the work of the Russian government.

So one obvious question Mueller is pursuing is whether there was any follow-up to the meeting Trump Jr. set up. (Trump Jr. has said there wasn’t.) Given the timeline, another question that comes to mind is whether Manafort had any knowledge about the email hackings (something he has denied).

There are also questions about Manafort’s emails with a Russian-Ukrainian business associate of his named Konstantin Kilimnik about his old client, the Russian billionaire and aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska. While chairing the Trump campaign on July 7, Manafort emailed Kilimnik about Deripaska and said, “If he needs private briefings we can accommodate,” according to the Washington Post.

Kilimnik wrote back a few weeks later and seemingly spoke in code about Deripaska, saying he’d met with the person “who gave you the biggest black caviar jar several years ago,” and that it would take time to explain this “long caviar story.” He and Manafort then set up a meeting in New York, which took place a few days later.

Additionally, CNN reported in September that at some point after June 2016, investigators got a secret court order to surveil Manafort. Per CNN, this surveillance continued after Trump was sworn in as president, during a period when Manafort was known to be in contact with him.

And yet none of this is mentioned in Manafort’s October 30 indictment. Instead, the indictment focuses on years worth of alleged misdeeds that mostly happened before the campaign — events that had caught the FBI’s attention even before Mueller was appointed special counsel.

4) What was Manafort actually indicted for?

Special Counsel Mueller’s indictment alleges 12 counts against either Manafort, Gates, or both. The gist of the charges is that Manafort and Gates “acted as unregistered agents” of the government of Ukraine and Ukrainian politicians, generating “tens of millions of dollars in income” which they then “laundered” through “score of United States and foreign corporations, partnerships, and bank accounts.” You can read the full indictment here.

You can think of the charges in two separate but related buckets: one is money laundering, and the second is false statements or failure to disclosure foreign work.

On the money laundering front, Manafort and Gates are both charged with a broader “conspiracy to launder money” and separate specific charges on their failure to report foreign bank and financial accounts.

The indictment reads: “Manafort used his hidden overseas wealth to enjoy a lavish lifestyle in the United States, without paying taxes on that income.” It alleges that Manafort himself laundered over $18 million through offshore accounts, making payments to various businesses including a home improvement company, a men’s clothing store, a landscaper, and an antique rug store.

Then there are the false statements and failure to disclose charges, which are against both Manafort and Gates. They are:

  • Acting as an unregistered agent of the government of Ukraine, its then president and one of its major political parties
  • Making false and misleading statements under the Foreign Agents Registration Act related to that Ukraine work

Mueller’s main goal, of course, is to investigate the matter of potential collusion between Trump associates and Russia, so he could well see charges against Manafort as a means to this end. The stronger the evidence he has against Manafort, the more pressure he can exert to get him to cooperate in the collusion probe. And indeed, Reuters reported in July that this was in fact Mueller’s aim.

5) What’s the latest on the investigation?

On Monday morning, Manafort turned himself in to the FBI to face those charges, as did Gates.

Now, much will come down to the specifics. How strong is the evidence Mueller has gathered against Manafort? Does Manafort even have useful information to offer Mueller on the collusion matter?

After all, we also learned Monday that former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos was arrested and pled guilty to making false statements to the FBI about his contacts with Russians during the campaign. Papadopoulos admitted to the FBI that a Russian professor he met who had contacts in the Russian government told him in April 2016 that “the Russians had emails of Clinton,” “thousands of emails.” Did Papadopoulos tell anyone else in the Trump campaign about this? Did Manafort know?

Or might Manafort prefer not to give up any incriminating information about the president of the United States or people close to him — perhaps in hopes of a presidential pardon?

It’s not clear, though, that even that would get Manafort off the hook. Politico has reported that Mueller’s team has begun working with New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who had been conducting his own investigation of Manafort’s finances.

The significance of that is that President Trump would theoretically be able to pardon Manafort for any federal offense — but not state offenses. So as long as the prospect of state charges are hanging over Manafort’s head, he could well have a powerful incentive to cooperate.

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