Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

Opinion: AP report on Manafort ties to Putin is explosive

From the Associated Press:

"WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump's former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, secretly worked for a Russian billionaire to advance the interests of Russian President Vladimir Putin a decade ago and proposed an ambitious political strategy to undermine anti-Russian opposition across former Soviet republics, The Associated Press has learned. The work appears to contradict assertions by the Trump administration and Manafort himself that he never worked for Russian interests."

From that bad beginning, things get worse for Manafort.

The AP has acquired documentation that Manafort was paid as much as $10 million to work on behalf of Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch who was and continues to be extremely close to Vladimir Putin. It cites contracts, memos and international money-transfer documents. It reports that Manafort was paid through a shell company.

It quotes a 2005 memo to Deripaska written by Manafort proposing the work that he could accomplish:

"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 wrote in the 2005 memo to Deripaska. The effort, Manafort wrote, "will be offering a great service that can re-focus, both internally and externally, the policies of the Putin government."

The 2005 strategy memos propose pro-Putin activities in former Soviet republics and in Europe. They brag of activities on behalf of the then-pro-Putin Ukrainian government targeting "the highest levels of the U.S. government — the White House, Capitol Hill and the State Department," and note that Manafort had hired "a leading international law firm with close ties to President Bush to support our client's interests." AP's reporting found:

"In strategy memos, Manafort proposed that Deripaska and Putin would benefit from lobbying Western governments, especially the U.S., to allow oligarchs to keep possession of formerly state-owned assets in Ukraine."

According to the Associated Press, Manafort never registered as a foreign agent as required by federal law. Willfully failing to register as a foreign agent is a felony with up to five years in prison. Manafort told the Associated Press that he had indeed worked for Deripaska, but not for Putin.

"I worked with Oleg Deripaska almost a decade ago representing him on business and personal matters in countries where he had investments," Manafort said. "My work for Mr. Deripaska did not involve representing Russian political interests."

One would assume that U.S. counterintelligence is not learning all of this by clicking on a link to the AP story. It's also pretty damn clear, given these revelations, why FBI Director James Comey feels it necessary to conduct a full counterintelligence and criminal investigation into ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. Given the undisclosed, previously hidden links documented by AP, such a probe would be absolutely necessary even if Russia had not hacked American political organizations and had not strategically leaked material in an effort to aid in Trump's election.

But it did.

These ties, combined with Russian intervention, make this an extremely critical investigation. Among other things, investigators are no doubt quite interested in how Trump, a candidate with a documented fondness for and perhaps even an obsession with Putin, ended up with a campaign CEO such as Manafort and a national security adviser such as Michael Flynn, who himself has taken tens of thousands of dollars from Russian interests without necessary approval. Accident or coincidence is not a sufficient explanation.

Since the early '70s, the common practice in the political world has been to try to compare the scandal of the day to Watergate. Well, this one has the potential to make Watergate look minor in comparison. Republican defenders of President Trump have until now airily dismissed pressure to appoint an independent counsel to fully explore this situation, but that position no longer seems tenable.

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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.