Though Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine is just days old, Russia has been working for years to influence and undermine the independence of its smaller neighbor. As it happens, some Americans have played a role in that effort.
One was former President Donald Trump’s campaign chairman Paul Manafort. Another was Trump’s then-lawyer Rudy Giuliani.
It’s all detailed in a wide array of public documents, particularly a bipartisan 2020 Senate report on Trump and Russia. I was one of the journalists who dug into all the connections, as part of the Trump, Inc. podcast with ProPublica and WNYC. (I was in Kyiv, retracing Manafort’s steps
, when Trump’s infamous call with Ukraine’s president was revealed in September 2019.)
Given recent events, I thought it’d be helpful to put all the tidbits together, showing what happened step by step.
Americans Making Money Abroad. What’s the Problem?
Paul Manafort was a longtime Republican consultant and lobbyist who’d developed a speciality working with unsavory
, undemocratic clients
. In 2004, he was hired by oligarchs supporting a pro-Russian party in Ukraine. It was a tough assignment: The Party of Regions needed an image makeover. A recent election had been marred by allegations that fraud had been committed in favor of the party’s candidate, prompting a popular revolt that became known as the Orange Revolution.
In a memo
for Ukraine’s reportedly richest man
, Rinat Akhmetov, Manafort summed up the polling: Many respondents said they associated the Party of Regions with corruption and considered it the “party of oligarchs.”
Manafort set to work rebranding the party with poll-tested messaging and improved stagecraft. Before long, the Party of Regions was in power in Kyiv.
One of his key aides in Ukraine was, allegedly, a Russian spy. The Senate Intelligence Committee report
on Trump and Russia said Konstantin Kilimnik was both “a Russian intelligence officer” and “an integral part of Manafort’s operations in Ukraine and Russia.”
Kilimnik has denied
he is a Russian spy. He was indicted
by Special Counsel Robert Mueller for obstruction of justice for allegedly trying to get witnesses to lie in testimony to prosecutors in the Manafort case. Kilimnik, who reportedly lives in Moscow, has not been arrested. In an email to The Washington Post,
Kilimnik distanced himself from Manafort’s legal woes and wrote, “I am still confused as to why I was pulled into this mess.”
Manafort did quite well during his time in Ukraine. He was paid tens of millions of dollars by pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych and other clients, stashing much of the money in undeclared bank accounts in Cyprus and the Caribbean. He used the hidden income to enjoy some of the finer things in life, such as a $15,000 ostrich jacket
. Manafort was convicted in 2018 of wide-ranging financial crimes.
“We Are Going to Have So Much Fun, and Change the World in the Process”
In 2014, Manafort’s plum assignment in Ukraine came to an abrupt end. In February of that year, Yanukovych was deposed in Ukraine’s second uprising in a decade, known as the Maidan Revolution, in which more than a hundred protesters were killed in Kyiv. He fled to Russia, leaving behind a vast, opulent estate (now a museum
) with gold-plated bathroom fixtures, a galleon on a lake and a 100-car garage.
With big bills and no more big checks coming in, Manafort soon found himself deep in debt, including to a Russian oligarch
. He eventually pitched himself for a new gig in American politics as a convention manager, wrangling delegates for an iconoclastic reality-TV star and real estate developer.
“I am not looking for a paid job,” he wrote
to the Trump campaign in early 2016. Manafort was hired that spring, working for free. Continue Reading