Special counsel Robert Mueller is closing in on Paul Manafort – and Trump should be worried

4 November 2017

9:00 AM

4 November 2017

9:00 AM


Before he was Donald Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort worked for the president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych. Yanukovych started out as a petty thief in the bleak Soviet city of Donetsk. He stole fur hats from men using its outside toilets. He would reach over the door as they squatted, defenceless, and flee while their trousers were still around their ankles. Even among the criminals of Donetsk, this was thought low behaviour. ‘It’s hard to imagine now that we had such a character as a president of the country,’ said Alex Kovzhun, a Ukrainian political consultant. Kovzhun joyfully put this story on thousands of mock newspaper front pages during the 2004 presidential campaign. Yanukovych lost that election and, Kovzhun told me, decided then to get expert help with his image. He had been using Russian political consultants; he thought he needed an American. Enter Paul Manafort.

The sophisticated American ‘bedazzled’ Yanukovych. ‘Manafort did wonders for him. He created a classical Soviet persona: the older, good-looking guy in a suit with a fatherly smile… They taught him, you have to smile when you shake hands. It became a Pavlovian reflex. Shake hands, smile. Shake hands, smile.’ With Manafort’s help, Yanukovych won the presidency. ‘Yanukovych was a violent crime figure who brought all the knowhow from the crime world to the state. He organised a system of absorbing money from the country, and scaring everybody shitless.’

Yanukovych got rich. He lived in a luxury dacha outside Kiev with his mistress and his two Thai masseuses. The house has been a museum ever since he fled to Moscow in 2004, a monument to bad taste and excess. There is a garage with 50 luxury cars; a painting depicts Yanukovych in heroic pose as a rally driver. There’s a stuffed lion and a grinning alligator, suits of armour and parakeets, marble and mahogany, Swarovski crystal and Persian carpets.

The man who helped make all this possible, Paul Manafort, liked the good things in life, too, if his indictment in the US this week is any guide: $934,000 on antique carpets; $1.3 million on home entertainment systems; a tailor’s bill of $849,000… the indictment states that $18 million was secretly funnelled into the United States and never declared to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). It claims that $75 million from Manafort’s businesses passed through offshore accounts in Cyprus and the Caribbean. This is the first indictment brought by Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating (alleged) Russia interference in the US election.

On the face of it, none of the charges relate to what Manafort did then. Instead, he is accused of tax evasion, money laundering, and failing to register as a lobbyist for Ukraine. The President tweeted, gleefully: ‘Sorry, but this is years ago, before Paul Manafort was part of the Trump campaign… why aren’t Crooked Hillary & the Dems the focus?????’

Mueller has been looking at a lobbying firm run by a prominent Democrat, Tony Podesta, brother of John Podesta, chairman of Hillary’s campaign. The firm is referred to, though not by name, in the Manafort indictment. Trump’s base got a whiff of Democrat blood in the water when Tony Podesta resigned from the firm to concentrate on answering Mueller’s questions about his work for Ukraine. Trump’s friend and adviser Roger Stone has long been pushing a story that the other Podesta — John, the campaign chairman — is guilty of laundering Russian money through the Clinton foundation.

But for Trump’s future, the crucial issue is where exactly Manafort’s millions came from. Can the money be traced back to Kremlin loyalists in Ukraine? In August 2016, the New York Times published pages from a ledger belonging to Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions. Next to Manafort’s name was a figure: $12.5 million. Days later, he resigned as Trump’s campaign manager. In Kiev last week, I met a senior official who has seen the secret report into this produced by Ukraine’s domestic intelligence service, the SBU. His job is so sensitive that he has to log any meetings arranged with foreigners. We had to ‘accidentally’ bump into one another in a park, like characters in a Cold War spy novel.

He told me there were three ledgers, representing three separate ‘black’ funds being run by the Party of the Regions. In each case, he said, the money was actually supplied by a different oligarch, all with ties to Moscow. This may be the story that Mueller and his team are trying to prove: Russian money in Ukrainian politics buying influence with Manafort and through him with Donald Trump. The SBU managed to infiltrate Manafort’s operation, I was told. They say they can show that Manafort was paid $600,000 a month over four years, $28.8 million in total. This was far more than claimed in the original New York Times story — and it is the figure from just one of the three funds. They believe the final total was higher still. The FBI has all this information.

Manafort’s lawyer says the documents have been forged, while a former member of his team in Ukraine told me such sums were what you would expect to be paid for a big political operation. I spoke to Manafort himself a year ago, when I first learned he was under investigation. He sounded wounded. ‘I was just trying to bring Ukraine closer to the West,’ he told me. In Washington, a friend of Hillary Clinton’s scoffed at that. The Russians must have known Manafort was hiding millions offshore, he said, and could have used this knowledge to blackmail him. ‘The suspicion would naturally be that they were a driving force behind his volunteering to serve the Trump campaign for free. Their objective would have been to gain a foothold deep inside the Trump camp.’

This is far ahead of anything in this week’s indictment, which was a tax fraud and money laundering case. The White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, declared from the podium: ‘Today’s announcement has nothing to do with the President.’ One of Trump’s lawyers, Jay Sekulow, told CNN: ‘I’m not concerned about this at all, and no one else is either.’ The President’s team sounded almost relieved. The White House had long known the Manafort indictment was coming. The media strategy was clear: ‘Nothing to see here.’ Trump himself tweeted: ‘There is NO COLLUSION!’ Then Mueller delivered a sucker punch.

The special counsel announced that a young adviser to the campaign, George Papadopoulos, had admitted lying to the FBI about his contacts with various Russians. His plea agreement makes it clear that the campaign knew about the hacking of Democratic party emails a month before it was publicly revealed. Suddenly ‘collusion’ was back in what they call ‘the conversation’ in Washington. ‘Mueller perfectly understands how to play the Washington DC media game,’ said Rick Wilson, a political consultant. ‘He’s been around it for 40 years. They kept Papadopoulos concealed and basically turned him into a guided missile. That’s going to ramp up their [the Trump team’s] already extreme paranoia into the stratosphere.’

Wilson is a Republican but also a fierce critic of Trump. ‘The guy doesn’t understand what exactly is happening to him. It’s like a Greek tragedy.’ Trump’s supporters had ‘actually come to believe that when Donald Trump tweets something, it’s real’. But: ‘The tempo of the game is going to be decided by Bob Mueller… Mueller doesn’t care about Donald Trump’s tweets except so far as they incriminate Donald Trump. He ignores the static, and presses on towards the target.’

Another Washington insider told me: ‘What you have to understand about Bob Mueller is that he is the ultimate Wasp. He believes in the rules and God help you if you break them. I wouldn’t like to have him after me.’ Trump’s friend Roger Stone told a conservative website that the President’s ‘only chance for survival’ in office was to neutralise Mueller. Speculation is rife in Washington that Trump will try to fire Mueller, a night of the long knives to eclipse the one in Watergate. That, or start a war with North Korea.

Ominously for Trump, Papadopoulos was described in his plea deal as an ‘active co-operator’. The American media took this to mean that he had been wearing a wire. That thought may have some members of the Trump campaign team in a cold sweat. Papadopoulos, once described by Trump as an ‘excellent guy’, was trashed by the President on Twitter as ‘a proven liar’.

Papadopoulos says he went to the Russians to get ‘dirt’ on Hillary Clinton. Trump’s eldest son, Donald Jr, has already admitted he held a meeting with a Russian lawyer with a similar aim in mind. Mueller is surely investigating that. It may also be significant that the Manafort indictment makes no mention of his work for the Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska. Manafort’s emails, now turned over to investigators, show him offering ‘private briefings’ to Deripaska during the campaign. Mueller is surely looking at this too. All of this is about ‘collusion’, not just money.

Mueller appears then to be moving steadily, relentlessly closer to Trump. No one expects that this week’s indictments will be the last in the Russia investigation.

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