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Goldberg: Conspirator, or just clueless?

By Michelle Goldberg

New York Times News Service

Published on February 27, 2018 3:19PM

Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg


Robert Mueller, the special counsel, first indicted Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, the former chairman and deputy chairman of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, last October on charges including money laundering and conspiracy against the United States. At the time, the White House and its apologists argued that these alleged crimes predated the campaign, and were thus unrelated to any putative election-related conspiracies with Russia. Tweeted Trump, “Sorry, but this is years ago, before Paul Manafort was part of the Trump campaign.”

This wasn’t true then — multiple charges referred to crimes that were said to continue at least through 2016. But Mueller’s new indictments, released last week, render Trump’s defense even more ridiculous. They provide detailed evidence that Manafort and Gates’ alleged financial crimes continued while they were running Trump’s campaign. And despite the White House’s insistence otherwise, the felonies that Manafort is accused of, and the two that Gates pleaded guilty to on Friday, bear directly on the question of Russian collusion.

It’s certainly possible that Trump himself didn’t personally connive with Russia for campaign help. Perhaps, through a combination of carelessness and miserliness, he unwittingly allowed his campaign to be infiltrated at the highest levels by both alleged and admitted criminals with Russian ties. Such a scenario, however, would not be exculpatory.

Thanks to Mueller’s indictments and some revelatory journalism, we have a decent picture of the desperate straits Manafort was in when he joined Team Trump. In the charges unsealed last week, Mueller’s team described a two-part criminal scheme by Manafort and Gates. First, they laundered tens of millions of dollars while working for Viktor Yanukovych, then the Kremlin-aligned president of Ukraine, and his political allies.

In 2014, Yanukovych fled into exile in Russia, and according to Mueller’s indictment, Manafort and Gates’ “Ukraine income dwindled.” That’s when the second part of their scheme began. From 2015 to 2017, in what looks like a frantic scramble for cash, the indictment says, they “fraudulently secured more than $20 million” in bank loans by lying about their finances.

We don’t know why they needed all this money. But we do know that in 2014, lawyers for Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska filed a petition in the Cayman Islands claiming that Manafort and Gates couldn’t account for almost $19 million that a company controlled by Deripaska had given them to invest. Deripaska, who is reportedly very close to President Vladimir Putin, has been denied entry to the United States because of his suspected ties to Russian organized crime. One would not, presumably, want to owe him a debt that could not be paid.

By 2015, Manafort was in despair; according to Franklin Foer’s exhaustive profile of him in The Atlantic, one of his daughters feared he would commit suicide. But in 2016, he seems to have glimpsed salvation in Trump’s presidential campaign. Manafort wrote to Trump offering to work free, and Trump, famously tightfisted, accepted. He joined the campaign in March, and in May was promoted to campaign chairman, with Gates as his deputy.

Immediately, Manafort sought to use his role in the campaign to repair his relationship with Deripaska. In April, as The Washington Post reported, he emailed an employee in Kiev about his new job, and wrote, apparently in relation to Deripaska, “How do we use to get whole?” In July, Manafort offered to give Deripaska private briefings about the campaign.

Of course, Manafort wasn’t the only figure in Trump’s campaign with questionable Russian connections. On Saturday, the House Intelligence Committee released a memo written by Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., who is its ranking member, responding to Republican claims about the surveillance of former Trump foreign policy adviser Carter Page. Buried inside was an important new detail about the Russia investigation.

According to Schiff’s memo, when the Justice Department sought a warrant to surveil Page in 2016, it presented the court with contextual information about Russian election interference. The court was told that Russian agents “previewed their hack and dissemination of stolen emails” to George Papadopoulos, another Trump foreign policy adviser. Papadopoulos has since pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his Russian contacts, and we knew he’d been told that Russia had emails that could embarrass Hillary Clinton. But this is the first public confirmation that Papadopoulos had advance notice of a Russian plan to release these emails.

“The language in the memo is new, and I think significant,” Schiff told me. When Manafort, Donald Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner had their infamous meeting with Russian emissaries at Trump Tower on June 9, 2016, “at least someone on the campaign was aware that not only did the Russians have dirt on Clinton, they had emails, and they were prepared to disseminate them in anonymous fashion.”

Perhaps Trump didn’t realize that his campaign was being run by alleged Russian money launderers, that at least two of his foreign policy advisers had entanglements with Russian intelligence, and that his campaign had a heads up about Russian plans to dump stolen Clinton emails online. None of last week’s new information proves that Trump is too disloyal to his own country to be president. But the only alternative is that he’s too clueless.

Michelle Goldberg, a New York Times op-ed columnist, covers politics, gender, religion and ideology.



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