AP: Paul Manafort secretly worked to advance Russian government's interests -- in 2005

The unstated insinuation here is that a man who was willing to push Putin’s agenda for a price 12 years ago as a lobbyist might also be willing to push Putin’s agenda in his role as campaign manager for a Russiaphilic Republican presidential nominee in 2016. That’s an awfully big “might,” but it’s par for the course for Russiagate scoops. There’s nothing in the piece that links Trump to any of Manafort’s dealings with Russia. You’re left to infer that Trump might have brought him into the campaign not because he needed an experienced delegate wrangler ahead of the GOP convention but because he wanted a middleman with the Kremlin.

The AP story does advance the ball in one way, though. Manafort’s work in Ukraine for Putin puppet Viktor Yanukovych is well known, but the claim has always been that that didn’t directly involve Moscow. The AP’s documents, if accurate, suggest that Manafort’s relationship with the Kremlin was more direct than thought, and wasn’t limited to Ukraine. Which raises a question: Even if Trump’s interest in Manafort was innocent, why would he risk the political headache involved in making a guy this shady the face of his campaign for several months last year? The Yanukovych stuff was bad enough. He couldn’t find anyone within the GOP establishment capable of tamping down a delegate revolt in Cleveland who wasn’t also stinky with money from Putin’s Russian oligarch cronies?

Manafort proposed in a confidential strategy plan as early as June 2005 that he would influence politics, business dealings and news coverage inside the United States, Europe and the former Soviet republics to benefit the Putin government, even as U.S.-Russia relations under Republican President George W. Bush grew worse. Manafort pitched the plans to Russian aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska, a close Putin ally with whom Manafort eventually signed a $10 million annual contract beginning in 2006, according to interviews with several people familiar with payments to Manafort and business records obtained by the AP. Manafort and Deripaska maintained a business relationship until at least 2009, according to one person familiar with the work…

The newly obtained business records link Manafort more directly to Putin’s interests in the region. According to those records and people with direct knowledge of Manafort’s work for Deripaska, Manafort made plans to open an office in Moscow, and at least some of Manafort’s work in Ukraine was directed by Deripaska, not local political interests there. The Moscow office never opened…

Manafort did not disclose details about the lobbying work to the Justice Department during the period the contract was in place.

Under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, people who lobby in the U.S. on behalf of foreign political leaders or political parties must provide detailed reports about their actions to the department. Willfully failing to register is a felony and can result in up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000, though the government rarely files criminal charges.

The AP claims it’s seen records showing “international wire transfers of millions of dollars” as part of Manafort’s arrangement with Deripaska. In a statement, Manafort admitted having worked for Deripaska but insisted that that work “did not involve representing Russia’s political interests.” Funny thing, though: Instead of using his usual name-branded consulting firm for the deal, he used an outfit called LOAV Ltd. Between that and his failure to register as a foreign lobbyist with the DOJ, he was awfully shy about people discovering his Deripaska payday. How come?

The suspicion the AP wants you to come away with here, I think, is that Deripaska might still have been paying Manafort secretly in 2016 on behalf of the Kremlin to influence Trump. You have to read all the way to the end of the piece for the punchline, though: Deripaska and Manafort allegedly had a falling out within the last few years when Deripaska gave him $19 million to invest in a Ukrainian TV company and the money, apparently, went missing. It seems like an exceptionally dangerous thing to mishandle funds given to you by a close associate of Vladimir Putin’s to promote Russian propaganda, but that’s neither here nor there. The point is, it looks as though Manafort was no longer working for Deripaska by the time he became Trump’s campaign manager. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t in touch with other Putin cronies, but it does strongly suggest that the 2005 deal to promote Kremlin interests abroad was no longer operative by the time he became the man in charge of Team Trump.

The chief utility of this piece, I think, is explaining why the FBI might still be investigating Trump’s campaign, as Comey confirmed the other day. The Manafort/Deripaska/Putin relationship would require some digging to fully unravel. It may be that someone in U.S. intelligence leaked the documents to the AP for precisely that reason, to explain to the public why the probe might still be ongoing. Other Trumpers who have been named in the media as being targets of the feds, like Carter Page and Roger Stone, seem to be bit players with no meaningful access to the top of the Russian food chain, but Manafort is different. The AP piece feels like a major clue, leaked deliberately, that he’s the chief target of the Russiagate probe, not Trump himself. Just a theory, but we’ll see.

Update: You can trust Paul Manafort, can’t you?