Perhaps this explains the Trump campaign shuffle today. The Associated Press reports that Paul Manafort, until today Trump’s campaign chief, may have violated federal law in channeling cash from foreign sources to US lobbyists. The alleged transactions date back to 2012 and Manafort’s work with the pro-Kremlin Ukraine government of Viktor Yanukovich, who was later deposed in a popular revolt:
Donald Trump’s campaign chairman helped a pro-Russian governing party in Ukraine secretly route at least $2.2 million in payments to two prominent Washington lobbying firms in 2012, and did so in a way that effectively obscured the foreign political party’s efforts to influence U.S. policy.
The revelation, provided to The Associated Press by people directly knowledgeable about the effort, comes at a time when Trump has faced criticism for his friendly overtures to Russian President Vladimir Putin. It also casts new light on the business practices of campaign chairman Paul Manafort.
If nothing else, one of the recipients might raise some eyebrows on the Right even if the alleged transactions didn’t violate US law:
Manafort and business associate Rick Gates, another top strategist in Trump’s campaign, were working in 2012 on behalf of the political party of Ukraine’s then-president, Viktor Yanukovych.
People with direct knowledge of Gates’ work said that, during the period when Gates and Manafort were consultants to the Ukraine president’s political party, Gates was also helping steer the advocacy work done by a pro-Yanukovych nonprofit that hired a pair of Washington lobbying firms, Podesta Group Inc. and Mercury LLC.
The Podesta Group began in 1988 as a partnership between brothers John and Tony Podesta. Tony remains as chair of the group, which “has close ties to the Democratic Party and the Obama administration.” Its CEO, Kimberly Fritts, used to work for Jeb Bush. The Podesta Group highlights Politico’s declaration of its status as “a king of K Street.”
And of course, John Podesta is best known as a former chief of staff for Barack Obama, and until today Manafort’s opposite as campaign chief for Hillary Clinton. Interestingly, and notably, the AP cites sources within the Podesta Group for this story (as well as other sources). Coincidence? Don’t bet on it.
The question of legal violations seems more murky. Gates insists that the payments did not require disclosure or registry as foreign lobbying, and federal law in these areas is complicated. (If so, then the Podesta Group might have problems, too — they got $1.3 million of the cash.) In part, the complications come from efforts by the lobbying industry to make transactions as opaque as possible. That’s precisely the kind of “establishment” and “cronyism” against which the Trump campaign argues, too, so the political ramifications may be more potent than the legalities in any case.
Adding to that is a report from the Times of London that Manafort may have helped Yanukovych’s party set the stage for Russia’s annexation of Crimea (behind the pay wall):
— Justin Green (@JGreenDC) August 17, 2016
It’s worth noting, though, that an eight-year gap exists between the 2006 protests and the 2014 seizure of Crimea. It also looks less like a play for annexation and more of a divide-and-conquer domestic political strategy that would hardly be unique to Manafort, Yanukovych, Ukraine, or Russia. In fact, it might sound familiar to observers in this political cycle here at home.
None of this looks damning in and of itself, but it certainly raises some questions, particularly about foreign influence and lobbying abuses on behalf of Russian interests. And that might be one reason that Manafort’s position on Team Trump might be waning rather than waxing. It’s almost certainly not the only potential explanation.