As special counsel Robert Mueller wraps up his investigation, important questions remain about Paul Manafort’s dealings with Russians while he ran the 2016 Trump campaign and his motive, which prosecutors believe is at “the heart” of their inquiry.
Mueller’s team recently revealed that they are zeroing in on an August 2016 meeting between Manafort and a Russian associate who the FBI says had active ties to Russian spy agencies. Both Manafort and the Russian, Konstantin Kilimnik, deny collusion but acknowledge that they discussed the presidential campaign.
“This goes to the larger view of what we think is going on, and what we think the motive here is,” Mueller team prosecutor Andrew Weissmann told a judge last week at a closed-door hearing. “This goes, I think, very much to the heart of what the special counsel’s office is investigating.”
The judge ruled Wednesday that Manafort lied to investigators and to the grand jury about his contacts with Kilimnik. These topics were “material to the (special counsel) investigation,” Judge Amy Berman Jackson wrote, highlighting the significance of Manafort’s continued cover-up.
Manafort’s relationship with the elusive Kilimnik is well-documented. They worked together in Ukraine for nearly a decade, lobbying on behalf of pro-Russia politicians.
But the public is still learning the extent of their contacts at key moments in the campaign. New details are still trickling out nearly three years after Manafort joined President Donald Trump’s campaign, like the recent revelation that Manafort shared sensitive polling data with Kilimnik.
The motive behind their interactions – emails, calls and face-to-face meetings – is still an open question. As Manafort sits in his Virginia jail cell, largely out of public view since June and legally prohibited from discussing the case, the void has been largely filled by others.
Mueller’s team on Friday will submit a sentencing recommendation with the Virginia federal court where Manafort was convicted of tax and bank fraud. In the memo, prosecutors could sketch out their theory of Manafort’s motivations or shed new light on his criminal conduct.
Some see Manafort as a greedy grifter, desperate for a payday, looking out for only himself.
He made $60 million from his Ukraine work. But he was essentially broke by the time he joined the Trump campaign in March 2016, largely because his wealthy patrons in Ukraine were forced from power in the 2014 revolution. As Weissmann put it, “Mr. Manafort had a liquidity issue.”
Even so, Weissmann pointed out to the court, Manafort was working for the Trump campaign for free.
Kilimnik told The Washington Post that, during the August 2016 meeting, he and Manafort discussed “bills unpaid by our clients.” At the time, Manafort was owed more than $2 million from his Ukrainian backers for work he did prior to the Trump campaign, a spokesman told CNN.
There are some signs that Manafort tried to use his role on the campaign not to collude with Russia but instead to enhance his future business prospects. In 2017, The Washington Post published emails showing how Manafort asked Kilimnik to offer private election briefings to a Russian billionaire.
On the other hand, some Democrats and Trump opponents have long believed that if there was collusion by Trump’s campaign, then Manafort could be the linchpin. After all, his Russian ties before the campaign were extensive. And he just can’t stop lying about them.
They also point to the infamous dossier, authored by ex-British spy Christopher Steele, which claimed that Manafort personally oversaw the Trump-Russia cooperation on behalf of the campaign.
“The darkest interpretation here is that Manafort was essentially the connection from the Trump team over to the Russian side,” said Steve Hall, the retired CIA chief of Russia operations. “For me, the fact that Manafort wanted to talk to the Russians about the campaign indicates that they were interested in the campaign, not just trying to peddle influence with a Trump administration.”
If investigators have a theory regarding Manafort’s motives – greed, collusion, something in between or something else altogether – they’ll soon have an opportunity to share it with the public. Next week, they’ll file sentencing memos that are expected to shed light on some of these unsettled questions.
Manafort, 69, faces 10 felony convictions in two different federal jurisdictions and will be sentenced in the coming months. He could realistically spend the rest of his life in prison.
At the closed-door hearing last week, Weissmann said that Manafort might have repeatedly lied about his Russian contacts because he was trying to boost his shot at a pardon from the President. So far, Trump has refused to rule out a pardon for his former campaign chairman.
“This is my opinion, but Weissmann does have some political biases, and at this point, he probably thinks Trump is full of it, and that frustration is coming out,” said Shan Wu, a former federal prosecutor who previously represented Manafort’s deputy Rick Gates. “But based on his reputation for thoroughness, Weissmann wouldn’t say that in open court unless they had some evidence pointing to the value of what Manafort is hiding.”