Impact of Manafort indictment reaches beyond the White House

Impact of Manafort indictment reaches beyond the White House

Former Trump presidential campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his associate Richard Gates face indictment on counts including ‘Conspiracy Against the United States’ and ‘Unregistered Agent of A Foreign Principal’. GRI examines the implications.

Manafort’s work in Ukraine

Paul Manafort’s work as a lobbyist dates back to the 1980s when he co-founded the firm Black, Manafort & Stone, and over the years he has lobbied on behalf of former Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos, Congolese dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, and the governments of Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea and Kenya, among others.

Manafort began working for the Ukrainian Party of Regions in 2006, advising its pro-Russian candidates – including Viktor Yanukovych, who was elected President of Ukraine in 2010. The Party of Regions is known for its strong support base in the now separatist-held regions of the Donbass in eastern Ukraine, and the party aims to uphold the rights of ethnic Russian speakers in the region.

According to the federal indictment, Manafort also established a think tank called The European Centre for a Modern Ukraine, which was used as a PR vehicle for Yanukovych in the US and Europe before it was shut down in 2014, when Yanukovych fled the country. In the Washington lobbying world, work on behalf of foreign governments often with dubious human rights records is very common. But both Manafort and Gates refused to register as agents of a foreign principal, in this case the Government of Ukraine and Yanukovych; and their earnings were laundered through offshore holdings accounts in Cyprus, the Seychelles and other locales.

Foreign agents and Russia’s influence

Thus, the evidence suggests that Paul Manafort willingly acted on behalf of the pro-Russia Party of Regions and by extension, Vladimir Putin’s territorial and political ambitions in Ukraine.

But the indictment of Manafort goes beyond one campaign official involved in sensitive and illegal work for a foreign government. It highlights the risks of Western foreign agents who willingly help the aims and foreign policy goals of Vladimir Putin. Manafort’s actions played into the hands of the Kremlin by further dividing Ukrainian society between East and West, Brussels and Moscow. This also led to further divisions among heads of state in the EU on crucial issues such as the willingness to apply sanctions, energy security from Russian-controlled pipelines, as well as cooperation with Russia on topics such as the war in Syria and combating the Islamic State.

Dating back to the so-called ‘colour revolutions’ of 2003-4 in Georgia and Ukraine, Putin has blamed Western ‘foreign agents’ and pro-democracy groups, even arms of the government such as the CIA, for using soft power as a means of hybrid warfare.  From the vantage point in the Kremlin, the spread of western liberal influence and values is seen as a significant threat. Yet, under cover of these accusations, Putin himself has been using similar tactics. And it looks increasingly plausible that in 2016, Russia achieved its goal of infiltrating, if not influencing the internal affairs of a foreign country. It did this by creating an atmosphere of uncertainty and division among voters, and by spreading propaganda meant to sway opinion in a presidential election. Meanwhile, Paul Manafort may have played no small part in encouraging such intervention and influence in the United States.

All of this casts an unflattering light on then-candidate Trump openly asking the Russians to hack into Hillary Clinton’s email while on the campaign trail.

Implications for the Trump presidency

The Manafort indictment does not directly implicate the Trump administration, as most of the charges pertain to Manafort’s lobbying activities in the decade prior to his becoming campaign chairman in 2016. It does, nonetheless, pose serious risks, despite the protestations from the White House that the charges have “nothing to do with the president”. The fallout could affect not only Trump’s own credibility and already woeful approval ratings, but also more broadly, any entities suspected of being pro-Russian. There are thoughtful individuals in Congress including Adam Schiff (D), Ranking Member of the House Intelligence Committee, as well as the Senate Intelligence Committee led by Republican Richard Burr of North Carolina and Vice Chairman Mark Warner, Democrat from Virginia, who are eager to pursue all available leads and view Russia as a serious national security threat.

The latest revelations signal that the President of the United States is, as a minimum, extremely careless in vetting top aides and campaign officials who have worked for foreign governments. They also raise the question of whether Russia has continued to exploit this vulnerability, seeking targets to help promote Russian causes and foreign policy aims in Washington. Certainly, the Mueller investigation continues to implicate key Trump associates such as Carter Page, Michael Flynn, and Jared Kushner. And just in the last few days, the Paradise Papers leak has highlighted new Russia ties: Trump’s Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross reportedly retains a business interest in Navigator, a shipping company whose top client Sibur has Kremlin-linked owners.

In an administration wracked by conflicts of interest and complex business entanglements, the Manafort indictment shows that the Trump years risk becoming a period where the inner circle in Washington does not solely serve the interests of the United States. Under these conditions, bilateral treaties, trade agreements and other multilateral arrangements will become suspect, ironically, of failing to put ‘America First’.

Categories: North America, Politics

About Author

Alexander Brotman

Alexander Brotman received an MSc in International Relations from The University of Edinburgh. He previously was a researcher with the Center for a New American Security in Washington and has been published with PassBlue, a digital publication covering the UN, as well as Cable, an online global affairs magazine published by the Scottish Global Forum. His research interests include European politics, NATO and Russian foreign and security policy.