MOSCOW—The reports that former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort had had a contract for tens of millions of dollars to “greatly benefit the Putin Government” were not exactly news here. And, in a certain sense, they didn’t have to be news in Washington, either.
Manafort, who has reportedly just volunteered to testify in the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation of Russian meddling in the U.S. election, had been a lobbyist, a notorious one, for decades. His work for less-than-democratic governments, including various African strongmen and the Marcos family of the Philippines, had been well-known in Washington and reported over the last year. It is also not uncommon for lobbyists and political operatives waiting out an administration of the opposite party to work abroad, helping foreign governments of whatever stripe sharpen their political game. Democratic operatives who had worked on the Obama and Clinton campaigns, for example, have done work advising politicians in Britain, Ukraine, and Georgia. Manafort seemed to have fewer moral qualms and filters than others—the only ticket to access his political skills, it seems, was the right amount of money—but it was all part of the swamp the Donald Trump campaign, with Manafort at the helm for about five months, promised to drain.
Nor was this an unusual arrangement for Moscow. The Associated Press reports, and Manafort has denied, that he was advancing Putin’s interests in the U.S. Many foreign governments spend lots of money on lobbyists to get their point of view to the epicenter of the free world—and the world’s largest economy. Russia was no exception, especially as it was getting its economic act together in the middle of the last decade. When the AP says Manafort was representing Putin 10 years ago, Putin was not quite the ubiquitous Bond villain he is today. Even after the arrest of oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the international verdict on him was still mixed. He was a strongman, yes, but one who was delivering stability and prosperity not just to Russians but to many Western—American—investors.
At the same time, Russian oligarchs who had gotten their money in shady, often bloody ways, were trying to clean themselves up for those Western investors. Going public in London or New York—where the courts were independent and capital was plentiful—was all the rage. But to cross into that world—considered by Russians to be lawful and classy—people like aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska needed all the help they could get. Deripaska, a Putin ally who Manafort confirmed to the AP was a client, made his fortune in the aluminum wars of the 1990s. The process of privatizing the vast industrial holdings of the Soviet Union, as it was chronicled masterfully by David Hoffman in The Oligarchs, was a corrupt and often bloody business. Privatizing the aluminum industry was by far the bloodiest, felling over 100 people. Bidzina Ivanishvili, the Russian-Georgian oligarch who now runs Georgia, for instance, also came out on top in those wars, and he once told me stories of holding people over balcony railings by their lapels and of his subordinates being kidnapped by competitors and taken to cemeteries, from which they would be forced, gun to their heads, to call him and ask for some concession.
If that’s your industry’s reputation in the West, it’s hard to take your company public or raise funds. You need image consulting. And Manafort provided it while, reportedly, also providing consulting to the Kremlin on Deripaska’s tab. (This is what’s known in Russia as an informal tax on the oligarchs, who are oligarchs at Putin’s pleasure. To allow them to keep and develop their vast wealth, he periodically asks them to pay for things he needs, like a stadium for the Olympics in Sochi, say, or perhaps a couple years of Manafort’s very expensive services.)
Around the time Manafort’s contract with Deripaska was up, another Western company took over: Ketchum. One of the biggest American PR firms, Ketchum was hired by Putin when, in 2008, Putin stepped aside after two presidential terms and became prime minister. Ketchum helped soften Putin’s image in the West—very necessary after the war with Georgia—by printing ads in Western newspapers and schmoozing up Western journalists in Moscow, pitching us skeptics stories on the Russian government’s drive to modernize and diversify the resource-dependent economy that had fared so poorly in the financial crisis. In 2013, at the height of the stand-off over the use of chemical weapons in Syria, Ketchum placed a controversial op-ed in The New York Times, one they claimed Putin wrote himself. It ran on September 11, and cautioned the U.S. against getting militarily involved in the Syrian conflict, trying to create public support for the deal Obama would eventually cut with Putin to get Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons out of Syria. Many Republican commentators blasted Obama for the move, saying he had caved to Putin and that the weakness opened the door for Putin to invade Ukraine. Had Ketchum and the Times, in effect, advanced Putin’s interests and “greatly benefited the Putin Government”?
But advancing Putin’s interests and greatly benefiting his government proved very difficult for Ketchum, not because he was evil and trying to destroy America, but because he and his liaisons to Ketchum were stubborn and Ketchum’s advice fell on deaf ears. In the end, one of the Americans working in Moscow on the project quit and told me he was going to go lobby on behalf of the insurance industry in the States. This was at the height of the fierce battles over Obamacare in Obama’s first term, but he joked that it would be a vacation after trying to get the Putin government to take his advice seriously. (By 2015, Putin dumped Ketchum, his spokesman citing a wave of anti-Russian “hysteria” after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.)
That Ketchum rep had discovered what he and Ketchum—and Manafort—had been all along to the Russians: fancy window dressing meant to signal to the West that the Russians were legit and on par with the countries of the West. It was the analogue of buying a Chanel purse or a Tesla to signal one’s arrival in a certain segment in society. And Ketchum and Manafort weren’t alone in this. White-shoe British and American law firms, and auditing companies like Price Waterhouse Coopers, were also providing window dressing, and behind those windows were absurd levels of corruption. PwC, for instance, spent years signing off on audits of TransNeft, a state-controlled oil transport company, while it was allegedly funneling tens of millions of dollars to members of the Russian analogue of the Secret Service under the guise of corporate charity projects. (PwC has denied wrongdoing.) One Western lawyer I knew in Moscow who was working for a white-shoe Western law firm privately railed at the projects the law firm was doing for Russian banks and friends of Putin, who boosted their financial credentials by doing things like putting six quarters in one fiscal year. Other Western companies got caught up in this, too. In 2010, Daimler Chrysler was charged by the SEC for global bribery, including paying kickbacks to the Kremlin in exchange for supplying its garages with black Mercedes. (They eventually settled.)
All of this is to say that if Manafort’s contract did indeed “greatly benefit the Putin Government,” it was nothing out of the ordinary. The problem isn’t that he might have done the work for Putin. The problem is that the ordinary when it comes to Westerners doing business with the Russians—as well as other non-democratic governments—is a murky universe, where American actors are not always on the right side of the law and Western ideas of morality. The problem is that Manafort was running a campaign that hammered Clinton and her family foundation for doing much of what Manafort himself had done for decades, and that he was arguably as corrupt as his candidate said Clinton was. The problem is that the government in question had, according to 17 U.S. intelligence agencies, been actively hacking the Clinton campaign and aiding the Trump one. The problem is that Manafort and the Trump administration have repeatedly lied about Manafort’s work. There would’ve been a problem had they come clean early on—it’s not a good look for a populist, drain-the-swamp, America First candidate—but the problem is so much bigger now that the lies are now compounded, magnified by the truth. And this is classic Trump: dissemble and deny as long as you can, and even after you can. And it’s classic Manafort: It’s not clear how much he did to “greatly benefit the Putin Government,” but he certainly did no favors for the Trump Government.