Donald Trump is scheduled to deliver what aides are billing as a major foreign-policy speech Monday afternoon, but his campaign is, yet again, already playing defense.
In a major piece published Sunday evening, The New York Times delves into the work of Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort in Ukraine. For years, Manafort worked for Viktor Yanukovych, a Kremlin protege who was deposed as president amid widespread demonstrations in 2014. Trump has been unusually positive about Russian President Vladimir Putin throughout the campaign, raising questions about why he would seek to reverse decades of American policy toward Moscow, and while the newest reports about Manafort do not answer those questions, they do demonstrate close links between a Putin ally and one of Trump’s top advisers.
The Times reports on handwritten ledgers that list $12.7 million in cash payments to Manafort from Yanukovych’s political party between 2007 and 2012. While it isn’t clear from the records whether Manafort actually received the money, the documents, obtained by the Ukrainian National Anti-Corruption Bureau, sketch out some of Manafort’s many ties in the region:
Investigators assert that the disbursements were part of an illegal off-the-books system whose recipients also included election officials. In addition, criminal prosecutors are investigating a group of offshore shell companies that helped members of Mr. Yanukovych’s inner circle finance their lavish lifestyles, including a palatial presidential residence with a private zoo, golf course and tennis court. Among the hundreds of murky transactions these companies engaged in was an $18 million deal to sell Ukrainian cable television assets to a partnership put together by Mr. Manafort and a Russian oligarch, Oleg Deripaska, a close ally of President Vladimir V. Putin.
The Times notes that the size of Manafort’s receipts from Yanukovych would have been public had he registered with the U.S. government, which is required of anyone seeking to lobby the U.S. government for foreign clients, although a subcontractor did. “It is unclear if Mr. Manafort’s activities necessitated registering,” the article states. “If they were limited to advising the Party of Regions in Ukraine, he probably would not have had to. But he also worked to burnish his client’s image in the West and helped Mr. Yanukovych’s administration draft a report defending its prosecution of his chief rival, Yulia V. Tymoshenko, in 2012.”
Cables released by WikiLeaks as part of a major dump of State Department cables also suggest Manafort was trying to influence diplomats on behalf of Yanukovych.
Trump’s statements and actions during the campaign also undercut the notion that Manafort’s ties to Yanukovych were in the nature of a strictly detached, professional relationship. Even as Trump criticizes President Obama for being weak on foreign policy, he has offered the most pro-Kremlin slate of statements of any U.S. presidential candidate since Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party campaign of fellow travel in 1948. Trump has suggested that NATO is obsolete and should be dismantled or drastically scaled back. He’s indicated he would not necessarily come to the aid of NATO allies in the event of a Russian attack. He spoke about conceding Russian annexation of Crimea, a region of Ukraine that Moscow annexed in 2014, in what the global community almost universally views as a violation of international law.
On a personal level, Trump has expressed his admiration for Putin’s style of leadership, expressed hope that the two men would get along well, and claimed that he knew Putin, only to say later that they had never met.
Meanwhile, as my colleague James Fallows notes, all indications are that the Trump campaign maneuvered to soften language in the Republican platform backing Ukraine in its dispute with Russia. Manafort then denied this, a claim that is disputed by extensive reporting on the process.
Finally, the Manafort ties to the Kremlin arrive at an interesting juncture. The Democratic National Committee and other organizations are bracing for further releases of hacked emails, part of a cache that was already partly released. U.S. intelligence officials and many independent security analysts believe that hackers with ties to the Russian state stole the emails and then handed them off to WikiLeaks—ironically, the same organization that published the cables shedding light on Manafort’s work in Ukraine. Trump, for his part, has publicly wished that Russia would release Hillary Clinton’s emails from her time as secretary of state, a plea for foreign interference in the American state that shocked and appalled foreign-policy hands of every political stripe.
The heightened scrutiny of Manafort also comes after a dizzying, atrocious few weeks for the Trump campaign, which has appeared shiftless while its candidate repeatedly veers off message and polls show a widening deficit behind Democratic nominee Clinton. The campaign’s own troubles even intersected with the Manafort story, as Corey Lewandowski—a former Trump adviser who was ousted after a long and acrimonious palace struggle with Manafort—tweeted the Times story. Asked why he had done so, Lewandowski claimed it was to show that newspaper’s bias against Trump. As with so many elements of the story, that explanation is possible, but not necessarily the simplest one.
* This article originally misquoted Paul Manafort's statement as "I am a political professional." We regret the error.