Manafort confirmed he’d worked for the oligarch, who allegedly paid him some $10 million annually, but insisted his work was personal. “I worked with Oleg Deripaska almost a decade ago representing him on business and personal matters in countries where he had investments,” Manafort said in a statement. “My work for Mr. Deripaska did not involve representing Russia's political interests.”
This is a tough argument to make, because the AP acquired memos that Manafort allegedly wrote to Deripaska. One, for example, said, “We are now of the belief that this model can greatly benefit the Putin Government if employed at the correct levels with the appropriate commitment to success” and “will be offering a great service that can re-focus, both internally and externally, the policies of the Putin government.”
The AP report is also in line with what was previously known about Manafort. The longtime Republican fixer worked as a consigliere to now-deposed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, a Kremlin client. In August 2016, The New York Times reported on a dossier of documents about Manafort emerging from Ukraine, including allegations that Manafort received almost $13 million in off-book cash payments. He was also part of a strange deal involving an investment fund he created backed by Deripaska to purchase a telecom company. But that deal apparently went south, and Manafort in 2014 sued in the Cayman Islands to recover some assets from Deripaska.
That New York Times story was the first of several over the course of a few days, showing more questionable Manafort ties, as well as suggesting he might have broken U.S. laws by not lobbying as a foreign agent. Within the week, Manafort—already sidelined inside the Trump campaign by Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway—had been asked to resign.
The new AP report also resurfaces one unresolved oddity about Manafort’s role on the Trump campaign: He was working as a volunteer. But Manafort’s eye-popping eight-figure contract with Deripaska and his history as a hired gun, working for figures around the world with bad reputations, shows that he is not the sort of man who works for free, nor the sort of man who seeks out idealists as clients. If Trump was not paying him, who was? And to what end?
The story of the Trump presidency so far has been an almost suffocating cloud of billowing of smoke but little in the way of visible flames. The Manafort story, too, has been more smoke than fire, though the AP story moves the story closer to solid findings.
There remain many important questions to answer, which will answer whether there really is a fire.
First, did the Trump campaign understand what it was getting in Manafort? Certainly, Trump and his advisers should have. Eli Lake summed the news up as “Trump just hired his next scandal.” Perhaps the Trump team was unaware, but if so that would suggest astonishing incompetence and negligence, even by the low standards of Trump vetting.