Manafort didn’t just enjoy the prestige that followed his successes, which culminated in Victor Yanukovych’s election to the presidency in 2010. He attempted to leverage them for his own purposes. Anyone in his position could see the possibilities. He worked for oligarchs who used their political connections to amass profitable businesses. In 2006, he tapped Rick Gates, an old intern from his D.C. firm, to join him. They created a new private-equity firm called Pericles. It set out to use Manafort’s newfound political connections to buy small regional companies that they would turn into national powerhouses.
After having spent so much time around Ukrainian oligarchs, after having earned their trust, Manafort set out to join their ranks. He even attracted funding from Oleg Deripaska himself. This was quite an endorsement: Manafort had become such a political insider in Ukraine that one of the most powerful, best-connected Russian oligarchs wanted to do business with him there.
The charge that Manafort sought to launder his earnings from Ukraine is unsurprising; it would have been challenging for him to render a full accounting of his income. One Manafort associate described to me how his boss would slap a massive, seven-figure price tag on his services. Yanukovych would approve the bill. Then one oligarch would go to the other oligarchs to collect the money. Party of Regions officials like to plead poverty, but their group constituted an informal network that set out to obscure its own machinations.
At bottom, the riches of the party’s patrons had been originally amassed in the chaos of the transition from communism—and they had been preserved through shell companies and tax havens and the complicity of unfastidious regimes. (As the Ukranian scholar Taras Kuzio has explained, “Ruling elites expropriate as much as they can because they can do so with unrestrained impunity.”) Once he had chosen to operate in this environment, Manafort would likely have been compelled to adopt local customs for moving money.
Perhaps Paul Manafort thought he could repeat that success by going to work for Donald Trump. He may have seen him as a familiar figure, another oligarch, who could help him amass greater business opportunities for himself. A connection to a Trump regime would have proved fantastically lucrative for the political consultant who engineered its unlikely triumph. That, of course, never came to pass; Manafort resigned in disgrace long before Election Day. And perhaps the American system would have proved more resistant to Manafort’s greedy maneuvers, even if he somehow had managed to stick around.
But Manafort spent decades profiting from kleptocracy with impunity. He worked to improve its international reputation without reproach. And Mueller’s indictment charges that top-drawer Washington firms were complicit, abetting Manafort’s work in potential violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Even before today, it had been publicly reported that Manafort enlisted the help of the Podesta Group, Mercury Public Affairs, and Skadden, Arps, three influential outfits in town. The business of laundering reputations and money isn’t just the work of rogue actors. It’s the stuff of Big Law and Big Banks.
Whatever happens next in Mueller’s investigation, Monday provided an unambiguous sign that the United States won’t quietly accede to the creep of kleptocracy.