Nor was there anything necessarily spiteful about Gates filching a little cash on the sly. Based on everything I’ve ever heard or read in the course of my reporting on Manafort, Gates worshipped his boss. He felt a sense of subservience, love even. And the warmth was mutual, and could be described as filial. But that bond was never going to get in the way of bilking Manafort. They had spent nearly a decade in Ukraine, working for oligarchs and politicians. During those years abroad, the pair adopted the business practices of the Ukrainian political elite.
With Paul Manafort on trial, America is reckoning with its very serious kleptocracy problem
We know how Manafort and Gates were paid—a method that was revealed in a memo prosecutors introduced in the course of the trial. According to court documents, Manafort would ask Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych for a massive sum of money. (The tone of one memo he wrote to Yanukovych is strangely confessional; Manafort described his precarious financial position to the president, even as he thanked him for getting paid millions.)
The president would then ask his chief of staff to collect contributions from the financial patrons of his political party. One Manafort associate told me that in the course of passing the hat to oligarchs, the chief of staff would collect more money than the bill required. The chief of staff would pocket some of that surplus cash for himself, a small tax for his efforts. In Ukraine, the rich excel at finding novel ways to exact fees, to skim money, to capture rents. Having participated in the system for so long, it seems Manafort and Gates internalized these techniques themselves.
So what? One strand of conventional wisdom holds that the Manafort trial has little to do with Trump, let alone Russian collusion. Indeed, there’s a strong argument to be made that this case stands on its own as a significant moment in political history. But we’re still staring at a highly incomplete version of the full narrative—and it’s too soon to foreclose the possibility that this trial is merely prologue, filled with foreshadowing and suggestive hints of how everything might ultimately tie together.
Last week, I argued that Manafort needs to be understood as a symptom of a global epidemic of kleptocracy—a virus that he imported into the United States. We know that his tenure in the Trump campaign contains at least some evidence that he infected the campaign, too. According to Robert Mueller’s prosecutors, Manafort promised a job on the campaign to a Chicago banker in exchange for $16 million in loans. The banker ended up as one of the Trump campaign’s 13 official economic advisors. Could it be possible that that’s the only instance of Manafort and Gates applying their Ukrainian education to the Trump campaign?
With Gates’s testimony, Mueller has orchestrated an important demonstration project. He’s shown how he can turn protégé against mentor, how he can weaponize a devoted underling to destroy his beloved boss. How once he can get a campaign insider talking, what flows is damning beyond expectations. The question is now whether Gates’s testimony represents the culmination of a long and corrupt story, or the opening pages of a much more complicated tale.