It’s been the question right from the start, hasn’t it? Why Russia? And when you consider the Russians, why Trump? Well, I think I’ve got the answer: sanctions. What the Obama administration did, in effect, was put sanctions on fun, and Trump’s deal with the Russians was to bring back the fun. The plain fact of the matter is, Russia is a modern lifestyle hell hole.
That idea alone explains a lot about why the Russians were so eager to have the sanctions lifted against their country. Who wants to live in Russia 12 months of the year, anyway? Why do you think Putin’s oligarch buddies have been gobbling up high rise condos at such a high rate of speed? Sub-zero winters and hellish summers sound good to you? A country with a land mass twice the size of the United States and an economy the size of Italy’s? Try thinking of something Russian you’re dying for. How about a nice flight on Aeroflot? An apartment in a concrete monstrosity overlooking an industrial wasteland? Anyone? Okay, okay. Caviar. If you ask me, at best an acquired taste, and hardly a reason to pack your bags, ship your stuff and move over there.
There simply hasn’t been enough attention paid to the importance of the sanctions imposed by the Obama administration at the time of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and occupation of Crimea. The Obama sanctions put a huge crimp in the international jet-setting lifestyles of Russian governmental officials and their oligarch buddies. A whole bunch of Russian bigwigs were put on a virtual no-fly list for travel to the United States by denying them visas. A list of big Russian companies were banned from doing business with American corporations and citizens, and the favorite banks of the Russian elite were banned from conducting normal banking transactions with American banks and financial institutions. Sanctions by the United States of America resulted in difficulties for the Russian elite in other jurisdictions. Suddenly that visa to visit Berlin that was so easy to get takes months and months and months. That bank in Brussels that lent you money last year is having a long, hard look at your financials and is not taking your calls. Having that FSB Russian intelligence school diploma on your resume looked exotic last year, but not so much, now that you’re on the American shit list.
The good old USA is where many of the Russian elite went to have a good time. Think about it. Where else in the world do you have, within a single set of national borders, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the bright lights and spinning roulette wheels of Las Vegas, the white sand beaches of Miami and Palm Beach, and enough corrupt politicians and businessmen that there are many hundreds, if not thousands, of ways to launder your ill-gotten Russian gains and pad the cushy confines of your lifestyle? You want to buy a Gulfstream 500? Come to the USA. You want a whole strip of high end shops for your wife to spend your money in on stuff like $6,000 handbags, five million dollar diamond necklaces, $1,700 spike heels and $15,000 casual leather coats? Madison Avenue is your spot! Looking for a 59th floor triplex on which to drop a few tens of millions? Maybe you want to set up a phony LLC and buy several of them? Got your triplexes in spades right here on 57th Street. Want to impress your friends by dropping a few thousand on tickets to “Hamilton”? It ain’t playing on Lomonosovsky Prospekt, Vladimir, pal. You’ll find the marquee for “Hamilton” right here at the Richard Rodgers Theater on West 46th Street.
Which is probably why our pal Poor Paul Manafort looked so delicious from the snow-banked streets of Moscow last year. Here was an obscure Republican hack who hadn’t been involved in a presidential campaign since he was an adviser in the moribund effort of Bob Dole back in 1996. Suddenly, it’s March of 2016 and he’s presiding over the runaway train of Donald Trump! And our boy Paul was no stranger to the Russian government and the oligarchs close to Putin. Manafort worked for former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych from 2004 to 2010 and maintained an office in Kiev until Yanukovych was deposed in 2014 and fled to the arms of his mentor and friend, Vladimir Putin. He probably had more frequent flier miles from flights back and forth to Moscow than Carter Page, and good old Carter had quite a few from his time in the Moscow office of Merrill Lynch working in the Russian oil and gas field.
That’s why it hardly comes as a surprise that The Washington Post reported this week that Manafort offered to give "private briefings" on the Trump campaign to a Russian billionaire close to Putin. Manafort had no trouble at all getting in contact with Putin’s friend. All he had to do was email his former partner Konstantin Kilimnik, who had joint Russian/Ukrainian citizenship and helped run Manafort’s operation in Kiev from 2005 until 2014 when Yanukovych fled to Moscow. Kilimnik was working for Oleg Deripaska, an aluminum magnate Manafort had business with in Russia before. “If he needs private briefings we can accommodate,” Manafort wrote in the email shortly before the Republican convention in July of 2016. Deripaska is one of Russia's richest oligarchs. A U.S. diplomatic cable obtained by WikiLeaks and published in 2006 referred to Deripaska as “among the 2-3 oligarchs Putin turns to on a regular basis.” He has been refused visas for travel to the United States by the State Department in the past because of his suspected ties to Russian organized crime.
One of the first things Manafort did after he was hired to run the Trump campaign was to meet with Kilimnik in New York in April. What was Trump’s campaign manager doing meeting with a Russian operative close to a billionaire friend of Putin’s? Maybe Manafort’s past business with Kilimnik gives us a clue. Described in Kiev as “Manafort’s Manafort,” Kilimnik was a political operative in both countries with strong ties to Russian intelligence. In 2005, shortly after going to work in Kiev with Kilimnik, Manafort developed a plan to advance the interests of Vladimir Putin in the United States, according to a report by the AP. “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,” Manafort wrote in the document planning the aid to Putin. The next year, Manafort signed a $10 million a year deal with Deripaska that was apparently part of the plan to aid Putin. Also in 2006, Manafort signed a deal with the party of Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine to re-make the party’s image in that country. Kilimnik worked with Manafort on the Ukrainian deal, which gained Yanukovych enough seats in the Ukrainian parliament to install him as Prime Minister in August of that year.
Manafort’s pal Kilimnik was a very busy man in 2016. In addition to, apparently, serving as the cut-out between Manafort and Putin’s pal Deripaska, he traveled to the United States twice during the presidential campaign last year, meeting with Manafort at least once that we know of. Kilimnik bragged to friends back in Kiev that he was involved in the successful effort by the Trump campaign to remove the so-called “Russia plank” from the Republican platform. The “Russian plank” denounced Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine and Crimea and endorsed the sanctions imposed to punish the Putin regime. When Manafort and “Manafort’s Manafort” were done with it, the Republican platform thought Russian aggression against its neighbors was just peachy.
In June, Manafort was invited by Donald Trump Jr. to the now infamous Trump Tower meeting with four Russian nationals and a political fixer from Great Britain who set up the meeting promising that the Russians would provide negative information on Hillary Clinton. Manafort was fired by Trump from the campaign in late August when the suspect cash payments of $12.7 million by the Ukrainian political party became public knowledge. But his contacts with Trump and his campaign didn’t stop there. Manafort maintained an apartment in Trump Tower, where the Trump campaign and transition were headquartered. Politico reported recently that Manafort advised the Trump transition on its handling of the burgeoning investigation into the campaign’s connections to Russians in a call to Reince Priebus just before Trump’s inauguration.
Sources in the Trump White House told Politico that Priebus reported on his conversation to Trump. That was doubtlessly not the only contact between Manafort and the Trump transition. CBS News reported last December 9, months after he was fired from Trump’s campaign, that Manafort was seen frequently in Trump Tower and was known to be in touch with members of the Trump transition. Recall that soon after Trump won the election on November 8, he fired New Jersey Governor Chris Christie as head of the transition and installed Vice President-elect Mike Pence in his place. Who was said to be instrumental in the pick of former Indiana Governor Pence as Trump’s vice president? You guessed it: Paul Manafort. With recent reports that the FBI had exercised a FISA warrant to tap Manafort’s phones in the fall of last year, Pence has got to be sweating out revelations about the calls the FBI listened in on with Pence on the phone to Manafort.
Speculation flew after the latest Manafort revelations this week that Russian money had found its way into the Trump campaign and that Manafort may have had something to do with it, which was not a surprise given his contacts with shady political figures in Russia and the Ukraine and the megabucks it has been reported he was paid by them over the years. He was also a player in the no-holds-barred banking playground on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, where Russian oligarchs were known to park their money on its way to investments in stuff like high rise Trump condos in Florida. Manafort was already under investigation in 2016 by the FBI for his receipt of cash payments by Yanukovych’s political party, which makes his hiring by Trump to run his campaign in May of last year all the more suspect. Why would the Trump campaign stick its neck out by hiring such a suspect figure? Gee, you think he might have come with recommendations from someone located a little east of Fifth Avenue? Someone, say, in the Kremlin?
We already know that the Russian government invested money in the election of Donald Trump by spending in excess of $100,000 to buy as many as 3,000 ads on Facebook. (Facebook has said it has turned over the ads and information about the Russian accounts to Special Counsel Robert Mueller and reportedly will soon turn them over to congressional investigators as well.) But what else might the Russians have done to fund Trump’s campaign? Because of the marvelous Wild West vagaries of the Citizens United decision by the United States Supreme Court, we may never know. In that decision, the court forbid restrictions on independent campaign expenditures by non-profit and for-profit corporations, labor unions and other associations.
This threw the door wide open to abuse of the system by so-called “501(c)(3)” organizations, non-profit “charitable” and “educational” entities which have sprung up to take out so-called “issue” ads, which can be easily directed to support one candidate over another. The wonderful thing about 501(c)(3)’s is that their donors don’t have to be publicly revealed. Anyone who wants to remain hidden can donate to them. It wouldn’t take a genius for the Russian government, or some of the Russian oligarchs friendly to Putin, to use one of the thousands of LLC’s and front corporations being used all across America to do stuff like buy condos and invest in real estate to make some behind the scenes contributions to a few 501(c)(3)s and disappear into the blizzard of contributors, whose names we’ll never learn thanks to good old Citizens United.
Which brings us right back around to the questions we began with: why Russia, and why Trump? The Russians were plenty pissed at that old stick in the mud, Barack Obama, who had successfully sanctioned the fun they were having in the USA. And who was just as pissed as the Russians at Obama? Trump. You know what they say about Obama’s roasting of Trump at the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2011, when the star of "The Apprentice" sat there stone faced as Obama compared Trump’s ability to handle pressure to his firing of Gary Busey. Couldn’t have been much fun for Trump. Having Mueller with a bullseye on his pal Manafort can’t be much fun for him now, either, wouldn’t you say? Well, at least Trump had his fun the night he beat Hillary on November 8. But you know what? The fun you had the night before ends up looking different in the morning. And right now, it’s morning in Bob Mueller’s America.