Between the summer of 2015 and the GOP convention a year later, a great many pundits were surprised by the rise of Donald Trump. Although polls consistently placed him ahead of his Republican peers, his style was so vulgar, his policy pronouncements so bizarre, that many pundits dismissed Trump’s chances. And still he kept winning.
Then came the drafting of the Republican Party platform by the Republican National Committee—a solemn 66-page document stating in a succinct 35,000 words the positions of the Grand Old Party. By all indications, Trump, who doesn’t care much for reading, was willing to let virtually all of it pass.
But there was one point in that mass of verbiage where the Trump team fought for a change. It wanted to remove a call for arming Ukraine against Russian-backed militants (and covert Russian troops) and softening language on Russia’s aggressive actions in Eastern Europe.
Despite the fact that multiple news agencies confirmed the original Washington Post story, Trump’s then-campaign manager Paul Manafort repeatedly denied any such thing happened, and witnesses to the change even accused the Republican leadership of trying to cover up the incident.
That was the tipping point on The Russia Connection where most of the press and public were concerned.
Over the next several weeks, major outlets began to question seriously the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, if not indeed the Kremlin, and some of the most obvious links were right in the resumés of many senior members of his campaign team, some of whom are now under federal investigation.
Maybe Trump hasn’t read those CVs. But it wouldn’t be surprising if he had and then dismissed what many see as a fundamental conflict of foreign-policy interests. After all, Trump has repeatedly and doggedly exonerated the Kremlin from accusations of election-meddling, war crimes, and even the invasion of a European country, while dismissing what his own government has uncovered about all of the above.
Perhaps no single member of Donald Trump’s campaign staff has received more scrutiny than Paul Manafort.
In March 2016, as Trump was working to secure the delegates needed to wrap up the GOP nomination and escape a contested convention, the campaign was haunted by a story that Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s campaign manager, was facing battery charges for an incident where he allegedly injured Breitbart reporter Michelle Fields while attempting to keep her away from Trump at a rally (the charges were eventually dropped). Trump’s headaches were compounded by the fact that Breitbart had provided highly favorable news coverage of Trump. And ugly charges emerged that alleged Lewandowski had assaulted an erotic dancer with his teeth.
To try to salvage this situation, Trump promoted the serial Republican campaign adviser Paul Manafort to replace Lewandowski. Manafort was hired for his experience dating back to management of the convention floor at the 1976 convention in which Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan had divided the Republican Party. He also played major roles unifying the party during the 1988 and 1996 conventions.
Breitbart hailed Trump’s promotion of Manafort as a strategy “of staving off the GOP establishment’s efforts to block his nomination at a contested convention.” Manafort had been successful in wrangling delegates in other conventions and, Breitbart argued, “the addition of Manafort to his team decreases the likelihood that Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Ohio Gov. John Kasich, any other campaign who has since suspended, or the party itself can pull off major delegate shenanigans in Cleveland.”
Manafort came with a very interesting item on his résumé, however. For most of the previous 14 years, he was an adviser to Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Putin president of Ukraine who fled to Russia during the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution.
To be clear, not only is Yanukovych corrupt, but the ties between his party and the Kremlin are unmistakable. In fact they are explicit.
In 2005, Yanukovych’s Party of Regions signed a collaboration agreement with Russia’s ruling party, United Russia, and repeatedly called for closer ties between the two parties.
A central pillar of the platform of the Party of Regions was the decentralization of Ukrainian political power in hopes that individual regions might be free from central-government oversight and could build deeper ties with the Russian government.
In 2014, when Yanukovych was ousted, Russia’s “little green men” took over Crimea and ultimately Lugansk and Yanukovych’s home region of Donetsk, both in mainland east Ukraine. Now Russia is calling on Ukraine to grant these regions special status, despite the fact that Russian troops remain in position on Ukrainian soil and heavy firefights are a daily occurrence.
Furthermore, Yanukovych may never have risen to the top if it were not for the help of Trump’s man.
Yanukovych was governor of the Donetsk region of Ukraine from 1997 to 2002, one of the two regions that were eventually invaded by the Russian military in 2014. He was then named prime minister until he ran for president in 2004.
By then, it is worth noting, the president of Russia was former KGB officer Vladimir Putin.
Yanukovych was widely accused of using his power as head of Ukraine’s government to run his own campaign and suppress supporters of his opponent, Viktor Yushchenko. A month before the election, Yushchenko was hospitalized with an acute sickness, later diagnosed as dioxin poisoning, leaving him badly disfigured and in a weakened state.
In the first round of voting, neither Yanukovych nor Yushchenko received a majority of votes, triggering a runoff. In the second round, Yanukovych received 49.46 percent of the vote, and Ukraine’s Central Election Commission named him the winner. The results were eventually thrown out by the country’s supreme court amid widespread allegations of vote rigging and other irregularities, and Yanukovych ultimately lost the third round of voting.
Even before then, after the first round, the streets of Kiev had begun to fill with protesters who believed that the vote was manipulated by Yanukovych. The Orange Revolution, as it came to be known, was the first time Yanukoych’s corruption would spark popular unrest, but it was not the last.
In 2009, Yanukovych again ran for president. Despite his unpopularity, he allegedly dumped between $100-150 million into the campaign and, taking advantage of a divided opposition, he won the election.
By then, he was getting a little help from Manafort.
In 2007 The New York Times explored Manafort’s connections to Yanukovych. The article noted that Manafort partnered with Rick Davis, who went on to manage the campaign of future GOP presidential nominee Sen. John McCain. Whereas Yanukovych had relied on Russian advisers in his failed 2004 campaign, Manafort’s team was able to create a more polished image of his candidate—a carefully constructed persona, defined by expensive television ads.
In 2006, a series of protests forced the cancellation of a scheduled NATO exercise, dubbed Sea Breeze, which was planned to take place on the Crimean Peninsula. A leaked legal memo shows how Yanukovych organized that protest, part of a strategy to raise ethnic fears that NATO was somehow making a move that could endanger the Russian-speaking populace of the peninsula. Yanukovych organized the political response to the protests, and the Party of Regions won a political battle when the exercise was canceled. The memo cites a senior Ukrainian prosecutor whose investigation determined that the organizer of those protests was none other than Paul Manafort.
Manafort denied having ever accepted cash payments for his work in Ukraine and attacked The New York Times for their coverage of the story. According to Politico, Manafort also denied ever doing work for the governments of Russia or Ukraine, though it’s unclear whether he was denying ever working for the Party of Regions.
“My work in Ukraine ceased following the country’s parliamentary elections in October 2014,” Politico quoted Manafort as saying. “In addition, as the article points out hesitantly, every government official interviewed states I have done nothing wrong.”
Manafort also dismissed criticism of Yanukovych and his team. “The West has not been willing to move beyond the Cold War mentality and to see this man and the outreach that he has extended,” he told The New York Times. “I am not here just for the election,” he said. “I am trying to play a constructive role in developing a democracy. I am helping to build a political party.”
The democracy Manafort helped Yanukovych build allegedly included helping put the new president’s principal political rival and former Ukrainian prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, behind bars.
In 2012, the American law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom compiled a report on Tymoshenko’s trial (PDF). It concluded, “Based on our review of the record, we do not believe that Tymoshenko has provided specific evidence of political motivation that would be sufficient to overturn her conviction under American standards.”
After the Yanukovych government fled to Russia during the height of the 2014 Euromaidan protests, a letter was found from Skadden lawyer and former Obama White House counsel Gregory B. Craig, asking Manafort to assist the law firm in obtaining government documents.
Other documents found after Yanukovych fled Ukraine show the Party of Regions paid at least $2.2 million to lobbying firms in Washington, D.C., with Manafort’s assistance. Manafort’s associate Rick Gates played a leading role in this effort, steering the work of a pro-Yanukovych nonprofit organization to hire American lobbying firms. In particular, these lobbying groups focused on stopping Congress from demanding that Yanukovych release Tymoshenko from prison.
In other words, Manafort worked to commission a legal report dismissing the allegations that Tymoshenko’s trial was political, then organized efforts to convince Congress of the same. Not only that, but according to an Associated Press investigation, Manafort also hid the fact that he was working on behalf of a foreign political party to influence U.S. policy, potentially committing a felony punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.
Handwritten documents recovered after Yanukovych fled show that from 2007 to 20012 Manafort received $12.7 million in undisclosed cash payments from the Party of Regions. However, the real sum may be more than that since Manafort continued to work for Yanukovych’s party even after the president took up residence in Russia.
After the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution, it was Manafort who suggested that the Party of Regions be renamed the Opposition Bloc, distancing the party from Yanukovych in the hopes of insulating it from the backlash while positioning it as a protest movement against the policies of the new government.
A New York Times exposé on Manafort documented his various business dealings with Ukrainian and Russian oligarchs and companies, showing, among other things, that not all of his enterprises in this part of the world have been successful.
Manafort was reportedly an early investor in EyeLock LLC, a company that creates eye-scanning machines to identify people in based on their individual iris. According to The New York Post, former Trump-aide and Manafort-associate Rick Gates was hired by Eyelock as an independent contractor, brought on to sell the product in the Middle East.
In an interview he gave before leaving the Trump campaign, Gates claimed he only worked to help Eyelock secure U.S. contracts.
According to the article, both men wanted to sell that technology to the Russian government, perhaps to use it to identify dissidents and opposition actors at protest rallies, and they reportedly lobbied the Kremlin to expand its domestic surveillance program. EyeLock, however, did not win the contract—a possible indicator that Trump and his staff are more fascinated by Russia than Russia is by them.
Eyelock told The Daily Beast that neither Gates nor Manafort ever lobbied on behalf of the company to do business with the Russian government. In contrast to the claims published in The New York Post, a spokesperson for the company maintained that the Eyelock’s technology cannot be used in surveillance and can only be used by individuals who volunteer to have their iris scanned.
Retired Lt. General Michael T. Flynn, a registered Democrat, has become one of Trump’s top foreign-policy advisers, and at times his fiercest cheerleader.
Flynn had a distinguished military and intelligence career before retirement, culminating in his nomination by President Barack Obama as the 18th director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Pentagon’s in-house answer to the CIA.
After his retirement in April 2014—a month after Russia’s illegal annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in Ukraine—Flynn developed a conspicuously warm relationship with Russia’s flagship English-language propaganda outlet, RT (formerly Russia Today).
In 2015, after RT served as one of the Kremlin’s primary tools in hiding its invasion of eastern Ukraine and its role in the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, Flynn took part in a paid speaking event in Russia, and then became a semi-regular guest on RT. Flynn attended a gala to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the founding of the television station, and was seated next to Vladimir Putin.
Politico’s Michael Crowley wrote that the paid speaking engagement “appeared to inaugurate a relationship with the network, as he now semi-regularly appears on the network to advocate, among other things, that the U.S. work with Russia to fight Islamic State in Syria.”
When asked about Russia by The Washington Post’s Dana Priest, Flynn said the speaking gigs were arranged through his agency, Leading Authorities Inc. He also said the U.S. could benefit in working with Russia to defeat the Islamic State terror group, and repeated the Russian propaganda talking point, which has been thoroughly debunked, that Russia is playing a leading role in the fight against ISIS.
Mike Flynn has been highly active on social media, campaigning for Trump on Twitter. This has gotten him into trouble.
In July, Twitter user Saint Bibiana (@30PiecesofAG_), an obvious anti-Semite and xenophobe whose account has recently been suspended, tweeted out a CNN story about how Clinton’s campaign manager believed that Russians were involved in the hacking of the Democratic National Committee (as indeed they were). Bibiana quoted the tweet and wrote “>Cnn implicated. ‘The USSR is to blame!’ … Not anymore, Jews. Not anymore.” But the Flynn retweeted THAT tweet, using Twitter’s quote system, and wrote “The corrupt Democratic machine will do and say anything to get #NeverHillary into power. This is a new low.”
Flynn apologized and deleted the tweet. He explained that he only meant to retweet the original CNN article, not the racist remark, but anyone who knows how Twitter works knows that one would have to be looking at a tweet to accidentally retweet it in any fashion, and Flynn has been unable to explain how this incident happened.
Flynn has also used Twitter to deny that Trump has any links to Russia, to insinuate that it is really Hillary Clinton who is involved with the Kremlin, to claim that certain journalists are working to provoke war with Russia, and to make the argument that Russia and the U.S. should work together to fight ISIS—all talking points that are common to Trump’s campaign, and as we pointed out in the first article in this series, all of which reflect to varying degrees talking points that are in line with the Kremlin.
Carter Page is another senior foreign-policy consultant for Donald Trump, particularly on matters concerning Russia and energy policy. According to Politico’s Julia Ioffe, Page was a complete unknown to experts in politics, Russia, or the energy sector before joining the Trump campaign, though since he has been widely cited by the Russian state-controlled media.
The Navy officer-turned-investment banker has not shied away from doing business with oligarchs and governments in places like Russia and Turkmenistan. Page became an adviser to the Russian energy giant Gazprom after Putin has reestablished the Russian government’s majority ownership of the private/public conglomerate.
His company has also advised investors about purchasing assets in Russia and in other former Soviet republics.
All of this work has been significantly impeded by U.S. and European sanctions that have been levied against Russia in the wake of its illegal annexation of Crimea, its invasion of the Donbas region of Ukraine, and its shooting down of MH17.
Page admitted to Bloomberg News that he had been and adviser to and investor in Gazprom. When he traveled to Moscow in July 2016, shortly after Trump named him as an adviser, he declined to answer questions about whether he met with Russian officials.
Page’s direct financial connections to the Russian government and Russian business assets, and his trip to Moscow this summer, have alarmed U.S. officials who spoke to Michael Isikoff at Yahoo News, since this could be a clear conflict of interest that would undercut U.S. national security. Isikoff writes that Page has deep ties to Gazprom executives and is being looked at by the U.S. intelligence community amid suspicions that he had an audience with several top Kremlin officials, including Igor Sechin, a close friend and confidant of Putin’s and the head of Rosneft, the oil behemoth—the largest oil company in the world— mostly owned by the Russian government.
Trump’s campaign has had an interesting response to the allegations against Page. Despite telling the press that Page was a part of Trump’s “foreign-policy team” in March, Isikoff reports, by August the campaign was calling him an “informal foreign adviser”; by September, they said he had “no role” in the campaign and they were “not aware of any of his activities, past or present,” though campaign spokesperson Jason Miller did not answer questions as to why they called Page an adviser in the first place.
Richard Burt is the chairman of the advisory council for The National Interest, the in-house journal of the Center for the National Interest, where Trump delivered his maiden foreign-policy speech last April. He is also a member of the senior advisory board of Russia’s Alfa Bank, a major Moscow financial institution which, thus far, has escaped Western sanctions over the war in Ukraine.
Burt was recruited by Paul Manafort to help the Trump campaign write a speech that tried to define his foreign-policy vision. Burt has also repeatedly defended Trump’s foreign-policy ideas, including during periods of time when Trump was under attack for not having enough support from well-respected foreign-policy experts.
On Oct. 31, reporter Franklin Foer broke the story that a group of cybersecurity experts had tracked regular internet communications between Donald Trump’s organization and Alfa Bank.
According to experts interviewed by Foer, Trump’s organization registered a server in 2009 that was mostly responsible for sending mass emails. Recently, however, the server’s traffic was reduced to a suspiciously small amount of data—smaller than what a single person would receive via email in a single day. The server appears to have been designed to allow communications only between Trump’s organization and two other organizations, with 87 percent of those communications taking place with one of two servers belonging to Alfa Bank.
Alarmingly, the communications patterns appeared to many experts who spoke with Foer to be human-to-human communication, rather than automated mail. But the frequency of the messages also seemed to correspond to the news cycle’s focus on the connection between Trump and Russia. Furthermore, after journalists contacted Alfa Bank, Trump’s server was shut down, potentially indicating that Alfa warned Trump’s office that the server was facing scrutiny. Four days later, a new server was set up by the Trump organization.
Both Alfa and the Trump campaign deny that Trump’s computers were in contact with the Russian bank.
The FBI reportedly spent weeks investigating these allegations but concluded that there could be other explanations for the communications, including mass marketing or spam emails. It remains unclear whether the FBI was able to use the existence of these communications to obtain a warrant. It is possible that this is nothing more than spam emails sent between two large financial institutions.
Burt, however, has other ties to the Russian government that are concerning.
According to Politico, he was paid $365,000 in the first half of 2016 for work he did to lobby for the building of a new natural-gas pipeline, Nord Stream II, which would supply more gas to Europe while bypassing Ukraine and Belarus. The plan is opposed by the Obama administration and the Polish government because it would allow Russia to further interfere in the internal domestic politics of Ukraine without fear that Ukraine could cut off Russia’s gas supplies or take the gas for itself. At the start of 2016, the Russian state energy giant Gazprom owned 50 percent of the company that wants to build the pipeline, but since the European partners have pulled out, Gazprom now owns 100 percent.
All in all, Burt’s major contribution to the Trump campaign is evident in that first major foreign-policy address, which set the stage for greater economic, political, and military cooperation between the U.S. and Russia.
Trump recruited Michael Caputo to help run his New York primary. The state was crucial to Trump since it is his home state, and losing there could have seriously hurt his ability to rally the party.
Caputo was director of media services for the Bush-Quayle campaign in 1992 and was assistant director of the Radio and Television Correspondents Gallery for the House of Representatives before that. But since then, Caputo’s activity has been limited to public relations, and much of it involved Russia.
Caputo lived in Russia throughout the 1990s, the period of time after the Soviet Union crumbled, when state-owned property was being redistributed and consolidated in the hands of Russia’s most powerful oligarchs. Caputo was under contract for Gazprom Media. And one goal of Caputo’s contract with Gazprom Media in 2000 was to improve Vladimir Putin’s image in the United States, as he admitted to his hometown paper, The Buffalo News.
Prior to that, Caputo’s work in Russia was arguably more anodyne. He traveled there in 1994 as a staffer for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which played a role fostering a capitalistic and democratic society in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. His primary interest was in assisting Russia in its transition from communism to capitalism. He married a Russian, left the government, went into business, and watched his company fall apart as the ruble crashed. Upon returning home to the United States he started a PR company, Rainmaker, which is when he won the Gazprom contract. “I’m not proud of the work today.”