The commencement of public impeachment hearings has already yielded all manner of questions, details—and inane Republican theatrics—centered on the revelation that President Donald Trump tried to extort Ukraine into launching an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden. This is all unprecedented: It’s the first time that a sitting U.S. president has ever pressured a foreign government to smear a political rival, resulting in the first time an American impeachment process has ever been predicated on national security grounds.
The allegations against the president are clear: He’s accused of attempting to extort Ukraine into making a public announcement of an investigation into Biden, the better to cycle the insinuations that would inevitably result through the hothouse of the American media, recycling a playbook that worked to Trump’s advantage during the 2016 campaign. But there’s an undercurrent in the ongoing impeachment hearings that points to a different outcome of Trump’s extortion attempts. If Trump had gotten his way—if Rudy Giuliani’s popeyed machinations hadn’t come to light; if a whistleblower suddenly bearing the full brunt of the fever-swamp far-right’s fury hadn’t come forward—the president would have also managed to upend the allegations surrounding a figure whose legacy has been stalking Trump’s presidency since its first days: Paul Manafort.
Manafort, Trump’s 2016 campaign manager, seems something of a relic, the greasy run-off of an earlier version of the Trump era. Manafort was a man you couldn’t escape during the first chunk of Trump’s first term. His indictment and subsequent prosecution was, by all measures, the biggest get of special counsel Robert Mueller’s work. Since he was sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison, however, his name has largely passed from the public consciousness.
But Manafort hasn’t passed from everyone’s memory. Trump’s consigliere, Rudy Giuliani dropped his name to me not long ago, completely unprompted. During the course of a recent text conversation, centered on Giuliani’s blinkered claims that Joe Biden had somehow tried to protect his son, Hunter Biden, in Ukraine, Giuliani sent me a text about Manafort—a man I hadn’t mentioned before, and who had seemingly nothing to do with Hunter’s work in the country.
“Hunter Biden, unlike Paul Manafort, is part of the protected class,” Giuliani texted. “They can take bribes, destroy emails, make ridiculously false statements, and it’s ignored by the corrupt Double Standard.” Giuliani then turned to Manafort’s conviction, part of which centered on Manafort’s decision not to register his work in Ukraine with the Department of Justice. “His failure to register is a small offense never prosecuted before Manafort. It’s a lot worse than that. Four decades of Pay-to-Play is really why they are going after me because they know they did it.”
Manafort’s legacy, and future, haunts everything surrounding impeachment. Not only is he a tether linking Russia’s 2016 interference efforts to the sudden Ukraine-related impeachment efforts—providing evidence that the scandals are simply two sides of the same coin—there is every reason to think he was the key figure setting both in motion. In 2016, he was the figure funneling internal Trump polling to an alleged Russian intelligence agent, and one of the figures liaising with fascistic con-man Roger Stone in coordinating events surrounding Wikileaks’ dump of Democratic emails, initially swiped by Moscow. In Ukraine, meanwhile, it was Manafort who placed the seed of the conspiracy now jouncing through the cavernous vacuum of Trump’s mind that it was Kyiv, not the Kremlin, who sought to meddle in 2016. It’s Manafort, perhaps more than anyone else, who can help the president escape his current predicament, and take down all those who would do him and his authoritarian dreams harm.
For any who’ve forgotten, Manafort is seemingly comically devoted to crime—the sort of man who plans a new caper while on his way to being arraigned for his old ones. He blazed his path, and built his fortune, playing at an old Beltway game: serving as a bag-man, kitted out in K Street threads, for any number of corrupt foreign actors looking to sidle into the good graces of Washington elites. Manafort was hardly the only well-coiffed, silver-tongued devil taking his talents to the most brutal regimes across the world, promising to launder their images in return for some of their looted treasure. He was just one of the first. And he was, arguably, the best.
This was a man who led what the Center for Public Integrity dubbed “The Torturers’ Lobby” nearly thirty years ago, rummaging for work among the most heinous governments that emerged in the late stage of the Cold War, with hands out, looking for American largesse. Manafort’s efforts allowed these newly-minted dictators to brutalize their people, ransack their national treasuries, and disappear dissidents and journalists alike without putting their reputations at risk. To Manafort, anyone this side of Slobodan Milosevic was fair game—and their money perfectly free for the taking. As Transparency International found in 2004, three of the top four kleptocracies the modern world had ever seen—Indonesia’s Suharto, Zaire’s Mobutu, and Nigeria’s Sani Abacha—had one thing in common: relying on Manafort to massage their images for Western audiences, all to keep the U.S. aid flowing, and any kind of international criticism smothered.
When Ukraine’s Viktor Yanukovych needed assistance whitewashing his thugocracy, and keeping questions of his spiraling wealth as Ukraine’s new president at bay, he turned to a familiar face. Manafort spun his contacts in Washington, pinballing reports among legislators that painted Yanukovych as some kind of reformer, and enlisting former Western politicos to act as mouthpieces for Ukraine’s budding autocrat. Everything was going according to plan, until it suddenly wasn’t. Yanukovych caved to Russian pressure to end Ukraine’s European ambitions, which led directly to a 2013-14 revolution that resulted in Yanukovych fleeing the country, a Russian invasion of southern Ukraine, and the first forced land-grab Europe has seen since the Second World War.
While Yanukovych scuttled into exile in Russia, Manafort slunk back to Washington, looking for his next play. Trump brought him the next golden goose on a gilded escalator. What happened next is well-known. Manafort helped shepherd the campaign toward its election—and may have helped coordinate Wikileaks’ dump of hacked Democratic emails. But his time with Trump’s campaign was cut short after he was upended by new details on his own payment schemes in Ukraine, with millions of dollars piled into offshore accounts, propping up his own debts. Mueller circled, and pounced, slapping an indictment on Manafort for his failures to register his foreign work with the Department of Justice, alongside bank and tax fraud. Earlier this year, just days after Mueller’s redacted report detailed Russia’s interference efforts, a hangdog Manafort perp-walked into prison. It couldn’t have happened to a worse guy.
It is at this point that Giuliani re-emerges on the scene. The president’s ersatz legal advisor spent the past year acting as a back-channel for all manner of shady foreign figures looking to bend Trump’s ear. In Turkey, jailed gold-traders helping Iran evade sanctions relied on Giuliani for lobbying for freedom. In Romania, corrupt politicians turned to Giuliani for a helping hand. And in Ukraine, as the impeachment hearings this month will illustrate, the brigands left over from Ukraine’s days as a bastion of corruption plied Giuliani with all of their grievances and all of their conspiracies, which Giuliani then whispered directly into the president’s ears.
We still have no idea who was paying Giuliani for all of his foreign work, or what kinds of indictments may be coming down the pipeline for America’s Mayor. But there appears to be a voice stage-managing Giuliani’s actions from behind the scenes: Manafort himself.
It’s not a stretch of the imagination. Manafort and Trump’s lawyers, including Giuliani, have had extensive contacts on Ukraine. As the New York Review of Books uncovered, “Manafort’s camp provided Giuliani with information designed to smear” Serhiy Leshchenko, the Ukrainian journalist who helped unearth the so-called “black ledger,” which detailed Manafort’s corrupt dealings in Ukraine. Giuliani’s efforts to tar Leshchenko, one of Ukraine’s leading anti-corruption voices, have already cost the latter his job.
But that’s not all. As NBC reported, Giuliani laundered conspiracies against former U.S. ambassador Marie Yovanovitch—set to testify at the impeachment hearings later this week—through Giuliani’s favorite self-proclaimed journalist, The Hill’s John Solomon, who published claims that Yovanovitch and George Soros were “part of a massive conspiracy to take down” Manafort. Along the way, Ukraine suddenly froze an investigation into Manafort’s dealings in the country; as one former Ukrainian official said, “It is clear for me that somebody gave an order to bury the black ledger.”
All of these ingredients may seem disparate, but they add up to a clear through-line. Giuliani and his henchmen, presumably at the president’s behest, didn’t merely attempt to strongarm Kyiv into smearing Biden with allegations of corruption. They also seek to blot out the details of the corruption drenching Manafort’s previous work in the country—and lay the groundwork for eventually absolving Manafort’s of the crimes for which he was convicted in the United States.
After Giuliani hit send on the aforementioned loose-fingered texts, full of grievance over the way Manafort had been brought low, the president’s lawyer sent me another shorter—and more grammatically challenged—text message, hinting at things to come. “In due time it will all come out,” Giuliani wrote. “I want to see 2016 corrupting Ukraine to be revealed [sic].” It’s hard to say what timeline Giuliani has in mind for everything to “come out,” but his sudden desire to push the stashed-away Manafort back into the spotlight suggests that lifting Mueller’s most famous prisoner out of perdition—emancipating a man who robbed millions of their own freedom, all while whitewashing the world’s worst—is part of the agenda.