Diana Pilipenko is associate director for anti-corruption and illicit finance at the Center for American Progress.
President Trump’s defenders responded to the news of Paul Manafort’s plea deal on Friday with the usual refrain: His case has nothing to do with the Trump campaign or allegations that it colluded with Russia in 2016.
They’re wrong. Why? Because they’re overlooking the blackmail factor.
Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation has painstakingly documented evidence of Manafort’s role in a 10-year scheme involving money laundering, tax evasion and illicit lobbying — crimes that could lead to decades in a prison cell. Given Manafort’s extensive ties to Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs, Russian President Vladimir Putin would almost certainly have had detailed knowledge of Manafort’s transgressions. And that means that, when Manafort was promoted to chairman of Trump’s campaign in May 2016, the Kremlin probably had vast amounts of material it could use to blackmail him. When it was revealed in August 2016 that Manafort had received at least $12.7 million in secret payments from the pro-Kremlin party of Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s ousted president, that alone was enough to end his nascent return to U.S. politics.
The use of blackmail, or kompromat, in the former Soviet Union is as common as beet dishes. Indeed, Putin has cultivated his system of power around selective use of compromising information, especially evidence of financial malfeasance. And its use is reserved not only for his opponents. As the Russian journalist Yulia Latynina once wrote, “To keep kompromat on enemies is a pleasure. To keep kompromat on friends is a must.” The regime’s use of the tactic is so widespread that one scholar of modern-day Russia has described the country as a “blackmail state.”
The gathering of kompromat is an organic process. Rarely is there a long-term strategy behind it; it often functions as a kind of insurance in business or political dealings. Accordingly, to say that the Russian government would have access to kompromat on Manafort is not necessarily to argue that its procurement was part of a sustained, centrally orchestrated campaign. Instead, it could have been casually generated through Manafort’s dealings with Kremlin-connected oligarchs and politicians, as well as Konstantin Kilimnik, his right-hand man, who Mueller has alleged had active “ties to Russian intelligence” through 2016.
Kilimnik was integral to Manafort’s decade-long scheme to defraud the United States. He was a close confidant, business associate, interpreter and someone Manafort often described as his “Russian brain.” In Kiev, Kilimnik was known as “Manafort’s Manafort,” and he probably helped the American lobbyist to use stolen or false Ukrainian identities to set up offshore shell companies that were used to launder some $30 million. Kilimnik ran Manafort’s office in Ukraine, where investigators found forged invoices, including one that billed a Manafort front company $750,000 for hundreds of nonexistent computers. The intimate relationship between Manafort and Kilimnik is perhaps best captured by Kilimnik’s frustrated attempts to contact witnesses in Europe to ensure they would not disclose Manafort’s secret lobbying in the United States, which violated the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
Kilimnik was also Manafort’s main conduit to Oleg Deripaska, a sanctioned Russian oligarch within Putin’s inner circle. Kilimnik facilitated Manafort’s failed investments of Deripaska’s money and communicated with Deripaska on Manafort’s behalf when the latter wanted to use his new role as Trump’s campaign chairman to “get whole.” When Manafort agreed to work for Trump for no salary, he reportedly owed Deripaska almost $30 million, including for a $10-million unpaid loan. (It is worth noting that the Justice Department attempted to persuade the oligarch to “give up Manafort” — apparently without success.)
If Kilimnik and Deripaska knew of Manafort’s crimes and crippling financial distress, so did the Kremlin. We can safely assume that Manafort was a compromised man when, on June 9, 2016, he met with a Russian government attorney to, in an ironic twist, receive illicit “dirt” on Hillary Clinton.
But Manafort was not the only person on the Trump campaign vulnerable to potential kompromat possessed by the Kremlin. Like his campaign chairman, Trump has been plagued by self-engineered financial distress. He has grown reliant on money from the former Soviet Union, including Russia. He worked closely with politically connected oligarchs and corrupt business partners. His financial empire is shrouded in the secrecy of hundreds of shell companies. And questions about his tax and bank documents abound. The parallels between Trump and Manafort are many, but they do not end there.
Manafort’s cooperation with Mueller could soon reveal how the Kremlin employed kompromat to attack U.S. democracy, because if Putin had compromising information on the campaign chairman of a major party candidate in a U.S. general election, he would probably put it to use. The same applies to the candidate himself.