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What Paul Manafort’s Trump Tower notes mean

Paul Manafort departs a D.C. courtroom. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)
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Included in the documents released by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday is a one-page document submitted by Paul Manafort, the former campaign chairman for Donald Trump’s 2016 effort. Manafort was serving in that role on June 9, 2016, when he joined Donald Trump Jr. and campaign adviser Jared Kushner in a meeting with a Kremlin-linked attorney who had promised incriminating information about Hillary Clinton.

Those notes, apparently taken on Manafort’s phone, are as follows.

In full:

  • Bill browder
  • Offshore — Cyprus
  • Companies
  • Not invest — loan
  • Value in Cyprus as inter
  • Illici
  • Active sponsors of RNC
  • Browder hired Joanna Glover
  • Tied into Cheney
  • Russian adoption by American families

In the absence of other context, the notes are cryptic and include words that certainly seem to wave red flags. “Offshore,” “Illici[t]” — even an apparent mention of former vice president Richard B. Cheney.

What the notes reveal, though, isn’t necessarily anything new and nefarious about what was discussed about the meeting. What they reveal is what Manafort was interested in and why he went to the meeting in the first place.

Trump Jr. has argued almost from the outset that the promise of dirt on Hillary Clinton was not fulfilled. Instead of getting his hands on material collected by the Russian government that the Trump campaign could use to hammer Clinton as the general election heated up, Trump Jr., Manafort and Kushner were lobbied on the Magnitsky Act, a bill that imposed new sanctions on prominent Russians, to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s great annoyance. In response to the bill’s passage in 2012, Putin put a halt on adoptions of Russian children by Americans.

The Russian attorney who was the focus of the Trump Tower meeting, Natalia Veselnitskaya, had been lobbying on the repeal of the Magnitsky Act for years, so it’s not surprising that she would use her time with representatives of Trump’s campaign to broach that issue. But that focus also helps explain the rest of Manafort’s notes.

The Magnitsky Act was named after Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian anti-corruption lawyer who died under suspicious circumstances in a Russian prison in 2009. He had been imprisoned after being charged with fraud. That charge, though, is what Magnitsky had been investigating.

He was working at the time for an investment fund called Hermitage Capital Management. In 2005, the firm’s chief executive revealed sweeping corruption on the part of senior Russian officials. Magnitsky continued to dig into those allegations, allegedly finding more corruption and rampant money laundering — and that Hermitage’s holding companies had essentially been stolen with the help of the Russian government. The people Magnitsky accused of corruption were some of those who then arrested him.

The chief executive of Hermitage Capital Management? Bill Browder, the person mentioned in Manafort’s notes. Browder offered his own testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee last year.

In October, Foreign Policy published a memo detailing the case that Veselnitskaya planned to make in the meeting.

“Veselnitskaya made the case that the American businessman Bill Browder perpetrated a massive scheme of tax fraud against the Russian state and then launched a global campaign claiming that his companies had in fact been defrauded by Russian officials — and that they had killed the lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in order to cover it up,” reporter Elias Groll wrote.

That memo includes most of the notes that Manafort jotted down. Here, for example, are mentions of countries based in Cyprus and the “133m” — 133 million shares in the Russian company Gazprom.

Rinat Akhmetshin, who attended the meeting with Veselnitskaya, told the Associated Press that the Democratic National Committee had been the recipient of a “flow of illicit funds” tied to people in Russia. It’s possible that Manafort, taking notes on his phone, meant to type “DNC” but instead typed (or had his notes corrected to) “RNC.”

Bloomberg notes that Veselnitskaya was focused on Browder and the Ziff family, which did business with him. (The Ziff brothers feature prominently in the video above.) One apparent link to the Clintons was that both gave to the Clinton Foundation, which Veselnitskaya may have presented as incriminating.

The mention of “Joanna Glover” is more clear. It’s almost certainly a reference to Juleanna Glover, who worked with Browder in advocating for the Magnitsky Act. Juleanna Glover had worked in politics for some time — including for Cheney.

Manafort appears to have stopped taking notes once the real focus of Veselnitskaya’s lobbying — repealing the Magnitsky Act and allowing Americans to once again adopt children from Russia — became clear.

The incriminating information promised about Clinton never came.