And he gleefully fueled allegations that an Obama Cabinet member who had spoken out against his Ukrainian client was an anti-Semite, according to court papers.
With his guilty plea Friday, Manafort admitted the lengths to which he went to manipulate the American political system and the media for massive profit, exposing how he thrived in the Washington swamp that Trump railed against during his campaign.
The president has dismissed the allegations against his former campaign chairman as run-of-the-mill lobbying — and has even contemplated pardoning him. But new details revealed Friday show how far beyond the law Manafort went in pursuit of his goals.
By pleading guilty, Manafort agreed that he knew he was required by law to publicly report that a pro-Russia Ukrainian political party was paying him and his stable of lobbyists, which included former leaders of Austria, Poland and Italy.
Instead, he operated in the dark, working diligently to keep his lobbying for Ukrainian politician Viktor Yanukovych a secret and pocketing millions routed through offshore bank accounts to hide his work and avoid paying taxes.
“This is extraordinary,” said Michael McFaul, a Stanford University professor who served as U.S. ambassador to Moscow.
“I was well aware at the time that Manafort was making efforts to present Yanukovych in the best light,” McFaul said, but added that he had no idea of the extent of Manafort’s elaborate schemes.
The prosecution of Manafort by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III has drawn in players from across the political spectrum, including pillars of the Washington lobbying and legal community like Mercury Public Affairs; the Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom law firm; and the now-defunct Podesta Group, helmed by Democratic lobbyist Tony Podesta.
Trump has downplayed Manafort’s wrongdoing, writing in an August tweet that he felt “very badly” for his former campaign chairman. “What he did, some of the charges they threw against him, every consultant, every lobbyist in Washington probably does,” the president told Fox News the following day.
Trump’s personal attorney, Rudolph W. Giuliani, told The Washington Post on Friday that the president “knows how badly Manafort has been treated, worse than organized criminals are treated.”
During his populist outsider campaign, Trump promised to stamp out such influence-peddling, which critics note is still thriving in Washington.
“While Manafort’s violations are brazen, I’m afraid that with a little digging, the Justice Department would find a fair number of violations,” said Karen Hobert Flynn, president of the watchdog group Common Cause.
Paul Miller, who runs the Institute for Lobbying and Ethics, a trade association that represents state and federal lobbyists, acknowledged that there is a “widespread problem” of lobbyists failing to register their activities.
But Manafort went far beyond that, Miller said, adding that the details revealed in court filings Friday are “in no way a reflection of the whole lobbying community.”
Manafort, 69, a political operative who had worked for Republican presidential candidates such as Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan, helped pioneer the Washington lobbying industry when he founded a firm in the 1980s that specialized in spiffing up the reputations of some of the world’s most controversial leaders, including Angolan rebel leader Jonas Savimbi and Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos.
He once testified to Congress that while the technical term for his work was “lobbying . . . I will admit that, in a narrow sense, some people might term it ‘influence peddling.’ ”
Manafort was brought to Ukraine in 2005 by wealthy businessman Rinat Akhmetov, who persuaded him to put his talents to work on behalf of the Party of Regions, a pro-Russia group in that country whose candidate, Yanukovych, had just lost a contested election and was looking for a comeback.
He imported into Ukraine the data-driven, image-obsessed political tactics of American campaigns. Plans were drawn up for an ad riffing on the TV show “Mad Men” and another inspired by Reagan. A rally would feature confetti cannons and a balloon drop. Yanukovych, voters were told, would “Make Ukraine Work Again.”
Under Manafort’s direction, Yanukovych’s party made advances in parliamentary elections, and in 2010, he was elected Ukraine’s president. He served until 2014, when he was ousted by public protests and fled to Moscow.
Court documents show that Manafort devised a complex and secretive lobbying campaign to rebrand Yanukovych, who was dogged by corruption charges, as an earnest, pro-Western reformer.
American law, seldom enforced until recently, requires that anyone lobbying government officials or working to shape public opinion in the United States on behalf of a foreign government or political party register with the Justice Department.
But Manafort never registered. And prosecutors said he was so intent on avoiding public disclosure that he worked to persuade one firm assisting the effort to not disclose its work publicly, either. The firm did not do so until a year later, after its role in the Manafort project ended.
Manafort helped form a Brussels-based organization, the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine, as a mouthpiece for Yanukovych. It contracted with two prominent D.C. lobbying and communications firms — Mercury and the Podesta Group — to advance the strongman’s interests and obscure Manafort’s role.
A Mercury partner, Michael McKeon, said the firm has “fully cooperated” with the inquiry. He noted that Mercury filed domestic lobbying disclosures for the work and chose not to file foreign lobbying reports on the advice of counsel. A spokeswoman for Podesta, Molly Levinson, said that firm, too, had cooperated with the investigation and had filed public disclosure reports of its work related to Ukraine.
Manafort also hired a group of four former government officials from other countries, including the former chancellor of Austria, the former president of Poland and the former prime minister of Italy, making it appear that European leaders were organically advocating positions helpful to his client, according to court papers.
In fact, prosecutors said, the officials, whom Manafort dubbed the Hapsburg Group, were paid 2 million euros, routed through Manafort’s offshore bank accounts.
Prosecutors revealed Friday that Manafort was even able to get one member of the group into the Oval Office in May 2013 during a trip accompanying the prime minister of his country. At the meeting with Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, the former official delivered a message about Ukraine, Manafort was later told in an email.
Public records show that Obama met with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan that day. A Turkish Embassy spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
In all, prosecutors say, Manafort’s team lobbied dozens of members of Congress, as well as White House and State Department officials.
In 2011, Manafort’s task became more difficult after Yanukovych’s leading political rival, former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, was jailed and put on trial, a development that was widely condemned by human rights leaders as political persecution.
Manafort’s plea documents the extraordinary lengths he went to in order to undermine her cause.
The year after she was convicted, prosecutors said, Manafort worked to convince Americans that they should not back Tymoshenko because she had formed an alliance with a party that espoused anti-Semitic views in Ukraine.
The goal, he wrote at the time, was to convince “[O]bama jews” to pressure the administration to back Yanukovych. He spread stories that a senior Cabinet official was supporting anti-Semitism by taking up Tymoshenko’s cause, and he tipped off the media to an Israeli government statement about her Ukraine ties.
“I have someone pushing it on the NY Post. Bada bing bada boom,” he wrote to a public relations manager working with his effort.
The Cabinet official appears to have been then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who had criticized Yanukovych.
Prosecutors said Manafort even tried to get stories planted that Tymoshenko had paid for the murder of another Ukrainian official. The story should be “pushed” with “no fingerprints,” he wrote to a colleague. “My goal is to plant some stink on Tymo.”
Kenneth McCallion, a lawyer for Tymoshenko, said in an interview Friday, “We did not know that it went to this level.”
In 2012, Manafort commissioned the white-shoe law firm Skadden Arps to write a report analyzing Tymoshenko’s trial. Publicly, the report was billed as an independent assessment of the Ukrainian justice system. But prosecutors say Manafort was informed by the firm in writing before its report was complete that there was virtually no evidence that Tymoshenko had held criminal intent.
Still, Manafort organized a secret global campaign to promote the report’s finding that her conviction had not been politically motivated. He also helped hide the fact that Skadden had been paid $4.6 million for its work, though Ukrainian officials publicly claimed it cost only $12,000.
Even after he was charged with working as an unregistered lobbyist, prosecutors said, Manafort continued to take steps to obscure his work through Konstantin Kilimnik, a Russian colleague who had worked with Manafort and contacted witnesses in the case to try to influence their testimony.
The FBI has said that Kilimnik has ties to Russian intelligence. Charged alongside Manafort, he is now believed to be living in Moscow, a fugitive from U.S. justice.
Alice Crites, Rachel Weiner and Robert Costa contributed to this report.