With Donald Trump’s near-repudiation of NATO’s Article 5 for the Baltic States and of other international organizations including, in the last couple of days, the European Union and World Trade Organization, the question of his ties to Russia have become louder. Articles have been published earlier this year on the subject. Josh Marshall summarizes the concerns.
I too think there is a pattern of Russian connections among the Trump organizations and his campaign associates. Further, we know that the Kremlin has financed far-right political parties in Europe and wants to see disruption among what are considered the enemies of Russia. But there is a history of intemperate accusations of Soviet connections in the red-baiting of the 1950s that is being reawakened. It is therefore extremely important to stay fact-based. I’m working through recent articles to winnow out the facts from narrative. I find it simpler to judge from bare-bones narrative without flourishes.
This post looks into people working with Trump on the campaign. I hope to follow with posts on other issues that Josh raises. If you think I’ve missed something, please let me know!
Trump has openly declared admiration for Putin and supports some of his policies. There have been a number of articles detailing some of the connections. But the journalistic convention of telling a story can obscure an evaluation of the numbers and types of contacts. I thought it would be useful to try to pull the latter out of the former.
A number of Donald Trump’s advisors have connections to Russian-connected organizations: Paul Manafort, Carter Page, Michael Flynn, and Richard Burt.
Paul Manafort is Trump’s campaign manager. He comes from a Washington consulting (read lobbying) firm, Davis Manafort, that has represented a number of dictators. Long articles in the Washington Post and Slate have documented his connections.
According to the Washington Post, Manafort worked in Gerald Ford’s White House and then as a convention adviser to the presidential campaigns of Ronald Reagan and Bob Dole. According to Franklin Foer in Slate, James A. Baker III was Manafort’s mentor in the White House.
He later formed Davis Manafort with other Republican operatives. The company’s clients included Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, and other dictators. Foer documents some of the circuitous routes by which Manafort has been paid.
Manafort met Trump in the 1970s. Trump and his father had hired Roy Cohn, previously lawyer to the infamous Senator Joe McCarthy, to defend them against a housing discrimination suit. Cohn introduced them to Manafort. In the early 1990s, Trump hired Davis Manafort to defend his casino interests against competition from Native American casinos. The campaign seems to have consisted of ads smearing Native Americans placed by a shell company. Trump was fined $250,000 for not reporting his payments to that company to the state lobbying commission.
Manafort’s closest connection to Putin may be through former Ukrainian president Victor Yanukovich. Yanukovich’s corruption was a big issue in the Ukrainian protests of 2014, when he fled the country for Russia. Yanukovich looked toward both Europe and Moscow, playing them off against each other. A decade before, in the Ukrainian election of 2004, Yanukovich lost the presidency to Victor Yuschenko, despite Russian-style dirty tricks against Yuschenko, including a poisoning attempt.
Manafort became Yanukovich’s advisor in 2005, and Yanukovich won back the presidency in 2010. Rinat Akhmetov, a wealthy industrialist from the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine, now the location of the Russian-induced war, brought the two together. Foer claims that Manafort became the US Embassy’s main conduit to Yanukovich and that he did not always act in US interests. Other Americans advising Yanukovich included Bernie Sanders’ consultant Tad Devine and a number of Republican lobbyists, including former congressmen Vin Weber and Billy Tauzin.
In 2005, Manafort involved John McCain in an intrigue in which Russian businessman Oleg Deripaska hoped to buy significant pieces of the economy of Montenegro and spread Russian influence into that country. At that time, Montenegro was part of Serbia, but its independence would aid Deripaska’s ambitions. The affair could have been damaging to McCain politically because of the link to Russian interests. There was a rumor that Deripaska had bought an apartment in Trump Tower for Manafort and his business partner.
The Davis Manafort firm persuaded Deripaska in 2006 to invest in a scheme to set up a $200 million fund, Pericles Emerging Market Investors, whose purpose was said to be to make private-equity investments and acquisitions primarily in Russia and Ukraine, according to a lawsuit Deripaska filed in 2014 in the Cayman Islands, where the fund was to be set up. Deripaska has accused Manafort of taking nearly $19 million, and failing to account for the funds or return them.
In another business deal, Manafort allied with Dmytro Firtash, a Ukrainian energy tycoon connected to Semyon Mogilevich. Again, the documents the Washington Post relies on come from a lawsuit against Manafort by his former partner. In the early 2000s, Manafort met Firtash through his political consulting for Viktor Yanukovych, whom Firtash supported. In 2008, Firtash helped to finance Manafort’s purchase of the Drake Hotel, to be torn down and replaced by a new luxury skyscraper. The recession ended those plans. In a 2011 New York lawsuit, a former Ukrainian prime minister accused Firtash of trying to launder corrupt profits from energy transations in Ukraine through the deal.
Firtash seems to have made most of his money in the Ukrainian energy industry, which in the 2000s was particularly corrupt and intertwined with Russian interests. Ukraine was a center of Soviet energy distribution, and many gas pipelines run through the country. Those pipelines now convey natural gas to Europe and are a source of income. A Reuters investigation described how investors could make enormous amounts of money, with kickbacks to pro-Putin politicians like Yanukovych.
Not surprisingly, the names Firtash, Deripaska, and Akhmetov all appear in shell company records from the Panama Papers and Offshore Leaks.
Carter Page is a foreign policy advisor to Donald Trump. Bloomberg News published a biographical sketch. He has worked in arms control at the Pentagon and was a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Page started working at Merrill Lynch’s capital-markets group in London in 2000 and helped open the firm’s Moscow office in 2004. There, he developed relationships with the largely state-owned Gazprom and says he advised them on their largest deals.
Page says he took a buyout from Merrill in 2008 to start his own firm, Global Energy Capital LLC, which tried to start a $1 billion private equity fund to buy assets in Turkmenistan, but the global crash ended that plan. Since then, he’s advised investors on buying assets in Russia and has worked with Sergey Yatsenko, a former deputy chief financial officer at Gazprom who is now an adviser to Page’s firm.
Page recently presented a speech at the New Economic School in Moscow, where he said he was attending as a private citizen. The speech contrasted US and Russian business practices in Central Asia, finding Russia’s to be more favorable. He minimized his comments to media.
Lieutenant General (retired) Michael Flynn, Trump’s advisor on intelligence and national security, is perhaps the most disturbing of Trump’s Russia contacts. Flynn was President Barack Obama’s chief of the Defense Intelligence Agency. He is said to have been forced out of that position in August 2014. A little over a year later, he attended a celebration in Moscow for RT, the Kremlin-run media network, sitting at the head table next to Vladimir Putin. He also was interviewed by RT, in which he disagreed with the Obama administration’s policies in Syria and praised Russia’s “contributions to international stability.”
Here is a November 2015 interview with Spiegel On Line, and his speech at the Republican convention. He has advocated occupying Syria in order to root out ISIS and other extreme measures. His commonality with Russia may be his desire to destroy ISIS.
Another puzzling Russia connection in Trump’s foreign policy team is Richard Burt. Burt is a former Reagan administration official and was the chief US negotiator in the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks with the Soviet Union in 1991. He is the US chair of Global Zero, an organization advocating the abolition of nuclear weapons. He is chair of the advisory council for the National Interest, a publication sympathetic to the Kremlin. He is also on the boards of Alfa–Bank, the largest commercial bank in Russia, and an investment fund with a large position in Gazprom.
Bottom line: Flynn’s appearance at the RT dinner is the closest any of these aides seem to have come to a relationship with Putin. There are a number of business interests. Perhaps one way to judge is to think about if Trump aides had these kinds of connections with one particular industry.
Graphic source. Not an endorsement of content at that link. Most of the graphics of US and Russian flags are on more or less weird sites.