The Trump-Russia conundrum is best categorized as a room full of smoke but no fire. Yet on Tuesday, two things happened that seem to hammer the nail a bit deeper into the Trump administration.
“Paul Manafort” is a name we haven’t heard in awhile, but only a few months ago, he was one of the most powerful political operatives in the nation. Manafort has built his career as a Republican strategist over several decades. Washington D.C. is full of power-hungry operatives like the 67-year-old, and after putting in his time as a lobbyist, he was finally on the top of the game and running public relations for the Trump campaign.
However, Manafort was not a typical D.C. lobbyist. The Washington Post described him as “somewhat of a mystery on K Street.” While Manafort does have a residence in Alexandria, an upscale suburb of D.C., he also owns a condo in Trump Tower and another home in Florida. Interestingly, Manafort spent a considerable amount of time lobbying for and advising foreign governments. While lobbying for foreign powers is not unusual (in fact, it’s something of a cottage industry in D.C.), it is strange for a political operative and lobbyist to be holding so many different cards.
Manafort was thrust back into the spotlight on Tuesday when the New York Times reported that the former Trump aide was involved in money laundering for Ukranian president and Putin ally Viktor F. Yanukovych. The paper stated that “documents included an invoice that appeared to show $750,000 funneled through an offshore account and disguised as payment for computers.” It is important to note that the ledger upon which the Times report was based was released by Serhiy A. Leshchenko, a member of the Ukrainian Parliament, who may have political motives.
When the Trump campaign seemed to be in a tailspin last spring, they brought on Manafort. Trump and then-campaign manager Corey Lewandowski hoped his experience as a political operative would help right the keeling ship. A statement released by the Trump campaign claimed “Mr. Manafort [would] direct the campaign’s activities in areas including delegate operations, Washington, DC outreach and the DC office.” But as Manafort’s ties to the pro-Russian Yanukovych first came under scrutiny last August, he was ousted. Trump also seemed to dislike Manafort’s attempts to make him more presidential. After Manafort’s exit, Lewandowski told Politico, “let’s get back to what brought Donald Trump here, which is allowing him to be authentic.”
The New York Times story could not come at a more unfortunate time for the Trump White House. On Monday, FBI Director James Comey testified that the bureau was investigating ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. Specifically, Comey stated the agency he leads is “investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government, and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts.”
However, as the investigation is ongoing, Comey would not comment on which individuals he was investigating. Most suspected that former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was among those the FBI was looking into. Speculation over ties between Flynn and Russia led to him being dismissed from the administration. Recently, it was revealed that Flynn was lobbying for Russian interests.
The Trump-Russia conundrum is best categorized as a room full of smoke but no fire. Yet on Tuesday, two things happened that seem to hammer the nail a bit deeper into the Trump administration. First, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer did his damnedest to distance the Trump campaign from Manafort. Asked about the former aide, Spicer stated he played a “limited role (in the campaign) for a very limited amount of time.” That statement was seen as a vast underestimation of Manafort’s role. Yashar Ali, a reporter at The Daily Beast, noted on Twitter that “Spicer said Manafort had a limited role. But in a tweet last year he referred to him as ‘Trump campaign chairman.’” New York Times reporter Glenn Thrush joked that “‘Paul Manafort played a very limited role for a very limited time,’ says Spicer — who will likely later tell us he said this ‘in jest.’”
This week Spicer said Manafort had a limited role. But in a tweet last year he referred to him as "Trump campaign chairman" pic.twitter.com/fV8ptVMwNq
— Yashar Ali (@yashar) March 22, 2017
At another point in the press conference, Spicer stated, “Paul was brought on sometime in June and by the middle of August he was no longer with the campaign, meaning for the final stretch of the general election, he was not involved.” That statement was also incorrect, as Manafort was brought onto the campaign in April, not June.
Further, The Hill reported that Manafort has enlisted the services of JadeRoq, a top crisis management firm in Washington D.C. It is not unusual for someone like Manafort to hire JadeRoq to steady his brand amid his current onslaught of problems. Even so, it doesn’t look good for him. At best, it’s an admittance that he’s in hot water.
We don’t know — and may never know — who the FBI is investigating in relation to Trump campaign members’ contacts with Russia. But the revelations about Manafort make it possible, if not likely, that he’s a top name on the list. Unfortunately for Democrats, who are eager to get to the bottom of the Russian scandal, this investigation will likely take a considerable amount of time. But with Manafort in the line of fire, they now have another Trump aide they can use as leverage to hurry the investigation and throw shade at any of the White House’s claims that they haven’t been at least influenced by the Kremlin.
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