The noose of Kremlingate is tightening – and the scandal increasingly appears to tie Trump associates to a Russian campaign to subvert American democracy.
The FBI is now weighing evidence that Trump associates communicated – and possibly coordinated – with "suspected Russian operatives" about when to release information that damaged the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton, CNN reports. This inquiry is part of the counterintelligence investigation that FBI Director James Comey described to Congress this week, examining "the Russian government's efforts to interfere in the 2016 president election ... and whether there was any coordination between the [Trump] campaign and Russia's efforts."
(In January, the U.S. intelligence community concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered a "multifaceted" campaign in 2016 to undermine Clinton and promote Trump – including by hacking Democratic Party operatives and relaying "material it acquired from the DNC and senior Democratic officials to WikiLeaks.")
CNN's report linking Trump's inner circle to Kremlingate has surfaced just after a bombshell report by the Associated Press. AP reveals that Paul Manafort – Trump's campaign chairman from March through August of 2016 – had previously been paid tens of millions of dollars by a Russian oligarch, after Manafort pitched him a plan to "influence politics, business dealings and news coverage inside the United States ... to benefit President Vladimir Putin's government."
The AP report is stunning: From 2006 until "at least" 2009, Manafort was paid exorbitant sums – starting at $10 million a year – by Russian aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska, described in a U.S. diplomatic cable as "among the 2-3 oligarchs Putin turns to on a regular basis." The payments began, the AP reports, after Manafort laid out a scheme to "greatly benefit" Putin.
Manafort's work was covert. He did not report his contract to the Justice Department, a potential violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act, the AP reports. A statement by Deripaska to the news service says Manafort was paid "to provide investment consulting services related to business interests." Manafort confirmed he'd been paid, but according to the AP, "denied his work had been pro-Russian in nature."
The New York Times had previously reported that Manafort received $12.7 million in off-the-book payments from a pro-Russia party inside Ukraine, dating from 2007 to 2012. That disclosure prompted Manafort's formal exit from the Trump campaign in August 2016. But Manafort – who reportedly owns an apartment in Trump Tower – reportedly remained in close contact with Trump and running mate Mike Pence. According to the Daily Beast, Manafort was a pivotal figure in the Trump transition, helping select the top ranks of the new administration. "I think he's weighing in on everything," a former campaign official said in late November. "I think he still talks to Trump every day. I mean, Pence? That was all Manafort. Pence is on the phone with Manafort regularly."
Take a step back. Consider what we're talking about here:
Manafort was previously paid tens of millions of dollars by a Russian oligarch after proposing a secret, multifaceted campaign to influence U.S. politics and media to "greatly benefit" the interests of the Putin government in the United States.
A few years later, as Manafort had risen to become the campaign chairman of the Republican nominee for president, the Putin government engaged in its own multifaceted campaign to influence U.S. politics and media – seeking to undermine Hillary Clinton and ultimately to promote Donald Trump. The U.S. intelligence assessment on Putin's interference in the 2016 election records that active Russian promotion of Trump began the same month that Manafort took the helm as Trump's campaign manager. "Starting in March 2016," it reads, "Russian Government-linked actors began openly supporting President-elect Trump's candidacy in media aimed at English-speaking audiences."
Perhaps there is an innocent explanation for these raging cross-currents of Russian influence and Republican politics. But listen to top Russia hawks in the U.S. Senate and that seems unlikely. "There are other shoes that will drop," Sen. John McCain told Bloomberg of the Manafort affair. "This is a centipede."