Tue 26 January 2021

Caroline Orr explains how, when Manafort goes to prison, he will carry with him a slew of secrets about Super PACS, polling data and a possible Wikileaks Connection

Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort was sentenced to 47 months in prison Thursday for bank and tax fraud charges — a far more lenient punishment than the federal sentencing guidelines cited by prosecutors, which called for 19.5 to 24 years in prison.

Manafort could still end up facing serious prison time when he appears before a different judge next week in a federal court in Washington, D.C., where he pleaded guilty in a related case and could be sentenced to an additional decade in prison.

But Manafort’s sentencing is only one chapter in a much longer book, and the bulk of this saga remains a mystery.

Secret Payments and a Shady Super PAC

Starting at the beginning, we still don’t know why Paul Manafort was brought on as Trump’s campaign chairman, and more intriguingly, why he agreed to take the job and work for free.

“…Manafort was deeply in debt to Russian oligarchs when he joined the Trump campaign.”

Paul Manafort was a man who loved money; he wasn’t exactly the type to volunteer his services when he could have monetized them. Furthermore, Manafort was deeply in debt to Russian oligarchs when he joined the Trump campaign, so he was obviously in need of funds.

It’s widely believed that Manafort went into the job because he thought he would be compensated in some other way.

Mueller, for his part, doesn’t believe that Manafort received nothing for his work for the Trump campaign, as he made clear in a court filing. He alleges that Manafort lied about money he received from Rebuilding America Now, a pro-Trump Super PAC that was set up by friends of Manafort and has engaged in dubious activities since its inception.

During the 2016 campaign, Trump signaled to wealthy donors that they should support the newly created PAC, which was run by two of Manafort’s close associates, including his daughter’s godfather. Manafort also asked Trump’s longtime friend Tom Barrack to help raise money for the PAC, and Vice President Mike Pence endorsed the PAC and explicitly encouraged donors to give money to the pro-Trump group.

Rebuilding America Now raised more than $20 million during the 2016 cycle and ended up being one of the top PACs supporting Trump’s 2016 campaign.

“…given that Manafort played such a key role in the PAC’s activities, it’s hard to believe that he would have been unaware of the alleged illicit conduct.”

Mueller has accused Manafort of lying about a $125,000 payment from the PAC that went towards paying off his debt. The money was reportedly funneled through another firm — an accusation that Manafort himself admitted to in a court memo.

Manafort reportedly lied about the scheme while he was bound by the terms of his cooperation agreement with the special counsel’s office. Interestingly, the $125,000 debt-relief payment was made after Manafort had already left the Trump campaign.

Rebuilding America Now is also being investigated for failing to disclose $1 million in donations it took in just before the election, and for potentially receiving foreign contributions through American intermediaries known as straw donors.

If the pro-Trump PAC did accept such donations, this would be a flagrant violation of campaign finance laws. And given that Manafort played such a key role in the PAC’s activities, it’s hard to believe that he would have been unaware of the alleged illicit conduct.

The Mysterious Polling data

In January, Manafort’s attorneys accidentally revealed in a court filing that Mueller’s team had accused Manafort of sharing sensitive internal polling data from the Trump campaign with a Russian operative — while Manafort was still working in his role as campaign chairman — and later lying about it to prosecutors.

The information in the filing was supposed to be redacted, apparently because the special counsel’s office wanted to keep it under wraps to protect the integrity of an open investigation.

But if the investigation into Manafort is over, who is the subject of that ongoing investigation? That question remains unanswered.

Furthermore, it is still unclear what Konstantin Kilimnik, the recipient of the polling data, would want to do with such information. However, his ties to Russian intelligence and his access to internal campaign data raise the possibility that Kilimnik provided key information to assist Russia’s 2016 election interference operation — with Manafort’s help.

It has previously been reported that Russian Facebook ads specifically targeted battleground states, including Wisconsin and Michigan —  two states that were crucial to Trump’s electoral college victory. Trump won those two states by less than a one-percent margin. Michigan was the closest race in the country, with Trump edging out Hillary Clinton by less than 11,000 votes out of a total 4.8 million ballots cast.

At least 25 percent of the Russian-linked Facebook ads released during the 2016 presidential campaign are believed to have been geographically targeted to focus on states with the closest races.

“…the accidental revelation that Manafort shared internal polling data with Kilimnik may also reveal how Russia knew exactly where and when to target their illicit influence campaign.”

Meanwhile, the Trump campaign also relied heavily on highly targeted Facebook content to reach its desired audience, and there are questions about whether it may have worked with Russia to amplify its own efforts.

In the final weeks of the election, the Trump campaign suddenly shifted resources to Rust Belt states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. It’s not known what prompted that move, but Manafort may have had an important role in the sudden decision to start targeting those states.

In November 2016, The New York Times‘ Maggie Haberman reported that Manafort sent at least one memo to Trump telling him to focus on Michigan and Wisconsin.

If the campaign passed this information along to Russian operatives, it would have given them the opportunity to amplify the impact of the Trump campaign’s last-minute shift in voter targeting.

In other words, the accidental revelation that Manafort shared internal polling data with Kilimnik may also reveal how Russia knew exactly where and when to target their illicit influence campaign. This would also explain why Manafort lied about the revelation to prosecutors even after striking a cooperation agreement.

A WikiLeaks Connection?

In November, The Guardian reported that Manafort met with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London just before he joined the Trump campaign in March 2016. According to the report, Manafort had previously met with Assange in 2013 and 2015, though both Manafort and Assange deny the meetings ever took place.

The possibility that Manafort met with Assange — and the timing of the alleged rendezvous in 2016 — raises a slew of intriguing questions.  

If the meeting did take place, it happened in the midst of a number of other extremely significant events in the Trump-Russia timeline.

In early March 2016, Manafort met with longtime Trump friend Tom Barrack at the Montage hotel in Beverly Hills to discuss joining the campaign. He would officially come aboard at the end of March 2016, accepting an unpaid position as Trump’s campaign chairman.

Also in early March 2016, George Papadopoulos joined the campaign, and less than a week later, was introduced to the elusive European professor Joseph Mifsud, who is considered a key missing link between the Trump campaign and Russia. According to Papadopoulos, Mifsud told him in April 2016 that the Russians had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton in the form of thousands of emails. Mifsud has since gone missing and some reports suggest that he may even be dead.

“If Manafort did, indeed, meet with Assange, it would mark one of the most significant events in the Trump-Russia timeline…”

It was during that very same time period (starting on March 15, 2016) that Russian hackers started looking for vulnerabilities in the network of the Democratic National Committee. A few days later, on March 19, Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta and other Clinton campaign staffers were sent spear-phishing emails designed to steal the login information for their email accounts.

The hackers allegedly gained access to Podesta’s email account on March 21, at which point they stole more than 50,000 emails that were later published by WikiLeaks.

On April 12, 2016, the hackers gained access to the network of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. On April 18, they gained access to the DNC’s system.

On April 11, Manafort emailed Konstantin Kilimnik — the same Russian intelligence-linked operative with whom he later shared the Trump campaign’s internal polling data —  to make sure that oligarch Oleg Deripaska’s “operation” had seen his media coverage, apparently about the Trump campaign. Deripaska is the Putin ally to whom Manafort was deeply indebted when he joined the Trump campaign.

In the email, Manafort mysteriously asked Kilimnik, “How do we use to get whole?” It is still not known what Manafort was referring to in the cryptic email.

What is known is that WikiLeaks gained access to the emails and documents stolen by Russian hackers in the months after Manafort joined the campaign and allegedly met with Assange.

If Manafort did, indeed, meet with Assange, it would mark one of the most significant events in the Trump-Russia timeline — an event that may have kicked off the alleged coordination between the Trump campaign, Russia, and WikiLeaks.

An Enduring Mystery

Manafort will face his second sentencing hearing next week, but the end of his criminal proceedings does little to bring closure to this sordid scandal.

There are still countless unanswered questions swirling around Manafort, and for now it appears they will follow him into his prison cell.

U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson, who will hand down Manafort’s second sentence, appears to be keenly aware that Manafort still possesses secrets that could prove crucial to the Russia investigation.

In a recently revealed transcript, Judge Jackson accused Manafort of a pattern of “withholding facts if he can get away with it.”

Perhaps, then, the final and most important unanswered question in the Manafort saga is whether he will get away with it — or at least, for how long.

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