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Manafort’s Return: “A Grave Counterintelligence Risk”

What were Paul Manafort's connections with Russian interests during the 2016 election interference again? Discover why those connections matter & the potential implications of his possible reunion with the GOP & Trump at the 2024 Republican National Convention, as examined by Brian Daitzman.
Published:March 21, 2024

By Brian Daitzman

In 2020, the U.S. Senate released a comprehensive bipartisan report concluding its years-long investigation into the Russian Federation's interference in the 2016 election and its potential contacts with former President Trump's campaign.

The Senate confirmed that Russia did interfere in the 2016 election and that individuals from Trump’s 2016 campaign had interactions with representatives of Russian interests.

A notable section of the report focused on Paul Manafort, the Trump campaign’s second chairman.

The New York Times

“The report showed extensive evidence of contacts between Trump campaign advisers and people tied to the Kremlin — including a longstanding associate of the onetime Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, Konstantin V. Kilimnik, whom the report identified as a “Russian intelligence officer.”

The Senate report was the first time the government has identified Mr. Kilimnik as an intelligence officer. Mr. Mueller’s report had labeled him as someone with ties to Russian intelligence. The Senate report blacked out most of the details about his intelligence background.
Mr. Manafort’s willingness to share information with Mr. Kilimnik and others affiliated with the Russian intelligence services “represented a grave counterintelligence threat,” the report said.

Democrats highlighted Mr. Kilimnik’s potential ties to the interference operations in their own appendix to the report, noting that Mr. Manafort discussed campaign strategy and shared internal campaign polling data with the Russians and later lied to federal investigators about his actions.”

Recent reports suggest that Paul Manafort may return to assist Trump at the 2024 Republican National Convention.
2024 Republican National Convention

Donald Trump's openness to involving Paul Manafort in the 2024 Republican National Convention speaks volumes about the evolving dynamics within the GOP and its shifting stances on international relations. Even considering Manafort's involvement, despite his contentious history and the significant counterintelligence risks he poses, signals a concerning validation of his ties to Russia by Trump.

The Republican Party, as it stands in 2024, mirrors to a large extent the vision Manafort had for it back in 2016. In 2016, this vision was partially realized when the GOP controversially removed military support for Ukraine from its platform—a move that bewildered many observers. You can trace the GOP’s current anti-Ukraine sentiment directly back to Manafort's foundational influence in 2016. Manafort aimed to realign the GOP closer to Trump's vision of U.S.-Russian relations. Known for his global support of dictatorial regimes, Manafort's impact on the party's foreign policy perspectives has had lasting implications, effectively steering the GOP towards a more Russia-friendly posture.

This pivot in the party's stance, alongside Trump's potential reassociation with Manafort, underscores a profound transformation within the GOP. It reflects a departure from traditional conservative values and principles, moving towards positions prioritizing personal loyalties and alignments over established geopolitical strategies and alliances. The implications of such shifts are significant, not just for the internal dynamics of the Republican Party but also for the broader landscape of American politics and its approach to international relations and democratic integrity.

Paul Manafort’s Debt and the 2016 Presidential Campaign

Paul Manafort's entry into the 2016 presidential campaign was deeply entwined with his significant financial obligations to Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch closely linked to the Kremlin. Reports have highlighted that Manafort owed Deripaska millions of dollars, a precarious position exacerbated when a figure associated with Russian intelligence demanded rapid repayment. This scenario is reflective of the broader dynamics within Russia, where violence is a systemic tool used to ensure elite compliance with President Vladimir Putin's objectives. Those controlling Putin's finances, like Deripaska, face intense scrutiny to ensure debts are collected, underpinning the complex interplay between Russian oligarchy and state interests.

In 2020, the U.S. Treasury Department implicated Deripaska in money laundering activities for Putin, underscoring the intricate ties that bind Russian oligarchs to governmental operations. It is believed that Manafort, wary of the dire consequences of his debt to Deripaska, sought to mitigate his financial predicament through actions that would advantage Deripaska's patron, Putin.

Manafort's decision to join Trump's campaign pro bono likely appealed to both men. Trump has a well-documented aversion to expenditures, and Manafort was averse to being in debt to Deripaska. Manafort's considerable experience in political consulting and deep familiarity with GOP dynamics promised stability to Trump's otherwise erratic campaign.

The rationale behind Manafort's gratuitous involvement might be traced to his commitment to brief Deripaska on Trump’s campaign developments. Trump's vocal admiration for Putin, coupled with his long-standing skepticism towards NATO, evidenced as far back as a 1987 New York Times op-ed, aligned him as the Kremlin's favored candidate over Hillary Clinton. Clinton, perceived as a Russia hawk, was not seen as an ally by Russia, which sharply contrasted with Putin's favorable view of Trump.

Moreover, Manafort facilitated another critical conduit to Russia through Konstantin Kilimnik, a known associate of Russian intelligence, by sharing sensitive voter targeting data. This act created a direct pathway for Russian influence over American electoral dialogue via sophisticated social media operations and highlighted the multifaceted nature of Manafort's dealings with Russian interests. His financial indebtedness to Deripaska suggests that Manafort’s role in the Trump campaign, undertaken without monetary compensation, was an effort to curry favor with Deripaska.

Manafort’s Lobbying Record

Paul Manafort's lobbying career is notorious for his associations with a number of the world's most contentious and authoritarian leaders. His efforts have significantly impacted the perception and treatment of these figures within the corridors of power in Washington, D.C., earning his operations the stark nickname of the "torturer's lobby." This title underscores the controversial nature of his work, which involved not just advising on policy or public relations strategies but actively improving the images of leaders of kleptocratic regimes defined by mass murder, theft, and torture.

Among the dictators Manafort worked for were Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), and Viktor Yanukovych of Ukraine. Marcos's regime was infamous for its implementation of martial law, during which time thousands of dissidents were imprisoned, tortured, or killed. Mobutu's lengthy dictatorship was characterized by severe human rights abuses, embezzlement of public funds, and suppression of political opposition. Meanwhile, Yanukovych was known for his corruption and his efforts to stifle democracy and freedom of speech in Ukraine.

Manafort's lobbying efforts were not merely about representing these figures but were instrumental in attempting to sanitize their reputations on the global stage. He leveraged his deep connections within U.S. political circles to soften their images, facilitating a more favorable perception among Washington's political elite and international policymakers. This process often entailed a comprehensive strategy that blurred the lines between traditional lobbying and manipulating political perceptions, including strategic counsel, media manipulation, and leveraging political contacts.

The impact of Manafort's work goes beyond the individual clients he represented; it challenged the ethical and moral foundations of lobbying within the U.S. and raised significant concerns about the influence of undemocratic interests on American political institutions. By providing services to such clients, Manafort played a role in crafting a semblance of legitimacy for leaders who otherwise would be international pariahs due to their oppressive practices and violation of human rights.

Manafort’s activities in Ukraine

In 2006, Feodosia, a serene Black Sea resort town on Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, unexpectedly became a flashpoint in US-Ukraine relations, revealing the complex undercurrents of regional politics and the murky role of American political consultant Paul Manafort. Lt. Colonel Tom Doman and his detachment of 113 reserve Marines and sailors, dispatched as an advance party for a NATO military exercise, faced immediate hostility, marking a stark departure from their mission's peaceful intent. 

For weeks, the Marines were besieged by protesters employing loud music, rocks, and gas bombs, identified by Doman as "pro-Russian communists," leading to a premature and unaccomplished withdrawal. The presence of these protesters, coupled with the disruption of US military and diplomatic plans, hinted at a deeper political orchestration, one that investigations later linked to the Party of Regions, advised by Paul Manafort.

Paul Manafort's tenure in Ukraine is marked by his extensive involvement with pro-Russian factions, positioning him as a key figure in orchestrating political strategies that favored Russian interests over those of the United States and its allies. His work primarily for Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian president of Ukraine, exemplifies Manafort's deep entrenchment in activities that directly and indirectly undermined U.S. and Ukrainian democratic processes. Ukraine’s 2014 pro-democracy “Revolution of Dignity” ousted Yanukovych, who has since lived in Russia.

Manafort's involvement with Viktor Yanukovych, the Party of Regions, and its Kremlin-friendly agenda was well documented. His advisory role extended beyond mere political consultancy; it intersected with strategic actions against US interests, as evidenced by the Feodosia incident. Reports and internal State Department cables suggest that the anti-Marine protests were part of a larger strategy to incite Russian nationalism in Eastern Ukraine and challenge the pro-NATO stance of Ukraine's government at the time. 

The protests, fueled by disinformation claiming a NATO invasion and the physical intimidation tactics used against the Marines, underscored a calculated effort to diminish US influence and strengthen Yanukovych's position, leveraging pro-Russian sentiment.

Manafort's deep-seated involvement in Ukraine's pro-Russian political landscape, coupled with the financial benefits he reaped from oligarchs linked to the Kremlin, illustrates a clear conflict with U.S. interests. His daughters' alleged descriptions of his earnings as "blood money" encapsulate the moral and ethical quagmire of Manafort's activities. These revelations, stemming from hacked text messages, provide a chilling insight into the consequences of Manafort's work, not just in terms of political destabilization but also in terms of human costs, including violence against individuals such as U.S. Marines.

The repercussions of these orchestrated protests were significant, leading to the cancellation of the joint military exercise and a planned visit by President George W. Bush. The incident not only embarrassed Ukraine's pro-Western president but also played into Yanukovych's hands, allowing him to ride a wave of nationalist fervor to consolidate power, ultimately facilitating his election as president in 2010.

Manafort's deep involvement with figures promoting a pro-Russian agenda in Ukraine and his financial entanglements with Russian oligarchs casts a long shadow over his activities. Documents found in Yanukovych's mansion after his 2014 ousting suggest undisclosed payments to Manafort, raising questions about his complicity in actions against US personnel and interests. 

The Pardon

Despite the cloud of controversies surrounding Paul Manafort, including his deeply questionable activities and associations primarily with pro-Russian parties and oligarchs, President Donald Trump granted him a presidential pardon, thereby absolving him of his crimes.

This pardon came after Manafort’s conviction on several counts related to financial fraud and conspiracy against the United States, charges that stemmed from the extensive investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Manafort's pardon sparked a significant debate and raised eyebrows across the political spectrum. Critics argue that this act of clemency for someone so closely connected to foreign interference in American democracy sends a troubling message about the consequences of undermining electoral processes and the rule of law.

This decision by Trump to pardon Manafort highlights the personal loyalty Trump places above legal and ethical standards and points to the broader implications of such pardons on the integrity of the American justice system. The pardon has been interpreted by many as a potential signal to others that personal allegiance to Trump could outweigh legal repercussions, thereby encouraging a culture of impunity among those close to political power.

The gravity of his actions underscores the debate surrounding Manafort's pardon. For a critical period, Manafort was the head of Trump's 2016 campaign. His involvement with individuals linked to Russian intelligence and his efforts to obscure foreign influences and financial dealings represented a direct threat to the sanctity of the electoral process.

By pardoning Manafort, Trump not only absolved him from accountability for these actions but also, in the eyes of many, undermined the painstaking work of investigators and prosecutors who had sought to protect American democracy from foreign interference and corruption.


Paul Manafort's potential reintegration into the GOP represents a return to a party landscape that has dramatically transformed since 2016. In 2024, the GOP is the very image that Manafort might have envisaged back in 2016—a shift characterized by a noticeable pro-Russia stance or, at the very least, a significant anti-Ukrainian sentiment, a development that would have been unfathomable a decade earlier. The Republican Party now exhibits an unwavering loyalty to Donald Trump, a phenomenon rarely seen in American political history and more akin to the autocratic regimes Manafort has previously represented.

The GOP of this era has shed any pretense of harboring moderates or traditional conservatives; power within the party is now a function of proximity to Donald Trump and his inner circle. This transformation mirrors the personality cults that Manafort has navigated in the past, with the GOP coalescing into a cult of personality centered around Trump, who commands the party as a charismatic demagogue. In this reimagined GOP, Trump has ascended to an almost sacrosanct status among his base, buoyed by strategic propaganda efforts and the staunch backing of Evangelical Christians.

In a more rational era, Manafort's history and the "grave counterintelligence threat" he represents would unequivocally preclude his participation in any political convention. Yet today, Manafort’s presence is more anticipated than remarkable. Trump's tenure has normalized foreign interference in U.S. elections, casting Manafort's potential involvement as a natural extension of Trump's values.