Paul Manafort's Trial Is About More Than Him or Mueller - The Atlantic

The longtime Manafort aide who was a pawn of Russian intelligence.

Barack Obama’s White House counsel Greg Craig and his top-drawer law firm, Skadden Arps, abetted former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s efforts to smash the political opponents who might get in the way of his thievery. Manafort arranged for the firm to publish a report justifying the arrest of a former Ukrainian prime minister, who had been denied counsel at crucial moments of her trial. (Last April, Craig retired under a cloud of scandal. Another Skadden associate who worked with Manafort has pleaded guilty to misleading Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigators.) Tony Podesta, a leading Democratic lobbyist of his generation, has watched his own power firm collapse after Mueller revealed his complicity in Manafort’s efforts. These are not stray villains, but representative figures: American law firms play an essential role in protecting global kleptocracy and helping it relocate money to the United States.

Manafort was, of course, the most important enabler of them all. During the decade he spent in Ukraine, he helped a clique of former gangsters seize control of the country’s governmental machinery, a feat he achieved by bringing state-of-the-art campaign strategy to a barely developed democracy. He hired a network of former European politicians to apologize for the regime, to whitewash its history of corruption and illiberalism. Back in Washington, Manafort would escort oligarchs around town, taking them to think tanks and meetings with politicians, helping them achieve the legitimacy that they hoped would protect their ill-gotten fortunes.

It doesn’t require any imagination to see how money stolen from Ukrainian coffers, money won in rigged privatizations and crony contracts, money obtained after the brutal murder of rivals, ended up with Paul Manafort. Clean money doesn’t need to travel through shell companies in Cyprus, unlike the millions that Manafort poured into accounts there. And Manafort allegedly used the same techniques of his dodgy clients to repatriate the money in the United States, taking advantage of gaps in the enforcement of anti-money-laundering laws to sneak cash into the country through real estate, expensive rugs, and tailored suits.

What’s increasingly clear is that Manafort also attempted to exploit the Trump campaign with similarly kleptocratic aims. Take the story of Stephen Calk, which has emerged in the course of Mueller’s pretrial filings. Calk owns a small Chicago bank. In the summer of 2016, Manafort applied for a loan from the bank—and the claims in Manafort’s loan applications were obviously shaky. According to Mueller, bank officials were quite adamant in expressing their reservations about Manafort’s application. But there was apparently a backstory that these officials didn’t know. Calk had won a place on Trump’s board of economic advisers, one of 13. Mueller’s lawyers have said that they plan to prove that Calk landed this official title only after promising Manafort loans. So even as Manafort departed the campaign amid widespread allegations of misdeeds, Calk extended him loan after loan—$16 million in total. (The loans represented 22 percent of the bank’s total equity capital.)

This small tale is just one instance of a larger genre repeated across this administration—the hints that foreign countries are financing deals that profit the president’s own family; the long list of officials (see also: Scott Pruitt, Tom Price) abusing the perquisites of their office. And those stories are just a subset of an even larger narrative still, of an American elite increasingly at home in the ranks of international kleptocracy. Thanks to Robert Mueller, that racket is now on trial.

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Franklin Foer

is a national correspondent for

The Atlantic

. He is the author of

World Without Mind


How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization.

He is the former editor of

The New Republic