In the aftermath of Paul Manafort’s guilty plea on Friday, the disgraced political consultant’s agreement to cooperate with special counsel Robert Mueller dominated the headlines.
Almost every major media outlet presented Manafort’s plea agreement as a momentous turning point in the Russia investigation. Speculation abounded that Manafort would implicate others who worked on the Trump campaign — and perhaps even the president himself — in criminal activity.
But the superseding criminal information, which Mueller filed hours before the plea agreement, painted a more complex picture — of the Obama administration. The document includes scanned letters from Manafort to former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, in which the consultant updated his Kremlin-backed patron on developments in Washington between 2010 and 2013.
The descriptions of the Obama White House in these letters as “flexible” on Russia and “sympathetic” to Manafort’s Russian-backed client are consistent with my own experience as the president of Georgia during that time. Yet coverage of the Manafort case has all but ignored these revelations.
This is a mistake. The Mueller investigation is a historic opportunity for Americans to gain a greater understanding of Russian influence operations, which have long destabilized my region and posed a serious threat to the United States. Unfortunately, many media outlets are politicizing a nonpartisan matter of national security.
Instead of speculating on what Manafort might reveal about Trump, I will highlight what Manafort’s letters actually tell us about the Obama administration and Russia.
Shortly before Obama was re-elected in 2012, Manafort wrote a revealing letter to Yanukovych, in which he described State Department officials as “bureaucrats who place human rights as the foundation of U.S. policy.” This emphasis on human rights presented an obstacle for Manafort’s autocratic Ukrainian client, who was infamous for jailing opponents and silencing critics.
By contrast, Manafort noted the Obama administration’s willingness to not only “work closely with us” and “engage” with Yanukovych, but to “constrain” the State Department’s opposition to this cooperation. Indeed, Manafort wrote that the Obama White House “agreed to keep the [State Department] from making active pronouncements in Washington” criticizing Yanukovych’s abuses of power.
At the start of Obama’s second term in February 2013, Manafort assured his client that the “emphasis of the president’s national security team will not be so much on human rights” — an encouraging development for Yanukovych, whose human rights violations were becoming more egregious by the day.
Why would the Obama administration override the State Department’s concerns about human rights violations in Ukraine? Manafort offers an explanation in the same letter, which refers to “the support that the Yanukovych government has provided to the priorities of the Obama government.”
Given the context, these “priorities” are almost certainly connected to Obama’s much-touted “reset” with Russia. In other words, the Obama White House was apparently pleased that Yanukovych’s government supported a closer relationship with Russia as well.
Another explanation for the Obama administration’s apparent openness to Manafort’s influence operations may be found in Greg Craig, who served as Obama’s White House counsel and later became a partner at Skadden Arps. During the Yanukovych lobbying effort in 2012, Manafort allegedly commissioned Craig’s law firm to write a report about the trial of Yanukovych’s political opponent, Yulia Tymoshenko.
Given Craig’s background in the Obama administration, I presume White House officials would have been receptive to his efforts on behalf of Yanukovych. Now, Craig is reportedly under investigation for undisclosed lobbying, as he should be.
As someone who has always admired America’s democratic institutions, I find these allegations disheartening but not surprising. As president of Georgia, I was disappointed by the willingness to further Russia’s objectives displayed by prominent Obama administration officials.
One month before the Georgian parliamentary elections in 2012, longtime Clinton family advisor Sid Blumenthal sent an email to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in which he essentially acted as an unregistered lobbyist for my opponent Bidzina Ivanishvili, a Russian-backed oligarch.
Blumenthal sent Clinton a memo from John Kornblum, who served as ambassador to Germany during Bill Clinton’s presidency, and noted that Kornblum was “working with” Ivanishvili’s political party.
Meanwhile, my opposition to Vladimir Putin was no secret. Just four years earlier, Russia had invaded my country to depose me and undermine Georgia’s integration with the West. Given my background, Kornblum’s memo to Hillary Clinton urging her to boost my opponent in the 2012 Georgian elections was revealing. “To support Saakashvili,” Kornblum wrote, “would [ensure] we never have a reasonable security relationship with Russia.”
While many of Ivanishvili’s lobbyists registered as foreign agents in accordance with federal law, Kornblum apparently did not. The implications of Kornblum’s back-channel communications with Clinton are troubling.
As the largest individual shareholder of Russian state energy giant Gazprom, Ivanishvili had unlimited resources to launch a massive lobbying effort in Washington in advance of the elections. Essentially, Kornblum acted as the conduit for Gazprom money to influence U.S. foreign policy.
Manafort had a long history doing the bidding of Kremlin-linked oligarchs in Georgia, as well. Indeed, the FBI retrieved a binder labeled “Georgia” from Manafort’s residence, alongside a number of binders related to his Ukraine projects. The exact contents of the Georgia binder are not public, but Manafort was coordinating with steel magnate Rinat Akhmetov to boost opposition to my government in 2008.
Four years later, alongside his lobbying for Yanukovych, Manafort also supported Ivanishvili’s campaign. Therefore, I am not surprised that Manafort’s letters to Yanukovych cast the Obama administration as “sympathetic” toward the Russian-backed regime in Ukraine.
I have no doubt that Manafort committed serious crimes in the course of his Eastern European projects, and I am glad he is facing justice. But when it comes to the question of Russian collusion, the American media’s intense scrutiny of the Trump administration—to the exclusion of the Obama administration—misses the bigger picture.
Unscrupulous lobbyists like Manafort would work with anyone willing to accomplish their goals because they lack guiding principles. Any ideology or party affiliation they may profess is secondary to greed.
People in my region, which Putin has always considered Russia’s “backyard,” understand that corruption knows no party. It is time for Americans to understand this as well.
Mikheil Saakashvili is the president of Georgia.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.