epa06785681 (FILE) - Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort departs the federal court house after a status hearing in Washington, DC, USA, 14 February 2018 (reissued 05 June 2018). Paul Manafort, who was indicted by US Special Counsel Robert Mueller, is being accused of witness tampering by Mueller, according to media reports. EPA/SHAWN THEW
Most of the charges against Paul Manafort stemmed from his Ukraine-related consulting work © EPA

Paul Manafort’s skills as a lobbyist were praised repeatedly during his trial in Virginia last month. As he pleaded guilty before a second trial in Washington last week, prosecutors revealed new details of the dark arts he employed.

The revelations included a plan that Mr Manafort hatched to tar a senior Obama administration official with claims of anti-Semitism and his efforts to plant stories of alleged murder plots by an opponent of his pro-Russian former client, Viktor Yanukovich, then president of Ukraine.

The documents filed as part of Mr Manafort’s plea deal shed fresh light on the ways lobbyists try to influence governments and showed how he used prominent firms and politicians in the US and Europe to whitewash Mr Yanukovich’s reputation while tarnishing his enemies.

Mr Manafort’s lobbying for Mr Yanukovich formed the core of the charges brought against him by Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating links between Donald Trump’s campaign and Russia. From 2006 to 2015, he generated $60m in income working for the Ukrainian politician, helping him win elections and battling to advance his interests in the west.

He hired a host of top-tier lobbying and law firms, including Mercury Public Affairs, the Podesta Group, which is now defunct, and Skadden Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. Mr Manafort paid half a dozen firms $11m as he promoted Mr Yanukovich by lobbying politicians, seeding articles in newspapers and discrediting his opponents. 

Representatives for Skadden did not return a request for comment. A spokesperson for the Podesta Group declined to comment. Michael McKeon, a partner at Mercury, said the firm had fully co-operated with the special counsel’s office and would continue to do so if requested.

Mr Manafort took steps to disguise the true source of his propaganda. In 2011, he retained four senior European politicians, including Alfred Gusenbauer, the former Austrian chancellor, Romano Prodi, the former Italian prime minister, and Aleksander Kwasniewski, the former Polish president, to lobby for closer links between Ukraine and the west while appearing not to have “any visible relationship with the Government of Ukraine”.

FILE PHOTO: Russia's President Vladimir Putin (L) and his Ukrainian counterpart Viktor Yanukovych before at the Kremlin in Moscow, December 17, 2013, where Russia agreed to buy $15 billion worth of Ukrainian securities. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin./File Photo
Paul Manafort promoted Viktor Yanukovich by lobbying politicians, seeding articles in newspapers and discrediting his opponents © Reuters

In 2013, one member of the Hapsburg Group, as Mr Manafort called them, met with President Barack Obama and Vice-President Joe Biden in the Oval Office and delivered the message of not letting “Russians Steal Ukraine from the West”. Alan Friedman, a former Financial Times journalist, served as an intermediary between Mr Manafort and the Hapsburg Group. Mr Manafort secretly paid the group more than €2m between 2012 and 2014, prosecutors said. Mr Friedman did not immediately return a request for comment.

Mr Manafort also used a Brussels-based think-tank as a front to hire Mercury and the Podesta Group to lobby members of Congress and White House officials, without declaring that the work was actually directed by the Ukrainian government.

One employee of the Podesta Group called the arrangement “a fig leaf on a fig leaf”, according to prosecutors.

Mr Manafort’s campaign included attempts in October 2012, as Ukraine geared up for parliamentary elections that month, to have “Obama Jews”, as Mr Manafort called them, put pressure on the Obama administration to back down from its support of Yulia Tymoshenko, Mr Yanukovich’s political opponent.

The filings on Friday refer to an unnamed US cabinet official who was critical of the Yanukovich government’s 2011 prosecution of Ms Tymoshenko, which the US and European Union viewed as politically motivated. Mr Manafort used Ms Tymoshenko’s party’s alliance with a Ukrainian party that had espoused anti-Semitic views to push the idea that the official was “supporting anti-Semitism”.

On October 24, 2012, Hillary Clinton, then US secretary of state, criticised the “selective prosecution” of Ms Tymoshenko in an opinion article published in the New York Times.

Mr Manafort co-ordinated with an unnamed senior Israeli government official to issue a statement criticising the alliance between the two parties. Three days after Mrs Clinton’s article, Avigdor Lieberman, then Israel’s foreign minister, issued such a statement.

Mr Manafort had been working to get traction for the anti-Semitism story in the US. “I have someone pushing it on the NY Post. Bada bing bada boom,” he wrote to Mr Friedman. The NY Post does not appear to have written a story, but on October 29, Breitbart, the rightwing news site, published a story with the headline: “Jewish Leaders Blame Hillary Clinton For 'Legitimizing' Ukraine's Neo-Nazi Party”.

The efforts to neuter criticisms of Ms Tymoshenko’s prosecution included a report by Skadden on the trial that Mr Manafort arranged in 2012. In the report, Skadden said its opinion was “rendered with total independence”. The firm did not disclose that it had also been retained by the Ukrainian government to “provide training to the trial team prosecuting Tymoshenko,” prosecutors revealed on Friday.

Skadden received $4.6m for its work, with $4m routed via an offshore bank account controlled by Mr Manafort. The Ukrainian government falsely reported a cost of just $12,000. Prosecutors noted that public knowledge of “the actual cost of the report and the scope of the law firm’s work would undermine the report’s being perceived as an independent assessment.”

The following year, Mr Manafort stepped up his campaign against Ms Tymoshenko as he ordered Mr Friedman and Eckart Sager, a former CNN news producer turned press relations executive, “to disseminate within the United States news stories that alleged that Tymoshenko had paid for the murder of a Ukrainian official,” prosecutors said. Mr Sager did not immediately return a request for comment via LinkedIn.

Mr Manafort wrote that the stories should be placed “with no fingerprints”, adding that his aim was “to plant some stink on Tymo”.

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