- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 19, 2019

Paul Manafort is in prison for tax fraud, leaving behind a series of unproven Russia conspiracy allegations that his supporters say wrongly branded him a tool of Moscow.

For three years, Manafort was the media’s top culprit for election collusion. He turned out to be much less — a Republican political operative who networked with some unsavory Russia-connected people to attain riches. He wanted to cash in on his four-month stint as Trump campaign chairman to restart a lucrative business arrangement in Ukraine, according to special counsel Robert Mueller’s report.

Manafort is no innocent, but neither is he a Russian plotter. His central crime: The Russia-friendly Party of Regions in Ukraine paid him millions of dollars that he failed to report on federal income tax returns.

Mr. Mueller’s assignment was to probe any Trump-Russia ties. In Manafort’s case, that meant reviving a dormant Justice Department investigation into payments from Ukrainian politicians. Manafort was convicted on multiple tax and bank fraud charges as well as unregistered lobbying. A federal judge in Virginia said “even a blind person” could see that the special counsel had targeted Manafort in hopes he would turn against President Trump.

Along the way, Manafort bore the brunt of bogus Moscow-related accusations. Some came from unnamed sources who his supporters say are Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton loyalists.

A Clinton campaign-funded operative, former British spy Christopher Steele, also leveled felony charges. But the Mueller investigation found no Trump campaign conspiracy to hack computers or troll Mrs. Clinton. It thus effectively destroyed Mr. Steele’s anti-Trump dossier.

“It was a devastating smear campaign,” Kevin Downing, Manafort’s defense attorney, told The Washington Times. “The smear campaign included false statements by current and former high level U.S. government officials. The false information was repeated numerous times by the media and press even after the information was known to be false.”

Mr. Downing filed court papers in an effort to disprove the allegations, charging that government leakers were destroying his client’s reputation as he was about to face jury trials in Alexandria, Virginia, and the District of Columbia.

The first anti-Manafort salvo hit in the summer of 2016 in stories revolving around the infamous “black ledger.”

As Manafort sat in jail more than two years later, a new falsity arose: The Guardian newspaper said he had traveled three times to London during the election to meet with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, the notorious Russian conduit for stolen Democratic Party emails.

The Russia-Manafort allegations

⦁ This 600-page “black ledger” is an off-the-books list of alleged secret payments by the Party of Regions to various figures. Manafort is listed among them.

This document, leaked by a Ukrainian member of parliament in August 2016, led to Manafort’s campaign exit. It was a supposed smoking gun because it allegedly showed Manafort signing for elicit cash totally more than $12 million.

The Manafort side says the sections about him are fabrications. Press reports said the leakers were tied to the Clinton campaign.

Mr. Downing told The Times that the signatures aren’t Manafort‘s, as his officer manager had told the FBI. All of Manafort’s Ukrainian payments came through traced wire transfers to banks, not in cash, the defense attorney said.

The “black ledger” didn’t come up in any of Manafort’s criminal proceedings. The Mueller report mentions it only once as part of a narration, not an allegation.

Contrary to some media reports, the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine said last year that it had never investigated Manafort. Its focus is corrupt senior-level Ukrainian officials.

The AP reported in April 2017: “Now, financial records newly obtained by The Associated Press confirm that at least $1.2 million in payments listed in the ledger next to Manafort’s name were actually received by his consulting firm in the United States. They include payments in 2007 and 2009, providing the first evidence that Manafort’s firm received at least some money listed in the so-called Black Ledger.”

⦁ Intercepts. The New York Times and CNN, among other news outlets, reported that the U.S. had intercepted communications between Manafort and Kremlin intelligence. On their face, the stories meant Manafort was colluding with Moscow. One story said Manafort was heard asking Moscow for election help.

But the reports weren’t true. Then-FBI Director James B. Comey told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in 2017 that no such phone records or intercepts existed.

Mr. Downing asked the Mueller team to disclose any record of any communication between Manafort and Russian government officials. He said Mr. Mueller reported back that he had none.

⦁ Visits with Julian Assange. The Guardian reported that Manafort arrived at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London three times in 2016 to visit the WikiLeaks founder. The report became what cable news channels described as “bombshell, if true.” Because WikiLeaks was the public conduit for Russia’s stolen emails, The Guardian was in effect saying Manafort colluded with Russia.

The Mueller team has no evidence that Manafort met Mr. Assange. During his lengthy debriefings, the prosecutors thought so little of the report that they never asked him about it.

The Washington Times examined copies of Manafort’s passports at the time. None showed a visit to Britain.

⦁ The dossier. Mr. Steele, who briefed the Obama State Department, the FBI and the Justice Department, wrote that Manafort and Trump volunteer Carter Page worked as a two-man team to meet with Moscow to interfere in the election. The Mueller report shot this down: no evidence of a conspiracy.

⦁ The Steele briefing. Mr. Steele’s oral briefing to Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Kathleen Kavalec alleged that Manafort maintained a secret channel to Moscow via Alfa Bank, whose oligarch owners, led by Petr Aven, used encrypted software and a dedicated computer server. This allegation means “collusion” since Mr. Aven meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin with some regularity.

But the Mueller report makes no mention of any such setup. All the principals deny Mr. Steele’s narrative, which was pushed by Mrs. Clinton’s opposition research firm Fusion GPS.

Trump people say the cyberdata that spawned the Alfa conspiracy was actually a spam marketing server in Pennsylvania.

⦁ Konstantin Kilimnik. The FBI’s characterization of Mr. Kilimnik as being tied to Russian intelligence drove the media narrative that Manafort was in bed with Moscow.

Mr. Kilimnik worked for Manafort for more than a decade in Kiev as an office manager, translator and a sort of Mr. Fix-it. He was a go-between for a former Manafort client, former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, now exiled in Russia. He tried to sell Ukrainian officials on a peace plan that would leave some land in control of Mr. Putin, who invaded the country in 2014.

As a young man, Mr. Kilimnik worked for Russian military intelligence a translator. He used his translating skills to land staff jobs, including one with a U.S. pro-democracy group in Moscow. The Mueller report said the group feared he was close to Russian intelligence.

Manafort has said his longtime associate wasn’t a Russian spy. His supporters point to the fact that the U.S. Embassy in Kiev relied on his political observation. On his last trip to the United States, Mr. Kilimnik’s itinerary included a stop at the State Department last year to promote his peace plan.

Mr. Mueller said he didn’t uncover evidence that Manafort brought the peace plan to Mr. Trump or anyone else on the campaign.

⦁ Polling data. When prosecutors disclosed in court filings that Manafort had passed internal Trump polling data to Ukraine, it revived media talk of a Russia election conspiracy.

But, like other Manafort networking, this too was aimed at reviving his business in Ukraine, where he had reaped millions of dollars working for the Party of Regions and Mr. Yanukovych.

The Mueller team accused Manafort of lying about the transfer during his hours of debriefings once he agreed to plead guilty.

In a heavily redacted April court filing, Manafort defense attorney Mr. Downing said the charge was based on inaccurate information. In other words, according to the lawyer, Manafort wasn’t lying.

Richard Gates, Manafort’s former business associate who pleaded guilty to conspiracy and lying to investigators, wasn’t ordered by Manafort to print out polling data for Mr. Kilimnik. The data was supposed to have been turned over at an Aug. 2 meeting in a New York cigar bar, but it turns out the data was for an internal campaign scheduling session.

In an uncensored reply, U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson, whom Mr. Downing has accused of bias against his client, rejected Mr. Downing’s argument. She said Gates was working under a general order to share such data with Mr. Kilimnik.

Manafort did not see a downside to sharing campaign information and told Gates that his role in the campaign would be ‘good for business’ and potentially a way to be made whole for work completed in the Ukraine,” the Mueller report said.

Manafort has contended that Ukrainian politicians owe him $2 million.

Gates said Manafort calculated that sharing polls with Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, a former client and a U.S.-sanctioned billionaire, might lead to resolving their lawsuits.

But the bottom line: the polling transfer was innocent in terms of election conspiracy.

“The Office did not identify evidence of a connection between Manafort’s sharing polling data and Russia’s interference in the election, which had already been reported by U.S. media outlets at the time of the August 2 meeting,” the Mueller report said. “The investigation did not establish that Manafort otherwise coordinated with the Russian government on its election-interference efforts.”

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