You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation
Crime Guys

How Paul Manafort Turned Trump Against Ukraine

Amid rumors that the oft-disgraced fixer might be making a return to Trump's orbit, it's worth revisiting his role in fostering the former president's animus toward the war-torn nation.

Paul Manafort speaks with the press during an election night event in 2016.
Victor J. Blue/Getty Images
Paul Manafort speaks with the press during an election night event in 2016.

This week’s passage of a military aid package to Ukraine means that Donald Trump’s efforts to block American provisions for Kyiv have, for the first time in months, faltered. But while isolationism and appeasement may have played a role in Trump’s moves to strangle support for Kyiv, it’s worth tracking back exactly how Trump’s anti-Ukraine animus first began—and who first whispered sweet nothings of Ukraine’s supposed crusades against Trump in the former president’s ear. Because while the supposed intellectuals of the MAGA movement try to spin Trump as some kind of defender of American interests, the seeds of Trump’s campaigns against Ukraine have far simpler, and far shadier, roots which connect all the way back to a long-disgraced Trump campaign official who may be returning to Trump’s fold.

Cast your mind back, if you dare, to 2016. Following Trump’s unexpected rise to the Republican nomination, Russia and its proxies began unleashing the fruits of Moscow’s hacking campaign to the world, flooding audiences with internal communications from both the Democratic National Committee and John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager. Signs immediately pointed to Russian culpability—and questions immediately emerged about whether, and how, the Trump campaign was aware of the stolen emails. Given the fact that Trump had publicly called for Russia to “find” Clinton’s emails, it wasn’t much of a leap to assume there had been some kind of coordination.

This is when Paul Manafort, who was then serving as Trump’s campaign manager, intervenedand first planted the idea in Trump’s mind that Ukraine, rather than Russia, sought to destabilize American elections and thwart Trump’s rise. As Manafort’s former associate, Rick Gates, later told FBI investigators, Manafort floated an idea that the Russians were not in fact involved in the hack. Instead, Manafort was “insistent” that it was the Ukrainians who were responsible, and that the Russians were being slandered unfairly. As Gates revealed, Manafort claimed that “the hack was likely carried out by the Ukrainians, not the Russians.”

Manafort did not lay out any evidence for his theory, and it remains unclear how often he pushed the idea to Trump. But he wasand again, as Trump’s campaign managerthe first American to proffer the idea that Kyiv may have been bent on undermining American politics and smearing Trump’s campaign. He was the first member of Trump’s orbit to push an anti-Ukraine agendaan agenda that later blossomed not only into Trump’s fealty toward Putin, but toward his willingness to bar aid to Ukraine, damn the consequences.   

Manafort has never publicly commented on his theory, let alone whether he still believes it to be so. But there are two other pieces of evidence that illuminate the path he took to first spark the anti-Ukraine position Trump still occupies.

Chiefly, there was Manafort’s own experience in Ukraineand, specifically, what he personally dealt with in 2016. Having worked for years as a consigliere for Ukrainian thug Viktor Yanukovych, Manafort stood shocked when Ukraine’s protesters tossed Yanukovych from power in 2014. But it wasn’t just that Manafort had lost access to power in Kyiv. Ukrainian investigators later discovered a so-called “Black Ledger” that detailed millions of dollars in off-the-books payments from Yanukovych’s party to Manafortillicit payments whose revelation forced Manafort to resign from Trump’s campaign.

Manafort reacted by mounting the kind of “fake news” defense that would later become the Trump administration’s stock-in-trade. To Manafort’s mind, rather than provide detailed reams of evidence on Yanukovych’s kleptocracyand on the role Manafort played thereinthe documents were “totally false”: forgeries created whole-cloth by “Clinton’s Ukrainian allies … to tar Manafort and undermine Trump,” as The New York Times reported. They weren’t, of course; they eventually helped lead to the prosecution and jailing of Manafort himself.

But there’s also the person who first came up with the Ukraine-as-anti-Trump theory in the first place. While Manafort may have been the first American to peddle the idea, he doesn’t appear to be the author of this invention. That honor belongs to Manafort’s close associate, a Russian national named Konstantin Kilimnik. According to the Treasury Department, Kilimnik is a “known Russian agent” tasked with “implementing [pro-Russian] influence operations”; according to a Republican-led Senate report, Kilimnik is a “Russian intelligence officer.”

He was also, as federal investigators later discovered, one of Manafort’s closest associates during the 2016 campaignone who Manafort not only passed internal campaign documents to, but one with whom Manafort went to incredible lengths to conceal conversations. As that aforementioned GOP-led report detailed, Manafort and Kilimnik used “sophisticated communications security practices,” including “encryption, burner phones, and ‘foldering’writing emails as drafts in a shared account.” The two further routinely scrubbed their tracks, with some messages “deleted … daily.”

It was in this context that Kilimnik, as Gates also recalled, began framing anti-Ukraine narratives for Manafort and others. As Gates told investigators, Manafort may have been the first American to push the idea, but he was just “parrot[ing] a narrative Kilimnik often supported.”

The exact chain of events from there remain murky. We still don’t know when Kilimnik initially pitched the idea of Ukraine’s supposed anti-Trump efforts to Manafort, or exactly when Manafort relayed the idea to Trump. Much of Manafort’s roleas well as the full details of his relationship with Kilimnikremains classified. But that could soon change. A recent letter from Senator Ron Wyden to the U.S. director of national intelligence said it was “critical” that the details of Manafort’s ties with Kilimnik be declassified, and “be made public to the greatest extent possible.”

That declassification can’t happen soon enoughand not just because of Manafort’s role in initially seeding Trump’s anti-Ukraine animus. Last month, The Washington Post reported that Trump was considering bringing Manafort back as a campaign adviser. This, not only after Manafort flamed out of Trump’s initial campaign, but also after he received multiple felony convictions and a yearslong prison sentence for everything from fraud and conspiracy to failing to register his work as a foreign agent—charges for which Trump, as one of his final acts as president, pardoned the felon.

Manafort hasn’t yet confirmed he’s coming back to work for Trump, but in a sense it doesn’t even matter. After all, Manafort’s greatest legacy may not be his specific role in Trump’s campaign, or even how he helped jump-start interest in foreign lobbying crimes themselves (and, in so doing, became one of the main characters in my forthcoming book on the foreign lobbying industry itself). It may, rather, be a simple theory that he once pushed to Trump: that Ukraine was responsible for interfering in U.S. politics, and for pushing an anti-Trump vendettaand that, years later, it deserves to lose a war that it never chose.