The steady trickle of new revelations about the Trump team’s real and potential Russian connections are increasing pressure on the White House. And what’s more, the issue is unlikely to go away anytime soon.
On Monday the director of the FBI – in what he himself deemed a highly unusual move – publicly stated that his agency was investigating possible ties between the Trump presidential campaign and the Russian government. While the head of the FBI only confirmed what had already been reported, the official confirmation was still widely described as a bombshell.
Two days later, another revelation connected to the Trump campaign and Russia came courtesy of an Associated Press story. According to the report, Donald Trump’s former presidential campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, secretly worked for a Russian oligarch, Oleg Deripaska, “to greatly benefit Putin.” Citing documents, AP reported that in 2006, Manafort signed a $10 million annual contract for his work which included influencing politics in the US.
Asked about the story on Wednesday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer appeared to downplay the report, calling it the business dealings of a former campaign staffer from a decade ago. He added that President Trump had not been aware of Manafort’s previous work on behalf of Deripaska.
Registered as a foreign agent?
While it is accurate that the contract was signed ten years ago, Manafort was not just any campaign staffer, but the former head of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Making the revelation even more potentially relevant is that the FBI is already looking into Trump Associates’ possible contacts with Russia and also, according to the report, that Manafort apparently did not register as a foreign lobbyist as required by the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA).
Manafort, in a statement, said he had always acknowledged that he worked for Deripaska, but that he did not work for the Russian government. The statement did not address the reported nature of his work and whether he registered as a foreign lobbyist.
“Legally the issue is whether he violated a law by failing to register under the US Foreign Agent Registration Act,” said Joseph Sandler, an attorney specialising in campaign and election law and a former general counsel for the Democratic National Committee.
Failing to register as a foreign lobbyist with the US government is very rarely prosecuted. But it could be different in a high profile case like this, when there is a potential significant US foreign policy interest, said Sandler.
“It is rare, but that’s when they go after it,” he said referring to potential US interests at stake. “The question here is whether Manafort was taking directions indirectly from the Russian government, even though he was paid by this oligarch in performing these services.”
No signed contracts
Yoshiko Herrera, a scholar of US-Russian relations at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said it is clear that Deripaska was one of only a handful of oligarchs that were close to Putin during that time.
“So if somebody is working for Deripaska, it is absurd to say that he has nothing to do with Putin,” she said. “Nobody is going to work directly for the president of Russia. This is how it would work if somebody was working for the government. There are no signed contracts.”
It does, however, not mean that this was ordered by Putin, Herrera clarified. “Working for Deripaska means that he is working for somebody who is in communication with Putin, so there is a connection to the government, but it doesn’t mean that Putin directed his work.”
Possible legal consequences aside, the new revelations about the conduct of Trumps’ former campaign manager will also have a political impact, said Melissa Deckman, chair of the political science department at Washington College.
“I think Americans are not buying the Trump administration’s line that Manafort played a “limited role” in the campaign last summer,” she said.
She also predicted that the constant trickle of new information about Russian involvement in the US election process would force Republicans to yield to Democrats demand to task an independent, outside prosecutor to investigate the issue.
“I think it is just a matter of time before Republicans in Congress acquiesce to a special prosecutor,” said Deckman.
All of this means that the issue is not going to go away any time soon, and that it could further damage a president who is already reeling from historically low approval ratings.
Said Herrera: “The key question that is important for the United States right now is, were Donald Trump or people around him secretly offered large sums of money in order to change US policy towards Ukraine, towards Russia, towards NATO?” – DW