When he went to bed on July 25th, the political consultant Paul Manafort was a powerful and wealthy man in a complicated position. He had been, for five months last year, the chair of Donald Trump’s Presidential campaign, and he had since become a focus of the various investigations into Russian interference in the election. On the morning of July 26th, Manafort woke up to F.B.I. agents knocking at his bedroom door. They had come to his home in Alexandria, Virginia, with a warrant to retrieve tax documents and foreign-bank records. Manafort’s position grew simpler, but worse: now the pressure of the hinge investigation in American politics is concentrated on him.
Trump has publicly fumed about the Russia investigation (a “witch hunt”) and confessed that he was thinking about the investigation when he fired James Comey, the former F.B.I. director. But until the Washington Post broke news of the Manafort raid, on Wednesday, the actual proceedings of the investigations in Congress and the Justice Department had appeared relatively collegial. Senior White House officials complied with requests, sat for interviews, and turned over documents. Trump’s personal lawyer, John Dowd, said that the President asked him to convey his personal appreciation of the work of the special counsel, Robert Mueller—who was appointed after Comey’s firing—to Mueller himself. The Manafort raid suggested a turn in the relationship toward the mutually adversarial. To obtain a search warrant to begin with, prosecutors needed to convince a judge that there was probable cause to believe they’d find evidence of a crime. You don’t execute a daybreak raid if the subjects of your interviews are fully forthcoming.
Manafort has been an obvious target for the investigations since their start. His ties to oligarchs and politicians from the former Soviet Union are well known. (After he left the Trump campaign, he registered retroactively as a foreign agent.) From 2004 to 2010, Manafort worked on behalf of the Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, who pursued pro-Kremlin policies and whose regime was marked by staggering corruption: handwritten ledgers discovered in his villa after his ouster, in 2014, suggested that Yanukovych, over the years, had spent two billion dollars in bribes and payouts, and that more than twelve million dollars of that money had gone to Manafort.
Every incomplete, intermittent revelation about Manafort’s financial entanglements that has been unearthed by investigative reporting has been eyebrow-raising. Cypriot bank records, uncovered by the Times, suggested that a company to which he is linked owed $7.8 million to an entity associated with an influential Russian oligarch named Oleg Deripaska. A separate, Delaware-based L.L.C. that Manafort used to purchase real estate in New York owes another $9.9 million to a company that appears to be connected to a member of Yanukovych’s political party. (In a court complaint filed in Virginia in 2015, Deripaska claimed that Manafort and his partners owed him nineteen million dollars in connection with a joint venture in Ukrainian television.) After news of the F.B.I.’s raid broke, Politico reported that investigators had earlier approached Manafort’s son-in-law, a real estate developer named Jeffrey Yohai, to see if he might coöperate, an encounter that seemed to raise alarms within Manafort’s circle. (Yohai himself has been accused, in a lawsuit filed by a former investor, of operating a Ponzi scheme—an allegation he denies.) Yesterday, through a spokesman, Manafort said that he was changing lawyers.
It will be interesting to see how the President responds to the raid. The day it took place—two weeks before the public learned anything about it—Trump launched into a seemingly unprovoked Twitter attack on the acting head of the F.B.I., Andrew McCabe. “Why didn’t A.G. Sessions replace acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe,” the President wondered. Perhaps this was just idle Oval Office musing, but the timing, in retrospect, is interesting. On Thursday, Dowd gave a statement to the Wall Street Journal calling the raid “a gross abuse of the judicial process” and an “extraordinary invasion of privacy.” He added, “These methods are normally found and employed in Russia not America.” Then Dowd suggested that the search begged for a motion to suppress. Why the free legal advice? He is the President’s lawyer, not Manafort’s.
The President and his close advisers have a habit of using their own inattention as defenses in the Russia matter. Incuriosity surrounds the President like a bath. During a 2007 deposition, Trump was asked if he knew exactly which Russian investors had pledged to back his plans to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. “No,” the future President said—he hadn’t asked. A few weeks ago, when it emerged that Donald Trump, Jr.; Jared Kushner; and Manafort had met last year with a connected Russian attorney named Natalia Veselnitskaya, Kushner said that he had entered late and had not understood what the meeting was about. Trump, Jr., for his part, issued a statement saying that Veselnitskaya was “vague, ambiguous, and made no sense.” (It later turned out that the President himself had helped draft the statement.) How could the Trump faction possibly collude with Russia, the line from the White House goes, when it could not even be bothered to understand what kind of collusion the Russians wanted? “He’s like a lot of people, probably makes consultant fees from all over the place, who knows, I don’t know,” Trump said this week, when he was asked about Manafort. It was a strange tone for Trump to strike, as if he were a cable-news commenter asked to weigh in on the top stories of the day, and not a President facing real risk. “I know Mr. Manafort. Haven’t spoken to him for a very long time, but I know him.”
Manafort is exceptionally vulnerable right now. He has certainly committed minor violations in failing to disclose the work he did in Ukraine, and may have committed very major ones, depending on what view prosecutors take of the very large amounts of money moving through his overseas bank accounts. The F.B.I. is also reportedly investigating the real-estate deals Manafort conducted with his son-in-law. Unlike Kushner or Trump, Jr., or even Michael Flynn, the deposed national-security adviser, Manafort does not enjoy a close personal relationship with the President. According to the journalist Joshua Green, the last straw between the two men came when the Timesreported, last August, that Trump staffers were going on television to deliver messages to their boss. “Am I like a baby to you?” Trump asked Manafort, according to Green’s account. “I sit there like a little baby and watch TV and you talk to me? Am I a fucking baby, Paul?” Within the day, Manafort had been fired.
Manafort is no baby, and his sophistication may be a problem for Trump. He was in as good a position as any other American to understand what Vladimir Putin wanted from the Trump campaign—he knew how to handle himself in Putin’s part of the world—and he was also in a position to know what, if anything, the campaign did in response to Russia’s interest. The investigation is moving from a voluntary phase to an involuntary one, and, though the cast seems to rotate every few weeks, right now the central figure in the drama is Manafort. The President’s instinctive defense is to plead ignorance, but the G-man theatrics of July 26th—the predawn raid, the armed agents knocking on the bedroom door—seemed intended to communicate an escalation, to the White House and everyone else. The President may not know the exact nature of Manafort’s exposure. But Mueller does.