Manafort, a man of many faces. | Screengrab from The Washington Post.

Follow the Pelf

Manafort and Butina as exemplars of the Trumpian golden rule

Manafort, a man of many faces. | Screengrab from The Washington Post.
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For connoisseurs of moneyed corruption, the converging plotlines of Robert Mueller’s Russia probe present a rare and strange moment of global synergy. In Alexandria, Virginia, the criminal trial of Paul Manafort on eighteen counts of financial fraud promises a deep forensic dive into the former Trump campaign manager’s lucrative career as a D.C. mouthpiece for strongmen and shady plutocrats of all description. Meanwhile, the indictment of Maria Butina, the Russian gun enthusiast who appears to have pursued her own well-paid sideline as a Washington wheel-greaser, has opened a new tributary of sub rosa graft, according to a report from the Daily Beast’s Betsy Woodruff; in addition to helping convert the National Rifle Association into a sluice gate for Russian campaign dosh, Butina also sought to engineer a reverse outlay of a few million dollars from a U.S. financial oligarch to keep a floundering Russian bank afloat.

In other words, at opposite ends of their respective career arcs, the cases of Manafort and Butina furnish instructive studies in the global flows of capital into the overlapping spheres of private influence-peddling, nonprofit policy shops, and generally seamy deal-making. For all the attention lavished on the brand-leasing and Putin-appeasing antics of our Commander in Chief, the portfolios of Manafort and Butina reveal the inner workings of global financial and political intrigue at the lower-profile level of the entrepreneurial fixer. In some alternate universe of perfectly executed career management, Maria Butina might have been brought on as a prized junior partner at Manafort’s consultancy.

Back here in our fallen world of capital networking, however, the basic outlines of the Manafort case illuminate how readily the vocation of global lobbyist shades off into the vertically integrated pursuit of pelf for pelf’s sake, in the grand Mafia tradition. As Franklin Foer noted in a recent Atlantic survey of Manafort’s career, the superlobbyist’s tireless quest for illicit cash was refined to what has proved, in retrospect, to be its vanishing point, in the corrupt corridors of power in Ukraine:

For nearly a decade, he had counted primarily on a single client, albeit an exceedingly lucrative one. He’d been the chief political strategist to the man who became the president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, with whom he’d developed a highly personal relationship. Manafort would swim naked with his boss outside his banya, play tennis with him at his palace (“Of course, I let him win,” Manafort made it known), and generally serve as an arbiter of power in a vast country. One of his deputies, Rick Gates, once boasted to a group of Washington lobbyists, “You have to understand, we’ve been working in Ukraine a long time, and Paul has a whole separate shadow government structure. . . In every ministry, he has a guy.” Only a small handful of Americans—oil executives, Cold War spymasters—could claim to have ever amassed such influence in a foreign regime. The power had helped fill Manafort’s bank accounts; according to his recent indictment, he had tens of millions of dollars stashed in havens like Cyprus and the Grenadines.

Manafort’s fealty to the directives of Ukraine capital was indeed so deep seated and instinctual that it proved the efficient cause of his imprisonment. After he’d violated a gag order by publishing an op-ed in a Kiev newspaper defending his work for Yanukovych, the presiding judge, Amy Berman Jackson, put Manafort on notice that he’d face dire consequences for any similar trespasses. And sure enough, a few weeks later, the high-rolling wizard of Ukraine-based backsheesh took to his cell phone to lean on prospective witnesses, and became in short order prisoner number 45343 in Warsaw, Virginia’s, Northern Neck Regional Jail. “I’m concerned you seem to treat these proceedings as another marketing exercise,” Jackson pronounced to the defendant in a truly bravura flourish of understatement.

In addition to helping convert the NRA into a sluice gate for Russian campaign dosh, Butina sought to engineer a reverse outlay of a few million dollars from a U.S. financial oligarch to a floundering Russian bank.

Maria Butina, meanwhile, is gradually coming to light as a global high priest of marketing exercises in her own right. Initial reports of her colorful run as a U.S.-based broker of Russian influence suggested she was a glorified ingénue-on-the-make, who leveraged her passion for guns into a Mata Hari-style perch within the GOP-Russia nexus. But Woodruff’s dispatch makes it clear that Butina was developing a feel for flogging American capital networks that was distinctly Manafortian. And like Manafort’s storied career, Butina’s more junior exploits bristle with an impressive rogue’s gallery of bad actors. At the center of this new banking saga is a Russophilic military and diplomatic think tank called the Center for the National Interest. The policy shop’s honorary chairman is none other than unindicted war criminal Henry Kissinger, who’s served as a behind-the-scenes enabler of the Putin-Trump axis. Also on the board is Richard Burt, a lobbyist for the Russian oil giant—and serial bribery offender—Gazprom, and Butina’s enthusiastic sponsor at the NRA, David Keene. Trump’s ambassador to Russia, pseudo-moderate billionaire Jon Huntsman, is a former board member, and the ever-entrepreneurial Butina has contributed to the think tank’s policy journal.

Evidently feeling that this congeries of global predators and boodlers simply wasn’t evil enough, the Center also gets nearly half of its budget from Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, the former CEO of AIG, the insurance and investment giant that became a virtual cloning facility for toxic derivatives prior to the 2008 financial meltdown—a talent that would eventually suck a cool $182 billion in bailout money from the American taxpayer. A few months ahead of the financial crisis, Greenberg purchased (through his Starr Russia Investments group) a 20 percent stake in the Russian bank Investtorgbank, for $100 million; the following year, he upped his stake by another $8 million.

But by 2014, Investtorgbank was circling the drain; Russia’s Central Bank sponsored an audit that had concluded it was essentially insolvent. And in April 2015, Butina and her Russian handler, Alexander Torshin—an official with the Russian Central Bank—met with Greenberg at a Center for the National Interest function. Somewhere along the way, Butina met with Greenberg’s Starr group to try to put the bite on them one last time in the interest of keeping Investtorgbank a notionally going concern. She was toting some bogus business cards that identified her as an employee of the Russian Central Bank.

The effort failed—there are evidently some financial properties that are too overleveraged even for Hank Greenberg. But as with Manafort’s purblind zeal to squeeze every last dollar from his Ukrainian sponsors, Butina’s tour in the general orbit of the Center for the National Interest is freighted with its own instructive unintended consequences and historical ironies. It was under the Center’s aegis, you see, that then-candidate Trump delivered his first major foreign-policy speech in 2016, a broadside that Gazprom flack Richard Burt helped draft. As part of that day’s festivities, then-Senator Jeff Sessions met with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak—a meeting that would later prompt Sessions’s recusal, as U.S. attorney general, from the Russia investigation—a move that in turn prompted Sessions’s deputy Rod Rosenstein to hand the task over to Robert Mueller. So in the most unlikely and roundabout fashion, Hank Greenberg, Alexander Torshin, Maria Butina, and Henry Kissinger are all responsible to varying degrees for the Gotterdammerung of disgraced superlobbyist Paul Manafort. Who says global finance capital doesn’t produce anything useful?

Chris Lehmann is editor in chief of The Baffler and author of Rich People Things. His latest book, The Money Cult, is out now from Melville House.

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