It wasn’t just Republicans.
When Paul Manafort needed a powerful D.C. law firm to bless an alarming act by his clients in Kiev’s pro-Kremlin regime in Kiev, Donald Trump’s future campaign chairman turned to attorneys with significant ties to Barack Obama’s administration.
In exchange, a team led by Obama’s former White House counsel Greg Craig at the firm of Skadden Arps produced a report that whitewashed the pro-Putin government of Viktor Yanukovych for jailing Yanukovych’s anti-Kremlin predecessor. Manafort consulted for Yanukovych’s Party of Regions. And they did it all for roughly $13,000—a conspicuously small amount for top lawyers at a prestigious law firm. (Prosecutors in Ukraine have reportedly alleged a million dollars more in secret payments.)
It’s an episode indicating Manafort, who now faces criminal investigation in the Trump-Russia saga, made sure to try to spread the wealth to the Democratic Party before assisting in Donald Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party. And it underscores that a truly independent investigation into Russian election interference would likely implicate Democratic figures as well as Republicans—something already emerging, as work that PR firms with ties to Hillary Clinton and other Democrats did for Vladimir Putin’s allies become increasingly conspicuous.
Asked at the time if Yanukovych—and by extension, Manafort—had succeeded in “buying” a former White House counsel, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland let the implication hang in the air. “I can’t speak to the relationship that the Ukrainian Government has with a private law firm in the United States,” she said.
When Yanukovych took power in 2010, he wasted little time in going after his opposition. By October 2011, a court convicted a political rival, the Western-inclined Yulia Tymoshenko, to seven years in prison over an energy negotiation that hit the pocketbook of a billionaire Party of Regions moneyman—now indicted in the U.S. and accused of being a gangster—named Dmitry Firtash.
Tymoshenko accused Yanukovych of politicizing the courts for retribution. The president of the European Parliament expressed “serious doubts about [the] fairness, independence and transparency of this trial” and feared a “selective application of the rule of law in Ukraine.”
Faced with an urgent PR problem, Manafort and his team came up with a solution: get a respected American law firm to investigate. It would not be the last time the Yanukovych team got U.S. firms to present them in the best possible light—and through Democratic-aligned organizations. In 2012, the Clinton-allied Podesta Group, The Daily Beast has reported, blasted to Capitol Hill staff sanitized descriptions of Ukrainian elections—penned by a Putin ally, no less—right at a moment of democratic backsliding in Kiev.
On this occasion, the firm of choice was the legal powerhouse Skadden Arps—and, in particular, two attorneys with substantial ties to the Obama administration. Greg Craig, a partner at the firm, had been Barack Obama’s first White House counsel. Cliff Sloan was a former Clinton White House attorney who would go on to become the State Department’s envoy for closing the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. Both are named in documents, recovered from Yanukovych’s government, that Tymoshenko later submitted in a since-dismissed lawsuit in a New York federal court.
“Whenever you hire a lawyer, you’re hiring their resume their reputation and their connections,” said Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor in Chicago. “So when Manafort was deciding who to hire for this particular job, it stands to reason he wanted to show that support for the pro-Russia party in Ukraine was bipartisan and perhaps he wanted a report that the Obama administration would take seriously.”
Craig was in direct contact with Manafort about the report, according to documents later recovered when the Yanukovych government fled Kiev.
On Aug. 24, 2012, one document indicated, Craig requested Manafort’s “help” in expediting information from the prosecutor general’s office that could clear up the question of Tymoshenko’s access to her attorneys in 2011, one of the issues the Skadden investigation turned upon.
Skadden’s December 2012 report found several irregularities and did not completely exonerate the Yanukovych government. Ukrainian authorities denied Tymoshenko access to attorneys at important points, which Skadden said “compromised” her trial. But Yanukovych did get a crucial piece of support.
“We do not believe that Tymoshenko has provided specific evidence of political motivation that would be sufficient to overturn her conviction under American standards,” Skadden found. To The New York Times, Craig, the driving force behind the report—whom the Times described as “one of the most connected lawyers in the Washington establishment”—gave an important demurral: “We leave to others the question of whether this prosecution was politically motivated.”
Among those others was the U.S. State Department. Foggy Bottom wasted little time in criticizing Skadden’s findings.
“By confining themselves to simply looking at the paper trial records and ignoring the larger political context in which the trial took place, our concern is that Skadden Arps lawyers were obviously not going to find political motivation if they weren’t looking for it,” Victoria Nuland, the chief State Department spokesperson, said shortly after the report’s release. “The report also fails to consider the selective nature of the trials, those who were chosen for trials against Tymoshenko and her—and former members of her government.”
By the time Skadden’s report had come out, Tymoshenko’s attorneys had filed a lawsuit in a New York federal court against, among others, Manafort and Firtash. (A judge would eventually throw the suit out of court for insufficient evidence connecting Tymoshenko’s jailing to the defendants.)
When Yanukovych lost his hold on power in 2014, his government fled—and attempted to get rid of critical documents. The former prosecutor general left some in a sauna, the Times reported. Among them was an early draft of Skadden’s report “that had been annotated by Ukrainian government officials, who appeared to be pushing the Americans for a more sympathetic interpretation of the case.”
By spring 2014, Tymoshenko’s attorneys seized on the recovered documents, including the new information about the Skadden report.
“The clear inference of this document is that Manafort was orchestrating and ‘coordinating’ the Skadden law firm’s supposedly ‘independent’ investigation with the Ukrainian government so that Yanukovych and his racketeering co-conspirators, including Firtash, could be kept fully informed of what the Skadden ‘team’ members were looking at, what they were looking for, and where their ‘investigation’ was headed,” they wrote in a 2014 motion.
There was also a big question surrounding the money Skadden received for the report.
One of Tymoshenko’s Ukrainian attorneys found indications in the dumped documents that Skadden’s high-priced lawyers were paid the equivalent of less than $13,000 for over a month’s worth of work—work that involved international travel. A numbers’ crunch submitted to the New York federal court in which Tymoshenko had sued Manafort and Firtash found that the Skadden attorneys ought to have been billed $2 million.
To current Ukrainian prosecutors, the low billing attracts suspicion. Paying Skadden less than $13,000 meant that, under a contemporary anti-corruption law, the Yanukovych government didn’t have to bid the contract for the Tymoshenko investigation competitively.
And those same prosecutors now believe, as reported by CNN in March, that Manafort’s allies slipped another $1 million into a Citibank account believed to be controlled by Skadden, paying them under the table to deliver a report they badly needed in 2012.
“In this way,” Tymoshenko’s attorneys wrote, “Firtash, Manafort and their co-conspirators could monitor and “steer” the Skadden investigation away from certain sensitive areas (such as the massive, politically-motivated violations of human rights and suppression of political dissent) and towards less dangerous subjects (relatively minor procedural irregularities in the Tymoshenko investigations and prosecutions).”
A Manafort representative declined to discuss the Skadden Arps report, citing the fact that a federal judge dismissed Tymoshenko’s lawsuit. Craig, Sloan, and a Skadden representative did not respond to questions and interview requests about the Ukraine report. Attempts to discuss the issue with Ukrainian prosecutors were unsuccessful.
But word about the former Obama’s aides work with Manafort is bound to bring some smiles in Trumpworld. Team Trump, after all, has tried to spread the wealth on the accusation of foreign collusion to deflect from the geopolitical scandal surrounding the White House. One deflection, tweeted by Trump, was fake news that the Clintons personally benefited from a uranium transfer to a Russian company. Another—again tweeted by the president—is that Ukraine’s anti-Kremlin government colluded with Clinton on her presidential campaign. Contradicting the claim about Clinton ties to anti-Moscow forces in Kiev, Trump has also insisted the House intelligence committee investigate Clinton connections to Russia.
The Skadden connection to the Manafort-Firtash team appears comparatively robust.
Mariotti, the former federal prosecutor, said it was unlikely that special counsel Robert Mueller’s team would probe the Skadden attorneys or use them as witnesses in his inquiry, as attorney-client privilege is likely to cover Skadden’s work with Manafort. But potential reputational damage is a different story.
Sometimes “lawyers end up with clients they have difficulty defending,” Mariotti said. “It sounds like Craig did whatever he could to advocate on behalf of the client he had and now that’s going to raise questions and eyebrows, but probably won’t create any legal liability for him.”
UPDATE 11:20 AM: This article original implied that Yulia Tymoshenko worked as Ukraine's president. She served two terms as prime minister.