PARIS — The news broke early Monday that Paul Manafort, a longtime Washington establishment figure and Republican political strategist, had been indicted by a grand jury on 12 counts as a result of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible Russian interference in last year’s U.S. presidential election.
People hear “Russia collusion investigation,” “grand jury indictment” and “former Trump campaign manager,” and that’s all it takes in this soundbite world to connect these things in people’s minds, regardless of the reality.
Many of the facts outlined in the indictment stem from Manafort’s involvement in Ukraine during the political tug-of-war in that country between Western and Russian interests. You have to wonder whether federal authorities would have had an issue with Manafort if he’d been lobbying on behalf of the military-industrial complex and its established anti-Russian position in Ukraine. Now THAT’S a crowded playing field: lobbyists and consultants working on behalf of U.S. establishment interests inside foreign countries. Good thing it isn’t illegal, eh?
In any case, the elements in the indictment fall short of explaining how Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton with the help of the Russians. But the fact that Manafort stumbled into the Trump campaign, where he served for a couple of months before stumbling back out, is more than enough to smear Trump in the court of public opinion.
Manafort is what you would call low-hanging fruit, and no one knows that better than Mueller, who was Federal Bureau of Investigation director from 2001 to 2013, during which time Manafort was on the radar here in France in a political scandal that has rocked the French establishment for over two decades. Foreign investigators interviewed Manafort about that scandal during Mueller’s FBI tenure.
In France, it’s known as “Karachigate” or “the Karachi affair.” It involves the use of kickbacks in a sale of French submarines to Pakistan during the tenure of former French Prime Minister Edouard Balladur, with some of the money allegedly used to finance his 1995 presidential campaign against Jacques Chirac.
On May 8, 2002, the day after Chirac’s re-election, a terrorist blew up a military bus carrying workers headed for the submarine construction site in Karachi, Pakistan, killing 11 French employees and three of their Pakistani fixers, and injuring 12 others.
One theory that came to light during the investigations, as reported by Le Figaro in 2010, was that the Pakistani intelligence service commissioned Islamic terrorists to perpetrate the bombing because some Pakistani VIPs were upset that Chirac had cut off their kickbacks.
Michael Isikoff of Yahoo News reported last year that from 1990 to 1995, Manafort’s lobbying firm was paid $700,000 by the Kashmiri American Council, a front organization bankrolled by the Pakistani intelligence service to deflect attention from its sponsorship of terrorism.
In October 2012, France’s Le Monde reported that “The magistrate (in France investigating Karachigate) has found bank documents attesting that between September 1994 and August 1995, Paul Manafort received $252,000 from Abdul Rahman al-Assir, a partner of Ziad Takieddine, from a Geneva bank.”
Al-Assir and Takieddine are well-known here in France as middlemen in French weapons deals, and both face trial here for their alleged role in the Karachi case.
In 2013, according to Le Figaro, Manafort was interviewed in Virginia as part of a French judge’s inquiry into Karachigate. Manafort claimed to have done polling work for, and provided strategy notes to, the Balladur team, and to have been paid by al-Assir. According to France’s Liberation newspaper, Manafort told French investigators that he met al-Assir in 1988, and that he did a poll for Balladur and made some campaign strategy recommendations, but that Balladur didn’t follow up.
It’s hard to imagine that Mueller, the FBI director at the time, wouldn’t have known about Manafort’s lobbying efforts on behalf of a front group for the Pakistani intelligence service, or about the money he told French investigators he received from middlemen well-known to the CIA in French-Pakistani and French-Saudi weapons deals since at least the early ’90s. So why did Mueller wait for Manafort to cross Trump’s path before pursuing an indictment?
With Balladur facing Karachigate charges in France, and now with Mueller’s case against Manafort in the U.S., Manafort makes for the perfect fall guy. Almost too perfect. The establishment tends to protect its intermediaries. Middlemen are rarely hung out to dry, if only because of the possibility that they could blab the secrets of the powerful in order to save themselves.
Manafort apparently doesn’t enjoy such protections. In recent years, he had taken positions against the Washington establishment status quo on everything from Ukraine to Trump. One can’t help but wonder if Manafort would have been left alone if he had continued to toe the establishment line.