Saturday, December 31, 2022

Narratogy: Cigar Bar


Oh, by the way, one of the things that happened in 2022 was how we learned that Paul Manafort really did make a deal with the Russian government where he would help them try to take over Ukraine and they would help him try to elect Donald Trump to the US presidency in 2016. Not that there were any new details, exactly, in this excellent piece by Jim Rutenberg, The Untold Story of ‘Russiagate’ and the Road to War in Ukraine, which appeared in the New York Times Magazine November 18, and has been sitting in my open tabs ever since, but that it's among the first attempts to tell that part of the story with what you might call a healthy helping of narrativium, helping a reader understand the plot the plot of the plot, and I've been wanting to take it just a little bit further.

Note I'm making that Manafort, not Trump; one of the things I'm learning from the article is that there was never any reason to call on Trump's legendary Art-of-the-Deal negotiating skills. That's not to suggest the thing was done without his consent, just that he's not a very hands-on manager, and deeply attached to deniability, as befits a racket boss. 

And then the other point, which is probably more important in the grand scheme of things and certainly more important to Rutenberg himself, is the clarification of Vladimir Putin's aims in negotiations with the Trump campaign, which were more consistent than I thought, focused, from the outset, on his desire to seize Ukraine, as arises right at the beginning of the article:

On the night of July 28, 2016, as Hillary Clinton was accepting the Democratic presidential nomination in Philadelphia, Donald J. Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, received an urgent email from Moscow. The sender was a friend and business associate named Konstantin Kilimnik.

Kilimnik said he was back from a five-hour meeting with the man who had given Manafort his "biggest jar of black caviar several years ago", and had some things he and Manafort needed to talk about soon; Manafort wrote back quickly, and they set up a date, at the Grand Havana cigar room at 666 Fifth Avenue (the Kushner family's famous white elephant building, but that's another story), which took place August 2, at 9 p.m., after Manafort finished what looks like a three-hour meeting in Trump Tower with Trump and Giuliani .

The caviar guy was evidently Manafort's former client Viktor Yanukovych, the ex-president of Ukraine, now living in exile in Russia, as the Mueller report noted (and not Putin's aluminum billionaire Oleg Deripaska, using caviar as a metaphor for cash, as I'd long misunderstood it)

and one of the two main subjects of the cigar bar meeting was of direct relevance to him: the so-called "Mariupol plan", which 

called for the creation of an autonomous republic in Ukraine’s east, giving Putin effective control of the country’s industrial heartland, where Kremlin-armed, -funded and -directed “separatists” were waging a two-year-old shadow war that had left nearly 10,000 dead. The new republic’s leader would be none other than Yanukovych. The trade-off: “peace” for a broken and subservient Ukraine.

A President Hillary Clinton would certainly be unalterably opposed to that, Kilimnik noted, but a President Donald Trump might be a very different matter, as he'd suggested more than once, most recently in an interview with George Stephanopoulos just a day earlier (August 1):

“He’s not going into Ukraine, O.K., just so you understand,” Mr. Trump, the Republican nominee, said when the issue came up. “He’s not going to go into Ukraine, all right? You can mark it down. You can put it down. You can take it anywhere you want.”

“Well, he’s already there, isn’t he?” Mr. Stephanopoulos interrupted [referring to the fact that Russian troops had occupied the Donbas region with a puppet militia and Crimea directly since 2014].

“O.K., well, he’s there in a certain way,” Mr. Trump replied. “But I’m not there. You have Obama there. And frankly, that whole part of the world is a mess under Obama with all the strength that you’re talking about and all of the power of NATO and all of this. In the meantime, he’s going away. He take — takes Crimea... The people of Crimea, from what I’ve heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were.”

And then that was the other subject: how to get Trump elected, which seemed pretty implausible at the time, but Manafort and his lieutenant Rick Gates had a strategy for that, involving the battleground states of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania and some advanced internal polling data showing public trust in Clinton eroding in those states around mid-July, which Manafort handed Kilimnik, and a visualization tool developed by Brad Parsacale and the Cambridge Analytica firm showing the campaign exactly where it needed to work to discourage people from voting for the Democratic candidate. (This is all from the Senate Intelligence Committee's vol. 5.)

Oh, and we're told there was also a third topic, Manafort's $10-million debt to Oleg Deripaska, which Manafort had been hoping his job in the Trump campaign would some how enable him to write off. And from another source,

It’s not known if Kilimnik left the U.S. immediately after the Grand Havana Room meeting, but a Deripaska-owned jet landed in Newark, N.J. on Aug. 3 and left for Moscow after a few hours.

Is this starting to sound fresh yet? Is it starting to sound like something we haven't already heard, in spite of the fact that we know we've heard most of the individual elements? 

My thought is that it brings all the themes together in a particular almost comic-opera way, from the original confrontation of desires in March (Putin wants Ukraine, Manafort wants to get Deripaska off his back, Manafort thinks he's using Kilimnik, Kilimnik is in fact using Manafort on Putin's behalf) through a kind of initial plan (Manafort will get back into American politics, with the support of Stone and Barrack,  putting him into position in Trump Tower, where he already has an apartment). 

Also in March Russia agent (and old Nixon friend) Dimitri Simes comes into the picture, meeting Jared Kushner at a lunch where Henry Kissinger is the keynote speaker; in April, it's under Simes's aegis that Trump will deliver the conventional candidate "major foreign policy speech", only it won't be all that conventional, an "America First" speech (we're told George Papadopoulos was among the writers) that dwelled on Russia-US friendship and didn't mention Ukraine at all. Early June brings the Trump Tower meeting in which, I've claimed, most of the participants (Junior, Kushner, and an assortment of Russians) had no idea what was going on while Manafort and another Putin representative, Rinat Akhmetshin, agreed on a basic frame for Russian election assistance referencing the newly stolen DNC emails.

In July at the Republican convention the Trumpers announced their intentions to their Russian friends by altering the party's foreign policy platform in an anti-Ukrainian direction, and Russians acknowledged receipt of the message with the WikiLeaks release of the DNC emails, and the week after that Kilimnik emailed Manafort to let him know that the serious work was getting started, and everybody should have their detailed plans (Kilimnik for the Ukraine takeover, Manafort for the Trump victory) ready.

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