The fact that the two biggest controversies of the Trump presidency have revolved around Russia and Ukraine -- two former Soviet republics in a state of perpetual conflict -- might have seemed like a strange coincidence.
More and more, we're learning it's not.
A trove of documents from Robert Mueller's Russia investigation released over the weekend show that President Donald Trump's Ukraine conspiracy theory appears to have been propagated by two top aides who were central figures in the special counsel's investigation: Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn. The conspiracy theory also was apparently fertilized by Manafort associate Konstantin Kilimnik.
The three of them appear to have played a role in convincing Trump that Russia did not actually interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, despite what both Mueller and the U.S. intelligence community have concluded, and that it was actually Ukraine. Trump and his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani have since set about trying to get Ukraine to investigate the allegations, including by allegedly leveraging hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid and a much-sought Oval Office meeting for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. The alleged corrupt quid pro quos are now at the center of the House's impeachment inquiry of Trump.
To recap, that's three people with controversial ties to Russia, two of whom are convicted criminals (Manafort and Flynn) and another who has been indicted (Kilimnik).
Rick Gates, a former Manafort deputy and Trump campaign aide, told investigators that the three of them were pushing the theory to Trump. According to the documents, Gates told investigators that "Flynn was adamant the Russians did not carry out the hack" and that Flynn told Trump that U.S. intelligence "was not capable of figuring it out." He also said that Manafort said the hack of Democratic emails "was likely carried out by the Ukrainians, not the Russians." And Gates said Manafort's theory was "parroted" from Kilimnik, who "also opined the hack could have been perpetrated by Russian operatives in Ukraine."
Mueller's investigators concluded that Kilimnik, Manafort's associate in Ukraine, had ongoing ties to Russian intelligence during this whole period. They have indicted him for witness tampering, although he is unlikely to ever face the charges, given that he is overseas.
But he is hardly the only one with a controversial relationship with Russia.
Manafort, Trump's former campaign chairman, has ties to Russia and Russian interests dating back more than a decade, as The Washington Post's Philip Bump has documented. He was indicted after documents revealed nearly $13 million in undisclosed payments from a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine. The New York Times reported in July 2017 that Manafort was $17 million in debt to pro-Russian interests in Ukraine. He and Gates were also in business with Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, who sued them in 2018 for allegedly defrauding him to the tune of $19 million. There is evidence that Manafort signed a $10 million-a-year contract with Deripaska in 2006 to push a proposal that was pitched as something that "can greatly benefit the Putin Government," and there is also evidence that Manafort took out a $10 million loan from Deripaska at one point.
Flynn's ties to Russia are more tenuous, but he has made a series of curious decisions involving himself with it. In 2013, as the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency in the Obama administration, he became the first U.S. official to visit Russia's GRU, its military intelligence agency. Flynn then reportedly sought to invite GRU officers to the United States, even after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine. After leaving the Obama administration, Flynn sat next to Russian President Vladimir Putin at a gala in 2015 for the English-language Russian propaganda channel RT and was paid $45,000 for his trip. He was paid another $23,000 by Russia-tied entities that year, according to documents released in 2017.
When serving briefly as Trump's national security adviser in early 2017, Flynn lied to Vice President Mike Pence and investigators about his talks with then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, claiming they had not discussed sanctions during the transition period even though they had. It was enough to cause Sally Yates, then acting attorney general, to warn the White House that Flynn was vulnerable to Russian blackmail. Flynn would later plead guilty to lying to the investigators.
So we have two men who have been convicted of offenses related to their Russia ties, have both lied to investigators about their interactions with Russian interests, and who apparently played a significant role in pushing a theory to Trump that Russia did not actually interfere in the 2016 election. They instead pointed the finger at Russia's nemesis, Ukraine, and that has apparently stuck with Trump for more than three years. Flynn's alleged effort to push Trump to be skeptical of the U.S. intelligence community in which Flynn served seems to have proven particularly long-lasting, despite Flynn's conviction and his predilection for conspiracy theories such as Pizzagate.
And now Trump has pushed the theory so far, despite its baselessness, that it has put him on course for impeachment. Given that Russia's goal has always been more about destabilizing the West rather than necessarily supporting Trump, it's about the best that the Kremlin could have hoped.