Manafort's departure shouldn't end questions about Trump's Russia ties

Only two months after firing campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, Donald Trump accepted Paul Manafort's resignation this morning. Manafort had already been "sidelined" earlier this week, keeping the title of "campaign chairman" while pollster Kellyanne Conway was promoted to "campaign manager" and Stephen Bannon given the "chief executive" position. Bannon is best known as chairman of the none-too-reputable Breitbart News website.

For a Republican presidential nominee to give Bannon such an important role in a faltering campaign is itself newsworthy. Former Breitbart staffer Kurt Bardella told ABC News that Bannon "regularly disparaged minorities, women, and immigrants during daily editorial calls at the publication." Ben Shapiro, who spent four years as an editor-at-large for Breitbart before resigning in March, wrote this week that Bannon had "Turned Breitbart Into Trump Pravda For His Own Personal Gain" and had encouraged the website to embrace white supremacists.

But let's get back to Manafort. He reportedly resigned so as not to become a "distraction" for Trump, as journalists have dug more deeply into his lobbying work for pro-Russian forces and business ties to shady "oligarchs" from Russia and Ukraine. Manafort may have committed a crime by not registering as a lobbyist for foreign entities during the years he "tried to sell" former pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to U.S. policy-makers. Eric Trump said today, "my father just didn't want the distraction looming over the campaign [...]."

Ditching Manafort won't resolve the many valid concerns about whether Russian entities could exert undue influence on Trump. Here are five questions journalists should keep investigating.

1: How much money have Russian entities loaned or invested in Trump businesses?

Trump claims to have "zero investments" in Russia, but he hasn't released tax returns to back up that claim or shed light on how much debt Trump companies owe to Russian businesses. Since his earliest months in power, Russian President Vladimir Putin has used corporate entities to advance his political goals. Having closely followed those policies as a freelance writer, I have no doubt that any Trump business connections to Russian companies would become leverage for Putin to influence a Trump administration's stance toward Russia.

2: Does Trump stand by earlier comments on shifting U.S. policy in a pro-Russian direction?

Soon after Trump campaign operatives intervened to soften GOP platform language on Russia and Ukraine, Trump suggested in an interview that the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) might not be able to count on U.S. assistance if attacked by Russia. The following week, he said at a press conference that if elected, his administration would consider lifting U.S. sanctions against Russia and recognizing the Ukrainian region of Crimea "as Russian territory." Those statements startled the U.S. foreign policy community, not to mention some of our allies abroad.

3: Why is Trump still working with so many people who have close ties to Russia?

Jeff Horwitz and Chad Day reported yesterday for the Associated Press,

Paul Manafort and his deputy, Rick Gates, never disclosed their work as foreign agents as required under federal law.

The lobbying included attempts to gain positive press coverage of [pro-Russian] Ukrainian officials in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Associated Press. Another goal: undercutting American public sympathy for the imprisoned rival of Ukraine's then-president. At the time, European and American leaders were pressuring Ukraine to free her.

Gates personally directed the work of two prominent Washington lobbying firms in the matter, the emails show. He worked for Manafort's political consulting firm at the time.

As of this morning, Gates will move to a new role as the Trump campaign's "liaison" to the Republican National Committee.

Rosie Gray reported yesterday for Buzzfeed,

Mike McSherry, a senior vice president at Mercury Public Affairs who helped lead the Trump campaign’s convention committee strategy last month, is listed in Mercury’s lobbying disclosure forms as having represented a Brussels-based nonprofit group linked to former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine. [...]

McSherry’s name appears in documents Mercury filed with the Senate under the Lobbying Disclosure Act.

Trump’s campaign brought McSherry on to help with delegate efforts for the convention, and it was reported earlier this month that his role in the campaign was being expanded. McSherry did not respond to BuzzFeed News requests for comment.

Trump foreign policy adviser Carter Page has extensive business connections in Russia and has compared U.S. sanctions on Russia to a master-slave relationship. He criticized U.S. and NATO policies during a speech delivered in Moscow last month. Page reportedly met with at least one senior Russian government official during that visit "as a private citizen."

Former Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn accompanied Trump to his first classified intelligence briefing this week. He is a regular commentator on RT (Russia Today), an English-language television network funded by the Russian government. The former head of Defense Intelligence Agency until 2014, Flynn sat at the head table along with Putin at "a banquet in Moscow late last year celebrating Russia Today."

4: Whom will Trump trust to brief him on Russia and other foreign adversaries?

Speaking to Fox News on August 17, Trump said he didn't trust U.S. intelligence services: "Very easy to use them, but I won't use them, because they’ve made such bad decisions."

Citing anonymous sources, Fox News reporter John Roberts said on August 16 that Trump decided to bring Flynn to the briefing to “interpret the reports” because “the Trump campaign is not confident of the quality of the intelligence they will receive.”

According to this report by Jessica Schulberg, classified intelligence briefings for presidential candidates provide much more limited information than the briefings presidents receive after they have been elected. Still, it's extraordinary if Trump trusts Flynn, who has ties to a pro-Kremlin television network, more than he trusts officials working for our own intelligence agencies.

5: Does Trump still hope Russian espionage will uncover damaging information about Hillary Clinton?

On the long list of Trump statements no one could have imagined coming from a major-party presidential nominee, his invitation to Russian hackers is still among the most astounding. None of Trump's prominent Iowa Republican endorsers responded to my questions about why they are supporting a candidate who welcomes foreign espionage directed at his political opponents. Trump says so many outrageous things that this statement could easily get lost in the shuffle, but it was way outside the bounds of acceptable political combat.

Trump's strategists tried to change the subject this week to Clinton's own alleged "close ties" to Putin. Clinton's campaign responded to Manafort's resignation with a statement today highlighting "the odd bromance Trump has with Putin."

Trump's possible financial ties to Russian entities, along with his campaign's unprecedented use of pro-Kremlin advisers, should not be viewed through the lens of everyday partisan bickering. They present serious threats to U.S. national security.

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