Alexandra Chalupa is the Ukrainian-American woman who is credited with getting Paul Manafort fired when he was managing Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. She also warned that Moscow would interfere in the election, but her accurate predictions were ignored at the time.
During the 2016 presidential cycle, Chalupa was a part-time consultant at the Democratic National Committee, the governing body for the Democratic Party, which eventually chose Hillary Clinton as their presidential candidate against Trump, and where she now serves as a committeewoman and co-chair of the DNC Ethnic Council.
Chalupa said she first came across Manafort after she organized a meeting with then-U.S President Barack Obama’s National Security Council and leaders of Ukrainian-American organizations in January 2014 to brief the White House about the EuroMaidan Revolution that drove President Viktor Yanukovych from power on Feb. 22, 2014.
At the time, she was taking a break from working in politics after the birth of her third daughter, and wanted to help Ukrainians in their struggle for human rights and democracy after student protesters in Kyiv were beaten by riot police acting under orders.
Chalupa said that, until the protests started on Maidan Nezalezhnosti, or Independence Square, on Nov. 21, 2013, she knew relatively little about Ukrainian politics, other than the developments during the 2004 Orange Revolution that led to the overturning of a rigged presidential election in Yanukovych’s favor. A second election that year led to the victory of President Viktor Yushchenko, who served a single term until 2010, before being defeated for re-election. However, she did know some Ukrainian-Americans who followed the situation in Ukraine closely.
“I have a diverse network of Ukrainian-American and Ukrainian friends on social media who were reporting real-time developments taking place in Kyiv that the western media was not covering,” Chalupa said. “I wanted to do my part to be helpful to draw attention to the events on the Maidan, so I pulled together the heads of Ukrainian-American organizations and connected them with the White House.”
This was the first of a handful of other meetings related to Ukraine she helped organize for Obama’s National Security Council.
She was taken aback at how, at that first meeting, the NSC seemed surprised that Yanukovych had abandoned his pledge to sign an agreement bringing Ukraine into closer political and economic association with the European Union. This sparked her interest in Yanukovych’s political rise to power, at which point she became aware of Manafort, who once branded himself as an “influence peddler” while testifying before the U.S. Congress for a $40 million U.S. Housing and Urban Development scandal he had become enmeshed in during the 1980s.
“A lot of Americans don’t understand Ukraine,” Chalupa told the Kyiv Post. “I was not an expert in any of this, even though my grandparents were from Ukraine, but after paying close attention to the developments on the Maidan, and the aftermath, I learned a lot – especially about the Kremlin playbook and disinformation warfare.”
What she learned helped her to understand how Yanukovych’s government had seemed to mislead the Obama administration and many others in Washington, and that Manafort played a key role, including through the European Center for a Modern Ukraine in Brussels, which hired two U.S. firms to promote false information about Ukraine.
“There was a very strong structure of misinformation being put out in Washington, D.C. that gave Putin-backed Ukrainian politicians an upper hand,” Chalupa said. “Its reach included the media and Washington elites who did not seem to grasp the developments in Ukraine or how they could impact the United States, or maybe did not care since they too were profiting. Initially, many were operating off wrong information and others weren’t paying close enough attention.”
Chalupa had heard from pro-democracy political activists from Ukraine about Manafort’s work polishing up the image of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, and read U.S. media articles about Manafort. But before 2016 there were few recent articles written about Manafort in the U.S. press – most were from the 1980s, including stories that highlighted Manafort and Roger Stone’s lobbying firm and his business dealings with Donald Trump.
After Yanukovych fled Ukraine on Feb. 22, 2014, Manafort tried to create a fresh lucrative role for himself by helping to reorganize the remnants of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions into what is now the Moscow-friendly Opposition Bloc. But the new party failed to win much support in the elections in the summer of 2014, and Manafort began looking elsewhere for a new job.
In late 2015, a small group of Ukrainian-American and Ukrainian civic leaders visiting Washington, D.C. told Chalupa they had heard Manafort’s former clients in Ukraine were remobilizing again, and that Manafort had made a fortune working in Kyiv.
She was initially puzzled by the news that Manafort’s clients were attempting a comeback in Ukraine, especially given that both the United States and the European Union were providing support to the new government in Kyiv and helping the young democracy get back on its feet as Russia invaded eastern Ukraine and illegally annexed Crimea.
It was around this time that Chalupa started to develop a gut feeling that Manafort was poised to help Trump’s bid for the White House.
“It was clear that the Russian sanctions and low price of oil were impacting Russia’s economy, and the Kremlin’s economic recovery plan of dipping into its cash reserve was not sustainable since it was projected to be depleted by the spring of 2017,” she said.
“Manafort’s Ukraine clients were regrouping, and a Republican presidential candidate who continuously praised Putin had a well-established previous connection with Manafort. All of a sudden, a very dark picture became clear.”
By early 2016, Chalupa notified a senior DNC executive that a political spin doctor who had worked against America’s interests for the pro-Kremlin Yanukovych and was linked to some of the most powerful Russian oligarchs serving Putin was to play an important role in the effort to get Trump elected. The Republican Party candidate routinely expressed his admiration for Russian dictator Vladimir Putin.
Chalupa said the DNC was not aware at this time that Russian intelligence agencies – the military’s GRU agency and the Federal Security Service, the Soviet-era KGB’s successor – had breached their servers and were monitoring their emails. On March 28, The New York Times broke the story that Manafort had joined the Trump campaign.
Chalupa recognized that the same methods that Manafort used to make Yanukovych more acceptable to Ukrainian voters and the techniques he used in Washington and Brussels to portray Yanukovych as someone palatable to the West, were being applied as America headed toward the presidential election.
“Paul Manafort, like his friend and former business partner Roger Stone, is known for dirty political tactics,” Chalupa said. “This includes pushing misinformation, strong-arming opponents, and accusing the other side of what you’re doing. He knows how to take someone’s strength and falsely spin it into a weakness.”
She said that, during the Republican primaries, Manafort and Stone used intimidation to cow delegates to the convention who did not support Trump.
“Intimidation seems to be a key ingredient of the Kremlin playbook, and Manafort knows how to execute it well. It’s mafia politics,” said Chalupa.
Manafort came under scrutiny as part of the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election. The investigations revealed that Manafort had tried to conceal from U.S tax authorities an estimated $60 million he had made from his work in Ukraine – initially for the country’s richest oligarch, Rinat Akhmetov, who then recommended the spin-doctor to the Yanukovych regime.
Manafort was found guilty of tax evasion and other financial crimes during a trial this summer. He agreed to cooperate with Mueller to avoid a second trial and receive a lenient sentence for the crimes he was convicted of in the first one.
While Chalupa understands Mueller’s reasons for abandoning the second trial and applauds what his investigation has already delivered, she is disappointed there wasn’t a second trial “to highlight Manafort’s work in Ukraine, which would have been carefully scrutinized by the media and helped Americans better understand the significance.”
Chalupa believes that Manafort did valuable work for the Yanukovych government. “My take is that he was very effective,” she said. “He played a major role in strengthening the pro-Putin Party of Regions and its rise to power. Without Manafort, there likely would not have been a President Yanukovych.”
Red flags missed
Chalupa said it should have been a major red flag to U.S. media and Washington’s political establishment when Manafort joined a U.S. presidential campaign of a candidate who was praising Putin.
During his time as campaign manager, Manafort was instrumental in removing from the Republican Party’s agenda a commitment to provide lethal weapons to Ukraine in its fight against Russian-led forces in the Donbas. The change was something the Kremlin badly desired and would have been seen as a success by Putin.
“Manafort was political influence peddling on behalf of Putin in Ukraine and he did the same thing in the United States,” Chalupa said. “There’s something deeper in this web (surrounding Manafort), and a second trial would have revealed much more about that type of work.”
Through his work with the pro-Russian Yanukovych and the Moscow-friendly Ukrainian oligarchs who supported him, Manafort forged connections and embarked on business ventures with some of Russia’s most powerful oligarchs such as close Putin ally Oleg Deripaska.
Manafort worked on the Trump campaign for five months, three of them as manager, starting on March 29, 2016.
Trump claimed Manafort worked for free, something Chalupa never believed. “It’s very suspect that when Manafort claimed he was supposedly broke, he received zero payment from the Trump campaign,” she said.
“These guys don’t work for free, or out of the kindness of their hearts. Someone like Deripaska must have been financing him.”
Deripaska says that his financial connections with Manafort were purely business related, according to the Associated Press and Newsweek.
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