On Saturday, Time magazine reported that President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign chair, Paul Manafort, was pressured by a Russian oligarch over his debts.
The reporting named oligarch Victor Boyarkin as the "key figure" in a deal with Manafort. Boyarkin recently fell under sanctions by the U.S. government.
But Seth Hettena, the author of Trump/Russia: A Definitive History, said on CNN Saturday that Boyarkin was likely just the "bag man" for a more powerful oligarch, Oleg Deripaska, who the Trump administration lifted sanctions on earlier this month.
"It is a complex picture, but here's how to explain it," Hettena said. "Oleg Deripaska is one of a few oligarchs who are extremely close to Putin and the Kremlin. He said on a couple of occasions he doesn't separate himself from the state and he would basically do anything when asked by Putin to do. So, you know, what we have is a Trump's campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, in deep debt to a man like Deripaska. Victor Boyarkin was the bag man."
That's not to say that the new reporting isn't important, Hettena said, as we now know that Boyarkin collected debts for Deripaska.
"Victor Boyarkin was the missing link here," he said. "We knew that Deripaska was involved. We didn't know how they were connected. Boyarkin was the go-between. He was hammering Manafort for money while the campaign was going on, and, as you mentioned, one of the ways Manafort may have been suggesting paying it off was to offer private briefings on the campaign. So, you know, you have a campaign manager in debt to a Russian oligarch who's connected to Putin, who's been pressured for money in the middle of a campaign that he's running on behalf of the Republican nominee for president."
Hettena said that the significance of this development will be more clear once we know what Trump knew and when he knew it.
"What did Trump know?" he asked. "The best case for Trump here is that he didn't know that there was any Boyarkin connection or Deripaska connection with his campaign chairman. The worst-case scenario, the darker scenario, is that he knew and that's why he chose Paul Manafort to be his campaign chairman."
The fact that Trump pushed hard to lift sanctions on Deripaska's companies, by brokering a deal in which the oligarch agreed to "sell off" control of the world's second-largest aluminum maker, is suspicious to Hettena.
"To me, that looks like a sweetheart deal," he said. "Deripaska runs one of the world's biggest aluminum companies, and those sanctions bit hard, and almost as soon as they were implemented, the Trump administration has been trying to soften the blow, the sanctions were delayed, Deripaska hired lobbyists... Deripaska was supposed to cut his ownership in half, so now half of the shares are owned by his charity, by a Russian bank, and it doesn't look like control has been really given up at all."