Lady In Black The German Woman at the Center of the Manafort Case
A German national appears prominently in the investigation into the possible Russian contacts made by Donald Trump's associates. Did she serve as the strawman for illegal lobbying in the United States?
Ina Kirsch is sitting at a table at Berlin's Café Einstein. She has chosen to sit in a corner on the second floor because there usually isn't much going on there. The expression she wears on her face reflects what she had said earlier on the phone: that she doesn't want this meeting. It's a "Let's get this over with" kind of face.
Kirsch, who is almost 50, wears a turtleneck sweater, a jacket, pants and loafers, all in black. She seems to want to be invisible, or at least inconspicuous. As presumably anyone would want to be who has been pulled into the machinery of a global scandal, into the American investigation into the Russian contacts of Donald Trump's team.
FBI Special Counsel Robert Mueller filed an indictment in Washington in October against the president's former campaign manager. The 31 pages of the "United States of America vs. Paul J. Manafort, Jr." reveal that the German woman played a central role in what has become the primary focus of the investigation: whether Trump's campaign manager, Paul Manafort, secretly, and therefore illegally, did lobbying work in the United States on behalf of the Ukrainian government before he joined Trump's team.
This also means Kirsch played a supporting role in the much larger drama -- the battle over the White House -- because the indictment is just one part of the bigger picture. It is intended to create pressure for Manafort to testify about other events. At issue is the question of whether the Trump team may have colluded with the Russian government during the election -- something that could cost the president his job.
The special counsel believes the German was Manafort's strawman in his well-camouflaged lobbying work in the U.S. Kirsch allegedly helped Manafort clean up the Ukrainian regime's image up until 2014 -- a dirty job that supposedly made Manafort millions. Although Kirsch's name does not appear explicitly in the indictment, every reference in the document to the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine is also directed at her. Since 2011, Kirsch has headed the Brussels-based center, an allegedly independent organization with the noble pursuit of tying Ukraine more closely with the West.
Sign up for our newsletter -- and get the very best of SPIEGEL in English sent to your email inbox twice weekly.
But suspicions arose early on that the center was being used as a cover for corrupt President Viktor Yanukovych and his party. And as Special Counsel Mueller sees it, Manafort was also hiding behind the group's façade and working for Yanukovych. Kirsch, it appears, may have been a willing accomplice.
But is that inaccurate? Has Kirsch, as she claims, been wrongly depicted in Mueller's indictment? Kirsch orders a latte, which she sips unenthusiastically. The only reason she came, she says, is to make it clear to the reporters that there is no reason for them to write about her, because she never worked for Manafort. Kirsch claims she never received instructions or assignments from him. And she also says she was never a mouthpiece for the Ukrainian government. "That is totally untrue," she says, before adding, "One is always smarter in hindsight." So, is it possible that Kirsch was merely naïve and that she had been taken advantage of unwittingly?
Kirsch speaks fluent Russian. She was born in Khabarovsk, far in Russia's east, only a few millimeters from China on a map. Her mother worked for a newspaper there and her father was famous in East Germany (GDR). Rainer Kirsch, the lyricist and novelist, was kicked out of the Socialist Unity Party, East Germany's Communist Party, and refused to collaborate with the Stasi secret police. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, he served for 10 months as the last president of the East German Writer's Union.
His daughter Ina grew up in the GDR. She defected to the West in 1987 by staying in London during a trip there. She wasn't even 20 years old at the time. After the fall of the Wall, she joined the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD). She went to Moscow for two years to work for the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, a think tank closely aligned with the party, before moving to Brussels take a job with the Social Democrats in the European Parliament.
A Difficult Partner
As an EU staffer with the Social Democrats, she worked on an agreement in 2014 with the Party of Regions, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych's party. He would prove to be a difficult partner -- a money-grubber who had boxed his way to the top and collected rare cars, exotic animals and horded exorbitant amounts of money. At the same time, he was so vain that he also wanted to be admired as a politician, as hungry for prestige as he had been.
For quite some time, it had been unclear whether Yanukovych would ally himself with the Russians or with the West in his pursuit of this goal. In any case, the West fought to gain him as an ally. Martin Schulz, the head of the Social Democrats' party group in the European Parliament at the time agreed to a contract with Yanukovych's party, promising regular meetings and "support."
The key step, which Kirsch also worked on, was the Ukraine-European Union Association Agreement. The aim of the treaty had been to pull Ukraine into the Western sphere once and for all. The final outcome, of course, is now part of history: After a long back and forth, Yanukovych refused to sign it, ultimately triggering the Maidan revolution and his own fall from power.
That couldn't have been foreseen in 2011, the year that Kirsch left her staff position with the SPD party group in the European Parliament and founded the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine, the mysterious entity that former FBI head Mueller considers to have been a strawman for the regime. What seems to confirm this suspicion is the fact that the impetus for the group came from a man close to Yanukovych, later Foreign Minister Leonid Kozhara. He was among the group's founders, and Kirsch took over operations. Officially, the center wasn't supposed to have anything to do with Ukraine's ruling clique. Kirsch says that no money or instructions were given.
A 'Mouthpiece' for Yanukovych?
According to Special Counsel Mueller, though, that isn't true. In his eyes, the group served solely as a "mouthpiece" for Yanukovych and his party and had been under the "ultimate direction" of the Ukrainian government. He also alleges that the main person pulling the strings was Manafort, who used the group to polish his clients' image in the United States.
The lobbyist and later Trump adviser had already been working since the 1980s with corrupt dictators who paid him large sums to wash the blood from their hands. His clients included Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines and Mobutu Sese Seko in what was then Zaire, and now he was peddling Yanukovych as a serious politician in the battle against rival Yulia Tymoshenko.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller: Was a Brussels organization used to hide an illegal PR campaign for Ukraine in the United States?
According to the indictment, Manafort used the center as a cover. In the U.S., if you want to do lobbying work for foreign governments, you are required by law to register that activity and disclose the names of the clients and the payments made. But it appears that Manafort didn't want to do that. The indictment also alleges that Manafort and his partner earned $75 million for their work. It appears they tried to hide the money from the U.S. tax authorities, because it ended up in offshore companies in Cyprus and in the Caribbean. Page after page of the indictment provides a detailed listing of the gigantic sums of money that flowed from those companies to antiques dealers, luxury boutiques and car dealerships in the U.S., providing Manafort with his opulent lifestyle.
As Mueller outlines in the indictment, the relationship between Manafort and the center worked like this: Manafort stayed in the background, but he was in charge. Kirsch, meanwhile, signed contracts with Podesta and Mercury, two of Washington's most expensive PR firms. The contracts stated that the fees would be paid by Kirsch's organization, but Mueller's investigators also believe that to have been a cover. They allege that the money was actually paid by the Manafort companies, and the numbers also appear to back that claim. The organization allegedly only had around 10,000 euros a year in revenues, but the indictment states that Podesta and Mercury were paid over $2 million.
At first, Kirsch seems to have difficulty explaining things. Her voice is cold and controlled, her look suspicious, and she butts in every time a question is posed that isn't to her liking. She's trying to maintain control over a story that has long since gotten out of her hands. She says she's required to adhere to the non-disclosure clauses in the contracts with Podesta and Mercury, but they actually already expired over a year ago.
Who's Right: Kirsch or Mueller?
Later, after the meeting in Berlin, she uses three densely written pages to share her version of the events with DER SPIEGEL. She tells the story of a woman who had a burning desire, and even spent her own money, to give Ukraine a better future, in the West, in the EU. And the story of people like Manafort, whom Kirsch describes as a "gold digger." She claims he was merely using Ukraine. If her story is true, then Mueller is wrong. But is it?
Kirsch admits having met with Manafort three times. She says there was resistance in the U.S. to attempts to draw Ukraine closer to the West. This led the center to decide in 2012 to do a bit of lobbying work there. She claims that Manafort gave her the tip to hire Podesta and Mercury for those efforts. That's why she signed contracts with the firms to carry out small assignments in the U.S., like distributing the center's English-language newsletter.
She claims she didn't have any idea that the PR firms were also carrying out additional work for Manafort under the exact same service contracts. "The scope of services we had agreed on was much smaller than the work that Podesta and Mercury apparently did in coordination with Paul Manafort." The PR firms "should have come to me to discuss this, but they didn't," she says. Kirsch claims never to have received a bill from Podesta or Mercury, nor any reports on the work that had been done. She says she honestly isn't aware of all the things that were potentially done in her name.
A Money Trail
But that's a bit strange. How were Podesta and Mercury paid? Who did she think was paying if she never received a bill from Podesta and Mercury? She says her center in Brussels had sponsors and that instead of making payments to the organization itself, they sent money directly to the PR agencies. But what sponsors? European companies. Which companies? She claims she's not allowed to tell.
But now she has a problem -- and not only because the suspicion remains that the money came from the Yanukovych regime. Mueller might also take interest in the fact that Kirsch didn't just have contracts with Podesta or Mercury, but also signed one with an offshore company in Cyprus -- a copy of which is now in Ukraine. The company was called Marziola and it served as a kind of piggy bank: It was meant to collect the money from the organization's sponsors and send it onwards to America. Mueller's indictment reveals the person he believes to be behind Marziola: Paul Manafort.
And Kirsch argues she didn't notice this? She never checked to see who was involved in Marziola? No, she claims, she only found out Marziola belonged to Manafort when she read the indictment. She says she no longer has anything to do with Manafort. "The abuse of our efforts for personal interests of individuals is a great disappointment," she says.
Neither Manafort, nor the lobbyists with Podesta and Mercury answered requests from DER SPIEGEL for responses. Manafort has since filed a suit against Mueller claiming that the U.S. authorities had already been aware of the company structures in Cyprus and the Caribbean for years.
After four hours in the café, Ina Kirsch gets up. She has said enough and believes that any word about her is one too many. She asks that her place of residence not be published and that nothing be written about her husband. "What does my husband have to do with this?" Perhaps the fact that he also had tight connections to people close to Yanukovych? Kirsch is now just hoping that she won't get a phone call from Mueller's team and that the attention currently being paid to her will wash over quickly. She'd like to have all this behind her -- as fast and quietly as possible, without any more meetings or any more questions.