When Judge Amy Berman Jackson emerged into the courtroom through a door cut seamlessly into the wooden veneer of the wall, she commanded my full attention.
I have served powerful women many times before in my life—senators, secretaries of state, opposition leaders—and knew how to bow before them. Today was a variation on the theme: I was here to plead guilty before Jackson to a federal felony.
I was so transfixed by her that I never stopped to think who was notably absent from the courtroom on that last day of August: my business partner Konstantin V. Kilimnik or, as I knew him, Kostya. In two weeks, his long-time boss Paul Manafort would stand in the very spot I did and do the same thing I was about to do.
Kostya was initially referred to in the American press as “Person A” in the government’s case against Manafort, the former chairman of the 2016 Trump campaign. When prosecutors moved in February of this year to nullify Manafort’s cooperation agreement with them—because he violated the deal by lying about his contacts with Kostya—a lead prosecutor told Judge Jackson that Manafort’s lies went “very much to the heart of what the special counsel’s office is investigating.” In particular, the government asserted, Manafort had shared Trump polling data with Kostya, leaving many to wonder and speculate about why he might have done such a thing.
But today, Kostya, who had three months earlier been charged along with Manafort by Special Counsel Robert Mueller with witness tampering, was missing. He had disappeared like a shadow at dusk, perhaps to Russia or Ukraine.
To achieve my goal—offering a guilty plea with a modicum of dignity—I needed to stay cool. It wasn’t easy. Looking to my right, I saw my wife in the front row trying to hold back tears while Peter Carr, Mueller’s spokesman, draped himself across the same bench on which she sat, chatting up the pack of millennial reporters in the rows behind them.
The special counsel’s pit bull, Andrew Weissmann, sat in the front row across the aisle with a handful of prosecutors and FBI agents. Moments before, he’d crossed the aisle to shake my hand and tell me “this is the hardest part, this will be over soon.” It couldn’t come soon enough.
My crime was my failure to register as a foreign agent. When the judge accepted my plea, I became the ninth American in post-war history to be convicted under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. In addition, I took responsibility (though was not charged) for prohibited conduct including purchasing $50,000 worth of tickets to the 2017 Presidential Inauguration on behalf of my Ukrainian client and not submitting to the Senate Intelligence Committee emails detailing how I’d purchased those tickets.
One of the tickets was for Kostya, and another was for Serhiy Lyovochkin, a Ukrainian oligarch and opposition leader. My unregistered activity consisted of drafting op-eds and communications to US government officials for Lyovochkin. The crime of omission was not registering, while the crime of commission was writing. Lyovochkin was the thread that connected me, Manafort, and his deputy Kostya. After nearly two decades of advising foreign politicians on how to wage electoral campaigns in their own countries, the chickens had—for me—come home to roost.
“How do you plead?” Judge Jackson asked me.
“Guilty, Your Honor,” I replied.