Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


The warning signs on Manafort had been there for years. That didn’t stop Trump from hiring him

Over years as a lobbyist in D.C., Manafort’s particular niche became the lucrative foreign market, polishing the images of those with more money than scruples. 

Former Trump 2016 campaign chairman Paul Manafort and former campaign official Rick Gates appear in front of U.S. Magistrate Deborah A. Robinson in U.S. Federal Court on Oct. 30.
REUTERS/Bill Hennessey

Before Paul Manafort signed on to run the Trump campaign last year, he already had a long list of other clients with murky finances, legal issues and doubtful allegiance to democratic norms.

Following his indictment this week, the U.S. judicial system will decide whether Manafort is guilty of money laundering — and eventually, whether there was collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.

But it’s worth recalling another aspect of Manafort’s legacy that is nearly as important — and often gets lost in the noise. It stretches 30 years from the Philippines under Ferdinand Marcos to modern Ukraine. And regardless of the outcome of Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller’s investigation, it makes clear that Manafort should have been nowhere near a major U.S. campaign. You can see why Trump the businessman might have been attracted to Manafort. For Trump the candidate to have actually appointed him is not an impeachable offense. But the president still does need to answer for stupendously bad judgment, lack of attention — or both.

Manafort worked with other Republican young guns such as Roger Stone and Lee Atwater (who went on to create the infamous Willie Horton ads) during the Reagan years to develop a highly successful model linking political consulting and lobbying. Manafort’s particular niche became the lucrative foreign market, polishing the images of those with more money than scruples — and representing their interests as a lobbyist back in Washington.

Article continues after advertisement

Forward to 2016. On Stone’s recommendation, Trump turned to Manafort to fight a last-ditch effort to stop him at Republican convention. Manafort took on one more compromised rich guy — although a peculiarly American variant, who pledged to “drain the swamp” that Manafort had a hand in filling.

Filmmakers Morgan Pehme, Daniel DiMauro and Dylan Bank spent five years making a documentary about Stone, called “Get Me Roger Stone.” In this Fresh Air interview, Pehme traces the relationship between Stone and Manafort back to their days remaking the national Young Republicans into a more conservative organization that ended up changing the trajectory of the whole party.

He argues that their consulting firms’ innovations also made American politics a more cynical enterprise. Consultants also could be lobbyists, working to influence politicians they helped get elected. They could hire Democrats as well as Republicans, covering the entire political spectrum. They identified weaknesses in campaign finance laws that led to the creation of super PACs.

Reflecting the sentiments of the early Reagan years, they were comfortable representing authoritarian foreign leaders who were strong anti-Communists.

Manafort first made his mark outside the U.S. working to improve the image of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines. Marcos was a staunch U.S. ally, but after the dramatic assassination of political opponent Benigno Aquino in 1983, he faced growing American criticism for rampant corruption and human rights abuses. Manafort’s efforts, which earned his firm nearly $1 million, are detailed in this lengthy Politico piece.

When Marcos decided to call an election to prove his public support, Manafort urged him to run it in a way that would look acceptable to Americans. Marcos didn’t listen. He lost U.S. support, lost power and fled. But Manafort got paid.

A $1 million deal with Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire (now Congo) followed in 1989. Then there were the oligarchs, arms dealers and even an organization that prosecutors allege was a front for Pakistan’s spy agency. Manafort became known for big contracts and flamboyant expenditures.

The Ukrainian connection

In 2005, one of those oligarchs, Rinat Akhmetov, connected Manafort to a pro-Moscow Ukrainian apparatchik named Viktor Yanukovych. With strong Russian backing, Yanukovych had apparently won the presidency in 2004. Popular protests, which became known as the Orange Revolution, ensued. Ukraine’s courts found enough evidence of fraud to order a new vote, and Yanukovych lost.

Now tainted, he reached out to Manafort for a makeover. Manafort polished him up, giving him better suits and a better message. He told U.S. diplomats that Yanukovych’s Party of Regions was intent on shedding its image as a “haven for mobsters.” His opponents spent more time bickering than governing. In 2010, Yanukovych won an election that was generally regarded as fair.

Article continues after advertisement

Then he ran into trouble again.

Forced to choose between closer ties with the European Union or Russia, Yanukovych chose the latter. Protests broke out, and Yanukovych fled to Russia. Convinced that Washington was behind it all, Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea and encouraged Russia-speaking separatists. Manafort went on advising the remnants of Yanukovych’s party. Then Trump called.

By that time, Putin also was messing around in the U.S. election. And it was only a matter of time before Ukraine’s new government uncovered documents suggesting the Party of Regions had made millions of dollars in under-the-table payments to Manafort. Again, no evidence has been made public that connects the two. Manafort denied receiving such payments, but it looked bad, and his role with the Trump campaign was over.

The warning signs had actually been there for years. But until he became a distraction, all Trump saw was a kindred spirit.