Paul Manafort made a career out of stealthily reinventing the world’s nastiest tyrants as noble defenders of freedom. Getting Donald Trump elected were to be a cinch.
Mar-a-Lago, Donald Trump’s palace, is impressive by the standards of Palm Beach—less so when judged against the abodes of the world’s autocrats. It doesn’t, for instance, quite compare with Mezhyhirya, the gilded estate of deposed Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych. Trump may have 33 bathrooms and three bomb shelters, but his mansion lacks a herd of ostrich, a galleon parked in a pond, and a set of golden golf clubs. Yet the two properties are linked, not just in ostentatious spirit, but by the presence of one man. Trump and Yanukovych have shared the same political brain, an operative named Paul Manafort.
Ukrainians use the term “political technologist” as a favored synonym for electoral consultant. Trump turned to Manafort for what seemed at first a technical task: Manafort knows how to bullwhip and wheedle delegates at a contested convention. He’s done it before, assisting Gerald Ford in stifling Ronald Reagan’s insurgency at the GOP’s summer classic of 1976. In the conventions that followed, the Republican Party often handed Manafort control of the program and instructed him to stage-manage the show. He produced the morning-in-America convention of 1984 and the Bob Dole nostalgia-thon of 1996.
Given Manafort’s experience and skill set, it never made sense that he would be limited to such a narrow albeit crucial task as delegate accumulation. Indeed, it didn’t take long before he attempted to seize control of the Trump operation—managing the budget, buying advertising, steering Trump toward a teleprompter and away from flaming his opponents, appearing on air as a primary surrogate.
Some saw the hiring of Manafort as desperate, as Trump reaching for a relic from the distant past in the belated hope of compensating for a haphazard campaign infrastructure. In fact, securing Manafort was a coup. He was among the most significant political operatives of the past 40 years, and one of the most effective. He has revolutionized lobbying several times over, though he self-consciously refrains from broadcasting his influence.
Unlike his old business partners, Roger Stone and Lee Atwater, you would never describe Manafort as flamboyant. He stays in luxury hotels, but orders room service and churns out memos. When he does venture from his suite for dinner with a group, he’ll sit at the end of the table and say next to nothing, giving the impression that he reserves his expensive opinions for private conversations with his clients. “Manafort is a person who doesn’t necessarily show himself. There’s nothing egotistical about him,” says the economist Anders Aslund, who advised the Ukrainian government. The late Washington Post columnist Mary McGrorydescribed him as having a “smooth, noncommittal manner, ” though she also noted his “aggrieved brown eyes.” Despite his decades of amassing influence in Washington and other global capitals, he’s never been the subject of a full magazine profile. He distributes quotes to the press at the time and place of his choosing, which prior to his arrival on the Trump campaign, was almost never. (Indeed, he did not respond to requests to comment for this story.)
His work necessarily entails secrecy. Although his client list has included chunks of the Fortune 500, he has also built a booming business working with dictators. As Roger Stone has boasted about their now-disbanded firm: “Black, Manafort, Stone, and Kelly, lined up most of the dictators of the world we could find. … Dictators are in the eye of the beholder.” Manafort had a special gift for changing how dictators are beheld by American eyes. He would recast them as noble heroes—venerated by Washington think tanks, deluged with money from Congress.
Playing tennis with Yanukovych at Mezhyhirya might have been the culmination of Manafort’s long career. He spent nearly seven years commuting to Kiev. Over that stretch, he remade Ukrainian politics and helped shift the country into Vladimir Putin’s sphere of influence. It was an impressive achievement, at least according to the ethical calculus that governs Manafort’s world. But then along came Donald Trump—another oligarch in desperate need of his services.
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The genesis of Donald Trump’s relationship with Paul Manafort begins with Roy Cohn. That Roy Cohn: Joe McCarthy’s heavy-lidded henchman, lawyer to the Genovese family. During the ’70s, Trump and his father hired Cohn as their lawyer to defend the family against a housing discrimination suit. (Cohn accused the Feds of using “Gestapo-like tactics.”) But Cohn and Trump became genuine pals, lunching at the Four Seasons and clubbing together at Studio 54. It was Roy Cohn who introduced Stone and Manafort to Trump.
During those disco years, Stone and Manafort were tethered together. They were both kids from Connecticut, attending colleges in Washington, though they couldn’t have been more different. Stone loved attention and garnered it with theatrical flair. He was a bad boy, soi-disant. As a student at George Washington University, Stone moonlighted for the Nixon campaign and gravitated to Jeb Magruder, deputy director of the Committee to Re-Elect the President. Dirty tricks came naturally to Stone. He assumed a pseudonym and made contributions on behalf of the Young Socialist Alliance to one of Nixon’s potential challengers. He hired spies to infiltrate the McGovern campaign. Stone wasn’t shy about his handiwork. In fact, he wasn’t shy about anything. He loved to sit for interviews and vamp. Stone is a bodybuilding fanatic who posedshirtless in the New Yorker. The photo captured his implanted hair, but not the tattoo of Richard Nixon on his back.
Manafort had a very different mentor. He studied under the future secretary of state, James A. Baker III, who wielded his knife with the discipline of a Marine and the polish of a Princetonian. It was a good fit for Manafort, who shared his mentor’s pragmatic conservatism and his thirst for politics. (His father spent six years as the mayor of New Britain, Connecticut, a Republican who flourished in Democratic terrain.) Baker, an avid collector of young talent, had managed Gerald Ford’s re-election campaign. That’s where he spotted Manafort and anointed him aide de camp. When Baker needed his own manager for his 1978 campaign to become attorney general of Texas, he tapped Manafort. The experience of whispering in Baker’s ear left a lasting impression. “Paul modeled himself after Baker,” one of his friends told me.
Despite his Yankee stock, Manafort ran Reagan’s Southern operation, the racially tinged appeal that infamously began in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the hamlet where civil rights activists were murdered in 1964. The success of the 1980 campaign gave Stone and Manafort cachet. More important, they helped run Reagan’s transition to power. They stocked the administration, distributing jobs across the agencies and accumulating owed favors that would provide the basis for their new lobbying business. They opened their doors in 1981.
Manafort and Stone pioneered a new style of firm, what K Street would come to call a double-breasted operation.
One wing of the shop managed campaigns, electing a generation of Republicans, from Phil Gramm to Arlen Spector. The other wing lobbied the officials they helped to victory on behalf of its corporate clients. Over the course of their early years, they amassed a raft of blue-chip benefactors, including Salomon Brothers and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.
Another early client was Donald J. Trump. What Trump wanted was help fending off potential rivals to his Atlantic City casino business. He especially feared the rise of Indian gaming. As the 2016 campaign graphically illustrated, Trump doesn’t treat rivals gently. Testifying before a congressional committee in 1993, he began with his rote protestations of friendship. “Nobody likes Indians as much as Donald Trump.” He then proceeded to worry that the tribes would prove unable to fend off gangsters. “There is no way Indians are going to protect themselves from the mob … It will be the biggest scandal ever, the biggest since Al Capone … An Indian chief is going to tell Joey Killer to please get off his reservation? It’s unbelievable to me.”
Trump poured money into a shell group called the New York Institute for Law and Society. The group existed solely to publish ads smearing his potential Indian competition. Under dark photos of needles and other junkie paraphernalia, the group asserted, “The St. Regis Mohawk Indian record of criminal activity is well documented.” (It wasn’t.) “Are these the new neighbors we want?”
We know that Trump and Stone were behind the New York Institute because Gov. George Pataki investigated its doings. He slapped Trump and Stone with a $250,000 fine and required them to publicly apologize for running the ads.
Manafort didn’t own the Trump account at the firm. But one of his former partners told me that he would dispense advice and pitch in, winning Trump’s trust. When Manafort took an apartment in Trump Towers in 2006, he would kibitz with his old client when they’d run into one another on the elevator. “Trump knew this guy was top drawer,” says one Republican operative.
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Manafort and Stone built a glamour firm. The Black in its name belonged to Charles Black, who as a 25-year-old launched the Senate career of Jesse Helms. Later, they lured Lee Atwater, the evil genius who would devise the Willie Horton gambit for George H.W. Bush. The firm had swagger. In the early ’80s, the partners spoke openly to the Washington Post of their annual $450,000 salaries.
According to the consultant Ed Rollins, Black would later boast that the firm had schemed to gain cartel-like control of the 1988 Republican presidential primary. They managed all of the major campaigns. Atwater took Bush; Black ran Dole; Stone handled Jack Kemp. A congressional staffer joked to a reporter from Time, “Why have primaries for the nomination? Why not have the candidates go over to Black, Manafort and Stone and argue it out?”