Paul Manafort: Handmaiden to dictators
The presidential act of a pardon tells us a great deal about the president and the people whose actions are forgiven. That President Trump both hired and pardoned Paul Manafort is a case study in the dependency of authoritarian leaders on a circle of unethical enablers. The corruption of any political system is at its heart a criminal conspiracy. Corruption feeds on political power.
To make sense of the president’s pardon of Paul Manafort, it helps to understand the man Trump selected to run his 2016 campaign. On one hand, it seems inconceivable that an American presidential candidate would choose as his campaign manager someone whose last job was political strategist to a dictator in Ukraine who had recently been overthrown in a popular revolution. On the other hand, it makes perfect sense. Paul Manafort made a fortune helping tyrants and would-be tyrants appear legitimate. He was the ultimate symbol of the corruption of democratic political systems. His evolution from establishment wonderkid to handmaiden to dictators is a story of how corruption perverts democracies.
Manafort’s political ascent started in 1977 as a 27-year-old when he and the infamous dirty trickster Roger Stone took over the Young Republicans Organization (YRO). As he would do throughout his career, Manafort chose to be the man behind the power, acting as Stone’s campaign manager for YRO chairman rather than being a candidate himself. In 1980, aware of the YRO’s key role in Barry Goldwater’s nomination, Ronald Reagan chose Stone and Manafort to manage his presidential campaign in the Northeast and South. After the election, Manafort was rewarded with the position of White House personnel coordinator in the Office of Executive Management, where he proceeded to seed government agencies with YRO activists loyal to him.
But power mattered much less to Paul Manafort than money. He and Stone decided to monetize their influence. Together with another YRO activist, Charlie Black, they formed a lobbying firm, Black, Manafort and Stone. Later they hired Lee Atwater, the granddaddy of negative politics. By offering political consulting along with more traditional lobbying, they gained an immense advantage over their K Street competitors. When one of their candidates won an election, they had access and influence like no other. In the 1988 presidential primary, Black, Manafort and Stone represented all three Republican candidates, George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole and Jack Kemp. Money poured in.
But it was never enough for Paul Manafort. Introduced to the glittery world of the mega rich by the arms dealer Abdul Rahman Al Assir, brother-in-law to Adnan Khashoggi, the “richest man in the world,” Manafort lost interest in domestic politics and began representing unsavory clients throughout the world who were happy to pay millions for his services. He helped Al Assir manage a corrupt deal to sell French submarines to Pakistan that entailed alleged kickbacks into the 1995 French presidential campaign of Edouard Balladur. He took millions in cash from Ferdinand Marcos and was hired to refurbish the image of Jonas Savimbi, the leader of the Angolan rebel group UNITA. He was paid a million dollars a year to represent Zairian strongman Mobutu Sesse Seko. From Equatorial Guinea to Somalia, Manafort was the undisputed king of what the Center for Public Integrity called “The Torturer’s Lobby.”
But why settle for millions when there were tens of millions to be made in the former Soviet Union? When Ukraine’s corrupt President Viktor Yanukovych was driven from power in the 2004 Orange Revolution, Manafort was brought in by the oligarch Renat Akhmetov to rebrand the Party of Regions. Two years later the party came back to win parliamentary elections. Akhmetov reportedly was so pleased he bought Manafort a $3.6 million apartment on the 47th floor of Trump Tower. By 2010 Manafort’s makeover of Yanukovych was so successful that the deposed president cruised to victory.
Ukraine is the classic example of “state capture” by corrupt criminal elements of an ostensibly democratic government. Manafort profited handsomely, in the tens of millions of dollars according to the Mueller Report, during the years he was the primary political adviser and confidant to President Yanukovych. In a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York in 2011, a former prime minister of Ukraine alleged that Manafort had arranged an $800 million dollar deal to buy the old Drake Hotel in Manhattan. Bankrolled by the don of the Russian mafia, it may have been one of the largest money laundering schemes ever uncovered. But Manafort’s primary patron was the mafia linked oligarch Oleg Deripaska. According to the Associated Press, Manafort procured a $10 million a year contract to “influence politics, business dealings and news coverage inside the United States, Europe and former Soviet Republics to benefit President Vladimir Putin’s government.” If the AP was correct, Manafort had finally succeeded in hitching himself to the ultimate dictator.
We may never know the secrets Manafort holds, what the Senate Intelligence Committee called “the single most direct tie between senior Trump Campaign officials and the Russian intelligence services.” Like a loyal mafia soldier, Manafort appears to have taken an oath of Omerta, a code of silence and a refusal to give evidence to authorities. President Trump pardoned him for the same reasons he hired him in the first place.
The inevitable calls to reign in presidential pardon powers will have little effect if we continue to allow the underlying structures of political corruption: the unfettered influence of big money, the prominence of lobbyists at the helm of our political life, the ubiquity of secret offshore tax havens and the covert interference of foreign adversaries in our elections. As we move into a new administration, attacking corruption, which drains $3 trillion a year from the world economy, should be among our most urgent tasks.
David Hoffman is the author of a forthcoming novel, “The Accidental Oligarch,” in which Paul Manafort is a principal character.