Paul Manafort Is Back

It isn’t pretty.

Paul Manafort's face under a turning page
Paul Spella / The Atlantic; Getty

The title of Paul Manafort’s memoir, Political Prisoner, is ridiculous, but at least he’s writing what he knows. For much of his professional life, Manafort served as a lobbyist and an image consultant for the world’s most prolific torturers. One of his clients, the Angolan revolutionary Jonas Savimbi, led an army that incinerated its enemies alive. Another of his clients, President Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, dumped hundreds of mutilated corpses in the streets to show the price of opposing him.

After spending 23 months in prison on charges of bank fraud, witness tampering, conspiracy, and tax evasion—the longest stretch in a low-security facility in Pennsylvania—Manafort now places himself in the same category as the victims of rape and beatings whose suffering he was once handsomely paid to minimize. This grotesque conflation feels like the fitting capstone to his career.

After decades of working to soften the reputations of dictators, corporations, and Republican senatorial candidates, he’s now applying his craft to himself. His book is an attempt at redeeming a career wrecked by Robert Mueller’s prosecutors, who portrayed him as one of the most corrupt characters to ever bestride Washington. With little prospect of ever representing fancy clients again, or perhaps even finding himself a new slate of scoundrels, he has discovered that his best hope is to rebrand himself as a right-wing martyr, a victim of the same forces that Donald Trump says conspired to end his presidency.

In one memorable scene, he recounts the van ride to a correctional facility in Virginia. A prisoner named B.B. strikes up a conversation with him, asking him why he was arrested.

“For something I didn’t do,” Manafort replies. “I was set up. ‘Business crimes.’”

“We all set up by the man!” B.B. tells him.

As Manafort mulls the moment, he writes, “He was 100 percent right. I had been set up by ‘the man’—the Office of Special Counsel, Weissman, Mueller, Hillary, Obama, the MSM. The list went on.” Will the nation ever reckon with its history of persecuting lobbyists with shady bank accounts in Cyprus?

Manafort writes that his list of tormentors “went on.” He isn’t kidding. Naturally, he notes that George Soros set him up, through organizations that called attention to his corrupt work in Ukraine on behalf of its kleptocratic, Russian-backed former president. The judge in one of his cases, Amy Berman Jackson, is “a Harvard-educated, Obama-appointed, Trump-hating liberal.”

But his greatest enemy is Andrew Weissmann, the prosecutor that Mueller assigned to his case. He depicts Weissmann as a wicked grand inquisitor bent on pressuring Manafort into submission. (Out of either spite or sloppiness, Manafort consistently misspells his tormentor’s name.) The central thesis of the book is that Weissmann wanted to inflict so much pain on Manafort that he would turn state’s witness and feel no choice but to parrot the special prosecutor’s lies about Trump.

In reality, if Weissmann dealt harshly with Manafort, it’s because he tampered with witnesses, apparently lied to the prosecutors, and paid such little respect to a gag order that he was reprimanded by a judge. When Manafort briefly agreed to cooperate with Mueller as part of a plea bargain, the prosecutors revoked the deal because Manafort kept feeding them mistruths. But Manafort can’t admit to any of this. That’s what ultimately makes this book such a dud, even for obsessive students of the man like me. Over nearly 400 tedious pages, he rarely deviates from his talking points and absurdly presents himself as a faultless pillar of rectitude. (“My life up to that point [the moment when Mueller descended on him] had largely been the product of the American Dream.”) His only mistake was trusting the management of his finances to his unscrupulous deputy Rick Gates.

In the conventional prison memoir—and that’s what constitutes a large portion of this book—the narrative usually culminates in a moment of epiphany, often in the form of religious conversion. But there’s nothing like that here.

For a man who cares so much about surface images—witness the $1.3 million he spent on bespoke suits and an ostrich-skin jacket—his interior life is the foreign country that he’ll never be able to represent.

In search of kinship with right-wing readers, the only plausible audience for this book, Manafort reveals that he spent so much time in prison listening to Rush Limbaugh that he can recite every word of the MyPillow advertisement from memory—the company’s founder, Mike Lindell, was a famous Trump stalwart. In a rare moment of poignance, he writes, “Mike Lindell became my surrogate family. In fact, each night as I fell asleep using a rolled-up wool blanket covered by a cotton T-shirt as my pillow, I dreamt of getting my four-pillow special.”

Still, even in prison, observed constantly by guards, Manafort can’t stop being himself. “I didn’t want to have a menial job,” he writes. So he hatched a scheme. To avoid showing up for work in the prison warehouse, he paid a guy to sign in and out for him everyday. Freed from the task that the state required of him, he treated prison like a stint at the Yaddo writers’ retreat, using his time away from home to write his memoir in the facility’s computer library. In his bland, unrevealing account of his time behind bars, it was the only touch of the authentic Manafort I could find.

But for all his self-exculpation, he offers limp explanations for the behavior patterns that so troubled Mueller’s lawyers. The government has repeatedly alleged that Manafort’s aide, Konstanin Kilimnik was an active Russian agent. All Manafort can muster in response: “He was a U.S. asset,” a claim he asserts without any hard evidence. Did Kilimnik pass along the Trump campaign’s polling data to a Russian oligarch to whom Manafort owed millions? Well, Manafort says, they were just “talking points” about public polling data. That might be a technically accurate description of a document exchanged in one meeting in a cigar bar. But Manafort had allegedly sent Kilimnik private data via encrypted texts over the course of months, according to the bipartisan findings of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

Manafort was the loose end in Mueller’s investigation. And it clearly bothered Mueller. In his final report, the special counsel accused Trump of potentially obstructing justice by floating the possibility of a pardon for Manafort.

That’s why the most interesting moment in the book is the last. On December 23, 2020, in his last month in office, Trump finally granted Manafort that pardon. On Christmas Eve, Manafort received a phone call from the president, their first conversation in years.

In Manafort’s account, Trump is overcome with gratitude that Manafort never turned against him. The president can’t stop praising him: “You are a man … you are a real man.” Trump tells him that a lot of people would have caved under the pressure, but he always knew that Manafort had character. He wasn’t a rat.

Of course, it’s possible this call could have gone in a far different direction. It was Manafort’s shameful work in Ukraine that caused one of the biggest scandals of the 2016 campaign—and forced Trump to fire him from the organization. It was Manafort’s dealings that stoked suspicions that Trump might somehow be in cahoots with the Russians. All of this should have been cause for Trump to angrily lash out when they finally connected. The fact that he didn’t speaks far louder than Manafort’s silence.