I. The Wisdom of Friends
The clinic permitted Paul Manafort one 10-minute call each day. And each day, he would use it to ring his wife from Arizona, his voice often soaked in tears. “Apparently he sobs daily,” his daughter Andrea, then 29, texted a friend. During the spring of 2015, Manafort’s life had tipped into a deep trough. A few months earlier, he had intimated to his other daughter, Jessica, that suicide was a possibility. He would “be gone forever,” she texted Andrea.
His work, the source of the status he cherished, had taken a devastating turn. For nearly a decade, he had counted primarily on a single client, albeit an exceedingly lucrative one. He’d been the chief political strategist to the man who became the president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, with whom he’d developed a highly personal relationship. Manafort would swim naked with his boss outside his banya, play tennis with him at his palace (“Of course, I let him win,” Manafort made it known), and generally serve as an arbiter of power in a vast country. One of his deputies, Rick Gates, once boasted to a group of Washington lobbyists, “You have to understand, we’ve been working in Ukraine a long time, and Paul has a whole separate shadow government structure … In every ministry, he has a guy.” Only a small handful of Americans—oil executives, Cold War spymasters—could claim to have ever amassed such influence in a foreign regime. The power had helped fill Manafort’s bank accounts; according to his recent indictment, he had tens of millions of dollars stashed in havens like Cyprus and the Grenadines.
Manafort had profited from the sort of excesses that make a country ripe for revolution. And in the early months of 2014, protesters gathered on the Maidan, Kiev’s Independence Square, and swept his patron from power. Fearing for his life, Yanukovych sought protective shelter in Russia. Manafort avoided any harm by keeping a careful distance from the enflamed city. But in his Kiev office, he’d left behind a safe filled with papers that he would not have wanted to fall into public view or the wrong hands.
Money, which had always flowed freely to Manafort and which he’d spent more freely still, soon became a problem. After the revolution, Manafort cadged some business from former minions of the ousted president, the ones who hadn’t needed to run for their lives. But he complained about unpaid bills and, at age 66, scoured the world (Hungary, Uganda, Kenya) for fresh clients, hustling without any apparent luck. Andrea noted her father’s “tight cash flow state,” texting Jessica, “He is suddenly extremely cheap.” His change in spending habits was dampening her wedding plans. For her “wedding weekend kick off” party, he suggested scaling back the menu to hot dogs and eliminated a line item for ice.
He seemed unwilling, or perhaps unable, to access his offshore accounts; an FBI investigation scrutinizing his work in Ukraine had begun not long after Yanukovych’s fall. Meanwhile, a Russian oligarch named Oleg Deripaska had been after Manafort to explain what had happened to an $18.9 million investment in a Ukrainian company that Manafort had claimed to have made on his behalf.
Manafort had known Deripaska for years, so he surely understood the oligarch’s history. Deripaska had won his fortune by prevailing in the so-called aluminum wars of the 1990s, a corpse-filled struggle, one of the most violent of all the competitions for dominance in a post-Soviet industry. In 2006, the U.S. State Department had revoked Deripaska’s visa, reportedly out of concern over his ties to organized crime (which he has denied). Despite Deripaska’s reputation, or perhaps because of it, Manafort had been dodging the oligarch’s attempts to contact him. As Deripaska’s lawyers informed a court in 2014 while attempting to claw back their client’s money, “It appears that Paul Manafort and Rick Gates have simply disappeared.”
Nine months after the Ukrainian revolution, Manafort’s family life also went into crisis. The nature of his home life can be observed in detail because Andrea’s text messages were obtained last year by a “hacktivist collective”—most likely Ukrainians furious with Manafort’s meddling in their country—which posted the purloined material on the dark web. The texts extend over four years (2012–16) and 6 million words. Manafort has previously confirmed that his daughter’s phone was hacked and acknowledged the authenticity of some texts quoted by Politico and The New York Times. Manafort and Andrea both declined to comment on this article. Jessica could not be reached for comment.
Collectively, the texts show a sometimes fraught series of relationships, by turns loving and manipulative. Manafort was generous with his family financially—he’d invested millions in Jessica’s film projects, and millions more in her now-ex-husband’s real-estate ventures. But when he called home in tears or threatened suicide in the spring of 2015, he was pleading for his marriage. The previous November, as the cache of texts shows, his daughters had caught him in an affair with a woman more than 30 years his junior. It was an expensive relationship. According to the text messages, Manafort had rented his mistress a $9,000-a-month apartment in Manhattan and a house in the Hamptons, not far from his own. He had handed her an American Express card, which she’d used to good effect. “I only go to luxury restaurants,” she once declared on a friend’s fledgling podcast, speaking expansively about her photo posts on social media: caviar, lobster, haute cuisine.
The affair had been an unexpected revelation. Manafort had nursed his wife after a horseback-riding accident had nearly killed her in 1997. “I always marveled at how patient and devoted he was with her during that time,” an old friend of Manafort’s told me. But after the exposure of his infidelity, his wife had begun to confess simmering marital issues to her daughters. Manafort had committed to couples therapy but, the texts reveal, that hadn’t prevented him from continuing his affair. Because he clumsily obscured his infidelity—and because his mistress posted about their travels on Instagram—his family caught him again, six months later. He entered the clinic in Arizona soon after, according to Andrea’s texts. “My dad,” she wrote, “is in the middle of a massive emotional breakdown.”
By the early months of 2016, Manafort was back in greater Washington, his main residence and the place where he’d begun his career as a political consultant and lobbyist. But his attempts at rehabilitation—of his family life, his career, his sense of self-worth—continued. He began to make a different set of calls. As he watched the U.S. presidential campaign take an unlikely turn, he saw an opportunity, and he badly wanted in. He wrote Donald Trump a crisp memo listing all the reasons he would be an ideal campaign consigliere—and then implored mutual friends to tout his skills to the ascendant candidate.
Shortly before the announcement of his job inside Trump’s campaign, Manafort touched base with former colleagues to let them know of his professional return. He exuded his characteristic confidence, but they surprised him with doubts and worries. Throughout his long career, Manafort had advised powerful men—U.S. senators and foreign supreme commanders, imposing generals and presidents-for-life. He’d learned how to soothe them, how to bend their intransigent wills with his calmly delivered, diligently researched arguments. But Manafort simply couldn’t accept the wisdom of his friends, advice that he surely would have dispensed to anyone with a history like his own—the imperative to shy away from unnecessary attention.
His friends, like all Republican political operatives of a certain age, could recite the legend of Paul Manafort, which they did with fascination, envy, and occasional disdain. When Manafort had arrived in Washington in the 1970s, the place reveled in its shabby glories, most notably a self-satisfied sense of high duty. Wealth came in the form of Georgetown mansions, with their antique imperfections and worn rugs projecting power so certain of itself, it needn’t shout. But that old boarding-school establishment wasn’t Manafort’s style. As he made a name for himself, he began to dress differently than the Brooks Brothers crowd on K Street, more European, with funky, colorful blazers and collarless shirts. If he entertained the notion, say, of moving his backyard swimming pool a few feet, nothing stopped him from the expense. Colleagues, amused by his sartorial quirks and his cosmopolitan lifestyle, referred to him as “the Count of Monte Cristo.”
His acts of rebellion were not merely aesthetic. Manafort rewrote the rules of his adopted city. In the early ’80s, he created a consulting firm that ignored the conventions that had previously governed lobbying. When it came to taking on new clients, he was uninhibited by moral limits. In 2016, his friends might not have known the specifics of his Cyprus accounts, all the alleged off-the-books payments to him captured in Cyrillic ledgers in Kiev. But they knew enough to believe that he could never sustain the exposure that comes with running a presidential campaign in the age of opposition research and aggressive media. “The risks couldn’t have been more obvious,” one friend who attempted to dissuade him from the job told me. But in his frayed state, these warnings failed to register.
When Paul Manafort officially joined the Trump campaign, on March 28, 2016, he represented a danger not only to himself but to the political organization he would ultimately run. A lifetime of foreign adventures didn’t just contain scandalous stories, it evinced the character of a man who would very likely commandeer the campaign to serve his own interests, with little concern for the collective consequences.
Over the decades, Manafort had cut a trail of foreign money and influence into Washington, then built that trail into a superhighway. When it comes to serving the interests of the world’s autocrats, he’s been a great innovator. His indictment in October after investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller alleges money laundering, false statements, and other acts of personal corruption. (He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.) But Manafort’s role in Mueller’s broader narrative remains carefully guarded, and unknown to the public. And his personal corruption is less significant, ultimately, than his lifetime role as a corrupter of the American system. That he would be accused of helping a foreign power subvert American democracy is a fitting coda to his life’s story.
II. The Young Man and His Machine
In the spring of 1977, a 28-year-old Paul Manafort sat at a folding table in a hotel suite in Memphis. Photos from that time show him with a Tom Selleck mustache and meaningful sideburns. He was surrounded by phones that he’d specially installed for the weekend. The desk held his copious binders, which he called “whip books.” Eight hundred delegates had gathered to elect a new leader of the Young Republicans organization, and Manafort, a budding kingmaker, had compiled a dossier on each one. Those whip books provided the basis for deal making. To wheedle and cajole delegates, it helped to have an idea of what job they wanted in return for their support.
Control over the Young Republicans—a political and social network for professionals ages 18 to 40—was a genuine prize in those days. Presidential hopefuls sought to harness the group. This was still the era of brokered presidential conventions, and Young Republicans could descend in numbers sufficient to dominate the state meetings that selected delegates. In 1964, the group’s efforts had arguably secured Barry Goldwater the GOP nomination; by the ’70s every Republican aspirant understood its potency. The attention paid by party elders yielded opportunities for Young Republican leaders. Patronage flowed in their direction. To seize the organization was to come into possession of a baby Tammany.
In Memphis, Manafort was working on behalf of his friend Roger Stone, now best known as a pioneer in opposition research and a promiscuous purveyor of conspiracy theories. He managed Stone’s candidacy for chairman of the group. Stone, then 24, reveled in the fact that he’d received his political education during Richard Nixon’s reelection campaign in 1972; he even admitted to playing dirty tricks to benefit his idol. Stone and Manafort had met through College Republicans. They shared a home state, an affection for finely tailored power suits, and a deeper love of power itself. Together, they campaigned with gleeful ruthlessness.
Even at this early stage in his career, Manafort had acquired a remarkable skill for managing a gathering of great size. He knew how to command an army of loyalists, who took his orders via walkie-talkie. And he knew how to put on a show. In Memphis that year, he rented a Mississippi River paddleboat for a booze cruise and dispatched his whips to work over wavering delegates within its floating confines. To the Young Republican elite, the faction Manafort controlled carried a name that conveyed his expectation of unfailing loyalty: the Team. And in the face of the Team’s prowess, Stone’s rival eventually quit the race, mid-convention. “It’s all been scripted in the back room,” he complained.
Manafort had been bred for politics. While he was in high school, his father, Paul Manafort Sr., became the mayor of New Britain, Connecticut, and Manafort Jr. gravitated toward the action—joining a mock city council, campaigning for the gubernatorial candidate Thomas Meskill as part of his Kiddie Corps. For college and law school, he chose Georgetown University, a taxi ride from the big time.
In the ’70s, the big time was embodied by James A. Baker III, the shrewdest Republican insider of his generation. During the epic Republican National Convention of 1976, Manafort holed up with Baker in a trailer outside the Kemper Arena, in Kansas City, Missouri. They attempted to protect Gerald Ford’s renomination bid in the face of Ronald Reagan’s energetic challenge; Manafort wrangled delegates on Baker’s behalf. From Baker, he learned the art of ostentatious humility, how to use the knife to butter up and then stab in the back. “He was studying at the feet of the master,” Jeff Bell, a Reagan campaign aide, remembers.
By the late ’70s, Manafort and Stone could foresee Ronald Reagan’s ascendance, and both intended to become players in his 1980 campaign. For Manafort, this was an audacious volte-face. By flipping his allegiance from the former Ford faction, he provoked suspicion among conservatives, who viewed him as a rank opportunist. There was little denying that the Young Republicans made an ideal vehicle for his ambitions.
These ambitions left a trail of damage, including an Alabama lawyer named Neal Acker. During the Memphis convention, Acker had served as a loyal foot soldier on the Team, organizing the southern delegates on Stone’s behalf. In return, Manafort and Stone had promised to throw the Team behind Acker’s campaign to replace Stone as the head of the Young Republicans two years later, in 1979. Manafort would manage the campaign himself.
But as the moment of Acker’s coronation approached, Manafort suddenly conditioned his plan. If Acker wanted the job, he had to swear loyalty to Reagan. When Acker ultimately balked—he wanted to stay neutral—Manafort turned on him with fury, “an unprecedented 11th-hour move,” the Associated Press reported. In the week leading up to the 1979 Young Republicans convention, Manafort and Stone set out to destroy Acker’s candidacy. At Manafort’s urging, the delegates who were pledged to Acker bolted—and Manafort took over his opponent’s campaign. In a bravura projection of power that no one in the Reagan campaign could miss, Manafort swung the vote sharply against Acker, 465 to 180. “It was one of the great fuck jobs,” a Manafort whip told me recently.
Not long after that, Stone and Manafort won the crucial positions in the Reagan operation that they’d coveted. Stone directed the campaign in the Northeast, Manafort in the South. The campaign had its share of infighting; both men survived factional schisms and purges. “They were known as the Young Republican whizzes,” Jeff Bell told me. Their performance positioned them for inner-sanctum jobs in the Reagan administration, but they had even grander plans.
III. The Firm
During the years that followed World War II, Washington’s most effective lobbyists transcended the transactional nature of their profession. Men such as Abe Fortas, Clark Clifford, Bryce Harlow, and Thomas Corcoran were known not as grubby mercenaries but as elegant avatars of a permanent establishment, lauded as “wise men.” Lobbying hardly carried a stigma, because there was so little of it. When the legendary lawyer Tommy Boggs registered himself as a lobbyist, in 1967, his name was only 64th on the active list. Businesses simply didn’t consider lobbying a necessity. Three leading political scientists had studied the profession in 1963 and concluded: “When we look at the typical lobby, we find its opportunities to maneuver are sharply limited, its staff mediocre, and its typical problem not the influencing of Congressional votes but finding the clients and contributors to enable it to survive at all.”
On the cusp of the Reagan era, Republican lobbyists were particularly enfeebled. Generations of Democratic majorities in Congress had been terrible for business. The scant tribe of Republican lobbyists working the cloakrooms included alumni of the Nixon and Ford administrations; operating under the shame-inducing cloud of Watergate, they were disinclined toward either ambition or aggression.
This was the world that brash novices like Manafort and Stone quickly came to dominate. The Reagan administration represented a break with the old Republican establishment. After the long expansion of the regulatory state, business finally had a political partner eager to dismantle it—which generated unprecedented demand for lobbyists. Manafort could convincingly claim to know the new administration better than anyone. During its transition to power, he was the personnel coordinator in the Office of Executive Management, which meant that he’d stacked the incoming government with his people.* Along with Stone and Charlie Black, another veteran of the Young Republican wars, he set up a firm, Black, Manafort and Stone, which soon compiled an imposing client list: Bethlehem Steel, the Tobacco Institute, Johnson & Johnson, Trans World Airlines.
Whereas other firms had operated in specialized niches—lobbying, consulting, public relations—Black, Manafort and Stone bundled all those services under one roof, a deceptively simple move that would eventually help transform Washington. Time magazine deemed the operation “the ultimate supermarket of influence peddling.” Fred Wertheimer, a good-government advocate, described this expansive approach as “institutionalized conflict of interest.”
The linkage of lobbying to political consulting—the creation of what’s now known as a double-breasted operation—was the real breakthrough. Manafort’s was the first lobbying firm to also house political consultants. (Legally, the two practices were divided into different companies, but they shared the same founding partners and the same office space.) One venture would run campaigns; the other would turn around and lobby the politicians whom their colleagues had helped elect. The consulting side hired the hard-edged operative Lee Atwater, notorious for pioneering race-baiting tactics on behalf of Strom Thurmond. “We’re getting into servicing what we sell,” Atwater told his friends. Just as imagined, the firm’s political clients (Jesse Helms, Phil Gramm, Arlen Specter) became reliable warhorses when the firm needed them to promote the agendas of its corporate clients. With this evolution of the profession, the effectiveness and influence of lobbying grew in tandem.
In 1984, the firm reached across the aisle. It made a partner of Peter Kelly, a former finance chairman of the Democratic National Committee, who had earned the loyalty of lawmakers by raising millions for their campaigns. Some members of the firm worked for Democratic Senate candidates in Louisiana, Vermont, and Florida, even as operatives down the hall worked for their Republican foes. “People said, ‘It’s un-American,’ ” Kelly told me. “ ‘They can’t lose. They have both sides.’ I kept saying, ‘How is it un-American to win?’ ” This sense of invincibility permeated the lobbying operation too. When Congress passed tax-reform legislation in 1986, the firm managed to get one special rule inserted that saved Chrysler-Mitsubishi $58 million; it wrangled another clause that reaped Johnson & Johnson $38 million in savings. Newsweek pronounced the firm “the hottest shop in town.”
Demand for its services rose to such heights that the firm engineered a virtual lock on the 1988 Republican primary. Atwater became the chief strategist for George H. W. Bush; Black worked with Bob Dole; Stone advised Jack Kemp. A congressional staffer joked to Time, “Why have primaries for the nomination? Why not have the candidates go over to Black, Manafort and Stone and argue it out?” Manafort cultivated this perception. In response to a questionnaire in The Washington Times, he declared Machiavelli the person he would most like to meet.
Despite his young age, Manafort projected the sort of confidence that inspires others to have confidence, a demeanor often likened to that of a news anchor. “He is authoritative, and you never see a chink in the armor,” one of his longtime deputies, Philip Griffin, told me. Manafort wrote well, especially in proposals to prospective clients, and excelled at thinking strategically. Name-dropping never substituted for concrete steps that would bolster a client. “If politics has done anything, it’s taught us to treat everything as a campaign,” he once declared. He toiled for clients with unflagging intensity. His wife once quipped, according to the text messages, that Andrea was conceived between conference calls. He “hung up the phone, looked at his watch, and said, ‘Okay, we have 20 minutes until the next one,’ ” Andrea wrote to her then-fiancé.
The firm exuded the decadent spirit of the 1980s. Each year, it hosted a golf outing called Boodles, after the gin brand. “It would have to move almost every year, because we weren’t invited back,” John Donaldson, an old friend of Manafort’s who worked at the firm, says. “A couple of women in the firm complained that they weren’t ever invited. I told them they didn’t want to be.” As the head of the firm’s “social committee,” Manafort would supply a theme for the annual gatherings. His masterwork was a three-year progression: “Excess,” followed by “Exceed Excess,” capped by “Excess Is Best.”
Partners at the firm let it be known to The Washington Post that they each intended to take home at least $450,000 in 1986 (a little more than $1 million today). “All of a sudden they came into a lot of money, and I don’t think any of them were used to earning the money that we were earning,” Kelly said. Senior partners were given luxury cars and a membership to the country club of their choosing. Manafort would fly the Concorde to Europe and back as if it were the Acela to New York. “I must confess,” Atwater swooned to The Washington Post, “after four years on a government payroll, I’m delighted with my new life style.”
The firm hired kids straight out of college—“wheel men” in the office vernacular—to drive the partners around town. When Roger Stone’s old hero, Richard Nixon, came to Washington, the wheel men would shuttle him about.
Many of these young associates would eventually climb the firm’s ladder, and were often dispatched to manage campaigns on the firm’s behalf. Climbing the ladder, however, in most cases required passing what came to be known as Manafort’s “loyalty tests”—challenging tasks that strayed outside the boundaries of standard professional commitment and demonstrated the control that Manafort expected to exert over the associates’ lives. At the last minute, he might ask a staffer to entertain his visiting law-school buddies, never mind that the staffer had never met them before. For one Saint Patrick’s Day party, he gave two junior staffers 24 hours to track down a plausible impersonator of Billy Barty, the 3-foot-9-inch actor who made movies with Mickey Rooney and Chevy Chase—which they did. “This was in the days before the internet,” one of them told me. “Can you imagine how hard that was?”
IV. Man of the World
By the 1990s, the double-digit list of registered lobbyists that Tommy Boggs had joined back in 1967 had swelled to more than 10,000. Black, Manafort, Stone and Kelly had greatly abetted that transformation, and stood to profit from the rising flood of corporate money into the capital. But by then, domestic politics had begun to feel a little small, a bit too unexotic, for Paul Manafort, whom Charlie Black described to me as a self-styled “adventurer.”
Manafort had long befriended ambitious young diplomats at the trailhead to power, including Prince Bandar bin Sultan Al Saud, then the Saudi ambassador to Washington. When Bandar attended the 1984 Republican National Convention, Manafort dedicated a small group of advance men to smooth his way. Manafort arranged for Bandar to arrive at the presidential entrance, then had him whisked to seats in the vice-presidential box.
Foreign lobbying had certainly existed before the ’80s, but it was limited in scale and operated under a penumbra of suspicion. Just before World War II, Congress had passed the Foreign Agents Registration Act, largely in response to the campaigns orchestrated by Ivy Lee, an American publicist hired by the German Dye Trust to soften the image of the Third Reich. Congress hadn’t outlawed influence peddling on behalf of foreign interests, but the practice sat on the far fringes of K Street.
Paul Manafort helped change that. The Reagan administration had remade the contours of the Cold War, stepping up the fight against communism worldwide by funding and training guerrilla armies and right-wing military forces, such as the Nicaraguan contras and the Afghan mujahideen. This strategy of military outsourcing—the Reagan Doctrine—aimed to overload the Soviet Union with confrontations that it couldn’t sustain.
All of the money Congress began spending on anti-communist proxies represented a vast opportunity. Iron-fisted dictators and scruffy commandants around the world hoped for a share of the largesse. To get it, they needed help refining their image, so that Congress wouldn’t look too hard at their less-than-liberal tendencies. Other lobbyists sought out authoritarian clients, but none did so with the focused intensity of Black, Manafort, Stone and Kelly. The firm would arrange for image-buffing interviews on American news programs; it would enlist allies in Congress to unleash money. Back home, it would help regimes acquire the whiff of democratic legitimacy that would bolster their standing in Washington.
The firm won clients because it adeptly marketed its ties to the Reagan administration, and then the George H. W. Bush administration after that. In one proposal, reported in The New York Times in 1988, the firm advertised its “personal relationships” with officials and promised to “upgrade” back channels “in the economic and foreign policy spheres.” No doubt it helped to have a friend in James Baker, especially after he became the secretary of state under Bush. “Baker would send the firm clients,” Kelly remembered. “He wanted us to help lead these guys in a better direction.”
But moral improvement never really figured into Manafort’s calculus. “Generally speaking, I would focus on how to bring the client in sync with western European or American values,” Kelly told me. “Paul took the opposite approach.” (Kelly and Manafort have not spoken in recent years; the former supported Hillary Clinton in the last presidential campaign.) In her memoir, Riva Levinson, a managing director at the firm from 1985 to 1995, wrote that when she protested to her boss that she needed to believe in what she was doing, Manafort told her that it would “be my downfall in this business.” The firm’s client base grew to include dictatorial governments in Nigeria, Kenya, Zaire, Equatorial Guinea, Saudi Arabia, and Somalia, among others. Manafort’s firm was a primary subject of scorn in a 1992 report issued by the Center for Public Integrity called “The Torturers’ Lobby.”
The firm’s international business accelerated when the Philippines became a client, in 1985. President Ferdinand Marcos desperately needed a patina of legitimacy: The 1983 assassination of the chief opposition leader, Benigno Aquino Jr., had imperiled U.S. congressional support for his regime. Marcos hired Manafort to lift his image; his wife, Imelda, personally delivered an initial payment of $60,000 to the firm while on a trip to the States. When Marcos called a snap election to prove his democratic bona fides in 1986, Manafort told Time, “What we’ve tried to do is make it more of a Chicago-style election and not Mexico’s.” The quip was honest, if unintentionally so. In the American political lexicon, Chicago-style elections were generally synonymous with mass voter fraud. The late pollster Warren Mitofsky traveled to the Philippines with CBS News to set up and conduct an exit poll for the election. When he returned, he told the political scientist Sam Popkin the story of how a representative of Manafort’s firm had asked him, “What sort of margin might make a Marcos victory legitimate?” The implication was clear, Popkin told me: “How do we rig this thing and still satisfy the Americans?”
The firm’s most successful right-wing makeover was of the Angolan guerrilla leader Jonas Savimbi, a Maoist turned anti-communist insurgent, whose army committed atrocities against children and conscripted women into sexual slavery. During the general’s 1986 trip to New York and Washington, Manafort and his associates created what one magazine called “Savimbi Chic.” Dressed in a Nehru suit, Savimbi was driven around in a stretch limousine and housed in the Waldorf-Astoria and the Grand Hotel, projecting an image of refinement. The firm had assiduously prepared him for the mission, sending him monthly reports on the political climate in Washington. According to The Washington Post, “He was meticulously coached on everything from how to answer his critics to how to compliment his patrons.” Savimbi emerged from his tour as a much-championed “freedom fighter.” When the neoconservative icon Jeane Kirkpatrick introduced Savimbi at the American Enterprise Institute, she declared that he was a “linguist, philosopher, poet, politician, warrior … one of the few authentic heroes of our time.”
This was a racket—Savimbi paid the firm $600,000 in 1985 alone—that Black, Manafort, Stone and Kelly did its best to keep alive; the firm’s own business was tied to Savimbi’s continued rebellion against Angola’s leftist regime. As the country stood on the brink of peace talks in the late ’80s, after nearly 15 years of bloody civil war, the firm helped secure fresh batches of arms for its client, emboldening Savimbi to push forward with his military campaign. Former Senator Bill Bradley wrote in his memoir, “When Gorbachev pulled the plug on Soviet aid to the Angolan government, we had absolutely no reason to persist in aiding Savimbi. But by then he had hired an effective Washington lobbying firm.” The war continued for more than a decade, killing hundreds of thousands of Angolans.
V. The Family Business
“Paul’s not especially ideological,” his former partner Charlie Black told me recently. Many of Manafort’s colleagues at Black, Manafort, Stone and Kelly professed to believe in the conservative catechism. Words like freedom and liberty flowed through their everyday musings. But Manafort seldom spoke of first principles or political ideals. He descends from a different kind of political lineage, and in his formative experience one can see the makings of his worldview.
Back in the ’60s, Manafort’s hometown, New Britain, Connecticut, was known as Hardware City. It housed the factory that turned out Stanley tools and was a tangle of ethnic enclaves—Poles, Italians, Irish, Ukrainians. Nancy Johnson, who served New Britain in Congress, told me that when she arrived in the city during those years, she couldn’t believe how little it interacted with the outside world. “It was a small city and very ingrown. When my kids were in high school, the number of their classmates who hadn’t been to Hartford was stunning.” Hartford, the state capital, is a 15-minute drive from New Britain.
In 1919, not long after the Manaforts emigrated from Naples, the family founded a demolition company, New Britain House Wrecking, which eventually became Manafort Brothers, a force in local construction. When Manafort’s father, Paul Sr., ran for mayor in 1965, he was a lonely Republican attempting to seize a blue bastion. But he had the schmoozing gene, as well as an unmistakable fierceness. Paul Carver, a former New Britain City Council member and a protégé of the old man, told me, “It was like going to the bar with your grandfather. He would stick his hand out and buy a round of drinks. He knew almost everybody in town.” Paul Jr., known as P.J. to his friends, idolized his dad, plunging himself into the campaign, whose success he would decades later describe as “magic.” Over the years, he would remain a devoted son. All the partners in his firm came to know his father, running into him at parties that P.J. hosted in his Mount Vernon, Virginia, home. “He was dedicated to him,” Nancy Johnson told me.
The elder Manafort’s outsize capacity for charm made him the sort of figure whose blemishes tend to be wiped from public memory. But in 1981, he was charged with perjury for testimony that he had provided in a municipal corruption investigation. New Britain police had been accused of casting a blind eye toward illegal gambling in the city—and of tampering with evidence to protect Joseph “Pippi” Guerriero, a member of the DeCavalcante crime family.
Several investigations into the tampering drilled through New Britain’s rotten government. The most devastating report came from Palmer McGee, a Hartford lawyer hired by New Britain to sort through its muck. In his findings, he pointed a finger straight at Manafort Sr., calling him the person “most at fault.” According to the testimony of a whistle-blower, Manafort had flatly announced that he wanted to hire someone “flexible” to manage his personnel office, a place that would “not [be] 100 percent by the rules.” The whistle-blower also testified that he had delivered an envelope to Manafort’s home containing the answers to the exam that aspiring police officers had to pass—and that Manafort had given it to two candidates via a relative. Manafort never denied receiving the envelope but insisted that he’d merely asked for “boning-up materials.”
A statute of limitations precluded prosecutors from filing charges against Manafort for the alleged crime of test-fixing—and ultimately he was never convicted of perjury. But his arrest caused the Hartford Courant to compile a list of dealings that reflected badly on him: “Throughout his more than twenty years in public life, he has been the focus of controversy, and several accusations of wrongdoing.” The litany includes a complaint with the Department of Housing and Urban Development accusing him of steering contracts to Manafort Brothers, whose stock he still owned while mayor. When investors from Florida built a jai alai arena in Bridgeport—using the Teamsters’ pension fund to finance the project—Manafort had “improperly” finagled its environmental permit. His family business had then inflated the fees for its work on the arena so that cash could be kicked back to the Teamsters. (The business admitted to inflating its fees, but a grand jury declined to issue an indictment.) Even before this scandal broke, a former mayor of New Britain blasted Manafort for behavior that “violates the very essence of morality.”
Conventional wisdom suggests that the temptations of Washington, D.C., corrupt all the idealists, naïfs, and ingenues who settle there. But what if that formulation gets the causation backwards? What if it took an outsider to debase the capital and create the so-called swamp? When Paul Manafort Jr. broke the rules, when he operated outside of a moral code, he was really following the example he knew best. As he later said of his work with his father in an interview with a local Connecticut paper, “Some of the skills that I learned there I still use today … That’s where I cut my teeth.”
VI. Al Assir
By the late 1980s, Manafort had a new friend from abroad, whom he mentioned to his partners more than any other, an arms dealer from Lebanon named Abdul Rahman Al Assir. “His name kept popping up,” Peter Kelly remembered. While Al Assir never rated much attention in the American press, he had a familial connection who did. He was, for a time, the brother-in-law of the Saudi arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi, the middleman used in the arms-for-hostages scheme that became the Iran-Contra scandal. In the early ’80s, Khashoggi was worth $4 billion; his biography, published in 1986, was titled The Richest Man in the World. At the height of his wealth, Khashoggi spent $250,000 a day to maintain his lifestyle—which reportedly included a dozen houses, 1,000 suits, a $70 million yacht, and a customized airplane, which has been described as a “flying Las Vegas discotheque.”
Al Assir was the Khashoggi empire’s representative in Spain and a broker of big weapons sales to African armies. He’d ensconced himself among the rich and famous, the set that skied in Gstaad, Switzerland, and summered in the south of France. The London-based Arabic-language magazine Sourakia wrote, “The miracle of Al Assir is that he will have lunch with Don Juan Carlos [the king of Spain], dinner with Hassan II [the king of Morocco], and breakfast the next day with Felipe González [the prime minister of Spain].”
Manafort suggested to his partners that Al Assir might help connect the firm to clients around the world. He wanted to increase the firm’s global reach. Manafort’s exploration of the outermost moral frontiers of the influence business had already exposed him to kleptocrats, thugs, and other dubious characters. But none of these relationships imprinted themselves more deeply than his friendship and entrepreneurial partnership with Al Assir. By the ’90s, the two had begun to put together big deals. One of the more noteworthy was an arms sale they helped broker between France and Pakistan, lubricated by bribes and kickbacks involving high-level officials in both countries, that eventually led to murder allegations.
It all arguably began with a 1993 dinner hosted by Manafort in his Virginia home and attended by Pakistan’s prime minister, Benazir Bhutto. Bhutto had just returned to power after three years in the opposition, and Manafort badly wanted her business. She knew of him as a skilled manipulator of public opinion, and throughout the meal, Manafort displayed his most strategic, most charming self. One former Pakistani official who attended the dinner told me that Bhutto came away determined to make use of his services. She suggested that Manafort work with the Pakistani intelligence service. Spooks in Islamabad had observed the international rush to hire Washington lobbyists, and they had been clamoring for one of their own.
At about that same time, Pakistan was looking to upgrade its submarine fleet, and European arms contractors raced to hawk their wares. In the end, France’s state-owned manufacturer won the contract—and Al Assir was added as an intermediary at the last minute. An ensuing scandal that is still unfolding, some 20 years later, would entangle both Al Assir and Manafort. It entailed alleged kickbacks into the 1995 presidential campaign of Édouard Balladur, apparently arranged by the French defense minister. Al Assir seems to have been a key conduit of the kickbacks. Years later, in 2002, a car bomb went off in Karachi, killing 11 French naval engineers in transit to the shipyard where the submarines were being assembled, along with three Pakistanis. One theory, fervently supported by some of the engineers’ families, holds that the bombing was orchestrated by Pakistani officials who were disgruntled that the bribes promised to them as part of the deal had never arrived.
Manafort was not a central figure in this scandal, and was never charged with any wrongdoing. But as the former Pakistani official told me, “He was an introducer—and he received a fee for his part.” Documents show that Manafort earned at least $272,000 as a consultant to the Balladur campaign, although, as Manafort later conceded to French investigators, it was Al Assir who actually paid him. (Balladur has denied any wrongdoing and doesn’t recall Manafort working for him. Al Assir could not be reached for comment on this story.)
Manafort and Al Assir were more than business partners. “They were very brotherly,” one mutual acquaintance of theirs told me. Manafort took Al Assir as his guest to George H. W. Bush’s inauguration, in 1989. When Al Assir and his second wife had a child, Manafort became the godfather. Their families vacationed together near Cannes. Al Assir introduced Manafort to an aristocratic world that exceeded anything he had ever known. “There’s money, and there’s really big money,” a friend of Manafort’s told me. “Paul became aware of the difference between making $300,000 and $5 million. He discovered the south of France. Al Assir would show him how to live that life.”
Colleagues at Black, Manafort, Stone and Kelly noticed changes that accompanied the flowering of the friendship. Manafort’s sartorial style began to pay homage to Al Assir, with flourishes of the European dandy. Suddenly he started wearing unconventional shirts and suede loafers without socks. In the firm’s early years, Manafort had been a fixture of the office, a general presiding over his headquarters. But now he frequently flew off to France or Spain, collaborating with Al Assir on projects that remained a mystery to his subordinates, and even to his partners. “Paul went off on different foreign things that none of us knew about,” Peter Kelly told me.
Manafort’s lifestyle came to feature opulent touches that stood out amid the relative fustiness of Washington. When Andrea expressed an interest in horseback riding, Manafort bought a farm near Palm Beach, then stocked it with specially bred horses imported from Ireland, which required a full-time staff to tend. John Donaldson, Manafort’s friend, recalls, “He was competing with the Al Assirs of the world—and he wanted to live in that lifestyle.”
There were always suspicions among Manafort’s colleagues in the firm that he was making money for himself without regard for his partners. Al Assir’s occasional appearance in the international press lent these suspicions weight. One deal brokered by Al Assir helped crash a private bank in Lisbon. In 2002, he and Manafort persuaded the bank to invest 57 million euros in a Puerto Rican biometrics company. According to reporting by the Portuguese newspaper Observador, Manafort was the lead American investor in the company; his involvement helped justify the bank’s investment, despite evidence of the company’s faulty products and lax accounting. Al Assir is alleged to have extracted bloated commissions from the deal and to have pocketed some of the bank’s loans. Manafort reportedly made $1.5 million selling his shares of the biometrics firm before the company eventually came tumbling down.
Stories about Manafort’s slipperiness have acquired mythic status. In the summer of 2016, Politico’s Kenneth Vogel, now with The New York Times, wrote a rigorous exegesis of a long-standing rumor: Manafort was said to have walked away with $10 million in cash from Ferdinand Marcos, money he promised he would deliver to Ronald Reagan’s reelection campaign (which itself would have been illegal). Vogel relied in part on the 1996 memoir of Ed Rollins, a Republican consultant and Reagan’s reelection-campaign director. In the book, Rollins recounted a dinner-party conversation with a member of the Filipino congress who claimed to have personally given a suitcase of cash to a “well-known Washington power lobbyist” involved in the Marcos campaign. Rollins would neither confirm nor deny that the lobbyist was Manafort, though his description doesn’t leave much uncertainty, and he conceded in an email that “it’s a pretty good guess.” Rollins admits in his book to being “stunned” by what he heard—“not in a state of total disbelief, though, because I knew the lobbyist well and I had no doubt the money was now in some offshore bank.” This irked Rollins greatly: “I ran the [Reagan] campaign for $75,000 a year, and this guy got $10 million in cash.”
Manafort has always denied Rollins’s insinuation—“old stuff that never had any legs,” he told Vogel. And as a practical matter, it’s hard to imagine that anyone could stuff $10 million in a suitcase. Still, Vogel found a raft of circumstantial evidence that suggested the plausibility of the tale. When I asked Manafort’s former colleagues about the apocrypha, they couldn’t confirm the story. But some didn’t struggle to imagine it might be true, either. Even though John Donaldson doubts the veracity of the tale, he told me that it persists because it reflects Manafort’s ethics. “I know how Paul would view it. Paul would sit there and say, ‘These guys can’t get access to Reagan. I can get them access to Reagan. They want to give $10 million to Reagan. Reagan can’t take $10 million. I’ll take the $10 million. They think they’ll be getting their influence. Everybody’s happy.’ ”
Another alumnus of Manafort’s firm answered my questions about the Marcos money with an anecdote. After the election of George H. W. Bush, Black, Manafort, Stone and Kelly agreed to help organize the inauguration festivities. The firm commissioned a company from Rhode Island to sell memorabilia on the parade route—T-shirts, buttons, and the like. After crews had taken down the reviewing stand and swept up the debris, the alumnus recalled, a vendor showed up in the office with a bag full of cash. To the disbelief of his colleague, Manafort had arranged to take his own cut. “It was a Paul tax,” the former employee told me. “I guess he needed a new deck. But this was classic: Somebody else does the work, and he walks away with the bag of cash.”
Colleagues suspected the worst about Manafort because they had observed his growing mania for accumulating property, how he’d bought second, third, and fourth homes. “He would buy a house without ever seeing it,” one former colleague told me. His Hamptons estate came with a putting green, a basketball court, a pool, and gardens. “He believed that suckers stay out of debt,” the colleague told me. His unrestrained spending and pile of debt required a perpetual search for bigger paydays and riskier ventures.
In 1991, Black, Manafort, Stone and Kelly was purchased by the mega public-affairs firm Burson-Marsteller, the second-largest agency in the world. It was a moment of consolidation in the industry, where the biggest players came to understand how much money could be made from the model that Manafort had created. But nearly as soon as Burson acquired the firm, Tom Bell, the head of its Washington office, began to notice the ways in which Manafort hadn’t played by the rules. He’d been operating as a freelancer, working on projects that never went to the bottom line. In 1995, Manafort left Burson. Taking a handful of colleagues with him, he started a new firm—Davis, Manafort and Freedman—and a new chapter, one that would see him enter the sphere of the Kremlin.
VII. The Master of Kiev
During the 1980s and ’90s, an arms dealer had stood at the pinnacle of global wealth. In the new century, post-Soviet oligarchs climbed closer to that position. Manafort’s ambitions trailed that shift. His new firm found its way to a fresh set of titans, with the help of an heir to an ancient fortune.
In 2003, Rick Davis, a partner in Manafort’s new firm, was invited to the office of a hedge fund in Midtown Manhattan. The summons didn’t reveal the name of the man requesting his presence. When Davis arrived, he found himself pumping the hand of the Honorable Nathaniel Philip Victor James Rothschild, the British-born financier known as Nat. Throughout his young career, Nat had fascinated the London press with his love interests, his residences, and his shrewd investments. For his 40th birthday, he threw himself a legendary party in the Balkan state of Montenegro, which reportedly cost well over $1 million—a three-day festival of hedonism, with palm trees imported from Uruguay.
Russian oligarchs were drawn to Rothschild, whose name connoted power—and he to them. “He likes this wild world,” Anders Åslund, a friend of Rothschild’s, told me. Rothschild invested heavily in post-communist economies and became a primary adviser (and a friend) to the young Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska.
Rothschild and Deripaska fed off each other’s grand ambitions. Like a pair of old imperialists, they imagined new, sympathetic governments across eastern Europe that would accommodate and protect their investments. Their project required the type of expertise that Manafort had spent years accumulating. In 2004, Rothschild hired Manafort’s new firm to resurrect the influence of an exiled Georgian politician, a former KGB operative and friend of Deripaska’s then living in Moscow. This made for a heavy lift because the operative had recently been accused in court as a central plotter in a conspiracy to assassinate the country’s president, Eduard Shevardnadze. (He denied involvement.) The rehabilitation scheme never fully developed, but a few years later, Rick Davis triumphantly managed a referendum campaign that resulted in the independence of Montenegro—an effort that Deripaska funded with the hope of capturing the country’s aluminum industry.
Deripaska’s interests were not only financial. He was always looking to curry favor with the Russian state. An August 2007 email sent by Lauren Goodrich, an analyst for the global intelligence firm Stratfor, and subsequently posted on WikiLeaks, described Deripaska boasting to her about how he had set himself up “to be indispensable to Putin and the Kremlin.” This made good business sense, since he had witnessed the Kremlin expropriate the vast empires of oligarchs such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky who’d dared to challenge Putin. In fact, the Kremlin came to consider Deripaska an essential proxy. When the United States denied Deripaska a visa, the Russians handed him a diplomatic passport, which permitted him to make his way to Washington and New York.
Manafort understood how highly Deripaska valued his symbiotic relationship with the Kremlin. According to the Associated Press, he pitched a contract in 2005, proposing that Deripaska finance an effort to “influence politics, business dealings and news coverage inside the United States, Europe and former Soviet Republics to benefit President Vladimir Putin’s government.” (Deripaska says he never took Manafort up on this proposal.)
The Kremlin’s grip on its old Soviet sphere was especially precarious in the early aughts. President George W. Bush’s democratic agenda espoused an almost messianic sense of how the United States could unleash a new age of freedom. The grandiloquent American rhetoric posed an existential threat to entrenched rulers of the region who were friendly to Russia, and who had become rich by plundering state resources. Suddenly, the threat of democratic revolution no longer felt theoretical.
The risks of popular uprising were very much on Rothschild’s and Deripaska’s minds during the last months of 2004, when they handed Manafort a specific task. Ukraine had descended into political crisis, one that jeopardized business interests they’d already developed in the country (Rothschild had various private-equity investments; Deripaska had an aluminum smelter). They sent Manafort to Kiev to understand how they might minimize the dangers.
Of all Paul Manafort’s foreign adventures, Ukraine most sustained his attention, ultimately to the exclusion of his other business. The country’s politics are hardly as simple as commonly portrayed; corruption extends its tentacles into all the major parties. Still, the narrative of Manafort’s time in Ukraine isn’t terribly complicated. He worked on behalf of a clique of former gangsters from the country’s east, oligarchs who felt linguistic and cultural affinity to Russia, and who wanted political control of the entire nation. When Manafort arrived, the candidate of this clique, Viktor Yanukovych, was facing allegations that he had tried to rig the 2004 presidential election with fraud and intimidation, and possibly by poisoning his opponent with dioxin. He lost the election anyway, despite having imported a slew of consultants from Moscow. After that humiliating defeat, Yanukovych and the oligarchs who’d supported him were desperate for a new guru.
By the time Manafort first entertained the possibility of working with Yanukovych, the defeated candidate had just returned to Kiev following a brief self-imposed exile at a Czech resort. They met at an old movie palace that had been converted into the headquarters for his political organization, the Party of Regions. When Manafort entered the grandiose building, the place was a mausoleum and Yanukovych a pariah. “People avoided him,” Philip Griffin said. “He was radioactive.”
Manafort groomed Yanukovych to resemble, well, himself. Åslund, who had advised the Ukrainian government on economic policy, told me, “Yanukovych and Manafort are almost exactly the same size. So they are big, tall men. He got Yanukovych to wear the same suits as he did and to comb the hair backwards as he does.” Yanukovych had been wooden in public and in private, but “Manafort taught him how to smile and how to do small talk.” And he did it all quietly, “from a back seat. He did it very elegantly.”
He also directed Yanukovych’s party to harp on a single theme each week—say, the sorry condition of pensioners. These were not the most-sophisticated techniques, but they had never been deployed in Ukraine. Yanukovych was proud of his American turn. After he hired Manafort, he invited U.S. Ambassador John Herbst to his office, placed a binder containing Manafort’s strategy in front of him, and announced, “I’m going with Washington.”
Manafort often justified his work in Ukraine by arguing that he hoped to guide the country toward Europe and the West. But his polling data suggested that Yanukovych should accentuate cultural divisions in the country, playing to the sense of victimization felt by Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine. And sure enough, his clients railed against nato expansion. When a U.S. diplomat discovered a rabidly anti-American speech on the Party of Regions’ website, Manafort told him, “But it isn’t on the English version.”
Yanukovych’s party succeeded in the parliamentary elections beyond all expectations, and the oligarchs who’d funded it came to regard Manafort with immense respect. As a result, Manafort began spending longer spans of time in Ukraine. One of his greatest gifts as a businessman was his audacity, and his Ukrainian benefactors had amassed enormous fortunes. The outrageous amounts that Manafort billed, sums far greater than any he had previously received, seemed perfectly normal. An associate of Manafort’s described the system this way: “Paul would ask for a big sum,” Yanukovych would approve it, and then his chief of staff “would go to the other oligarchs and ask them to kick in. ‘Hey, you need to pay a million.’ They would complain, but Yanukovych asked, so they would give.”
When Yanukovych won the presidency in 2010, he gave Manafort “walk in” privileges, allowing him to stroll into the inner sanctum of the presidential offices at any time. Yanukovych could be bullheaded, and as his presidency progressed, he increasingly cut himself off from advisers. Manafort, however, knew how to change Yanukovych’s mind, using polling and political arguments to make his case. Oleg Voloshyn, a former spokesman in the foreign-affairs ministry, told me that his own boss, the foreign minister, eventually turned to Manafort to carry messages and make arguments regarding foreign-policy priorities on his behalf. “Yanukovych would listen to him,” Voloshyn told me, “when our arguments were ignored.”
VIII. A Reversal of Fortune
Before everything exploded in Ukraine, Manafort saw the country as his golden land, the greatest of his opportunities. But his role as adviser, as powerful as it was, never quite matched his own buccaneering sense of self. After spending so much time in the company of Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs, he set out to become an oligarch himself. Rick Davis declared their firm to be mostly “in the deal business,” according to James Harding’s 2008 book, Alpha Dogs: The Americans Who Turned Political Spin Into a Global Business. “The thing I love,” Davis said, “is that the political elites and the economic elites in every other country but the United States of America are the same.” The elected officials and the people “running the elections are the richest people in the country, who own all the assets.”
In 2006, Rick Gates, who’d begun as a wheel man at the old firm, arrived in Kiev. (Gates did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this article.) Manafort placed him at the helm of a new private-equity firm he’d created called Pericles. He intended to raise $200 million to bankroll investments in Ukraine and Russia. “It was a virgin market in virtually any industry you wanted to pick up,” Philip Griffin told me.
Manafort had always intended to rely on financing from Oleg Deripaska to fund Pericles. In 2007, Manafort persuaded him to commit $100 million to the project, a sum that would have hardly made a dent in the oligarch’s fortune. On the eve of the 2008 global financial crisis, he was worth $28 billion.
Deripaska handed his money to Paul Manafort because he trusted him. Manafort repeatedly traveled to the oligarch’s Moscow office, where they would sit for hours and tour the business and political horizon of the former Eastern Bloc. Deripaska had become a billionaire in his 30s, and acquired the noisy pretensions of young wealth. He wanted to become the global face of Russia, he said. But that would require overcoming the reputation that stalked him, and Manafort could help. In 2001, before Manafort and Deripaska met, the World Economic Forum in Davos had withdrawn its invitation to the oligarch, as a court examined his alleged misdeeds in the course of erecting his empire. (The case was eventually dismissed.) Five years after the Davos rejection, Rick Davis shepherded Deripaska around the elite confab, taking him to a party brimming with U.S. senators, including John McCain.
For Pericles’s first deal, Manafort used Deripaska’s money to buy a telecommunications firm in Odessa called Chorne More (“Black Seas,” in English) at a cost of $18.9 million. He also charged a staggering $7.35 million in management fees for overseeing the venture.
But months after the Chorne More purchase, the 2008 financial crisis hit, gutting Deripaska’s net worth. It plummeted so far that he needed a $4.5 billion bailout from the Russian state bank to survive. The loan included an interest payment in the form of abject humiliation: Putin traveled to one of Deripaska’s factories and berated him on television.
As Deripaska’s world came crashing down, his representatives asked Manafort to liquidate Pericles and give him back his fair share. Manafort had little choice but to agree. But that promise never translated to action. An audit of Chorne More that Rick Gates said was under way likewise never materialized. Then, in 2011, Manafort stopped responding to Deripaska’s investment team altogether.
Deripaska wouldn’t let go of the notion that Manafort owed him money. In 2015, his lawyers filed a motion in a Virginia court. They wanted the authority to track down more information on the deal, even though the initial papers for it had been filed in the Cayman Islands. The lawyers had already managed to get their hands on some of the documentation surrounding the deal, and they had extracted a belated explanation of what had happened from Gates. According to a spokeswoman for Deripaska, Gates said that Chorne More had defaulted on a $1 million loan that it had taken out to pay for capital expenditures, allegedly forfeiting the partnership’s entire investment in the process. This explanation struck Deripaska’s lawyers as wildly implausible. Deripaska began to publicly doubt whether Manafort had even bought the telecommunications company in the first place. “At present it seems that the Partnership never acquired any of the Chorne More entities,” his lawyers argued.
All of the papers for the initial deal had included Rick Davis’s name. They suggested that he would serve as Manafort’s partner, and that shares would be divided evenly between the two. But Davis knew nothing of the Chorne More deal. While Manafort had been putting together Pericles, Davis had been on leave from Davis, Manafort and Freedman, running John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign. Because Davis’s connections to Manafort and Deripaska had caused him a public-relations headache at the outset of the campaign, he’d kept a healthy distance from both men. When Deripaska’s lawyers asked him about the money he supposedly owed their client, Davis was gobsmacked. He soon discovered that Manafort had also registered a new company—Davis Manafort International—to continue trading on the old firm’s name, while cutting him out of consulting fees. Upon returning from the campaign, and witnessing the extent to which Manafort had abused his trust, Davis left the firm they had created together.
Deripaska’s attorneys had leveled a serious allegation—and true to his pattern, Manafort never filed a response. Those who have known Manafort the longest suggest that this reflects his tendency to run away from personal crises: “He’ll get on a jet and fly off to Hawaii—and will come back when everything blows over,” an old colleague told me, recalling Manafort’s response to a scandal in the late ’80s. But it was one thing to hide from reporters; it was another to hide from Oleg Deripaska. Though no longer the ninth-richest man in the world, he was still extremely powerful.
The fact is that by then, Manafort’s options were tightly limited: Despite all the riches he had collected in Ukraine, it is unlikely that he could have paid Deripaska back. For years, according to his indictment, Manafort had found clever ways to transfer money that he’d stashed in foreign havens to the U.S. He’d used it to buy real estate, antique rugs, and fancy suits—all relatively safe vehicles for repatriating cash without paying taxes or declaring the manner in which it had been earned.
But in the summer of 2014, in the wake of the revolution that deposed Viktor Yanukovych, the FBI began scrutinizing the strongman’s finances. Manafort had stuck with Yanukovych as the president had initiated criminal investigations of his political opponents, opened the government’s coffers to his cronies, and turned his country away from Europe and toward Russia. He’d stuck with him to the gruesome end, amid growing popular unrest—right up to the slaughter of more than 100 protesters by government forces on the Maidan. He’d remained faithful to Yanukovych while large swathes of the strongman’s circle abandoned him. Perhaps living so long in moral gray zones had eroded Manafort’s capacity to appreciate the kind of ruler Yanukovych was, or the lines he had crossed. (He is now being tried in absentia in Ukraine for high treason, although he has denied any culpability from his perch in Moscow.) The previous December, as protesters had gathered on the Maidan, Manafort had texted his daughter Andrea, “Obama’s approval ratings are lower than [Yanukovych’s] and you don’t see him being ousted.”
The FBI investigation into Yanukovych’s finances came to cover Manafort’s own dealings. Soon after the feds took an interest, interviewing Manafort in July 2014, the repatriations ceased. Meanwhile, Manafort struggled to collect the money owed him by Yanukovych’s cronies. To finance his expensive life, he began taking out loans against his real estate—some $15 million over two years, his indictment says. This is not an uncommon tactic among money launderers—a bank loan allows the launderer to extract clean cash from property purchased with dirty money. But according to the indictment, some of Manafort’s loans were made on the basis of false information supplied to the bank in order to inflate the sums available to him, suggesting the severity of his cash-flow problems. All of these loans would need to be paid back, of course. And one way or another, he would need to settle Deripaska’s bill.
IX. The Prize
“I really need to get to” Trump, Manafort told an old friend, the real-estate magnate Tom Barrack, in the early months of 2016. Barrack, a confidante of Trump for some 40 years, had known Manafort even longer. When Manafort asked for Barrack’s help grabbing Trump’s attention, he readily supplied it.
Manafort’s spell in the Arizona clinic had ended. It hadn’t been a comfortable stay. After having acquired so many properties of his own, he had been forced to share a room with another patient, according to Andrea’s texts. Despite his reticence about his private life, he’d spent his days in group therapy—and he claimed that it had changed him. “I have a real self awareness of why I broke down,” he texted her.
Still, most of the proximate causes of his breakdown remained in place. Once an indispensable man, he had not been missed in professional circles. He was without a big-paying client, and held heavy debts. His attempts to prove his entrepreneurial skills had ended as expensive busts. Because of his biggest bust of all, Deripaska was looking for him. “He has too many skeletons,” Andrea had written her sister soon after he had entered the clinic, noting that his work in Ukraine was legally dubious. “Don’t fool yourself,” she had texted Jessica a few months before. “That money we have is blood money.”
She had not forgiven him for his affair. She complained to a cousin about her father’s treatment of her mother. “We keep showing up and eating the lobster,” she wrote. “Nothing changes.” But Manafort’s ability to provide lavishly for his family—a role he had always played, whatever his other failings—had in fact changed. The millions he’d invested in Jessica’s films were gone; so, too, were the millions he’d blown on her then-husband’s real-estate ventures.
With the arrival of Donald Trump, Manafort smelled an opportunity to regain his losses, and to return to relevance. It was, in some ways, perfect: The campaign was a shambolic masterpiece of improvisation that required an infusion of technical knowledge and establishment credibility.
Barrack forwarded to Trump’s team a memo Manafort had written about why he was the ideal match for the ascendant candidate. Old colleagues describe Manafort as a master pitchman with a preternatural ability to read his audience. He told Trump that he had “avoided the political establishment in Washington since 2005,” and described himself as a lifelong enemy of Karl Rove, who represented the entrenched party chieftains conspiring to dynamite Trump’s nomination. In other words, to get back on the inside, Manafort presented himself as the ultimate outsider—a strained case that would strike Trump, and perhaps only Trump, as compelling.
Manafort could write such a calibrated pitch because he had observed Trump over the decades. Back in the ’80s, his firm had represented Trump when the mogul wanted to reroute planes flying over Mar-a-Lago, his resort in Palm Beach. Since 2006, Manafort had kept a pied-à-terre in Trump Tower, where he and Trump had occasionally seen each other and made small talk. This exposure yielded perhaps another crucial insight: Trump’s parsimony. When Manafort offered Trump his services, he resisted his tendency to slap a big price tag on them; he would provide his counsel, he said, free of charge. To his family, Manafort described this decision as a matter of strategy: If Trump viewed him as wealthy, then he would treat him as a near-equal, not as a campaign parasite.
But Manafort must have also believed that money would eventually come, just as it always had, from the influence he would wield in the campaign, and exponentially more so if Trump won. So might other favors and dispensations. These notions were very likely what led him to reach out to Oleg Deripaska almost immediately upon securing a post within the campaign, after having evaded him for years. Through one of his old deputies, a Ukrainian named Konstantin Kilimnik, he sent along press clippings that highlighted his new job. “How do we use to get whole,” Manafort emailed Kilimnik. “Has OVD operation seen?” Manafort’s spokesman has acknowledged that the initials refer to Oleg Vladimirovich Deripaska. In the course of the exchanges, Kilimnik expressed optimism that “we will get back to the original relationship” with the oligarch.
All of Manafort’s hopes, of course, proved to be pure fantasy. Instead of becoming the biggest player in Donald Trump’s Washington, he has emerged as a central villain in its central scandal. An ever-growing pile of circumstantial evidence suggests that the Trump campaign colluded with Russian efforts to turn the 2016 presidential election in its favor. Given Manafort’s long relationship with close Kremlin allies including Yanukovych and Deripaska, and in particular his indebtedness to the latter, it is hard to imagine him as either a naive or passive actor in such a scheme—although Deripaska denies knowledge of any plan by Manafort to get back into his good graces. Manafort was in the room with Donald Trump Jr. when a Russian lawyer and lobbyist descended on Trump Tower in the summer of 2016, promising incriminating material on Hillary Clinton. That same summer, the Trump campaign, with Manafort as its manager, successfully changed the GOP’s platform, watering down support for Ukraine’s pro-Western, post-Yanukovych government, a change welcomed by Russia and previously anathema to Republicans. When the Department of Justice indicted Paul Manafort in October—for failing to register as a foreign agent, for hiding money abroad—its portrait of the man depicted both avarice and desperation, someone who traffics in dark money and dark causes. It seems inevitable, in retrospect, that Robert Mueller, the special counsel, would treat Manafort’s banking practices while in Ukraine as his first subject of public scrutiny, the obvious starting point for his investigation. The sad truth is that all of the damning information contained within the Mueller indictment would have remained submerged if Manafort had withstood the temptation to seek out a role in Trump’s campaign. Even if his record had become known, it would have felt unexceptional: Manafort’s misdeeds, in our current era, would not have seemed so inconsistent with the run of global play.
From both the Panama Papers and the Paradise Papers, vast disclosures illuminating previously hidden offshore accounts of the rich and powerful worldwide, we can see the full extent to which corruption has become the master narrative of our times. We live in a world of smash-and-grab fortunes, amassed through political connections and outright theft. Paul Manafort, over the course of his career, was a great normalizer of corruption. The firm he created in the 1980s obliterated traditional concerns about conflicts of interest. It imported the ethos of the permanent campaign into lobbying and, therefore, into the construction of public policy.
And while Manafort is alleged to have laundered cash for his own benefit, his long history of laundering reputations is what truly sets him apart. He helped persuade the American political elite to look past the atrocities and heists of kleptocrats and goons. He took figures who should have never been permitted influence in Washington and softened their image just enough to guide them past the moral barriers to entry. He weakened the capital’s ethical immune system.
Helping elect Donald Trump, in so many ways, represents the culmination of Paul Manafort’s work. The president bears some likeness to the oligarchs Manafort long served: a businessman with a portfolio of shady deals, who benefited from a cozy relationship to government; a man whose urge to dominate, and to enrich himself, overwhelms any higher ideal. It wasn’t so long ago that Trump would have been decisively rejected as an alien incursion into the realm of public service. And while the cynicism about government that enabled Trump’s rise results from many causes, one of them is the slow transformation of Washington, D.C., into something more like the New Britain, Connecticut, of Paul Manafort’s youth.
Last year, a group of Manafort’s longtime friends, led by an old Republican hand named Bill Greener, tried to organize a cadre of surrogates to defend Manafort from the allegations against him, including the worst one: that he collaborated with a hostile foreign power to subvert the American democratic process. Manafort’s old partner Charlie Black even showed up for a meeting, though the two had largely fallen out of touch. A few of the wheel men from the old firm wanted to help too. Yet, when volunteers were needed to go on TV as character witnesses, nobody raised his hand. “There wasn’t a lot to work with,” one person contacted by this group told me. “And nobody could be sure that Paul didn’t do it.” In fact, everything about the man and the life he chose suggests that he did.
This article appears in the March 2018 print edition with the headline “American Hustler.”
* Due to an editing error, this article originally stated that Paul Manafort had run the Office of Personnel Management. We regret the error.