The more you dig into the story of Paul Manafort, Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman, the more questions you find. To get answers, yesterday, we sat down with Franklin Foer, author of The Atlantic’s March cover story on the globe-trotting lobbyist. Today’s issue presents what Frank knows—and doesn’t know—about foreign lobbying, Manafort’s work in Ukraine, and the ethics of reporting on hacked information.
We took an experimental approach to our conversation with Frank. We presented him with a series of questions about his cover story, and asked him to separate the ones he felt he could answer from the ones that required more research. In the coming days, we will report out some of those lingering questions, and we’ll come back to you with the results.
SoundCloud: Our conversation with Frank wasn’t broadcast live, but you can still listen to a recording of it here on SoundCloud.
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Transcript: You can also read the full transcript of our conversation here.
The Manafort Questions We Can Answer
We asked Frank a lot of questions. Here are his answers, lightly edited for length and clarity.
A double-breasted operation is part political consulting firm, part lobby shop. How does that actually work in practice?
Manafort and his firm had this genius idea that they could create an operation that had a political consulting arm that got politicians elected, and a lobbying arm that would turn around and lobby the very politicians that they'd helped get elected. That's the double-breasted nature of it all, which poses an inherent conflict of interest.
To be a political consultant is a very intimate thing. When you run a campaign, in order to do that effectively, you need to know all the vulnerabilities of your opponent.
Paul Manafort's firm technically set up two different firms, so they had the same principals, and they shared an office space, yet legally, they were organized as two separate entities.
Candidates tend to know what the game is, but the game is not explicit. My hunch is that when you're running for political office, you're not thinking about what happens when you get elected, and so your instinct is to focus on the task at hand, which is winning an election.
Manafort worked for countries as varied as Saudi Arabia, the Philippines, and Nigeria. What makes a country a good prospective client for a lobbyist like him?
First, if you're in one of these countries, odds are you're getting some foreign aid from the United States. You know you need to have a lobbyist on the ground in Washington to help keep that flowing.
Second, you probably are pretty vain. So when a consultant like Paul Manafort comes in and spruces up your image and gets you interviews with famous Western reporters who write fawning profiles in The Washington Post... that feels pretty good.
Also, you have infinite resources to spend on somebody like Paul Manafort, and so if a consultant comes to you and says, "Hey, I can help you with X, Y and Z problem," you think, ‘This is a drop in a bucket for me.’
Was Manafort doing Vladimir Putin’s dirty work when he worked in Ukraine?
Ukraine is divided into two parts. The western part is ethnically Ukrainian, speaks the Ukrainian language, has strong sense of national identity. Then there's an eastern part of the country that identifies more with Russian language and culture. Ukrainian politics was always going to polarize in these two directions.
Manafort steps into the equation in 2004. There's a political candidate called Viktor Yanukovych who comes from eastern Ukraine. When he first runs for president, before Manafort shows up on the scene, all of his political consultants came from Russia. Vladimir Putin reportedly contributed hundreds of millions to his campaign. Russia thought of Ukraine as its backyard and a natural part of its political orbit, and so it was always trying to both commercially and politically win influence there.
That said, the Russian politicians Manafort was working with weren't besties with Putin. They've resented being dictated to by Putin, and there was always some tension.
In 2014, you get to this key moment in Ukraine when the country is about to align with the European Union. Manafort is sincerely pushing them toward the European Union, and then Putin steps in and basically bribes Ukraine to align with Russia. People protest, and it seems like the Russians advised the Ukrainian politicians to massacre the protesters.
This is a way of saying that Putin and Manafort were working basically for the same team. And yet I think it would be a little bit of a stretch to say that he was doing Putin's bidding in that precise sort of way.
When is it appropriate to use stolen personal information in reporting?
Paul Manafort's daughter, Andrea, was an incessant text messenger. A hacktivist collective breached her cell phone and got her text messages, and they posted the messages on the dark web. Some of those messages were prepackaged to convey a political point about Manafort's work in Ukraine—to show that it had been dirty.
Manafort didn't dispute the authenticity of those texts, but then there was this other chunk of text messages that were encrypted and sitting on the dark web. A lot of reporters had them, and they used bits and pieces from them, but there was this hesitancy that most journalists had, and I share, about using purloined material that comes from somebody who really doesn't deserve to be in public view. So I did wrestle with it.
I ultimately made the decision that I was writing a psychological profile of a very important man, and that if I judiciously used those text messages, I could help fill in gaps in the narrative. I did my best to confirm that information elsewhere. We're in a moral gray zone with this material.
And the Manafort Questions We Can’t Answer
Frank didn’t have answers to the following questions. We’re going to do some reporting to see if we can come up with answers to any of these.
What was the lasting impact of U.S. involvement in Angola? In the article, Frank quotes Senator Bill Bradley on the Angolan conflict. Bradley wrote, “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 violence continued for over a decade.
How exactly did Manafort convince journalists to write flattering profiles of his unsavory clients? Was he friends with a bunch of journalists?
How can reporters minimize the incentives for hackers to steal personal information next time? There will be a next time, so what are the best practices?
Do the Young Republicans still have as much political influence 40 years later? In his story, Frank notes that control over the group was “a genuine prize” in the late 1970’s. What’s happened since then?
What sort of impact has the Manafort indictment had on the culture of Washington? “Manafort getting busted seems like a pretty big deal for Washington,” Frank said during our conversation. “Nobody ever gets busted for violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act, except for Manafort. Will anything actually change as a result of his indictment?”
Today’s Wrap Up
Question of the Day: One question that came up in our interview is too big for us to answer: “What will it take to root out the kind of Washington corruption that Paul Manafort participates in?” Can you help us out? We’d welcome any expertise or reading recommendations you can share with us. Just reply to this email.
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- What’s Coming: Tomorrow Karen Yuan offers a guide to the Atlantic stories you probably missed.
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